As dust blows across the horizon, the golden light of the evening sun shines through a green flag. The rumble of beating drums and thumping feet on the chalky floor can be heard from a distance. Welcoming smiles invite strangers to participate in the celebration. Next to the revellers are men, women and children sitting together, drinking tea.
One of them is walking around with a large tray carrying many cups, offering them to curious onlookers who sit on and around the hill, observing from a distance, perhaps unwilling to join in the festivities in Karachi’s Manghopir neighbourhood at the shrine of 13th century saint Hazrat Khawaja Hassan Sakhi Sultan. It is only the second year that the mela is happening, after a long hiatus imposed by Taliban-inspired religious militants.
A sense of community and camaraderie binds everyone present. No one is a stranger; everyone is family; everyone is a friend. Along with tea, there is an invitation for another gathering at midnight at the home of a community elder. It is to be a congregation that will most likely go on till the early hours of the morning. The elder sits solemnly on a mat with his back against a low wall, irritated by the only cameraman present.
The sun disappears behind the hills and the world fades into darkness. The shrine and its surroundings vanish into the inky black of the night.
Before Karachi awakens the following morning, the roads leading to Manghopir remain relatively empty. Fear of the militants seems to persist.
Only traditional devotees of the saint, descendants of African slaves, known as Sheedis, constitute the bulk of the crowd at the shrine. Their ancestors were brought to this part of the world by Arab traders centuries ago. They have built a community, mostly around the shrine, over the centuries.
The gathering is larger than it was yesterday but there is no music or dancing today. The carnival atmosphere does not seem to have carried through the night. People slowly gather at the shrine’s gate. The caretakers offer them tea and breakfast before they make their way up to the shrine to pay their respects and ask for their wishes to be fulfilled.
Parents, children, and more women than men are sitting in the compound of the shrine with their families, sharing popcorn and snacks. The rather low-key celebrations are an indication that the mela has lost its attraction for most citizens of Karachi, many who used to throng here in the past from all corners of the city.
The main ritual at the mela is feeding meat to the crocodiles, which are considered saintly. Children are hanging off iron bars, looking down at the activity in the pond. Others at the pond are feeding meat to these crocodiles. On the other side, a gathering of men bathe in almost neon green water. This water is believed to heal skin diseases.
Three boys, all less than 10 years old, have brought their baby brother Muhammad Hassan to look at the enormous confined creatures. Azhar Abbas, from the nearby Pakhtun community, is also spending the day with his three children at the pond. His daughter Tayaba has her face painted as a cat for the occasion. He says they visit the crocodiles every few months.
There are two entrances to the shrine. One appears beside stalls selling sweets and flowers. There is an awning next to this entrance, which opens into a covered market where children play hide and seek, husbands buy jewellery for their wives and families look through household goods.
The market stretches all the way up to the shrine, with myriad shops offering all types of paraphernalia.
A cool environment prevails, with a certain amount of nonchalance in the air: children play unsupervised everywhere. Curious onlookers are glued to the iron bars surrounding the pond as they stare at the crocodiles. Ahmed Ali, the crocodile handler, is welcoming and friendly. He opens up the inner cage for people to get a closer look at the 30 to 40 reptiles that swim or bask in the hot afternoon sun.
As the light begins to fade, people start making their way home, leaving behind a lively and welcoming place that has seen better days with much larger groups of devotees, revellers and onlookers. As the light disappears, the night again swallows up the shrine as if it had never been there. Only the vendors and the houses on the surrounding hills glow in the dark.
The writer and photographer is a graduate of Oxford Brookes University where he studied film, photography and architecture.
This was originally published in the Herald's April 2018 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.