A bit about Sufi dhamal dance, and tips on how and where to see Sufi dhamal in Lahore on Thursday nights. Map included at the end of the post.
“Dhamal is God casting the shadow of beauty upon us,” uncle says with wide eyes and a dramatic flourish of his hands.
Lit by a feeble light bulb in a cramped old sitting room deep in Lahore’s Walled City, the ancient uncle is manic with enthusiasm. Bobbing up and down from the hip, he explains the concept of dhamal to my friend and I. Long, frizzy white hair and a blue pinstripe button down shirt lend a mad professor air to his pedagogical pursuits. Uncle’s severely hunched back makes him seem too crippled to stand, let alone dance, but his excitable movements as he waxes philosophical about the Sufi ritual beg to differ.
“When God Almighty put his beauty in our soul,” he continues, raising his hands, “the souls began to,” he flicks his wrists, “dance.”
An hour later, in the seething darkness of late night Lahore, amongst oil lamps and pounding drums, I see his soul begin to dance.
What is Sufi dhamal?
But what is this Sufi dance, this so-called impression of divine beauty upon our mortal souls?
To start, Sufis are—loosely—Islamic mystics found across the world, from Northern Africa to Southern Asia. Dhamal, however, is specific to Sufis in Pakistan and parts of India. It is their way of reaching a state of trance, of using dance to commune with Allah, God. To the throbbing beat of dhol drums, sometimes accompanied by other instruments, men and women whirl and twirl, shake heads, pound feet, and do everything in between to reach a higher state of consciousness.
Dhamal usually occurs in or near a darbar, shrine, and is often performed on Thursday night. Sundown on Thursday marks the start of Jummah, the holy day of the week in Islam.
Holidays are are another instance where you can see the Sufi ritual. During the urs of Sufi saints, a multi-day celebration of their death anniversary, people do dhamal to drums outside shrines at all times of day.
In modern-day Pakistan, the connotation of dhamal has evolved since its inception. The ritual still serves as a method of communing with Allah for the dancing melangs, but it’s taken on extra social context. These days, many gather with friends on Thursdays to watch dhamal… while smoking hashish.
Stoners rejoice: this is a sure avenue to like-minded friends if you want to light up. But if you’re not inclined to weedy excursions, never fear—it’s perfectly acceptable to show up and remain sober.
The end of Thursday dhamal at Shah Jamal
At this point, “Shah Jamal” is almost synonymous with smoking at Thursday dhamal, as the ritual at Shah Jamal’s shrine was the most famous in Lahore for years. Hundreds gathered there every Thursday without fail, and thanks to a bit of marketing by Lahore’s backpacker hubs, it became known as “Sufi night” to foreign visitors.
Unfortunately, since the 2017 bombing of the Thursday dhamal at Lal Shahbaz Qalandar’s famous shrine in Sehwan Sharif, Thursday nights at Shah Jamal grew few and far between, stopping entirely in 2017. Fears of attack on the shrine were enough to halt the practice, an unfortunate win for terrorism. Shah Jamal is now surrounded by concrete blockades, security checkpoints, and barbed wire, though you can still visit at any time of day.
But fear is not enough to stop the Sufis! It’s still possible to see dhamal in Lahore on Thursdays, but you have to look to lesser known shrines to find it. Here’s where I’ve seen dhamal in Lahore:
Where to see Sufi dhamal on Thursday nights in Lahore
Shrine of Madhu Lal Hussain (Baghbanpura)
Though it seems like one name, “Madhu Lal Hussain” actually refers to two people: the Sufi saint Shah Hussain and Madhu Lal, a Hindu boy Hussain had great love for. A beautiful example of interfaith unity, their love made them inseparable, and they are now buried side by side in the shrine and collectively referred to as Madhu Lal Hussain.
Pass through a security checkpoint on the perimeter, and you’ll see the shrine: a grand one-room complex with a fire constantly burning outside. People of all ages and genders are constantly praying and paying respects around the complex.
Dhamal takes place in a tree-filled courtyard to the right of the shrine. It’s my favorite dhamal spot thus far—a massive old tree towers over everything, and there are Hindu elements throughout, an homage to its Hindu patron. After the ritual, langar, free food, was handed out to the people. People insisted I share, and it’s worth noting that the roti and haleem I had there were damned delicious.
I believe dhamal happens every Thursday at Madhu Lal Hussain, correct me if I’m wrong. Get there by 21:00 to make sure you don’t miss it.
Mela Chiraghan, the Festival of Lights, is also the celebration of Shah Hussain’s urs, death anniversary. Befitting the lovers’ story, it is an amalgamation of a Hindu mela and an Islamic urs, and a big production in Lahore. The starting date of the 3-day festival changes slightly every year, so Google it to find out when it is this year. In 2019, it should occur around March 30.
