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Monday, 14 May, 2001, 15:12 GMT 16:12 UK
Bangladesh's all-night religious revel
People attending the Bangladesh festival
People come from far flung areas
By Alastair Lawson in Dhaka

It is well known that the smoking of drugs is expressly forbidden in Islam - but there is one festival in Bangladesh where that rule appears to ignored.


Smoking cannabis is not wrong if it helps you to contemplate God

Old pilgrim at the festival
Held on Friday near the town of Bogra in the remote north of the country, it is an all night music and dance celebration in honour of the Sunni saint, Shah Sultan Balkhi, who died in the 12th century.

Shah Sultan is renowned for his powers of healing and is revered by Sufi Muslims and Hindus.

Young revellers

The celebration of his life is unusual in that many of the thousands of people attending openly smoke cannabis and stay in camps nearby the site.

The festival in many ways bears an uncanny resemblance to a western rock festival.

Cannabis smoker
Cannabis is smoked openly
Music and drugs are in plentiful supply, and predominantly young revellers from both sexes stay in makeshift camps nearby the venue.

But those attending argue that is where the similarities end.

They say that the festival is essentially a religious event to commemorate Shah Sultan Balkhi and that the smoking of cannabis enables his followers to come closer to God.

Revellers say that so far the authorities have done nothing to stop the drugs taking even though its forbidden under Bangladeshi and Islamic law.

Intoxicated

Many people come from far flung areas carrying chicken, rice and other stuff to cook while they spend the whole night singing songs and smoking cannabis.

On one side a group of disabled people beg money from the people attending the festival.

Pilgrims
People spend the night singing and dancing
"Smoking cannabis is not wrong if it helps you to contemplate God," argues a man of about sixty or seventy, one of numerous Sufi Muslims at the festival, inhaling deeply.

"Sufis have always concentrated on finding God personally, rather than pursuing a doctrinal approach to religion," he adds.

He says that smoking cannabis concentrates the mind and helps overcome everyday evils such as greed, lust, selfishness and pride.

Bangladesh has traditionally been a secular country, where Bengali culture and music is as important to many people as the Muslim faith.

But it is also a conservative country, where bans on alcohol are firmly enforced and where people caught trying to smuggle drugs in and out of the country face stern penalties.

Disapproval

Many people, such as Saleem Hussain, attended the festival for the first time and disapproved of people smoking cannabis on such a large scale.


It's a huge celebration of Islamic singing and contemplation by Saddhus and Sufis

Qadir Kallol
"I have come here to know more about this function and find out how they enjoy themselves. But some corruptive work has been done here," Mr Hussain says.

"According to Islam we are not allowed to smoke, but smoking is available here. It's a pathetic thing for our religion and I think it should be stopped."

At twilight there's more of a party atmosphere as people gather together to eat their evening meals.

Muslim holyman
The festival attracts a large number of holymen
The festival is supposed to celebrate the life of Shah Sultan Balkhi, famous for introducing Islam and Islamic music to north Bengal.

But commentators say that in recent years it has attracted a growing number of itinerant Muslim holy men - who often take cannabis at similar events held elsewhere in the country.

Qadir Kallol of the BBC's Bengali service say that while Shah Sultan was a great warrior and religious teacher, it is unlikely he would have approved of widespread drug taking.

Yet for many people, the festival is the best party in Bangladesh.

Each year, the numbers attending get larger and larger and plans have already afoot to accommodate an even bigger number of revellers next year.

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See also:

06 Jan 01 | South Asia
'Millions' to attend Muslim festival
02 Mar 00 | South Asia
Bangladesh singer rocks traditionalists
08 Jul 99 | South Asia
Bangladesh cultural festival launched
04 Nov 97 | From Our Own Correspondent
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