Pakistan is home to a rich variety of cultures and a multitude of social traditions. People in different parts of the country have their own peculiar rituals, festivals and customs, some of which have existed for centuries but have been unknown to outsiders. Those unfamiliar with the presence of such diversity sometimes find it strange, even surprising or exotic, when they first discover how people in different parts of the country live. To highlight and celebrate Pakistan’s variegated traditions and customs, the Herald invited writers and cultural commentators to share their views on the matter.
The shrine of Hinglaj Devi
A Hindu devotee at the shrine of Hinglaj Devi — Arif Mahmood/White Star
The shrine of Hinglaj Devi – or Bibi Nani as she is also called – is one of the most striking examples of a culture unseen elsewhere in today’s Pakistan. Located in the Hingol National Park in south-east Balochistan, the shrine is some 250 kilometres away from the city of Karachi. Its main festival in April attracts thousands of national and international visitors, who gather inside a small valley in the desert.
The pilgrimage to the desert goddess has been documented since at least the 14th century. Hinglaj’s location in the arid wasteland of Balochistan, far away from any urban settlements, makes the journey exceptionally demanding — but, it is said, also extremely beneficial for her devotees. Many followers claim that a journey to the isolated spot has the power to rid one of all sins committed. Many Pakistani Hindus proudly call it “hamara Hajj” (our Hajj).
While today mainly Hindus frequent the place, not long ago local Zikri Muslim baradaris used to be in charge of the shrine and honoured Bibi Nani as their pir. Many Zikris believe that the bones of Hazrat Ali’s grandmother are actually buried at Hinglaj, which bestows the site with the power to fulfil wishes. Even though there is a steady decrease in Zikri visitors today, a few still undertake the journey into the desert to offer the roat, a sweet cake, in exchange for some of the goddess’s favours.
Over the last three decades, much has changed for the lonesome shrine. The institutionalisation of the pilgrimage in 1986, together with the construction of the Makran Coastal Highway (finished up to the Hingol River in 2001) forced the aloof dame into modernity. Where it used to take her followers around 20 days to reach Hinglaj from Karachi, today the shrine is comfortably accessible within three or four hours by car. As a result, the site has quickly developed into a stage for one of the biggest annual Hindu festivals celebrated in the Islamic Republic, at times attracting over 40,000 visitors on merely one weekend.
— Jürgen Schaflechner is an assistant professor at the Department of Modern South Asian Languages and Literatures at the University of Heidelberg
The self-assured Kalasha woman
I was struck by the scene that unfolded in front of me as I travelled with colleagues on the road from Chitral to the Kalash valley of Bumburet in the summer of 2009. This was my first visit to the area, about which I had heard a lot and had looked forward to seeing for myself.
As we were rounding a bend and nearing the first settlement, cultivated fields came into view. At first glance it appeared to be the set of a movie; Kalasha women of different ages tending to their crops, wearing traditional dresses with various accoutrements and magnificent headgear. And it appeared that as soon as the director would say cut, the women would resume their normal lives. However, this is indeed an integral part of their daily life, confident women carrying themselves with natural dignity and poise. This is what has stuck with me.
I have reflected on this many times and have been left with the enduring impression of a culture that is at ease with itself. There are also other such places, particularly in remote and marginalised areas where women, in their many roles, continue to provide stability and a continuity of traditions. I would like to point out that this visibly active role of women used to be the general norm in Pakistan.
Over the years, a continuous narrowing of space has left the self-assured Kalasha woman as a unique cultural symbol. My sincere hope is that not only will such traditions continue in Kalash, but will reclaim lost space all over the country.
— Salman Beg works on cultural development with the Aga Khan Cultural Services,Pakistan
Caretakers of the earth
In my home there once lived a Hindu woman who went by the name of Sunny and belonged to a village near Tando Jam in Sindh. She helped me take care of my mother, who suffers from a chronic condition of physical disability and pain. Every morning at around 4am, Sunny woke up with my mother and after a cup of tea, each prayed their own way. Eyes closed, concentrating, reciting — mother on the chair, caretaker on the floor.
Amidst this air of sacred reverence, I started noticing that Sunny would sometimes walk out of the house. Once I was up at that hour and noticed her coming back in. Where did you go, I asked. To feed the ants, she replied.
To feed the ants? “In ka bhi to haq hai na [They too have a right],” she said. They too are our responsibility, and heirs of this earth.
I understood later that feeding animals is a part of dharma for her, a devotional act of virtue and piety. Passed down over centuries, this beautiful connection between spiritual and ecological practice moved me deeply. It symbolised the primal recognition that all living beings are interconnected and worthy of care. The act of feeding ants in particular spoke of the humility and service of the human in the cosmic story of creation. For me then, this is the most unique and poetic cultural tradition in Pakistan.
— Nosheen Ali is a social anthropologist, poetry curator and programme director of Social Development and Policy at Habib University
The barter of Kyrgyz nomads
Kyrgyz nomads travel in caravans every summer from the Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan over Irshad Pass to Chapursan Valley in Pakistan for a rendezvous at one of the world’s most secluded locations. For them, it is an ancient route for their barter trade and a fight for their survival. The Kyrgyz are one of the most isolated nomadic communities in Afghanistan, with their movement depending on the sun, wind and pastures. These tribesmen live in yurts at an altitude above 4000 metres and survive entirely on livestock. This trade route is the most accessible for them as compared to any other, even in their own country.
Chapursan Valley lies 60 kilometres west of the border town of Sost, and is one of the last valleys alongside the Wakhan Corridor, a 350-kilometre-wide strip of land lodged between Pakistan and Tajikistan. After a trek of three to four days, the Kyrgyz camp at Baba Ghundi Ziarat in Chapursan, famous for the shrine of a Sufi saint from Wakhan. The shrine holds great significance in the area and receives pilgrims throughout the year. According to folklore, Baba Ghundi had miraculous powers, using which he once flooded the entire valley to kill an evil man-eating dragon. For the Kyrgyz traders, the place is important both as a pilgrimage site and for taking home supplies.
There is no money involved in the trade. With the Kyrgyz are butter and yaks to trade, which they barter to get supplies for the year. They mostly exchange their goods for food, shelter and clothing that include tea, flour, sugar, spices, shoes, jackets, tents and anything else they might need to survive the harsh winter before the border reopens. Subject to the weather, the treacherous mountain passes remain open from around June to October.
This long-forgotten trading custom continues without any tax or customs clearance and is definitely a contender for the most distinct tradition in Pakistan.
— Danial Shah is a travel journalist and photographer
The multi-faceted festival of Sibi
I had been told that the Sibi Mela started several hundred years ago. Personally, I had been hearing about it for years. The festival brings together people from faraway places who bring their skills and crafts to share with people in the region. There are shows featuring horses and other animals and shops for buying pets. The market is filled with collectors, traders and artisans who still work in the old crafts of the region. It is one of the few places in Pakistan that brings them all together, where race and creed take the back seat.
As one of the few positive things coming out of Balochistan, this is a tradition that needs to be kept alive and encouraged by as many people as possible. A festival as unique as this should be promoted around the world so that the locals can generate more income. This will also encourage artisans to continue their crafts instead of shifting to cheaper mass-market alternatives, something which they have started doing as of late. With a rich history, the Sibi Mela is fast fading into obscurity because of a lack of interest and support. Our artists, writers and anyone curious enough to venture into such an isolated area should fully take in the experience while they still can. That is what will help this unique cultural festival to continue and hopefully grow for future generations to witness.
— Kohi Marri is an architect, photographer and documentary film-maker