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Mystic crocodiles draw thousands of devotees in southern Pakistan
Fri Nov 26, 4:04 PM ET
KARACHI (AFP) - Crocodiles with huge teeth-filled mouths lie in the sand and slap their snouts on the edge of sulfur springs, greeting worshippers who journey to the Mango Pir shrine on the outskirts of Pakistan's volatile port city Karachi.
It is one of thousands of Sufi shrines in this Islamic republic, where millions of devotees set out on pilgrimages, from all corners of the country, to pray, chant, dance, sing, occasionally smoke hashish, and seek healing.
Sufism is the most artistic, liberal strand of Islam, embracing song and dance as expressions of love for God.
The 700-year old Mango Pir shrine, 25 kilometers (15 miles) southwest of the city centre, is believed to be the resting place of a Hindu bandit who tried to rob the caravan of Baba Farid Shakar Ganj, a 13th century Sufi saint.
According to local legend, Mango Pir converted from Hinduism to Islam when he realised his sin, and in reward Ganj gave him lice which grew into crocodiles.
The compound surrounding his shrine swarms with some 150 crocodiles. Devotees regard the deadly reptiles as sacred, and potential fulfillers of their most fervent wishes.
Pilgrims journeying to Mango Pir make offerings not to the buried there, but to the scaly creatures.
"We have been serving these crocodiles for seven centuries and many generations. My forefathers were the followers of Mango Pir, who assigned them this task," Mohammad Sajjad Barfat, caretaker of the crocodile's sanctuary, told AFP.
Wildlife experts are unsure how the crocodiles came to be there. Some believe they may be traced back to a time when the area was a swamp.
"The area may have been a wetland some time in history and that could be the only explanation of their presence at such an isolated place," said World Conservation Union (IUCN) researcher Tahir Qureshi.
"Earlier, their natural habitat was available to them. But now they are confined to ponds and their subsistence largely relies on artificial food."
Pilgrims, including many from neighbouring India just 400 kilometers (250 miles) away, give beef, mutton or chicken to the crocodiles as offerings in the hope they will make their wishes come true.
Acceptance of the meat offerings by the "king" of the crocodiles, known as More Sawab, is taken as a sign that a wish will be granted.
"If More Sawab accepts the offering, that means the wish of the devotee is fulfilled," caretaker Barfat said.
Despite being the largest of the crocodiles, More Sawab is reputed to be friendly towards humans, although such tall tales are legion in South Asia.
"I cannot forget the incident when a child of 10 years tumbled into the pond and everyone including his mother were sure of child's ill fate," recalled the caretaker.
"But More Sawab nudged the child with his snout to help him reach the bank of the pond. It was amazing to witness."
The Mango Pir draws leprosy patients and those suffering from chronic skin diseases, seeking to bathe in the lukewarm waters gushing outside the shrine.
Scientists say the water may contain sulfur, which has therapeutic value in healing scabies, a common disease among people living in crowded areas in unhygienic conditions.
However it can aggravate other diseases.
"This is a general misconception about the Mango Pir stream, which could be good for scabies because of sulfur in the water but disastrous for (leprosy patients)," said dermatologist Sharaf Ali Shah.
Bathing in the mild gushing springs, Roshan Ali was unfazed.
"A close relative of mine told me of this sacred water and I took a bath here," Ali told AFP.
"It cured my chronic leprosy."
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