Spiritual Transcendence - Sufism in Pakistan

10 years ago, a very close friend took me to a Shrine in Lahore to do a manat (prayer) for her dad. This was the first time I’d ever stepped into a shrine and I was fascinated; it was as if I’d entered an entirely new world. People were chanting songs, praying to a grave, crying at the grave of the saint, lighting candles and praying, praying on the food. And I had a hundred questions - “What’s everyone doing?” “Will this really help my friend’s dad?” and “What are these rituals all about?”

Before this, I had never been exposed to this face of Islam. I had spent most of my life outside of Pakistan, and the only version of Islam I knew was the one I was taught at home. And to be honest, I don’t think I ever really paid much attention.

A few years later, I found myself struggling with many existential thoughts. Throughout my day, I felt myself obsessively thinking, “Why am I here?” “What is the purpose of our existence?” and “What is the certainty of life after death?”

I started to read up on religion, philosophy and god. Unfortunately, nothing seemed to give me the answers I was looking for. When all hope was lost I remembered my little excursion with my friend and I thought, maybe I should get to know more about Sufism.

Once I began to read up on Sufism, I was really taken in with the teachings, particularly the belief that we could discover the Divine through love. Other than that what I valued most was how Sufi mystics found artistic expression to be a contemplative discipline, and the art of remembering the Divine, commonly known as Zikr.

In 2010, for my MFA I combined my newfound interest in Sufism, with my recent passion of video art and documentary filmmaking to embark on my own personal spiritual journey visiting the Sufi shrines of Pakistan. I would sit for hours in the shrines, waiting for the perfect moment of a devotee deep in prayer, or the quintessential video shot that would adequately capture the energy and vitality of the dhamal (dance for God). I interviewed and took photographs of many devotees that came from far and wide to the different shrines in Pakistan. Most of them described Sufism as the examination of the self, the failings of the self and the search for guidance from within the self.

I had noticed a lot of birds in the courtyards of the shrines. One of the devotees I spoke to told me that birds carry the prayers of the devotees from the shrine to the saints, who then passes the prayers onwards to God. I thought that this was a beautiful way to think about one of the most common creatures that exists amongst us.

At another shrine in Multan, there was a bullet proof window on a grave, when I asked what this peculiar site was, I was explained that the saint who died in the 1200s, would still take out his hand, to greet his devotees, until someone told him to stop. The freaky story, had me eyeballing the glass and I did realize that one can not argue with peoples beliefs.

I also came across a drag queen who was part of a circus act. She told me how was a devotee of the saint Data Sahab in Lahore. She explained how every year at the Urs (birth festival of saint) she would go to Lahore to pray and give alms giving to the poor and take part in the urs. She also told me how it was the only place she would get accepted, and appreciated, unlike in the circus where she was ridiculed.

This project, has been an on going project since my MFA, I even made a documentary about it, and some art videos, as well has exhibited these photographs. This project had been very dear to me. I feel that I can do more with this project and is still not complete, as I still have to reach the ultimate spiritual transcendence.

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