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Urs: Ghamkol Sharif, Kohat, Pakistan, October 1989

Preparations for the Urs have been going on for several weeks. As the time of the Urs approaches, more and more murids (disciples) of the shaikh arrive to help with voluntary labor. The lodge nestles in the valley, climbing the slope of a hill, surrounded by hills on all sides, a series of stone buildings with internal courtyards, walled enclosures, walled orchards of apples, oranges, and lemons, well-tended vegetable gardens, and cattle and goat pens. Surrounding it is a perimeter wall, running along the slopes of the hills, protecting the lodge from the leopards that come down from the mountains during the winter snows. It is a lovely, prosperous, tranquil scene. The courtyards of the houses and hospices are surrounded by green lawns and bordered with flower beds and shady trees. The beautiful mosque is elaborately decorated in white, green, and dark red, its three domes and delicate minarets set against the blue skies and the hills beyond. Two fountains of pure water splash into pools on either side of the entrance to the vast open courtyard, shaded by a giant banyan tree. All is quiet apart from the sound of zikr echoing in the mountains and the splashing of the water fountains. Because of the beauty and the abundance, visitors and Zindapir himself have associated Ghamkol Sharif with paradise (P. Werbner 1990b: 271–72).

It was not always thus. When the shaikh arrived here in 1951, there were only the bare mountains. The darbar contains several key landmarks of the pir’s settlement in this “jungle” (wilderness). Of these, one is the cave in which the pir first settled, sent by the Prophet, where he spent three days and three nights without eating or drinking. Then God said to him: “I have not sent you here to close yourself up inside a cave. Go out and meet the people.” This cave, now just beyond the perimeter wall, has been preserved as it was, apart from a lone electric bulb lighting the interior. It has become something of a shrine, and pilgrims to the lodge climb the hill and leave pledges of their requests in the form of pieces of cloth tied to the thornbushes outside the cave. From here, the pilgrim has a perfect view of the lodge and the valley below.

A second landmark is another cave at the heart of the lodge, which towers above the mosque and all the other buildings on the slope of the hill. The cave is reached by a steep staircase and has been converted into a windowless room. Its floor is covered with Persian carpets and its whitewashed walls are decorated with pictures of the Ka‘ba in Mecca and a chart of the spiritual genealogy of Sufi saints leading to Zindapir. Outside this cave is the rock on which the shaikh sat and preached to his disciples for many years before the mosque was built.

There were no roads, no orchards, no cattle, no electricity, at that time. Water was carried several miles from a spring on the other side of the hills on donkeys. Before the shaikh came, the area was the abode of a famous dacoit from the fierce Kabaili tribes that live beyond the hills. He was said to have robbed the British and stored his booty in one of the caves in the valley.

It has taken almost four decades to build the lodge to its present state of perfection. Virtually all of the labor that went into this building has been voluntary. Even the electricity and the digging of the well were provided by the government free of charge. They were not asked for, they were simply given. But a good deal of the building work, the construction, the extension of water pipes, electricity, and sewage lines, the building and decoration of the mosque, the planting of orchards—all these have been achieved gradually, year by year, during the weeks preceding the annual Urs.

The khalifa who runs these arrangements has taken over the job from his father before him. He is also the darban, the gatekeeper of the shaikh, who handles the guests and decides how long they will spend with him. He carries the keys to all the locked buildings, storehouses, and gardens, supervises the preparation of the langar and meals for the guests and the feeding of people during the Urs, and, indeed, all the preparations for the Urs.

