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An adventurous expression of faith

Pakistan's daredevil pilgrims scale new heights

Colorful scarves adorn the tops of the towers at the Marian shrine in Mariamabad Colorful scarves adorn the tops of the towers at the Marian shrine in Mariamabad
  • ucanews.com reporter, Mariamabad
  • Pakistan
  • September 12, 2012
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For more than six decades, the twin towers of the St. Mary and St. Joseph Church in Mariamabad have thrilled pilgrims, particularly those with a keen sense of adventure.

Outside the church compound, where thousands gather annually at the national Marian shrine for the country’s largest Catholic pilgrimage, young people scale the nine meter cement towers.

“These are the holy towers,” news anchors say each year as they film the young daredevils clinging tightly as their colorful dupattas (long scarves) flutter in the wind.

“It takes about 25 minutes to reach the top,” said 22-year-old Aslam, who had just descended with the help of a rope tied to a rung.

“I brought a dupatta from home to tie to the top. The clean fresh air, the mosaic of tents and the green pastures offer a unique experience,” he added.

Aslam and his group covered 130 kms on foot from Faisalabad to attend the event, called “Mother of the Faithful” and held from September 7-9. Catholic bishops conducted Masses for incoming pilgrims from all over the country.

The persistent rain this year did little to discourage the pilgrims, who packed the stalls set up outside the church and danced to the sounds of the ceremonial drummers.

Neither did the weather deter Aslam, who remained committed to making his first attempt to reach the top of one of the towers.

“I have been coming here for four years but only decided to climb this time. I could not stay at the top for long because it can only accommodate eight people at a time,” he said.

Sunny Boota traveled eight hours by bicycle to reach the church and also climbed one of the towers to attach a garland he brought with him from his home in Sargodha.

“Our prayers are answered here. That’s why we are not afraid of the heights,” he said.

Despite the devotion shown to the towers by pilgrims, the central committee of the Marian shrine discourages any holy affiliations or ceremonial significance to them.

“They were built as observatories. However youngsters, even including a few girls, follow this tradition for the thrill after seeing their friends do it,” said Father Akram Javed, rector of the shrine.

“We discourage anyone from climbing the towers, crawling [on elbows] to the grotto or wearing bizarre clothes. Security has been asked to stop such activities.”

Judging from this year’s crop of adventurist pilgrims, the tradition does not seem to be in any danger of dying out, if for no other reason than to pass the time before visiting the shrine.

As Fr. Javed adds: “Many opt for this to avoid standing in the long queues, sometimes for 15 hours, at the grotto.”

And so far, it’s all in good and safe fun.

“Nobody has fallen or been injured to date,” Fr Javed said.
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