I apologise for the lack of decent photos to accompany this post. I visited Manghopir several times, taking many photos of the crocodiles and of the shrine, the busy shops around it and of the hot springs but I can’t find them. I suspect they were in the albums thrown out after our previous cat sprayed on them. He had a tendency, after a stray kitten tried to take up residence, to mark everything in the house as his.
The legendary crocodiles that guard the shrine of Saint Mangho (ManghoPir) were piled in a heap, under a tree. They looked very muddy, and suspiciously lifeless. The shrine, or mazar, lies to the north of Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city. There are two springs beside it, one hot, and one cold. Bathing tanks have been provided, for the water is reputed to cure all manner of ailments – from rheumatism through frigidity to skin diseases.
When Mangho arrived, in the middle of the thirteenth century from Iraq, in true hermit fashion, he chose a patch of arid desert in which to pray for grace. Making the cold water trickle from a rock was his doing. Producing his drinking water, however, seems to have exhausted Mangho’s miraculous powers, for no more are mentioned. Fortunately, he had some friends who turned up to lend a hand. The most famous of these, Qalander Lal Shah Baz of Sehwan, provided the hot spring.
Mangho’s other three friends – there is no general consensus as to who they were, everyone cites the names of their personal favourites – joined in the miracle making. One produced, from the twig with which Mangho cleaned his teeth, a date palm oasis. Another provided honey and melted butter which rained from the trees. According to some versions of the story, the fourth friend caused a wilting flower to change into a giant crocodile to guard Mangho and the shrine.
There are various legends to explain the existence of the crocodiles. My favourite is the one in which Mangho was terribly troubled by lice. These – as they do – made his head itch dreadfully. One day, driven mad by the itching, Mangho, in an unsaintly display of temper, stamped his feet. This dislodged a great number of lice – which turned into sacred crocodiles.
They are mugger crocodiles, looking rather like alligators but definitely a true crocodile. One more scientific explanation is that these crocodiles were carried through some heavy floods, during ancient times and gathered here. Archaeologists believe there was a Bronze Age community near Manghopir, which worshipped crocodiles.
Joining the other observers, I peered over the wall of the enclosure. As far as living legends go, they were a bit of a disappointment.
Staring at a bunch of crocodiles who only wanted to cuddle up to each other, wasn’t what I expected. Eventually, one, small and sluggish disengaged himself and waddled towards the pool, slipped smoothly into the murky water and promptly disguised himself as a partially sunken log.
Perhaps the crocodiles expected something more from the pilgrims? It used to be customary for supplicants to provide a sacrificial goat. Indeed, in the old days it must have been much more exciting. Then, the devotees of the saint, both reptile and human, shared the same bathing facilities. The humans, however, took exception to the crocodiles’ occasional tendency to eat them, and a separate enclosure was erected. Perhaps that was when the crocodiles began to tire of their role. Or perhaps that came later, in the days of the Raj – as suggested by none other than Sir Richard Burton, diplomat, explorer and translator of erotic literature.
According to his account in Sindh Revisited, the alligators, as he insists on calling them, were “once jolly as monks.” Their lives took a dramatic downturn when young subalterns from Karachi’s camps found it entertaining to pit their bull terriers against them. Should a crocodile, in defending itself, kill a dog, the men “would salute the murderer’s eyes and mouth with two ounces of shot” causing the creature to plunge into the water, “grunting as if it had a grievance.” I should think it did have a grievance and the subalterns’ behaviour didn’t do much for our reputation. All in all, it is not surprising the crocodiles show a marked inclination to ignore visitors and cuddle up to each other.
Worse was to come. The crocodiles began to die off. However much the British subalterns may have demoralised them, they were still breeding successfully in those days. In the 1950s, someone estimated there were over a hundred – although terror, at being in the actual enclosure with the reptiles may have led him to exaggerate. In fact, the cause of the alarming decline was down to nothing more sinister than Pakistani Government bureaucracy.
Traditionally, the custodianship of the crocodiles was handed down, father to son, through the centuries. A Government body – the Auqaf Department – responsible for Muslim shrines, decided to dispense with the services of the family. At that time there were twenty seven crocodiles. Within a couple of years, there were only two left. In 1972, Khan Mohammed was hastily re-appointed in an effort to save the sacred reptiles. Happily, it was a successful move. Crocodile numbers began to increase. The biggest one is called – and was even in Burton’s day – Mor Sahib, or Mr. Peacock.
There are two annual festivals, one of which marks the death anniversary of Mangho Pir. The other, the Sheedi Mela is to celebrate the crocodiles. The Sheedi are a minority group in Pakistan, said to have been African slaves belonging to Arab traders. Settling first along the Makran coast of Baluchistan, they later spread throughout the province and into neighbouring Sind. The Sheedi Mela was put on hold for seven years because of the political tensions around Manghopir and other parts of the city but it took place again in 2017.
During the Mela, Mor Sahib is covered in vermilion and given a goat by the devotees. When the disciples dance, day and night to the sound of drums, it is to an African rhythm. Quite what the crocodiles make of it is anyone’s guess. Perhaps it cheers them up a little. They look like they need a bit of revelry.