Remembering the Kalu Qalandar fair that was an annual event in DI Khan, till we lost it to terrorist attacks
Located 60 kilometres away from the city of Dera Ismail Khan, in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, there is a small village called Shah Alam. According to folklore, some 600 years ago, a saint, popularly known as Kalu Qalandar, migrated from Sehwan Sharif in Sindh to this village. He started living on the outskirts of the village and kept himself busy in prayers and meditation.
The villagers began to come to him, and request him for prayers. They were scared of drought and hunger. Every year, it took the sacrifice of a young boy to please the gods of rain. Once, when it was the turn of Gulab Shah, the saint’s beloved, to be sacrificed, Kalu Qalandar prayed to God to spare Shah’s life. On the very day, it began to rain, and thus the saint didn’t have to offer the sacrifice.
Everyone was shocked. The saint had proved his connection with the God. After the death of the saint, his grave was turned into a shrine for his devotees. Every year, in the last week of March, a fair was organised at the shrine. It became very popular among the villagers.
Since most population of the area were peasants, the fair marked the beginning of the harvest season. It is believed to have started about 150 years ago. In the beginning, it was a small affair: a few families would visit the shrine and distribute sweets. With the passage of time, the number of visitors grew. The event now hosted the pilgrims too. Once, the pilgrims got stuck because of incessant rains. This led to the fair becoming a two-day and, later, a three-day event.
Over time, it became a huge festival. Thousands of people from nearby villages and cities would show up and partake in the festival’s events. To make it happen, an entire city had to be inhabited for three days in a wide open plain, near the village of Shah Alam. The hotel owners would be the first to arrive, and set up their stalls. When the fair would be ready, people would start pouring in. They would put up makeshift tents and stay there through the course of the festival.
The bazaar of the fair consisted of different shops. There would be shops of sweets, where fresh gulab jamans and jalebi would be served. Besides, the villagers had the opportunity to watch movies on a TV set, which was quite a luxury back then.
There would also be toy shops for kids visiting the fair. Since most of the visitors were farmers, there would be shops where farming tools were available for purchase.
Since most population of the area were peasants, the fair marked the beginning of the harvest season. It is believed to have started about 150 years ago. In the beginning, it was a small affair: a few families would visit the shrine and distribute sweets. With the passage of time, the number of visitors grew.
What made the fair special were the local sports which were played in a separate ground. Day one of the fair was reserved for tent-pegging. Horses and riders from nearby places would prepare all year long to showcase their skills in the festival. A successful attempt would get a big round of applause from the crowd. Dhol beaters would hit it energetically, in praise of the winners.
Days two and three would be reserved for games like kabbadi, doda, kushti, and stone lifting. For young wrestlers, it was a good chance to gain recognition and also win some prize money.
At night time, many visitors would return to their homes. Those in tents would relish sobat, a local dish. After dinner, there would be a special treat for all: a musical night. Singers would sing of love and joy, in Seraiki, Pashto and Urdu. This would often be accompanied by a show of local dances like attan, darees and jhumar.
The fair was a treat for women in its own way. In daytime, after the men left the villages, the women would dance their heart out and enjoy complete freedom.
Some of the local women would also set up food stalls, and sell accessories.
It was all going well, till some armed militants attacked the festival in the year 2005. They were later killed by the police. In 2008, again, there were grenade attacks that killed at least three villagers and injured many. Some religious militant groups claimed responsibility for the attacks. Their reason was that the festival was giving rise to promiscuity.
The fair was cancelled permanently for security reasons. This deprived the villagers of simple entertainment and disrupted the local culture. Many attempts were made to restore it but the local administration refused to allow it. In the last few years, attempts have been made to arrange the fair in a nearby village, named Sikandar, but it couldn’t materialise.
Unfortunately, this one too ended due to another terrorist attack in 2019.
Memories of these attacks continue to haunt the villagers. For many, the fair is just a distant memory. The very ground which used to famously host the festival, is now vacant and quiet. Though the shrine of Kalu Qalandar is still there, it is mostly a reminder of the peaceful times.
The writer is a freelance graphic designer. He tweets @Ehteysham1