Three centuries ago a dead saint from Sindh gave an ishara or a spiritual signal in a dream to his living son to build a 90-foot tall bonfire to mark his death anniversary. The son obliged. And since then seven generations have continued to uphold the rite.
“It has not been officially declared but it is believed that the bonfire is Pakistan’s tallest,” says Faqeer Ghulam Hussain Junejo, the caretaker of Saint Bahram Bari shrine where this festival is held annually. “The size of the bonfire is unique in the world in terms of religious customs. But no national or international organization has come here to record and recognize it.”
Bonfire rituals are called machh in Sindh and the one for Saint Bahram Bari Junejo takes place in Tando Mitha Khan town in the southern district of Sanghar. Saint Bahram is believed to have died in 1717 AD or 1129 Hijri at an unknown age.
According to an unpublished book on riwayat by the Sanghar Heritage Committee, before he was elevated, the saint was said to have been a thief. Once, with fellow thieves Shah Mardan and Qaiser Ghot, Bahram stole a goat of the Bari breed near Arzi Hakro village near Odero Lal town. To cook the meat, they borrowed a kunni or clay pot from a woman of the Hakro clan but ended up breaking it. When they told her about their mistake, she generously replied: “Bhago so chutto.” (Don’t worry if it is broken).
This was a thought-provoking moment for the gang. It occurred to them, that if the woman could forgive them then Allah would also forgive their sins. It is believed that their penitence was accepted and they became dervishes. The shrine of one ‘thief’, Qaiser Ghot, is located near Tando Adam and while a bonfire is held here as well annually, it is relatively smaller in scale.
Upon Saint Bahram’s demise, his son Gohar Faqeer became his Gaddi Nasheen or spiritual successor and caretaker of the shrine. According to a riwayat or tradition, Gohar Faqeer arranged a bonfire on his father’s urs or death anniversary every year after.
Saint Bahram’s followers continue with the tradition and even today during the ritual, mureeds chant the Hakro woman’s words, “Bhago so chutto…” Followers then take small amounts of the ash that is left behind to use for medicinal purposes, enhancing crop yields and controlling djinns.
The urs starts every year on the 14th of Jamadi-us- Sani, the sixth month in the Islamic calendar. This year it began on February 19 and continued till February 24. It is estimated that 10,000 people came, including women. Muslims and Hindus are mureed or followers of the saint, who is also believed to have mureeds in India. There is an astana or a space where he is believed to have spent time in India as well.
The fire is built in a pyramid, weighs around 1,300 maunds or 52 metric tons of wood. It is built from the babber or Gum Arabic tree (Acacia Nilotica), Taalhi or North Indian Rosewood (Dalbergia Sissoo) and Kandi (Prosopia Cineraria). Its base is 14 square feet and this recedes to about 3 sq feet at the top. The entire structure takes a few days to put together. According to Junejo, some wood used to originally come from as far away as the Achro Thar desert.
The United Nations recommends every country have a minimum of 25% forest cover. Over the years forest cover in Sindh has dwindled to less than 2% and Makhi Forest in Sanghar is one example of an area that has vanished due to illegal logging under the patronage of government officials. There is also an ongoing anti-encroachment operation in Sanghar’s Khipro Forest near the Saint Bahram Bari shrine. The authorities are trying to have the forest vacated and undo the lease which the government once granted itself.
The Sindh forest and wildlife department has said that there has been an 80% decline since 1971. Right now there are 100,000 acres in the province which is just 0.3% of the surface area.