KARACHI: The provincial government on Thursday decided to cancel the annual urs of Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, scheduled to take place at the shrine in Sehwan Sharif from April 12.
Officials in the Auqaf Department told The Express Tribune that the decision was made due to the coronavirus outbreak in the country.
As per the Islamic calendar, the three days of festivities at the shrine of Sufi saint Usman Marwandi – popularly known as Lal Shahbaz Qalandar – start from Shaban 18. Thousands from all over Pakistan flock to the shrine to attend the urs.
“Daily, 8,000 to 10,000 people visit the shrine. During the annual urs, the number of visitors climbs to around 800,000 to one million during the three days’ festivities,” an official from the Auqaf Department said, adding that the shrine is now closed following the Sindh government’s decision to impose a lockdown in the province.
The shrine committee, Auqaf Department and district administration have been asked to observe the urs in a simple manner, just laying a floral wreath at the shrine without any crowd. This will be the first time that there will be no festival or other programme to celebrate the urs at the shrine.
When contacted, the Auqaf Department chief administrator, Munawar Ali Mahesar, also confirmed the news about the cancellation of the annual urs.
“After the government’s decision, we have not been allowing any devotees or others to visit the shrine,” he said, adding that they would make the formal announcement soon.
Another official in the department said that only the ‘dhamal’ – the practice of whirling in a state of elation in response to the beat of drums – performed by devotees to honour Sufi saints continues at the shrine, with a few employees of the department.
“Not only Lal Qalandar’s shrine, but 14 other main shrines in the city are also closed,” said Mustafa Mirani, a civil society activist who lives in the area.
According to Mirani, Pathan Café, adjacent to the shrine, where around 2,000 to 3,000 people used to get free meals every day, is also closed.
"The district administration asked the cafe owners to close the langar, since social distancing was not possible in these huge crowds," an official at the Jamshoro deputy commissioner’s office said.
Since a suicide attack claimed the lives of at least 88 people at the shrine in 2017, the government has ensured strict security measures there, deploying police personnel around the shrine.
These measures have only become stricter since the eruption of the novel coronavirus in the country and the government’s announcement of a province-wide lockdown, which has led to nearly all the shrines in Sindh being closed.
Tight security measures have also been enforced at a number of famous shrines, including those of Abdullah Shah Ghazi in Karachi, Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai in Bhit Shah, Sachal Sarmast in Daraza in Khairpur Mirs and Makhdoom Bilawal in Dadu.
Syed Waqar Hussain Shah, the sajjada nasheen (caretaker) of Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai’s shrine, said that in line with the government’s orders, they had asked devotees to stay at home and follow social distancing guidelines.
"This is a critical time and our religion also teaches about prevention, which is better than cure," he said, adding that while some faqirs continued the practice of singing traditional songs about love, peace and tolerance at the shrine, people were restricted from attending.
"Three or four faqirs sing verses from Shah's poetry to the accompaniment of tamboro (a stringed instrument). This is a centuries-old tradition, which we still keep alive."