By Shamila Sharma
Bareilly, 7 March 2007
On a sunny afternoon, the mausoleum of a Sufi saint in this western UP district was packed with devotees. Enchanting qawalis (hymns) in praise of the saint, along with the fragrance of roses and itra, captivated the crowd.
Men, women and children, of all ages, had gathered at the Dargah of Nasir Mian Savri which wore a festive look, tastefully decorated for the annual ‘Paidal Jhanda Yatra’ (a march by devotees carrying religious flags).
After some time the head priest led the congregation to prayers. He prayed for the well being of all, for peace and harmony, good health of those undertaking the march and for eradication of polio.
As the prayers ended, community leaders, including the caretaker of another revered shrine in the city, Shabbu Mian, appealed to the people to support the polio campaign.
He gave polio drops to some children and blessed them.
“Savri flag has a message for all, give polio drops to your child” “Polio is a dangerous disease, pray for its eradication”. Banners with these slogans adorned the walls of the almost
200-year-old shrine. Besides, handbills with appeals for polio immunization were distributed to the crowd.
“It was three years ago that polio became part of our agenda. Everywhere we go, we spread the message of polio eradication and pray that the virus is wiped out of the country”, says Raees Mian Savri, the man who started the Paidal Jhanda Kafila 16 years ago to propagate the teachings of the Sufi saint, spread the message of peace and communal harmony and the benefits of good health.
Raees Mian, then in his 20’s, had carried the flag of the mausoleum ‘Savri Jhanda’ to Kaliyar Sharief, tomb of another Sufi saint near Hardwar in the adjoining state of Utttaranchal.
Covering the 260 km distance on foot to pass through Rampur, Moradabad and Bijnore districts of the state, the participants of the Jhanda Yatra, stop at prominent mosques, dargahs, and rest points where Raees Mian and his followers seek support for polio eradication.
This year the Kafila has taken a detour in the three districts to pass through the high risk areas of polio. In Moradabad, it is passing through the most challenging Karula area.
“We pray that polio is eradicated soon”, Raees Mian says. .
Soon the crowd began to move. Around 150 young men and even children, wearing rust colour caps or traditional crochet white caps and garlands of roses, set off on the march with flags.
At the centre was the huge green colour “Savri flag”, flanked by several polio banners, some being carried by participants and some by the members of UNICEF’s Social Mobilization Network.
“Many people want to join the march, but I select a few among my followers. Most of them are young men as they need to cover a long distance on foot”, he says.
The march passed through the congested narrow lanes of the old city, a Muslim dominated area, before reaching the outskirts of Bareilly, where the participants were hosted for the night by a Sikh leader.
The Paidal Jhanda Yatra has become a very popular event among the community. Hundreds of people join it, wherever it goes. They listen to Raees Mian Savri and pray together.
It ends with 10 days Urs celebration at the Hardwar dargah, which is attended by around 25 lakh people every year.
Many such events among the Muslim community are tapped by UNICEF’s Social Mobilisation Network for polio advocacy under the specially tailored Under Served Strategy.
Among those who joined the march in Bareilly was 18-year old polio affected Athar. He had come to see off his elder brother who was among the participants. “My brother will spread the message of polio eradication. He can feel my pain”, Atha said.
Also spreading the message of polio eradication was four-year old Mohammad Faiz, the youngest participant of the Jhanda Yatra, who held a small flag and some polio handbills. He was accompanying his ‘Abbu’ (father).