Shrine of Mauj Darya (Anarkali)
Hazrat Mauj Darya, a Sufi saint from the time of Mughal emperor Akbar, is said to have had the ability to redirect rivers. If only he was alive today—perhaps he could use his powers to redirect the metro cutting through his shrine!
Once obscured from street by a wall of buildings, his shrine complex in Anarkali is now exposed. The Orange Metro Line Train being built in Lahore cuts dangerously close to his shrine, and much of the complex has been removed for construction (a blatant violation of a requirement that no line come within 200 feet of monuments… welcome to Pakistan). However, the tombs are still present, and theoretically the adjacent mosque will be rebuilt. Someday.
Dhamal gatherings still take place on Thursdays despite the construction. Get there by 21:00 to get a spot in the crowd.
Unfortunately, due to the destructive nature of the Orange Line, 2018 marked the last year of urs celebrations at the shrine of Mauj Darya.
Late night near Mochi Gate
And so we return to the wild uncle’s dance. My friend and I stumbled across this dhamal by chance while exploring the Walled City during Muharram.
Unlike dhamals I’ve seen elsewhere in Pakistan, this one was more intimate, more otherworldly. One or two dozen people at most—none of whom were smoking—gathered to watch the ritual, which happened in a tiny courtyard in an alley near Mochi Gate. The shrine in question is hardly more than a recess in a wall.
The ritual happened far later at night than the others I’d seen, around 1 in the morning. All the lights in the area were extinguished, save for the glow of some small oil lamps throughout the area. There were only drums, no accompanying instruments, and only the energetic uncle and a few others danced.
It was a spectacle of its own sort—especially uncle’s dancing, which was utterly fantastic and admittedly like watching a severely drunken man ballroom dance at times—though not on the same scale as the other dhamals mentioned. For those motivated to see for themselves, it happens on the first Thursday (well, technically Friday) after the new moon.
I won’t give away the exact time or location, as it doesn’t need hordes of people visiting. If you want to see, ask around and let the Walled City guide you.
Other places to catch dhamal in Lahore
For a more family-friendly atmosphere, you can try Peeru’s Cafe in the southern outskirts of Lahore. I’m not sure if they specifically have dhamal, but they do advertise Thursday “Sufi Nights”. Dhamal or not, Peeru’s is a beautiful space and a great place to have a nice meal and enjoy traditional music in Lahore.
A follower told me you can see dhamal at the Shrine of Mian Mir on Thursdays. I have yet to visit this shrine, so I can’t personally confirm.
Update 2019: You can’t see any dhamal at the atmospheric Mian Mir, but you can see qawwali music on Thursday afternoons! Get there a couple of hours before sunset—music stops once the evening call to prayer sounds.
Data Darbar, Lahore’s most famous Sufi shrine, does not have weekly dhamal. However, you should be able to see it there during the annual urs. The shrine also buzzes with devotees of all sorts of Thursdays—and there’s often qawwali music playing—so it’s still worth a visit.
Dhamal as a woman
As with many thrilling things in Pakistan, dhamal is typically not something women participate in. Sigh.
Though I’ve seen women in a trance in Sehwan Sharif (off to the side),
I’ve never seen a woman doing dhamal in Lahore. Update: I’ve now seen women dancing dhamal during the urs of Madhu Lal Hussain in Lahore… and even joined in myself! Still, this is an anomaly, not something you’d see at a weekly event.
Local women, if they attend, stay well off to the side. I’ve seen women in the family area of Shah Jamal (when it was still going), and watching from outside the courtyards at Madhu Lal Hussain and Mauj Darya.
I myself have never attended weekly dhamal without male friends. Heck, I wouldn’t have been able to even find them without local friends’ help!
However, as many of you know by now, I am a firm believer in women claiming spaces in this world of men. If you want to see, go.
In my personal experience, once men got over the initial shock of my presence, they were quite generous; I received many gifts of food and
joints herbal supplements. Could be because I’m female, could be because I’m foreign, probably both. I cannot speak with confidence about how local ladies will be received; if you’re a Pakistani woman with experience, do share.
Given the busy nature of dhamal, I do recommend tagging along with male friends, or showing up in a group rather than going alone. Going anywhere alone in the dark of night is always something to be cautious with, and it’s probably better to have a bit of a buffer when mashed up against a crowd of 49302840328 people. But, of course, how you roll is your decision!
Map of dhamal locations in Lahore
If you know of any other places where people can watch dhamal on Thursdays in Lahore, let me know in the comments or via my contact form. Otherwise… catch you on a Thursday? 😉