Islamabad - After unloading ‘Lathi’ from the packsaddle of his animal, Dur Rahman, 57, and his camel moved forward and paid ‘Salam’ to the mausoleum of Shah Abdul Latif Kazmi, popularly known as Bari Imam Sarkar. “I asked Sarkar to bestow health, wealth and Iman (faith) upon us; devotees with firm belief never return empty handed,” said Dur Rahman who brought woods as ‘mannat’ for the ‘Langar’ (free public kitchen) of Bari Imam. According to the devotee, he covered almost 20 kilometres to reach Bari Imam from his village Chattar, located in the hilly area of Murree.

This particular ritual calls ‘Lathi’ where people bring woods over camels’ back from their villages and offer to the shrine as ‘Mannat’?one of the popular practices in Sufism - refers to a wish which when fulfilled is reciprocated by giving away money or food to the poor; or by visiting a shrine. According to the devotees, ‘Lathi’, as a part of their traditions, has been practiced since generations and it is a kind of contribution from the hill people to the shrine. The three to four days long ritual takes place once a year. As a reward, according the believers, the Bari Imam Sarkar fulfils their dreams and solves their problems.

After unloading the camels at a corner of the complex, the jubilant devotees and their animals go ahead to the main entrance of the mausoleum and do offer ‘Salam’ to the Sarkar. Drummers beat ‘dhol’ and play pipes when the devotees and their animal pay ‘Salam’ to the shrine.

Dur Rahman, at the age of ten, first time took part in ‘Lathi’ ritual, when his father Bakash took him along to Bari Imam. “Since then, I haven’t missed any of the ‘Lathi’ ritual,” he said while puffing on his cigarette.

Last week, Dur Rahman bought his camel from cattle market of Taxila for Rs 150,000. In his village, the people use camels for loading. Participation in ‘Lathi’ was the first loading work of his newly bought camel. “This was the first loading activity of my camel; such holy journey not only tames the camel but the animal also remains peaceful throughout the year,” said Dur Rahman who sports a well-trimmed white beard.

According to him, when he came to Bari Imam for the first in his childhood there was only the shrine while today he finds a large complex and the outside bazaars. “We, the devotees, are enthralled to see the large complex. However, we really miss the annual ‘Urs Pak, (the death anniversary of the saint) which has not been taking place since many years”. Dur Rahman is one of the devotees requesting the government to lift ban from the annual Urs.

During the annual Urs, the devotees from across the country used to gather in the shape of festival and commemorate the life and teachings of saint Bari Imam. However, in 2008 Islamabad administration cancelled the Urs due to security concerns and ever since the tradition could not be revived.

Apart from the security concerns, delay in the expansion work at the shrine is another hurdle between the devotees and Urs festival. The Rs 641 million remodelling project of the shrine was initiated in April 2008 but it is still uncompleted - the project was claimed to be completed within a period of twelve months. If the ongoing construction is completed in the next phase, according to CDA administration, around Rs 83 million will be spent on the construction Langar Khana with the sitting capacity of 5,000 people for meals, 100 Wuzu  khana (ablution places) and separate toilets for males and females. According to the administration, the work of the second phase will be completed in one year time.  

Every Thursday, Salim Shah visits Bari Imam along with his family from Raja Bazaar in Rawalpindi for paying ‘Salam’ to the Sufi’s shrine. For the whole family annual Bari Imam Urs was like Eid festival and for the last few years they have been deprived of the highly spirited religious activity. “Urs is food of the soul; it gives the message of unity and brotherhood. We strongly demand the government to make security arrangements and allow the devotees to celebrate the annual Urs,” he demanded.

As the ban continues to disappoint the devotees like Salim Shah, the business community in the vicinity of Bari Imam also requests the government to revive the Urs for the survival of their businesses. Shopkeepers, vendors and taxi drivers all ask the authorities concerned to complete the construction at early stage and lift ban from the Urs. 

Asmat Shah is a shopkeeper in Bari Imam Bazaar who sells rose petals, perfumes, sweets and chadar (shawl) inscribed with holy verses. The devotees offer chadars, perfumes and flowers to the shrine while distribute the sweets amongst the poor in the area. “We had very good business but delay in the completion of the construction work and ban over Urs have badly affected the market. Our businesses rely over the visitors.”

Muhammad Aslam is a drummer by profession. “I am basically from Faisalabad; I beat drum at the shrine; it is a source of my earning”. When he is hired by some visiting devotees he can make around Rs 2,000 per day but these days he hardly finds people to hire his services. “Due to the ongoing construction work the attendance of devotees is thin which is a matter of great concern for drummers like me”, said Aslam.

Maryam Bibi, a Malangni (one who does not care for world) has been performing her duty for the last 22 years at the Sarkar. She lives on the alms and according to her she spent carefree time at the Dabar. “Now, I have one desire to see the annual Urs at least once in my life,” said the happy-go-lucky Maryam.

For the last 20 years, Mustafa Khan has been selling Dandasa (stem-bark of walnut tree) for cleaning teeth outside the shrine of Bari Imam. While standing near the main entrance of the shrine, he tries convincing the visiting devotees to buy his product that he has brought from Tirah Valley of Khyber Agency. “If the attendance of the visitors remains thin like this, I plan to shift to Data Darbar, Lahore,” said Mustafa whose business is declining day by day.

Baba Faiz, one of the oldest servants of the Sarkar, said that there were many ways to ensure the safety of the devotees. “If the government takes serious step about the security, the annual Urs could be held peacefully.” Baba Faiz who used to be a cloth merchant in Dir Kot area of Azad Kashmir came to Bari Imam in 1991 and devoted his life to the saint. Without giving any details about the nature of his invitation by the Sarkar he said, “I was invited by the Sarkar; I came and adopted the life of a Fakir; only lucky people like me could get such a Bulawa (invitation)”.

When contacted Allauddin Mahmood, Manager Shrines Islamabad Capital City, said, “The construction work is underway; hopefully this year the Urs Pak will take place. We are trying our best to facilitate the pilgrims and for this purpose we are going to construct new washrooms, Smaa Hall and Langar Khana.”

The official was hopeful to organise the Urs in 2015; however, he said that date for the religious festival will be determined after the completion of construction work. “We will also examine the security situation before going for the festival, as the government wants to ensure safety of the pilgrims,” he told The Nation.