Country fairs such as this one are common throughout Pakistan. Unlike the American travelling show which moves from town to town and is its own reason for being, most melas (fairs) in Pakistan revolve around the mazar (tomb) of a local pir (saint). Mazars are areas of perpetual activity throughout the year as the local inhabitants come to offer prayers, seek guidance from the pir’s descendants (spiritual and familial) or simply seek the shade of a grove of trees nearby.
An attractive aspect of mazar culture is that secular activities are not just allowed but welcomed. This is never more so than on the occasion of the annual ‘urs’. Literally meaning marriage the urs signifies, in the Sufi tradition, the union of the pir’s soul with his divine bride. The urs is a time of intense and prolonged joymaking, eating, dancing, smoking, drinking, fainting, laughing, singing, ogling and of course, praying.
The urs of Syed Abdul Latif Qadri ‘Bari Imam’, a 17th century miracle worker and scholar is a 5 day extravaganza on the outskirts of Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. Around the green domed mazar itself malangs (wandering holy men) recognised by their green robes, kohl lined eyes and abundant bling smoke hashish and guide pilgrims in the niceties of ritual. The strains of qawwali emerge from a tent enveloped in a cloud of dust as hundreds of feet stomp and dance through the settlement. Cooking fires smoke and blaze all about the mazar and mosque enclosure as distribution of food to the hungry is an essential part of urs.
A network of alleys spreads out across the bumpy ground to form a buzzing temporary bazaar cramped with fried food and milky sweets of a thousand varieties, glasses of fresh mango and pomegranate juice, watermelon rinds and brittle clay pots, fortune tellers, henna designers, block print makers, and hawkers of topis and colourful nalas.
Here are tents and millions of loudspeakers each blasting a different tune. Dancing girls from Lahore perform on a hidden stage, while lewd skits entertain the overflow crowds outside. Burly mountain men from Murree and the Frontier take aim with toy air rifles at rows of small yellow and pink balloons. A makeshift photo studio is crammed full of young men who pay Rs 20 a piece to have their own image spliced on to a postcard of an Indian film star. Freak shows promise a prize of Rs 10,000 to anyone able to prove the snakelady is not real. Ferris wheels cut silently through the spring air moving nervous villagers up and down and up and down.
The biggest attraction of all is Maut ka Kuan (Well of Death). A large rickety balti-cum-velodrome shakes and creaks as first a motorcycle, then a small car climbs the interior wall and races around and around perpendicular to the earth. Hijras (transgenders) work the crowds by gyrating, whistling and chasing the rupee notes that float down from the crowds lining the top of the wooden bowl, like so many autumn leaves.
The festivities ring on all night and into the early hours for nearly a week. In the end the pomegranates have all been juiced and dancing girls have returned to Hira Mandi. The Well of Death is taken apart. The huge cardboard cut outs of pretty actresses lie face down in the dust waiting to be packed up and taken to the next urs.