Religious Violence

Pakistan suicide bombing: Why ISIS feels so threatened by Sindh's Lal Shahbaz Qalandar shrine

No other shrine in the country captures the essence of religious syncretism like this one.

The dhamal is an oxymoron. It annihilates, putting an end to the subjective identity of a person. In the act of dhamal a person ceases to exist, and merges with the supreme. And that is where it is becomes an oxymoron. It is the ultimate form of existence, supreme, metaphysical, a merging of all.

Ultimately culminating into whirls, it aligns with the whirling of the cosmos, its orbital movements. It is the ultimate expression of monotheism, a closely guarded tenet in Abrahamic faiths. In fact it goes one step further, even breaking the barrier between a devotee and the divine. Both become one, as monotheism merges into monism.

While the ultimate culmination of dhamal aligns with the cosmic patterns, its individual steps follow no pattern at all. It could begin as a gentle dance, a flirtatious duel with the beat of the drum. It teases, consents to a union and then shyly backs away. The dholwala plays along. The contest is for everyone to see and partake. The lovers finally merge, initially softly, tenderly, and then passionately, wildly. It has uncontrollable energy, a force which through its movements can halt the movement of the cosmos. Like the Tandava of Shiva and the ecstatic dance of Kali, if uninterrupted it can lead to destruction. Yet on the other hand, like Vishnu, the preserver, through its alignment with the cosmos it holds the world in its place.

At the courtyard of a Sufi shrine, when dhamal becomes one with the beat of the drum, gender too ceases to exist. In a deeply segregated society, where sexuality is closely monitored, it flows easily, in the form of spiritual energy. Men, women, ceasing to exist, whirl in unison. Otherwise discriminated and treated as untouchables, Khawaja Sara, who travel from all parts of the country to the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, particularly at the time of his urs, perform the dhamal with the other devotees, laying bare all their tales of injustices on the courtyard, which irrespective of their gender, age, sexual orientation, caste and religion, soaks everything, and gives them a new life. The dhamal is a rite of passage.

A temporary stop

It is a central feature of religious devotion at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. Just as the world never stops to rest, similarly dhamal never stops at the shrine of the patron saint of Sindh. However on the night of February 16, on Thursday, a holy night in Islamic spirituality, it stopped temporarily. Hundreds of devotees had gathered at the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar to experience this spiritual performance – dhamal. Like on any other night, it must have been a collection of men, women and transgender. The Syeds must have stood next to the Musalis. Hindus and Muslims must have eaten from the same plates at the langar. At the middle of the performance it is believed, a female suicide bomber affiliated with ISIS blew herself up, killing more than 70 people injuring several more. However even before the echoes of the screams died down, and the last strains of blood could be washed off the courtyard, dhamal began once again on Friday morning. It was like it had never stopped. The world never stops rotating.

While claiming responsibility for the attack, ISIS called it a Shia gathering. They couldn’t be more wrong. Religious devotees at the shrine of this 12th century saint cannot be compartmentalised into categories through which ISIS sees the world. To his devotees, he is not a Muslim or a Shia saint. He is a peer, who cannot be constrained by confines of religious boundaries. To the Sindhi Hindus, forming the largest religious minority in the country, he is their peer as much as he peer for Muslims. Some might label him to be a Sindhi saint, but songs of his praises are sung at the Sufi shrines in Punjab as well. In the summers at the time of his urs celebration special trains are booked to bring his Punjabi devotees into the heartland of Sindh.

There is perhaps no other shrine in the country that captures the essence of religious syncretism like the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. In his courtyard, it feels as if the riots of Partition never happened, as if Sindhi Hindus were never forced to abandon their land, as if Christian settlements in Punjab had never been burned after alleged cases of blasphemy. The courtyard of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar represents a different world, a world that once existed but has slowly disappeared outside its confines. That’s why this courtyard represents such a threat. It defies all narratives, of exclusive nationalism and religious identities. It maybe just a few thousand people but a powerful narrative. The attack is not on the shrine but on this worldview which does not divide humanity into simplistic separate categories.

Haroon Khalid is the author of three books, most recently, Walking with Nanak.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.