Dancing with Sufis in Pakistan

Sufi Dance
Photo Credit: dawn.com

A tale of Sufi Dance and revelry in Lahore, the Paris of Pakistan…

The traffic spills around me, honking and weaving, jostling and revving. A family of five cling to one motorbike as a horse and cart trundle by, dust spewing into the orange sky.

We head into the river of traffic, passing horses and trucks, donkeys and tuk tuks, armoured police vehicles and rusting school buses.

I hold on tight, my pack heavy on my shoulders, as we zip past a lime Greek tuk tuk driven by a wizened old man with a tangled white beard and mount the sidewalk to pass a gridlock of a thousand more motorbikes.

Lahore the city of Sufi Dance

The Muslim call to prayer washes over the traffic, defiant in the heat and a pair of young men in flowing white robes and green turbans turn and head to a nearby mosque.

A monkey dances on a chain and child beggars stretch out their hands to the traffic, their eyes pleading, their noses running.

We head back into the fray, picking up speed, passing a couple on a motorbike dragging a four meter bamboo ladder along the street, splinters flying into the air. A lady in a green burkah watches me, smiling, I think, from the back of a crowded truck painted in swirling, psychedelic patterns, coils of bells dangling from the back tinkling gently beneath the roar of the traffic.

I see men with huge bushy beards, others sport neatly clipped moustaches and many are simply clean shaven.A man in a tasselled hat and flowing white pyjamas shouts at me above the traffic ‘What country?’

‘England!’ I reply!

‘Very good!’ He says, smiling, giving me a huge thumbs up and somehow pulling his motorbike into a wheelie in one smooth movement.

We emerge from the traffic and I jump off the back of the bike, thanking my new friends, Faizan and Mohammed.

The two Pakistani adventurers, members of the soon-to-be world famous Karakoram Club, had been introduced to me over whatsapp by Mobeen Mazhar, one of Pakistan’s most talented nature photographers.

They were both determined to show me a good time and, as it happened, I was in luck for tonight was a special night.

It was Sufi Dance Thursday…

Lahore the city of Sufi Dance

We duck and dive through tight alleyways teeming with humanity; cobblers and jugglers, mechanics and palm readers, children and pilgrims. On all sides, I am greeted with surprised smiles.

We turn up a darkened alleyway, the smell of hashish hanging heavy in the air and join an endless torrent of people heading into a shadowy courtyard.

It is absolutely packed, I estimate there are at least five hundred people.

A tall man in purple robes sees me, the only white guy in the place and pushes his way towards me, he stretches out his hand and, unsure for a second, I take it.

Before I know what is happening, he is marching me through the fray, shouldering aside anybody who dares to cross his pass. Many approach him, wanting to shake his hand, as it slowly dawns on me that this dude in the purple robes is a somebody, a somebody that everybody holds in the highest of regards.

He leads me forwards to the very centre of the square and has a brief argument with the crowd of twenty people already occupying the five square meters of space…

With heads bowed, they relent, moving aside to let me and my friends perch upon an unfurled blanket.

The purple-robed celebrity smiles at me, bids me to sit and disappears into the crowd.

“That was Sial Khan, one of Pakistan’s most famous sufi dancers” Mohammed explains whilst passing me a smoke.

“This will be a great Sufi dance, you are very lucky”

I can barely keep up, joints are appearing from all sides, everybody keen to smoke with a foreigner.

I smoke, shaking hands, taking in the scene whilst, directly in front of me, for it seems I have been given the best seat available, a group of Dhol Drummers begin to set up.

A Dhol Drum is a huge two sided drum which, historically, was used across much of Pakistan and India for ceremonies, weddings and, of course, to fire up warriors before a battle.

Sufi Dance

Photo Credit: dostpakistan.pk

There are five drummers, four small, wiry men with impressive biceps fuss over their kit, ignoring the many cries of admiration coming from the crowd.

The fifth, a giant of a man and clearly the leader of the group, closes his eyes, his face turned up to the sky, his lips moving quickly, silently, a prayer that I strain to catch but miss by miles.

The drummers begin.

A-tap, tap, tap, A-tap, tap, tap… Metallic notes drifting on the wind.

The crowd begins.

Rhythmic swaying, seductive to the eye and confusing to the senses, in sync to the drums.

A two-part chant…

“Hoga!”

“Raj Raj Raj!”

A group of sufi priests begin to gather, each clad in different finery.

One, sporting a dazzling green waistcoat encrusted with gleaming jewels, flaps his arms suddenly, as if he may take off.

Another, quieter, sporting an impressive beard of many curls, presses his palms together, bows in the direction of the Dhol Master and, slowly, starts to turn.

He spins, once, twice, slowly, almost lazily, his arms outstretched, a human spinning top, a dandelion seed caught upon the wind.

The others begin to move, one by one, they join the fray. The sufi dance has begun.

The drumming intensifies, minutes turn to hours as the drummers glow with the slick of sweat, an apprentice mopping at the brow of the Dhol Master, his eyes fixed upon an unknown point.

The sufi dancers bob and weave, deep in a trance they jive and spin, an epileptic conga-line of crazed movements.

“Allah Akbar!”

I join in, praising the Gods for allowing me to join this very special evening.

The crowd is worked up, hash smoke engulfs everything, I see a chillum-periscope emerge from the tangled sea of humanity, releasing perfect smoke rings, perhaps a foot in width, into the turquoise blue of the night sky.

A holy wanderer pushes through the seated crowd, shells in his hair clicking gently beneath the relentless drumming, the cheering, the whooping, the chanting, a smell of jasmine briefly touches me before being overwhelmed by the smell of hashish, sweat and earth.

