Visiting Bhit Shah

The journey to the shrine of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai, in a bus, screaming with Sufi folk songs and full of exuberant men, was one of reconciling expectation and reality; the ostensible joy of the journey was balanced, in part, by the happy cries of the men abroad, many of whom had previously travelled to the historic shrine, and were conscious of how the journey would unfold. I, on the other hand, was in awe. It was a joyous celebration a mood of festivity, a perpetual celebration in the midst of the Holy saint. The men cried in jubilation,” Latif is Sindh and Sindh is Latif”.

Interestingly, an entire market of goods- from sweets to artwork-had sprouted right beside the shrine, which was somewhat opportunistic on the part of the natives, for even though the inflow of a large number of visitors does merit the need for the provision of certain essential goods- including food- I sensed that there was more a commercial aspect to their dealings. This disturbed me slightly, at the outset and continues to do so as I look back on the visit now.

There was nothing flashy about the shrine, its construction was very much simple, the floors-on which entire families slept-were dirty and security consisted of a single policeman patrolling the entrance, who all too often let people in without any authentication of identity. An overwhelming majority of those gathered were impoverished. And yet despite the decaying infrastructure, one could sense the joy of the people, the climate of festivity. It is widely known in this part of the world that those who cannot afford to go the compulsory pilgrimage frequent the shrines of Sufi saints. This was their pilgrimage. It showed, in their faces, their ebullient smiles.

I entered the room in which the body of the saint was kept, prayed silently for a few minutes, before making space for others standing outside. The flow of devotees continued in this manner right through the night. The most intriguing element about the shrine was the music, the traditional folk music of Sindh that is played by professional musicians, clad in local attire. The session of music begins at night and continues into the small hours and sometimes even, if the performers can endure, till sunrise and the break of the day. Spiritual intoxication is primarily invoked through the means of ecstatic music that calls for universal love, compassion and tolerance. This all-embracing message of Sufism, I remind myself, was initially instrumental in spreading Islam across the subcontinent. The Sufi saint, Shah Abdul Latif, when asked what sect to belonged to, tactfully answered “Oh Latif, what are you, a Shiah Muslim or a Sunni one?” He replied: “Between the two.” They said: “But between the two is nothing.” “Yes, yes,” he replied, “that `nothing’ I am.” Sectarian conflict in Pakistan involves the brutal state sanctioned repression of the minority Shiah community. Were Shah Abdul Latif alive today, he would cringe at the present state of affairs.

I was also fortunate to converse with the heir of the poet, an old man possibly in his late 70s, an austere and towering figure, who lived in his own quarters, with a dozen servants attending to his needs. I did not expect the room to be luxurious but as it turned out, there was air-conditioning, a television set and a sofa. On first thought, this struck me as sheer hypocrisy, given of course, the utter poverty of the people assembled in the shrine, some of whom, as I have already pointed out, slept on the floor. And here was the man, supposedly the spiritual inheritor of the legacy of the saint, residing in such visible comfort. I wanted to ask him as to the reason for this dichotomy, but given that he had agreed to talk to us in the first place, I found it best to remain silent. There are certain questions that you simply cannot ask, elders tell you.

Before I had arrived, I had entertained the usual criticism of shrines, that they are a form of Shirk-the worst of all the major sins ordained in Islam- and from what I would see later, I found the answer, or rather my answer. It depends, importantly, on the intentions of the individual. People come to the shrine for various reasons; those who ask the saints for intercession on their behalf are very clearly committing a wrong, all things considered. And herein lies the difference; put simply, it lies within the hearts of men, and their intentions, where we address the question of sin-of equating a figure with God. The people were poor, illiterate, and overwhelmingly passionate. Their smiles was mesmerizing. In their ragged clothes, they looked like fakirs, mystic figures praising God. In that moment, I felt an overpowering urge to pray, to bow before the Lord, to surrender. And surrender I did.

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