SEHWAN SHARIF, Pakistan — In a dusty desert town just north of Karachi, devotees from every corner of the country come together for an annual festival in June marking the death of a Sufi saint.
Sufism, a more flexible and mystical interpretation of Islam, took root here and spread across the Indus region attracting Muslim and non-Muslim followers alike.
Narrow lanes are flooded with devotees who lose themselves in the chaotic dancing and swirling to beats of dhols (traditional drums) amidst a thick haze of hashish and spiritual ecstasy.
For three days and nights during the eighth month of the Muslim lunar calendar, pilgrims line up to pay tributes and make wishes at the shrine of Sufi saint Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. The relaxed tone of the festival is in stark contrast with the conformity usually associated with worship and feels more like a carnival than a religious festival.
Pilgrims believe this is a place where they have a direct connection to God and where their prayers will be quickly answered.
Rituals during the festival include bathing in a well where devotees believe Qalandar used to bathe. Men and children dip into its now-inky black waters, believing it will rinse them of sins and ailments.
Festivalgoers will also hunt the barren desert for tiny beads rumored to be the Sufi saint's sweat beads. It is believed that consuming these mystic beads will provide men and women with an antidote to infertility.
The festival has a way of blurring lines of class and sects as well as rich and poor. The motto behind the spiritual frenzy remains, “Live and let live.”