A small dhol caravan on Abdali Road, on the night of 20th Safar (Photo: Author)

It is the evening of 20th of Safar, 1437th year of Hijrah. Everyone is dressed in black in this Shia-dominated neighborhood of Islampura to mourn the martyrs of Karbala on the Chehlum (40 days after the event). The mini food street of the area, located on Alamgir Road, is blocked from both ends to make a pavilion for the mourners to practice their rituals, in and around the Imambargah Block Syedaan and Imambargah Pandu Sreet. There are several stalls playing Noha-s aloud on huge speakers and alongside them, small groups of Noha-Khaan(s) are practicing the somber tunes. The rhythmic sound of Maatam (ritual mourning in which mourners slap their chests rhythmically) on loudspeakers suddenly resonates with another sound of beating, coming from a distance. No one appears to have noticed the increasing sound of a pleasant beat mixing up with the Maatam beats on loudspeakers. The sound keeps on increasing and there appears a group of around a dozen people carrying a decorated chador, led by two Dhol (traditional drum) players in front and a few young lads dancing to the Dhol beats. This small caravan, headed to Daata Sahib – the shrine of Sufi saint Syed Ali Hajveri – on the third and final day of the annual Urs, walks past the mourning scene on Alamgir Road, without creating any stir in the crowd of mourners gathered on Alamgir Road.

The sight of contiguous celebration and mourning was the most startling for me when I first witnessed it several years ago. It was my first year in Lahore. Returning from my office to my residence in Islampura, I saw a Dhol player surrounded by several dancers and four men each carrying one corner of a spread-out colorful chador, all walking slowly down the street. Out of curiosity I followed this party and found out that it was a ritual in which devotees of Daata Sahib—the Sufi saint from Ghazni who settled in Lahore almost a millennium ago—from different parts of Lahore walk to the shrine carrying a chador meant to be wreathed on the tombstone, in the company of Dhol players who keep playing en route. I happened to encounter many of these Dhol parties on my way back home, arriving from various nooks of the city. It was 18th of Safar, first of the three days of Urs celebrations to be concluded on 20th of Safar. Although I was new in Lahore, I knew that most of the areas through which these caravans were passing were Shia majority areas and wondered whether or not they would continue to patrol the streets on the final day of Urs, which coincides with Chehlum. To my utter surprise they did! With an increased frequency and intensity and there was no incidents of collision between the two groups.

I also found out that the processions of devotees of Daata Saahib and those of mourners of Imam Hussain, not only crisscross in the streets leading to Daata Sahib, but their final destination is also situated in the same locale. The Shia mourners walk in the form of small groups singing elegies, to Karbala Gaamay Shah which lies a few meters from Daata Sahib, the ultimate destination of Dhol processions.

This particular practice of merry-making alongside mourning on such a large scale is one of its kind in Pakistan. For a lover of the arts, 20th Safar is a festival of sorts. There are rousing Dhol tunes on one side and on the other side are heart-rending Noha recitals, which are no less in effect than a melancholy sarangi instrumental. Then there’s a whole variety of visual arts: the colorful chadors with fine patterns and calligraphic embroidery in silver and golden threads and the artistic taazias (wooden artifacts which comes in many shapes and sizes) with delicate woodcarvings and beautiful designs.

Pakistani society is generally considered to be highly intolerant of opposing ideas, beliefs and practices. However, the events on 20th Safar taking place in the streets of Lahore tell something radically different than popular perception. It is a sign of a syncretic culture existing side-by-side without any strains of intolerance. Although not very pluralistic, the society still comprises of groups with varying beliefs and people respect each other’s beliefs unless manipulated otherwise. There is tolerance which should be emphasized upon. There is hope.