The murids arrive in groups, many of the helpers about three weeks before the Urs. There is a good deal of building going on, and rocks are being broken with sledgehammers by hand and carried in baskets on the workers’ heads from the rocky hillsides. This year the murids are in the process of building a watchtower on the periphery to guard the lodge. The khalifa supervising the building work is an ex-army man from Jhelum District. Another khalifa, from Faislabad and also an ex-army man, is supervising the decoration of the lodge buildings and hillsides with elaborate colored lights and neon signs, as well as the various extensions needed for the new buildings. Some of the lighting is already in place from Eid-Milad-un-Nabi, which was celebrated last week. There are chains of moving flashing colored lights, brightly lit colored signs, spinning neon spoke wheels and the Arabic inscription “Allah-Hu” extending across the hillside. Most spectacular, perhaps, is the decoration of the mosque, each of the three domes being lit with chains of light, which spin around it. Teams are setting up broad metal chapati grills and giant tandur pits for baking nan, clearing the ground of rocks and stones for sleeping spaces, connecting new electricity and water lines, extending sewage lines and building sumps, and clearing areas for the coaches carrying the pilgrims. The mosque is being cleaned and redecorated, and the elaborately designed iron gates are being repainted with blue and red flowers by a local “artist,” another murid. One of the fountain pools flagging the entrance to the mosque is being whitewashed.

People at the lodge perform zikr at all times of the day and night. Even as they work, they perform the zikr. Some, especially the khalifas supervising the arrangements, have not slept for many nights, yet still they continue with this labor of love, performing the zikr as they work (cf. Lings 1971: 18–19, on North Africa). The hills echo with the melodic sound of “La-ilaha-il-Allah,” “La-ilaha-il-Allah.” The shaikh comes out to inspect the work’s progress, accompanied by a group of khalifas. Nothing happens in the lodge without his knowledge. He is the ultimate planner and decision maker.

We meet two young men from Birmingham, here to attend the Urs. They have many wonderful tales of the karamat, miracles, associated with the shaikh. One tells a story about the zikr:

The people here do zikr all the time. Even when they are working they do zikr. When I came here the first time, I insisted that I wanted to do some work. So they gave me an area to clean. I was cleaning one of the rooms when I heard someone doing zikr in one of the other rooms. But when I looked into that room there was no one there. But still I kept hearing the zikr. Then I looked up and saw that there was a pigeon sitting on the edge of the roof doing zikr. I had heard that the pigeons do zikr here.

The house we are staying in, a two-room house with a bathroom, running water, and sewage line surrounded by a walled garden, was built last year for the English Pakistani pilgrims led by Sufi Abdullah who attended the Urs as a group. The house is beautifully furnished, with a three-piece suite, coffee tables, Persian carpets, and European beds—for this is, after all, what British Pakistanis have come to expect as normal, and the shaikh provides only the best in hospitality for his guests.

The preparations continue. More and more murids arrive and join the work, speaking of their great love of the shaikh, of his devotion, his purity, his dedication. He never sleeps and barely eats; all he does is pray day and night and devote his life to God. The cooking areas are being prepared with great pots, towers of utensils, and wood piled high. Another guardroom is being built outside the women’s quarters. Canvases are extended over the whole area, so the women are screened from onlookers on the hills. The organizers rush around madly, making sure everything is working. People are arriving in buses and trucks. Some carry banners, which they place around the pir’s courtyard, and they put banners on the colorful tents they set up too. Decorated in green, white, and red, the tents are secured on tall bamboo stakes, with wide gaps between the walls and the roofs. On the ground, they lay thin rugs. Although it is October, it is very hot in the sun, and it is getting very dusty.

Everywhere zikr is being sung. People sing zikr on the trucks when they arrive, sometimes fast—“Allah-Hu,” “Allah-Hu”—sometimes slow and melodious—“La-ilaha-il-Allah,” “La-ilaha-il-Allah.” What they sing also depends on the driving speed or the work tempo. From time to time, other prayers are blared over the sound system, but the sermons have not started in earnest yet.

The groups continue to arrive. They come from all over Pakistan. Some have been traveling for forty-eight hours, a thousand miles. A city of tents arises in the arid valley inhabited by 60,000–100,000 men, women, and children, an enormous crowd brought in by convoys (qafilahs) from every big town in Pakistan and many of its villages. All have come to attend the Urs and receive the pir’s blessings; they will share in his final du‘a (fig. 33). There are no processions. They have traveled great distances in the name of Allah, traversing the length and breadth of Pakistan, singing zikr all the way.

Figure 33. The final du‘a at the Urs at Ghamkol Sharif, North-West Frontier Province, Pakistan, October 1989. Photograph by Pnina Werbner.
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