Saturday, 18 April 2015

Diego Ibarra Sánchez | Children of Shah Daulah

Photo © Diego Ibarra Sanchez - All Rights Reserved
Followers of this blog and of my photography work will know of my visual and cultural affinity to South Asian Sufi shrines, and my interest in this particular branch of Islam from a historic standpoint. I have photographed at quite a number of Sufi shrines in India, but never in Pakistan, and documented a variety of its festivals, rituals and cultural phenomena.

Whether it was in Ajmer during the death anniversary of the Sufi saint Chisti or at the shrine of Mira Datar, I witnessed manifestations of mental illness by pilgrims who went into trances when nearing the tombs of the saints, and I saw first hand the venality of the shrines' keepers who exploited the visiting pilgrims, and conned them out of their meagre savings.

But I never imagined what seems to occur at the shrine of Shah Daula Shrine located in Gujrat in northern Pakistan. It is here that women wanting to bear children come - as others have done for more than 400 years- and pray at the saint's shrine. If their prayers are fulfilled, they have to donate their first-born to the caretakers of the shrine. Thousands of such children have been left here, and forced by the caretakers to wear iron caps on their skulls for the first 12 years of their lives in order to look like rats. They are called the rat children or chuhas.

Shah Daula, a beloved Sufi Muslim mystic, was said to be a kind man who surrounded himself with children born with microcephaly, and the caretakers seek to populate the shrine with such disfigured individuals since pilgrims believe that being touched by these unfortunate individuals will bless them and have them bear children.

Diego Ibarra Sánchez's gallery Children of Shah Daula features photographs made at this shrine.

Diego is a documentary photographer currently based in Lebanon. Graduating with a degree in Journalism in 2005, he has published many of his stories in numerous newspapers and magazines, such as The New York Times and Der Spiegel among others.

In 2006 several grants made it possible for Diego to spend a year in South America to improve his storytelling process. Upon returning to Spain he worked for two years for the Catalan newspaper Avui, while still continuing his own photography projects. In 2009 Diego moved to Pakistan where he developed a strong visual body of work. He also continued travelling to several other countries including Afghanistan, Bahrain, Libya, Nigeria, and Tanzania.

He left Pakistan in 2014 and he is currently based in Beirut, Lebanon.