Even though I never could have predicted what traveling in Pakistan would REALLY be like, I have to say I didn’t imagine thatI would end up attending multiple “death day” celebrations. During the four months I spent backpacking all over the country, twice I found myself at a full-blown Urs festival and what I experienced was nothing short of magical.
For more on what it’s like to spend a prolonged period of time in Pakistan, check out cycling across Pakistan as a solo woman.
What exactly is an Urs?
An Urs celebration commemorates the death of a Sufi saint. Sufism, not to be mistaken as a sect of Islam, is best defined as Islamic mysticism involving practices and beliefs allowing Sufi Muslims to achieve nearness to God. Sufis strive to attain direct closeness with Allah (God) through personal experience. These beliefs came to Pakistan centuries ago, and today remains especially popular in the provinces of both Punjab and Sindh.
On the anniversary of a saint’s death, a three-day festival is typically held at the shrine in which they’re buried. Devotees come to pay respects, sing, dance, and play music to commemorate the occasion. As people come from all over to attend, many sleep on location and continue celebrations all throughout day and night.
My first taste of an Urs was in Kasur, a small city near Pakistan’s famous metro Lahore. It was a boiling late-August day and I had jumped at the opportunity to get to attend the truly off-beat event. Upon entering the shrine, I was immediately drawn to a group singing and chanting to qawwali, a form of Sufi devotional music. The sounds of harmoniums and tablas (traditional hand-drums) pulsated through the air, and crowds of men and women of all ages gathered around to watch and enjoy.
The vibe was jubilant, to say the least, and it was downright contagious. I couldn’t stop thinking that THIS was exactly why I loved to travel so much. In these moments that couldn’t be found or hardly described anywhere else, in places I hadn’t even known existed.
As I sat on the cool marble floor trying to savor every moment, my attention was soon turned to two malangs (wandering Sufi holy men) in brightly colored robes. Once the qawwali songs ceased, the two men stood ready to begin what would be yet another captivating performance. They swirled, whirled, and twirled themselves into what is described as physically active meditation.
I was enthralled- the qawwali instruments were now replaced with the thick, reverberating beats of dhol drums. It was hard to look away or ignore the spiritual aura that seemed to permeate the area. As onlookers’ eyes remained glued to the malangs, now deep in dhamal, the air began to fill with the distinct smell of none other than hashish, a product of the cannabis plant.
Though I don’t consider myself to be particularly religious, one couldn’t deny the magical feeling that comes from witnessing what I soon learned was dhamal. The dancing wasn’t a performance but rather, a form of deep meditation used to become closer to God. Perhaps it was just the secondhand smoke, but it was an incredibly intoxicating experience.
As the sun slowly set and the shrine of Baba Bulleh Shah lit up with a million twinkling lights, I soon became wrapped right up in the action.
Though tourism is steadily increasing, foreigners in Pakistan are still an anomaly, and even more so at minority religious events. After a crowd of curious folks gathered around my partner and I, one of the two malangs came over to us and insisted we come with him. He brought us to a “VIP” corner in a covered portion of the shrine’s grounds where we quickly began chatting with other malangs, including several female ones. Though there was a bit of a language barrier, it was quickly overcome by gestures, body language, and plenty of photos.
As darkness settled over the famous poet’s shrine, the malangs soon began yet another round of dhamal, something I’m not sure I could ever get sick of. The spinning and twirling were as hypnotizing for us onlookers as it was for its performers– under the cover of night with only the millions of stringed lights for illumination, the spiritual vibes from earlier only intensified.
Since we had to make our way back to Lahore before it got too late, I reluctantly said my goodbyes to the friendly malang and other strangers who had helped make the experience so special. Despite having consumed nothing but water, I walked out of the shrine in a daze– it reminded me of the feeling I would get years ago upon leaving electronic music concerts, only intensified.
Amped up on what was easily my most incredible travel experience to date, I couldn’t help but be absolutely amazed by what had just occurred. I was in Pakistan, a country that I had been repeatedly told was too dangerous and too conservative to visit, and yet I just attended an event that would have shocked each and every naysayer.
It was in that moment that I knew Pakistan was far, far more than could ever meet the eye and I had been lucky enough to pull back a layer of it that I never even imagined could have existed.
How To Attend An Urs Festival in Pakistan
If you too want a taste of one of Pakistan’s most unique festivals, all you have to do is head to a shrine on the day of an Urs. Local news organizations often publish stories about them in the week before they occur, and trust me when I say there are hundreds to choose from throughout the year.
Along with the smaller celebration I attended in Kasur, some of the most popular (and most accessible) Urs celebrations include: the Urs of Data Ganj Baksh in Lahore, the Urs of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar in Sehwan, Sindh, and one of the most famous of them all, Mela Chiraghan at the Shrine of Madho lal Hussain, also in Lahore.
Attending an Urs with a local friend is best, but not compulsory. Meanwhile, dressing modestly in a salwar kameez is a respectable choice, and as these festivities take place in a shrine, covering one’s head with a dupatta (scarf) is a must for ladies.