Here in Scotland we are in the middle of the agricultural show season. The Royal Highland Show, the flagship event of the Royal Highland and Agricultural Society of Scotland, starts things off in June when over four days the finest livestock is shown off and judged. There’s also show jumping, countryside pursuits, entertainment (one year I was invited to read poetry in a yurt!), shopping and much more.
I thought, though, I’d take you to Pakistan to experience the amazing Sibi Mela. Usually a nondescript, rural backwater in Baluchistan province, Sibi bursts into colourful, noisy life for five days every year with thousands of farmers and traders bringing their livestock.
Assuming the livestock would provide a familiar point of reference, we headed firstly towards the cattle area. Chewing the cud with bovine nonchalance, coats gleaming like silk – in lines as far as the eye could see – they were ignoring the fussing of their grooms. One farmer, delighted at the interest being shown in his beast, prodded the dozing animal, causing everyone to step back hurriedly, as several tons of prime beef lumbered to its feet. “He is champion,” he exclaimed, pointing proudly to the red rosette.
So far, so familiar: however, major differences soon became apparent. For a start, it is difficult to imagine Scottish farmers painting their prize stock with henna (though maybe some talcum powder for the sheep?) as is dressing them in colourful, silk coats and beaded headdresses.
Nor are we likely to see, next to the cattle, countless oxen, buffalo and strings of camels. My delighted cooing at the baby camels – ungainly bundles of fluff, still practising their sneers – brought astonished looks from their owners.
We were swept along towards an exhibition area where at least some sights were familiar. The shiny new tractors and other agricultural implements were admired by crowds of men and small boys. Families came along to enjoy the carnival atmosphere of the fair. Just like their Scottish counterparts, children gleefully collected freebies from display stands promoting everything from artificial insemination to hybrid seeds. Also on offer for entertainment are folk dancers, tent pegging, camel races, handicrafts and tribal dresses and jewellery, fairground and circus.
Suddenly, an instantly recognisable sound tugged the heart strings, bringing a wave of homesickness as a Pakistani pipe band marched through the crowds, playing of all things, Scotland the Brave. Instead of Highland dancers, though, groups practised traditional folk dances to be performed later in the main stadium. A five-man team, stunning in bright, candy pink shalwar kameez, their leader in a contrasting outfit of startling canary yellow waved gaily coloured pompons as they rehearsed.
A strange looking troupe appeared. One gaunt old man, stripped to the waist, whirled in circles to a pulsating, hypnotic drumming which built into a deafening crescendo, before abruptly stopping. The crowd watched intently as another man slowly, methodically, pierced the dancer’s naked flesh with sharp metal spikes. The drumming began again, softly. The man – seemingly entranced – resumed his dance, whirling ever faster as the beat quickened, the embedded skewers quivering from his sides and neck.
As the drums reached a crescendo, the leader moved forward, caught and steadied the dancer. He blew – puff! – on the pierced flesh, removed the skewers, holding them aloft. Not a drop of blood to be seen. With gasps of wonder, spectators dug into their pockets for rupees.
From a row of makeshift huts – palm leaf mats lashed together – enticing cooking aromas caused hunger pangs. When the clientele had recovered from the shock of a foreign family joining them, they laughingly made room for us.
As we sat cross-legged on the mat, tearing off chunks of hot, fresh chapatti with which to scoop up our meat stew and spicy lentils, they nodded approval. After a fight with the proprietor over the bill – “You are guests in Baluchistan. Baluchis do not take money from guests” – we headed for the stadium.
We were led to excellent seats and it was only when handed cups of tea by a uniformed orderly, I understood we had been mistaken for VIPs. Horses plumed and bedecked in finery, high-stepped in time to martial music. We feared causing a diplomatic incident by leaving mid-performance and cringed in our seats, hating the sight of this unnatural parody of dance achieved by the painful application of an electric prod.
When we finally escaped the stadium, we discovered the fairground. Instead of bouncy castles there were manually operated, gaudily painted wooden roundabouts. In a sawdust strewn circus ring, we saw a tightrope walking goat, a monkey pedalling a tricycle and a lady vanishing in a puff of smoke.
We joined a long queue to see the Snake Woman, whose body was rather obviously a length of poorly disguised hosepipe. No-one seemed to mind this in the slightest.
We clambered up the perilous stairs of the Wall of Death. Peering down from the rickety viewing platform, our astonished gaze fell, not on a motor cyclist, but on a group of made-up transvestites, gyrating seductively to Indian film music.
They pouted, blew kisses and winked enticingly to encourage the men in the audience to throw rupees down to them. When the music stopped, the ‘girls’ collected their money, making way at last for the stunt man. Dressed in leathers, he zoomed his bike around the walls making the structure shudder alarmingly. He collected fewer rupees than the dancers.
Later, we watched dazzling displays of horsemanship as wild looking tribesmen showed off their horses’ paces in tent pegging competitions and trotting races.
When the cattle were bedded down for the night, their attendants curled up beside them. A haze of smoke from cooking fires hovered in the air and it was, sadly, time for us to leave.