KARACHI: Historic Sheedi Meha has started at Mangho Pir shrine in Karachi, popular for its crocodile population.
Hundreds of Pakistani Sheedis while chanting African language words sway barefoot to the rhythm of a language they no longer speak.
For many Sheedis, the swampy crocodile shrine to Sufi saint Haji Syed Shaikh Sultan — popularly known as Mangho Pir — is the most potent symbol of their shared African past, as they struggle to uncover the trail that led their ancestors to Pakistan.
Figures are scant but it is generally accepted that Pakistan holds the highest number of Sheedis on the subcontinent, upwards of around 50,000 people.
What is available suggests many arrived as part of the African slave trade to the east — a notion rejected by many Sheedis, most of whom now reside in southern Sindh province.
With so many traditions lost to the past, the Sheedi mela, or festival, at the Mangho Pir shrine has assumed rich significance and been the epicentre of the community in Sindh for centuries.
The celebration features a dancing procession known as the Dhamal, with men and women in trance-like states.
Mangho Pir is also home to over 100 crocodiles that waddle between the devotees near a swampy green pond where they have lived for generations.
Legend holds that lice on the Sufi saint’s head transformed into the reptiles who now live at the shrine.
The oldest crocodile — known as More Sawab, and believed to be anywhere between 70 and 100 years old — is feted at the festival’s climax with garlands and decorative powder while being fed chunks of raw meat.
It is a Sheedi community belief that by honouring the crocodile their whole year will pass in peace, tranquility and prosperity.