For the Love of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar: How Violence Threatens Pakistan’s Traditions of Loving Expression

Lal Shahbaz Qalandar

Born Syed Muhammad Usman Marwandi, Lal Shahbaz Qalandar earned his name from public reverence for his trademark dressing of red attire (lal) and his nobility as a philosopher and poet (shahbaz is a term used to refer to a noble spirit). He is known as one of the most prominent Sufi saints—a contemporary of Rumi—and his celebrated life is memorialized within volumes of prose and poetry penned over centuries.

He lived in Sehwan Sharif, which is in present-day Pakistan (Sindh) and where, according to longstanding South Asian oral traditions, he arrived seeking refuge as a young man. Shahbaz also serves as an incandescent symbol of religious intersectionality in South Asia, with Hindus of pre-partition Sindh worshipping him as an incarnation of their patron deity and adoringly invoking him with the name Jhulelal.


[Hindu depiction of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar as the Sindhi deity of Jhulelal/Photo Source: Wikipedia]

In examining the wealth of written history about Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, three things become abundantly evident even after a precursory glance:

1. He was steadfast in his commitment to standing with the poor and with other marginalized communities.

2. While a Muslim, he united people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds through his teachings of inclusivity and acceptance.

3. He was fundamentally and very vocally opposed to the establishments of his time.

Since his death in the 13th century, the legacy of his life—rooted in love for all and complete devotion to God—has been kept alive at his burial site in Sehwan Sharif, known as the Shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. It is at this shrine that devotees continue to pray and light rows of glistening oil lamps each day in exaltation of the Sufi saint. Aside from the grand sight of history being actively preserved through worship, the shrine itself is a spectacle to behold. Built in 1356 and decorated with a mixture of fine kashi tiles, gold and dazzling mirror work, Shahbaz’s grave sits in the center of the shrine beneath a silver canopy. In the evenings it is often found glistening with bright lights draped between its four minarets.


[The Shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar at night./Photo Source: Pinterest]

 In addition to daily prayers, devotees, by the thousands, visit the shrine each Thursday for dhamaal—a Sufi ritual of dance during which men and women move to the sounds of commanding drums. It is a practice that represents physical devotion to God and contributes to the enchanting atmosphere of the Sehwan shrine.

[Thursday dhamaal at the Shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar../Photo Source: Pinterest]

It was on a Thursday like the one described that a suicide bomber attacked the Shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, killing 75 people in the process. This attack, claimed by a faction of ISIS, was a clear assault on the ideals he represented—ideals which threaten the severe, puritan perversions of Islam that the terror organization seeks to normalize. Furthermore, this was an attack on the centuries-old manifestations of worship through song, dance and poetry, that contributed in great part to the spread of Islam throughout South Asia and continues to inform much of Pakistan’s cultural traditions.


[Thursday dhamaal at the Shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar/Photo Source: Pinterest]

However, ISIS is not the only perpetrator of puritan aggression to impact Pakistan in recent news. The month began with an order issued by the Islamabad High Court prohibiting any Valentine’s Day motivated advertising or marketing, as well as any celebrations in public or government spaces. The reason? Because of the holiday’s supposed contravention to Sunni Islamic teachings. As a matter of initial import, it is already exceedingly problematic for the court to impose Sunni religious interpretations upon a population that is Islamically diverse. Sunni supremacy has regularly inhibited the religious expression of Muslim minorities throughout the country, thus leaving Shi’as, Ahmadis and Ismailis (among others), in social dispositions of severe vulnerability.

As an additional matter, it is incredulous that believers of the sunnah, narratives of Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) life, would rule that a holiday devoted to romantic love conflicts with Islamic teachings, as the sunnah contains numerous stories of the Prophet’s (pbuh) open and notorious expressions of romantic love. These narrations are often glossed over by religious scholars aiming to minimize their significance, thus leaving accounts of how the Prophet (pbuh) grieved for nearly a decade after his wife Khadijah passed away, or of how he would deliberately drink from the same part of the vessel that Ayesha’s lips touched, or of how he died in Ayesha’s bosom, vastly under-studied and under-valued. These are all part of the sunnah from which Sunnis derive their name, yet they are wholly dismissed (often with historically baseless claims of questionable authenticity) by institutions which wish to combat expressive love in its countless forms—whether that means a Valentine’s Day teddy bear sold at a small stand in Islamabad for ten rupees or the act of ecstatic dhamaal at the Shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar.

