For centuries they still walk to Sain Pir

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn, Feb 16 , 2014


Among my numerous acquaintances is Fayyaz Bibi, the gypsy who lives in a tent on the banks of the River Ravi. Then there is Baoo Nazir, the Gujjar of Ferozewala who fills river water in his milk, and then there is Alam of Shahdara, descendent of old boat-makers of the river. All immensely interesting characters of Lahore!

All of them I get released from police clutches on a regular basis, caught for begging, adulterating milk or pinching ‘degs’ from Data Darbar.

But they are not a patch on my buddy Sain Saleem, a janitor in a local leather tannery, with thick braided locks, normally unshaven, who lives under the Khanspur bridge on Sheikhupura Road, and who when I visit provides me with excellent ‘doodh patti’ cooked on a smoky fire contrived from wood collected locally.

Unlike my other sources, Sain, as we simply call him, is an honest man, his most fearsome quality being that he always speaks the truth.

Last week, I spent some time with him and a few of his ‘sain’ friends in what turned out to be a most revealing session.

Just to remind that Fayyaz Bibi the gypsy, whenever I meet her at a traffic light crossing, she rushes and grabs my hand firmly.

She was most helpful in the UN research on the origin of gypsies in which over 200,000 gypsies the world over had their DNA collected.

Her DNA matched those of gypsies in South America, who reached there after the Spanish Inquisition shipped them out of a Spain cleansed of Muslim rule. The results proved amazing for her family, to whom I made a presentation.

But as I spent time with Sain Saleem, he informed me that he and his friends were leaving on a 10-day annual pilgrimage to pray at the grave of Pir Sain at Hujray Shah Muqeem.

His group will be joined by other small groups from the walled city, from the river banks, from Wagah, from Shahdara and a group from Muridke.

They are all traditional ‘sain’ folk, given to an occasional puff of famous hemp which sends them on a high, which they utilize to sing traditional folk ‘Vars’.

The groups will collect on the 23rd of Phaggan, the current Punjabi month, a calendar by which rural folk run their lives, at Khanspur near where Sain Saleem lives under the bridge.

From here they will walk all the way to Okara, a 10-day journey which will see them singing and discussing matters that interest them most. Hospitable villagers along the way look after them.

I asked who these other groups were. “The one from the walled city is a combination of Hindu, Muslims and Christians; the ones from the river bank are strange; we just don’t know their religion, but then that does not matter to us ‘sain’ folk; the Wagah group are a mix of Shia and Sunni Muslims with a Christian or two; the Muridke group are all Muslims and the Shahdara group are Muslim, Hindu and a Sikh who does not wear a turban”.

To say that I was not amazed is an understatement. This seemed, to my mind, a perfectly reasonable mix of Punjabis dedicated to the proposition that the Almighty is to be worshipped in any manner one feels appropriate.

They are all sons of the soil and they express their feelings through the numerous Punjabi folk songs and epics (‘Vars’) with a craftsmanship that is seldom seen.

It gives great faith to an urban person like me, straitjacketed as we are by social conventions, that we are a culturally secure people.

It reminded me of a friend of my late father, a gent by the name of Badruzzaman, a federal commerce secretary, who would come twice a year to spend three nights out begging at the Data Darbar.

Uncle Badr was a very nice person, and it was only when I saw him in a dirty dhoti and a vest outside the darbar that I realized that something strange was afoot. I suppose he was ‘declassing’ himself.

I looked up the ‘sain’ group in the walled city, who gather every evening at Chowk Chanda under the old banyan tree which is famous throughout the city. I knew a few of them, including the three Hindus who sit there.

This walk to Pir Sain has been going on for hundreds of years, ending at the place near where the Sials killed Mirza. They still lament for Saiban. I had ‘doodh patti’ at Chowk Chanda under the famous tree listening to the tale of Mirza Saiban. Surely our urban inhibitions need to be thought through.




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