Shah Jamal, afterglow

February 16, 2020

An account of a typical Thursday night at Lahore’s famous shrine of Shah Jamal

Every Thursday, devotees of Baba Shah Jamal wait for sundown to light up the green-domed, white-marble mausoleum with twinkly fairy lights. The small shops around the entrance jazz up a little more than usual. The shopkeepers sit alert expecting to sell more of their merchandise – charms, rosaries, incense sticks, rose petals and strands of marigold, glittering sheets for graves, and unisex jewellery such as bracelets, rings and anklets. These are the things one associates with weekly visits to the shrine of Baba Shah Jamal, after whom the neighbourhood near Muslim Town has been named.

Barricades placed before the entrance to the shrine are reminiscent of the years when the shrine was shut down out of fear of terrorist attacks. Inside the compound of the shrine, a plethora of activities take place: a man burns a clay lamp with the purest dollop of ghee as a sign of devotion; a woman carrying a wailing newborn unknots a string from the huge tree in the compound for her wish has been granted; a young girl ties a red coloured ribbon with initials etched on it and smiles mischievously when asked if one of the alphabets is from her beloved’s name. A boy looking for success (in life or love?) blows his heart’s desire onto a padlock, fastens it to the window that opens into the tomb of Shah Jamal and hangs the key around his neck like a charm only to open the padlock once his prayer is answered. People throng the marble building to offer salam (homage) to the grave of Shah Jamal in a room sparkling with mirrored walls. However, the most anticipated action takes place on the ground floor.

Among those in attendance, is a man who wears his hair in hennaed dreadlocks, and dons a red robe – a chogha. When his hands move, they rattle with wristlets made of wood, glass, metal and plastic. The strings of beads around his neck apparently denote his seniority. He is the malang awaiting the purple afterglow of the sun to vanish for the highlight of the evening to begin. He rolls and smokes a joint or two of hashish in order to get high. The trance the malang aspires to once the dhol sequence begins is helped by this.

The malang is generous with the stash but does not impose it on anyone. Dealers are dime a dozen in the area. “This is the place for the broken hearted,” says a young man with a joint. Not everyone seeks therapy from substance abuse though – a man in designer jeans and t-shirt shrouds himself in a shawl and sits afar with his salt-and-pepper head thrown down. Men and women sit together in congregation to welcome Pappu Saeen – the star of the show – who begins his percussion with the dhol around his neck.

“No matter where he is once it is Thursday night, Pappu Saeen shall make sure he is at the darbar,” Adnan, a frequent visitor and disciple of Shah Jamal says, adding, “the dhamal and the dhol have been part of the shrine’s ambience for centuries, and everyone who visits, is a faqir at heart, a faithful one”. Shah Jamal was a dervish who refused to embrace Mughal emperor Akbar’s Din-i-Elahi.

Pappu is adept in the art of nudging the beat of the human heart with that of the humble dhol. The devotees coloured by incandescent lights become a hazy, swaying image as the percussion grows. The malang begins to whirl, slowly at first, focusing on synchronising the tinkles of his anklets with the thump of the dhol. Later, at the crescendo, the dervish spins like a top – a spectacle that enthralls the audience. They both stop abruptly, and the crowd is pulled out of the stupor, which makes them measure the depth of their trance. “It is not partying,” says Ali Mazhar, who also frequents the Data Darbar and the shrine of Mian Mir. “It is a way to search your soul, to give up the worldly form for a brief moment and get in touch with the inner self – something like hypnosis, but for free,” he says.

Mithu Saeen and Gunga Saeen, the other drummers, set up their act once Pappu Saeen is done. The sequence continues till dawn, when the morning prayer is offered in a congregation at the mosque within the shrine. The crowd disperses on Friday morning, only to reassemble next Thursday night.

The writer has authored two books of fiction, including Unfettered Wings: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Women (2018)

Account of a typical Thursday night at Lahore’s famous shrine of Shah Jamal