And then, I see him.

Sial Khan, The celebrity Sufi dancer, his purple robes clean-pressed, his curly hair dropping to his chest, entering the circle.

The others bow, making way respectfully.

All but one.

The man in the green waistcoat, now so lost in his own trance that the outside world is a stranger to him, his eyes closed, whirling and bobbing, his head snapping back and forth like a crazed turtle, his lips pressed tightly together, his feet kicking up dust.

Sial Khan begins to dance. It is unlike anything I have ever seen.

For sixty seconds, or more, he turns on his feet in a movement that defies physics, a movement I cannot truly capture with words.

A human tornado.

The Tasmanian Devil cartoon of my childhood.

He whirls faster than I would have thought possible.

He pulls himself out of a sharp decline, sweat dripping from his face and turns to bow to the Dhol-Master.

In some act of madness, the fellow in the Green Waistcoat dares to step into the purple-robed tornado’s path, challenging his domination of the ring, there is a push, a struggle and then it is all over as the Green-Waistcoated miscreant is ejected from the most prized spot upon the dance floor, the spot directly in front of the Dhol Master.

The crowd, seeing the altercation, watches with amusement and then decides to join in.

A fight breaks out, perhaps twenty meters from me, causing more and more of the crowd to stand, a crush develops, we push back at the wall of humanity threatening to engulf us, a mosh-pit of sorts forms, the sufis dance on, the drummer still drum, the night is far from over…


My evening was like this…. except with a lot more people. 

Sial Khan takes me by the shoulder, pushing me through the crowd as his followers inch forwards with outstretched hands, offering bejewelled rings and pre-rolled smokes as tribute, he smiles, passing the smokes to me and shouldering aside all who block our path.

One man turns around angrily and then, upon seeing the purple-robed master and the bemused backpacker, smiles gingerly, stepping back with outstretched hands.

We leave, Mohammed and Faizan, my Pakistani brothers, take me along with Sial Khan to a small room where I meet with Pappu Saeen, the Dhol Master and the rest of his group.

Long hair falls to the floor, slick with sweat from the recent excursions and I shake many an outstretched hand, each decked out with flashing gemstone rings.

We feast upon spicy food and warm bread. I devour chicken and beef, lamb and mutton.

We sit, chatting, smoking, eating, as I attempt to learn all that I can about the Sufi dance traditions, the dhol drummers and, indeed, more about Pakistan; I have been here for just a couple of days.

The hours stretch into the beginnings of the morning until Faisan and Mohammed usher me out of the small room, I turn to pay but it has, of course, already been taken care of.

I do not know where I will be sleeping tonight, I simply know that Faisan and Mohammed will sort something out.

This is Pakistan.

It is unlike any country that you know.

It is far from what you might expect…

Sufi Dance

Although, it is totally nuts…

I would like to say a huge thank you to the people of Pakistan, and especially the members of the Karakoram Club, who looked after me during my Pakistani backpacking adventure.

If you would like to find out more about Dhol Drumming, I suggest starting out by visiting the Qalanderbass Facebook page – these are the guys who I was lucky enough to see play whilst in Lahore.

To learn more about Sufi dancing in Lahore and Sufism in Pakistan, start here.

To support tourism in Pakistan, check out my friend Shah’s motorcycle tours in Pakistan.

In 2017 we ran our first adventure tours to Pakistan. This was an awesome success and in 2019 we will be running at least four more adventures to this amazing country.

Exciting news! We have launched our new tour company and website which you can check out at epicbackpackertours.com. Please visit the new website or email pakistan@thebrokebackpacker.com to find out more, or simply sign up to the Broke Backpacker mailing list to be kept in the loop.

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12 Comments

  • Bilal Azam says:

    Hey Will
    Happy to see your blog on Pakistan and that too from my city Lahore. I was unable to welcome you during your visit to Lahore and in Mountains. Now as i am also following you on Snapchat since your Tuk-Tuk journey in India, i will definitely meet you in Pakistan.

    Regards
    Bilal – A wanna-be-world-traveler

  • Michael says:

    Wow, sounds like you had quite the adventure that night! I must say, you have very descriptive writing, I honestly felt like I was there dancing with you. The part about the guy pulling a Tasmanian Devil was especially funny!

  • Linda says:

    HI WILL HATTON,

    This is amazing article on pakistan, nice to see your blog

    Regards
    Linda

  • Imran Hunzai says:

    Absolutely amazing experience. Being a Pakistani myself, I haven’t even visited the places in my own country that you have explored. I have a list now!

  • What a fantastic event! How awesome for you to find yourself in this scenario, and thank you for sharing it with us!

  • Rao Umer says:

    Hey Will,
    Thanks for showing Pakistan’s real face to the World.
    Really Impressed by your Writing Skills.
    I myself is a Trip Manager want to invite you guys to Explore many other Places. This land is full of Surprises you just have seen a glimpse of that.
    Most Welcome to all reading this.
    Do contact me at raoumer09@gmail.com

  • Minhal says:

    You are simply awesome. The next time you are in Karachi or Lahore have dinner(s) with me if you can spare the time. The stories you must have about your wonderful trips must be amazing to hear first hand. I’ve messaged you on fcbk too. May all you journeys bring you peace and joy. Cheers from Lahore and Karachi.

  • Kim Mibram says:

    Sufi Dance!
    Awesome writing. Pakistani culture is not really a uniform one. There are some traditional types of dances. However, how dancing is viewed can very from person to person, family to family, community to community.

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