Mela Chiraghan, also known as “The Festival of Lights” is a three day festival celebrated every year in the outskirts of Lahore, to mark the death anniversary of the esteemed Punjabi Sufi poet and saint, Shah Hussain. Shah Hussain was born in Lahore and is considered a pioneer of the Kaafi (classic form of Sufi poetry) of Punjabi poetry. The festival is celebrated adjacent to Shalimar Gardens, where Shah Hussain’s tomb and shrine is located.
Around half a million people from all over Pakistan come to the Shah’s tomb for the festival, where they pay tribute by partaking in various activities, and dancing the night away. The shrine is beautifully decorated with paper and plastic flowers as well as fairy lights. Disciplines also light candles in remembrance of the Shah and carry chaadars which they place on the shrine to show their love and devotion to the Sufi poet. Additionally, they sing various songs and dance to the Shah’s Kaafi’s and the beat of the dhol (musical instrument). To sustain the noise and excitement, the pilgrims also blow on horns. During the festival, ample amounts of ethnic foods are being served as well as handcraft pieces which are believed to reflect the traditional rituals of Punjabi mystics and culture.
The main attraction of the festival is the alao. This area is ringed with tiny oil lamps and candles and devotees approach the fire, dip their finger in an oil lamp and rub it on themselves to show respect. They believe the oil is holy and the lamp represents th0e light that kills the darkness within. Furthermore, the pilgrims sit around a bonfire and toss candles hoping their wishes will be granted. The devotees also hold pieces of yellow and red clothes as they believe the colors are a symbol of love. They range from young children to old men, women show up on the third day which is reserved especially for them. At the opposite end of the compound you will see groups of men sitting together indulging in heated discussions while smoking hashish.
Unfortunately, due to the security situation of the country, strict measures are taken every year to safeguard the area where visitors camp out. Regular visitors feel that the crowd has thinned and becomes less and less with each coming year and security guards complain about barbed wires and broken barriers which makes the crowd hard to handle. Despite all the hindrances, there is still a large crowd that comes out during the last week of March every year to celebrate the festival and leader, Shah Hussain.
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Enter the third day of the Mela Chiraghan (Festival of Lights) in Lahore and I decided to pay a visit.
My visit came barely a day after the Lahore park massacre. I needed to block out the images and footage of the blast victims out of my mind.
The festival marked the 428th annual anniversary (Urs) of great Sufi saint Shah Hussain, popularly known as Madhu Lal Hussain, who lived in Lahore in the 16th century.
The police had sealed off all the roads leading to the shrine. There was only one designated spot where doors and metal detectors were installed. It was oddly heartening to see beefed-up security — I was body checked three times.
When I entered the festival, the lack of fear among the crowd was palpable. Children were running around without a care, people from all across the country had come to pay tribute.
The festival also featured a large bonfire at the shrine of Hussain, in which people threw in candles, oils and lit up cotton lamps with the hope that it would fulfill their wishes. The fire was lit for the entire duration of the Urs.
For children, a number of swings and merry-go-rounds offered recreation.
It occurred to me the relevance of what Gautama Buddha had once said,
"Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts."
I stuck around there for a while, trying to understand the mystical behaviour of people.
Stopping a few in their tracks, I asked them why they had come after what happened yesterday? This is a crowded place and therefore an attractive target for a terrorist attack, I pointed out.
"We have no fear of these cowards because our belief is strong. We have come here for our saint. Our wishes are fulfilled here which is why we light candles, oil lamps, burn incenses and recite Surah Fateha for him."
A devotee, who had arrived barefoot, said he felt a spiritual connection with Shah Hussain's teachings. "I have been participating in these Urs celebrations for many years. I feel cleansed when I visit the shrine."
Seeing an old lady lighting an oil lamp, I walked up to her and posed the same question. A bit apprehensive of my camera, she nonetheless uttered with a smile:
"Jako rakhe saiyan maar sake na koi"
The one who has God on his side, nobody can hurt that one
As I took a picture of her and turned to walk away, her words brought me a comfort that replaced the fear I had felt only a day ago.