The High Court order and the attack on Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, though two completely different manifestations of violence, are both violent nonetheless. They are both attacks on the expressions of love that are so deeply rooted in Pakistani materializations of performative culture and religion.

* * *

In a popular South Asian legend, recently re-introduced on a larger scale in Al Jazeera opinion coverage of the attack on the Shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Shahbaz is remembered seeking refuge in Sehwan and being greeted with stinging rejection. The high ranking fakirs, in response to learning of Shahbaz’s arrival to the city, sent him a pot of milk, filled to its capacity such that droplets dripped down the sides in overflow. Along with this oozing pot, a message was sent which said that, just as the pot was filled, so was Sehwan, thus leaving no room for Shahbaz to remain and live there. In response, Shahbaz sent the pot back with a flower floating on top of the milk to suggest that there was, in fact, room for him in the city, along with a message reading that he would remain among them floating just as the flower floats atop the milk.

It is in this very way that the spirit of Pakistan remains afloat despite the institutional and political directives that seek to expel certain beloved ideological camps. The next day following the attack on the Shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, dhamaal resumed in all of its glory of drums and dancing and worship, after the shrine’s caretaker vowed that morning to be undeterred in the face of terror. Just as the flower once continued to float atop the pot of milk, and just as Lal Shahbaz Qalandar remained committed to supporting marginalized communities and opposing injustice, Pakistanis remain steadfast in their commitment to upholding their traditions of affectionate expression and pluralism. And much like the red robed and adored Sufi saint, their resistance is nothing short of magical.

By Elizabeth Jaikaran

Elizabeth Jaikaran is a freelance writer based in New York. She graduated from The City College of New York with … Read more ›

5 Indo Caribbean Vendors to Know This Wedding Season

indo caribbean wedding
Photo Courtesy of DvS Photography NYC

Wedding season is in full swing as the world resets from the coronavirus pandemic that halted mass events for years. Indo Caribbean weddings have rich diversity due to their varying religious and regional intricacies, but are generally large celebrations that require planning, coordination and preparation. Growing up, I was both excited and stunned at the busyness associated with streamlining a multi-day wedding celebration. 

[Read Related: 5 Indo-Caribbean Influencers who Will Spruce up Your Newsfeed]

The vibrant diaspora of first-generation young adults and their families may look to vendors who can understand the nuances of Indo Caribbean weddings.  Below are five Indo Caribbean vendors you need to know about this wedding season!

1. Henna by Anil Tulsi

A self-taught mehndi artist for more than 16 years, Anil Deonarine was fascinated by the delicate, deeply stained details that adorned the hands of Indian actresses and classical dancers. His passion for art inspired him to watch YouTube tutorials and meticulously freestyle designs on his sister’s hands.

Soon after, he began practicing mehndi on himself and perfected his signature designs that drew inspiration from traditional Rajasthani textiles and Arabic floral patterns. Deonarine is also known for his speed, and can craft a flowing, freestyle design in 3-5 minutes without much pre-planning that is symbolic and personalized to the individual.

As a member of the Indo Caribbean, Latino and LGBTQ communities, mehndi was a therapeutic means of growth for Deonarine at the intersection of his identities. With his mother’s aid, he began introducing mehndi to those that celebrate Quinceneras, Noche Buena (Christmas Eve Dinners) and Three Kings’ Day. Within the greater South Asian community, Deonarine frequently applied mehndi on family and friends for weddings/events and participated in cultural events such as holidays.

He initially faced some negative reactions from members of the South Asian community as a male artist, such as being chastised that mehndi is only for women, called slurs and told to stick to traditionally manly activities. However, Deonarine instead focused on bettering his skills, advocating and supporting other male artists, and soon built a loyal and excited clientele that fully supported and accepted him. It is his dream to design mehndi at a queer wedding to further defy stereotypes and champion mehndi’s inclusivity for all, irrespective of race, sexual orientation, religion or gender. 

2. Diana’s Candles 

indo caribbean candles
Soap bars | Photo Courtesy of Diana’s Candles & Soaps

Offering soy candles and natural soaps, Diana Sookram’s products have been used as bridal shower and wedding favors and gifts in bridesmaid, bachelorette and groomsmen boxes.

