BAHALWALPUR: Every year thousands of people arrive in the Cholistan desert, this barren land of saints and mystery, to celebrate the life of Channan Peer – and to have a seriously good time.
There are as many stories about the life of Channan Peer as there are festival-goers, but the following tale is generally accepted.
Just after the birth of Islam, in the 7th century, the Sufi saint Jalaludin Surkh Bukhari of Uch Shareef travelled to the area, which in those days was governed by a Hindu Raja called Sadharan.
Sadharan had a perfect life, with one problem: he had no children. His wife, Rani Nainoo, found out about Jalaludin’s visit, tracked him down and asked him to pray for her to have a son.
The Sufi did this and even foresaw that the son would be born a Muslim. A child was indeed born – and tumbled into this world reciting the kalima.
The Raja was, shall we say, a little peeved and gave the order to have his son killed. The boy’s mother pleaded for the baby’s life. Ultimately, the ruler agreed that Channan Peer would be left alone in the desert in a wooden cot.
After a few days, Hindu pilgrims found the baby being fed by a mother deer. The Raja was informed – and again demanded the death of his son. The Rani then came to the desert and looked after him, until she was forced to abandon her child again. Eventually, the myth says, Channan Peer went on to preach Islam throughout the desert, inspiring poets and converts and many others, before he eventually merged into the sand and was never seen again.
The mela which bears his name is celebrated in the Cholistan desert over seven consecutive Thursdays. This year the mela started on February 11. The fifth Thursday is the most popular day and also observed as a local holiday.
For hundreds of years, people have come from all corners of Cholistan and beyond to join in the festivities. It is now the most popular festival in southern Punjab, with Hindus and Muslims participating as one in the theatre performances, magic shows, dancing, rides, horse and camel shows, jewelry shopping, and, of course, feasting.
Most of those who come stay overnight and leave on Friday morning, after a magical night on the sand dunes under the wide open sky. The area is about 65km from Bahawalpur.
One such devotee, Peera Mal, told The Express Tribune that his family had stayed at the festival all five weeks, cooking their meals and enjoying the festivities. Many still come to the festival to pray for a child.
There is a large tree in the middle of the festival which Cholistanis say marks the grave of Channan Peer’s mother. They believe that if a piece of red cloth is tied on a branch, their ‘manats’ (trades with God) will materialise.
Raman Lal, who attends the mela every year, said that he tied a cloth on the tree last year and prayed for a son. Sure enough, his wife gave birth to a beautiful boy this year. He had come to open his cloth from the tree – and then make a donation to charity in the name of God and, of course, the vibrant, enduring myth of Channan Peer.
Published in The Express Tribune, March 22nd, 2012.