Sita Under the Crescent Moon by Annie Ali Khan
"Meeting Durga at Hinglaj reminded me of the sacrifices life demands at every step." (From the book's foreword)
Sita under the Crescent Moon by Quratulain (Annie) Ali Khan chronicles sacred sites through the length and breadth of Sindh and Balochistan provinces in Pakistan in vivid detail where women seek solace in worship, derive strength to fight their ordeals, pray for a cure for illnesses that plague them and their loved ones and share a few moments of ecstasy, a feeling of oneness with the Almighty.
The author born in Karachi returns to her city as a writer after spending a few years in New York. She sets off on a pilgrimage to a site highly remote and equally sacred - Hinglaj, the resting place of Durga, popularly known as Nani Pir by locals in Balochistan, the largest province by land in Pakistan, constantly in strife against the state, sparsely populated and extremely rich in natural resources.
Sati fought for her husband, Lord Shiva's dignity and immolated herself turning the sacred fire of her father Daksha's yagna into a sacrificial pyre. Her body was chopped into pieces by Lord Vishnu, 52 of which fell on Earth, her head falling on this remote mountain at Hinglaj, nestled in the heart of a lush oasis along the barren Makran coastal belt.
Treacherous terrain, persistent political issues and threats from militants, repeated attacks on religious minorities, innumerable security checks hardly deter the pilgrims from flocking and paying their respects at Hinglaj. They arrive at Devi's cave temple after a difficult trek up a barren, dormant volcano called Chandra Goop en route where prayers are offered to Lord Shiva.
From here on, the author sets on a quest to learn more about the legend of women burned or buried or swallowed by the Earth and then worshiped.
The Spiritual Odyssey Begins
Accompanied by a social worker from Lyari neighborhood in Karachi - Naz, the author sets out to witness a Maalid ceremony, a dhamaal or a Sufi dance in a settlement called Kalri. We get an insight into types of dhamaal, their origin traced to Sheedi community (settlers from Africa) and from people of Ratanpur, Rajasthan.
The dhamaal commences well into the night to the beat of drums. Heads circle, arms sway, some women fall into a rapture to the music and frankincense fragrance. The dhamaal bestows few moments of oneness with God for women with untold suffering - guarding their kith and kin from gang wars, police encounters, sudden disappearances and routine domestic violence.
The spiritual sojourn begins from Abdullah Shah Ghazi shrine facing the sea in Karachi, the seventh largest city in the world, earlier only a fishing hamlet called Mai Kolachi after the local deity here. It is believed that this shrine was well connected to Haji Ali in Bombay and was an oft frequented route by many Sufi saints before the borders came into existence.
The author thereafter travels to Manghu Pir shrine, the tale behind a lake of crocodiles here is an interesting one. Gaji Shah shrine, one visited only by women in Johi, close to Hyderabad is the next stop. Livelihood is extremely difficult in this town with the water poisonous and unfit for consumption and almost no electricity supply.
The Mecca of shrines- Laal Shabaz Qalandar's shrine - Sehwan Sharif with its beautiful golden dome in Dadu is the most popular tourist spot for spirit seekers. Unfortunately, this was the site of a devastating bomb blast in Feb 2017. The author travels further down to Keti Bunder wildlife sanctuary near the delta to pay a visit to Shah Aqeeq's shrine who is widely believed to be the spiritual surgeon.
Every visit details out popular tales woven around the sacred site, provides a description of nearby villages, and prevailing social conditions. The seemingly incongruous accounts of travel shape up as we read a detailed account of Miran Pir shrine, Karachi.
We understand that the word 'Sita' used in the title is only metaphorical as the author compares Miran Pir to Sita in Bala Kand of Ramayana. Much like how a chasm in the Earth opened in front of Sita and welcomed her and closed over her head; Miran Pir was also swallowed by the Earth as she prayed to save her dignity.
Women from different countries come here for a sacred thread and some clay, with the hope that water from Shah Pari will cure their children. Their resolute faith keeps the shrine's caretakers going about their chores with a smile even when they are on the verge of giving up on life and living.
In search of Sati and Sita
"That is how a young woman's body was, a pot made of unbaked clay that had to spin, spin, spin before it was emptied of its milk- before the clay pot , like the body, fell , turned to dust. " (as quoted in the book)
The author's spiritual excursions take her to shrines in Thatta in Sindh, to the hill of Makli, to shrines of Sheik Ali, Satiyan Bibi, as far as Khuzdar in Balochistan to the shrine of Shah Noorani.
She worships the seven sisters, the Satiyan who fled the clutches of evils that accosted them and prayed for the earth to consume them at Mai Mithi in Tharparkar, east of Karachi, very close to the Indian border.
Every where she encounters women who cannot leave their homes without a male company making a difficult pilgrimage alone. She delves into many life stories that render a plain fact - many women led and lead lives worse than a caged bird.
Analysis and Recommendation
Sita under the Crescent Moon, a work of non fiction centered on travel to spiritual sites, provides information on local folklore, socio-economic conditions in a region with few details from contemporary political history. Through a kaleidoscope of all elements mentioned above, the book gives a voice to women who want nothing, who have nothing and for whom nothing is everything.
The read definitely gets cumbersome at places with information overload. Accounts of women's strife and girls possessed by spirits though elicit empathy get trite with repetition, A rudimentary map behind the covers of the book does minimal justice for the scale of travel undertaken. Few photographs from shrine visits and of locals would have illuminated this work of reportage better.
Nevertheless, the epilogue of the book written by the author's friend provides reasons why one should read this book. The author's painstaking efforts over three years to give voice to the women who would never be heard or allowed to speak undertaking extensive travel alone to the most remote and dangerous locations in Pakistan is highly laudable.
In small parts, the book also serves as the author's memoir, of her childhood days largely. From a simple, curious girl to a brave writer, her life was one truncated too soon. This book serves as a testament to her passion for writing and sacrifices that life demands ruthlessly at times. In a way, she too reminds us of Sati or Sita, under the crescent moon.
3.5 stars - Buy a copy and assimilate this work slowly.
The author's stories as a journalist -
- Missing Daughters of Pakistan - https://herald.dawn.com/news/1153516
- A Hindu Pilgrimage in Pakistan - https://roadsandkingdoms.com/2016/a-hindu-pilgrimage-in-pakistan/