Her face is a mask – without expression and stone hard. Her eyes stare into the distance, oblivious to the hundreds of men and women milling about the courtyard of the shrine. In the dying dusk light, under the glare of incandescent lights from the flower sellers inside the shrine complex, she lets out a scream, her mouth turned up towards the sky, her hands pulling at her hair. She falls to her knees and scratches at the marble floor but is soon back on her feet. I sense the eyes of the crowd turn towards her, and an atmosphere of tense anticipation fills the devotees as they step away from her. She begins to run.
The crowd parts giving her room as she gathers speed and hurls herself into a somersault. Her body hits the ground with a loud thud. Some gasp in surprise. And she starts again. And again and again. Her face reflects her exhaustion, her eyes carry her confusion. In the growing darkness she is an apparition tearing at herself, loudly throwing herself against the floor, desperately shouting her accusations against the evil that is in possession of her. Her father stands by her, watches her, gently instructs the devotees at the shrine to give her room to complete her rituals. He has been doing this for nearly 5 years, gently and patiently standing alongside his teenage daughter who has lost her soul to the devil. I cut through the crowd to get a closer look and see that there are others – dozens of others, some as young as ten years old, who are stamping and shouting their way across the courtyard, their families quietly and shamefacedly following their movements, protecting them from bodily harm. A boy glares at me, threatens me with stones. An elderly woman seemingly in a trance suddenly lunges for my cameras before her children restrain her. A young man, chained to a pillar, calls out to me, begging me to release him. A young woman rolls on the ground, moaning, tearing at her breasts, begging to be set free. The presence of the devil fills the air, as dozens call out to him, and to the pir, asking to be release from their suffering, wondering when and how they will find escape. I feel suffocated in the tense atmosphere, and look to leave. Pray for us, I hear someone call after me. I turn around and see the tear filled eyes of the father of the young girl I had witnessed hurling herself against the floor. Pray to Him to release us from this suffering, he pleads.
I promise him that I will.
For the thousands who come to this venerated shrine – located about 35 km North of Mehsansa in the village of Unawa, to Syed Ali – or Mira Datar (brave healer) as he is more commonly known, this shrine is sacred and a crucial last port of hope.
They claim that modern medicine has failed them, that the doctors remain confused and perplexed by the evil that has overcome their loved ones. And that only Mira Datar knows the answer, and that they believe in him. They will tell you stories of the miraculous cures that they have seen with their own eyes – of possessed individuals who coughed up dozens of steel nails, or others who jumped from a three-story tower to scare the devil and landed safely and cured. The saint performs miracles in death, just as he had in life.
His legends, most of which can be heard on loudspeakers adorning music and CD stories that line the alleyway to the shrine, speak of his defeating evil kings and overcoming even death itself to fight in the path of the righteous. The owners of these audio/video stores do brisk business selling CDs, books, calendars and other knickknacks that celebrate the achievements and miracles of the saint. The sons of the family of caretakers – from nearly 700 families involved in the management and administration of the shrine, mill about the crowd drumming up business by encouraging the pilgrims – Hindus, Muslims and others, to make offerings at the shrine and seek the counseling, guidance and blessings of the senior clerics. Their ostentatious clothes – gold threads, fancy watches and a general air of arrogant indifference separates them from the mostly poor and impoverished pilgrims that folk here. This has of course not gone unnoticed by others from the area. Some years ago the local village administration filed suit against the families of the shrine, to bring the shrine and its revenue under the control of the administration.
But far removed from these mundane matters, the saint continues his work, quietly bringing all to him, and in his own, indescribable and inexplicable way, offering them healing and solace.
Update: Tewfic El-Sawy of The Travel Photographer blog recently visited this shrine and has produced an extensive write-up and photo essay about his experiences there. You can see his work by clicking on the image below