Sookram began creating natural products in 2016 after her daughter developed respiratory issues from store-bought candles. She fell in love with the creation process and soon began taking small-batch orders from family, friends and co-workers. Now, she is expanding her business through summer networking socials and prepping for mass orders during wedding season by stocking up on top-selling supplies such as small candle jars, lids and soap packaging.

Sookram’s products can be color and scent customized to match the theme of any occasion. Popular scents during wedding season include beach linen, honeysuckle jasmine, lavender and chamomile and honeysuckle rose. Whether a couple envisions a beachy, garden or opulent wedding, Sookram is able to create complementary colors and scents. 

She admits the hard work that goes into promoting a small business and jumps at the opportunity, particularly within the Indo Caribbean community, to network and collaborate.

3. Vibrant Garlands 

Fresh flowers are a staple in weddings and plentiful throughout the Caribbean. In some Indo Caribbean weddings, couples exchange garlands of fresh flowers, called malas, to signify their consent and joy in choosing one another as partners. This fundamental ritual dates back to ancient times and is deeply symbolic, as malas also adorn the statues of gods and goddesses in Indo Caribbean temples.


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A post shared by Mallika ?? (@vibrant_garlands)

Since the age of seven, Mallika Balgobin sat alongside aunties and uncles in temple and watched them handcraft malas. She was inspired to learn the techniques and in 2018, established her business, Vibrant Garlands, to make and sell malas for special occasions. 

Balgobin finds the preservation and teaching of traditional craft vital to her Indo Caribbean heritage, as she is able to make malas for some of the community’s biggest events such as weddings, religious ceremonies, holidays and funerals. 

Her recent 2023 trip to South India aided her in learning new techniques and she was encouraged by how the tiniest, simplest flower is arranged to symbolize auspiciousness and beauty. For weddings, Balgobin loves stringing white carnations, red roses, baby’s breath and pink lilies to evoke feelings of unity and love. Balgobin works with couples to customize fresh flowers. She provides fresh flowers or suggests couples buy the flowers of choice prior to customization.

4. G Star Tassa

The pulsating and electrifying rhythms of live tassa are a grand component of Indo Caribbean weddings. Since 2017, G Star Tassa Group has brought unique beats and energetic vibes to Indo Caribbean special occasions. While derived from Indian traditional drumming, tassa is a distinct musical experience particular to the Caribbean. It is generally associated with the splendor of wedding festivities due to the excited ambiance it produces. When arriving at a wedding where tassa is performing, the music is loud and center, indicating that a celebration is taking place. 


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A post shared by VAAN MUSIC (@vaan__music)

Watching, listening and dancing to tassa is a multisensory experience that heightens the audience.

For the members of G Star, playing tassa is a means of, “expressing culture, rather than representing it. When we play, we like to believe we are invoking emotions from every person who can hear it. Our culture embodies happiness, togetherness and love, all of which can be found in the sweet sound of Tassa.”

5. DvS Photography NYC: New York & Florida Wedding Photographer

Photography and videography offer couples some of the strongest mementos to relive their special day. Nicholas Mangal at DvS Photography brings high energy and professionalism to capture the right angles, looks and moments of a wedding. Located in both New York and Florida, Mangal prides himself as one of the only individuals in the Indo Caribbean community who shoots and edits both photography and videography in specially curated, all-inclusive packages for couples. With an emphasis on portraits, he personally caters to each couple and involves them after the shoot in the editing and final stages of his products. 

Mangal understands the complexity  that can accompany an Indo Caribbean wedding, but believes that this, “forces me to think outside of the box and create new perspectives, ensuring that I try different styles.”

He loves to document the aesthetics of Indo Caribbean weddings, from the rich embroideries of the outfits to colorful decor. 


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A post shared by Nicholas M (@dvsphotographynyc)

Ultimately, he aims to highlight the timeline of wedding rituals by capturing people in motion and interacting with the crowd to create lifelong memories that the couple can cherish forever. For Mangal, photography/cinematography is a deeply subjective form of art that can be used to capture the unique beauty and experience of Indo Caribbean weddings.

These vendors bring an important cultural and niche aspect to the Indo Caribbean wedding industry. Their products and brands are tailored to the community. As a 2023 bride, I am excited to see the diversity of vendors available to help guide and support those getting ready to begin their new journey of married life.

To inquire about services, please visit the vendors’ social media pages.

By Priya Deonarine

Priya D. Deonarine, M.S, NCSP, is the quintessential Pisces who has been dramatically shaped by her experiences and emotions. She … Read more ›