Dastangoi and the Tales that Bind

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A modest looking middle age man, dressed in white walked gently on to the stage. The stage, like the man, was frugal: no props, no music, no elaborate lighting. Just a small platform covered with white sheets and white pillows. At one corner of the platform were placed two steel water bowls for the artist to moisten his palate after a non-stop verbal performance and a peek daan.

Photos of 1/1 by Rupa Abdi

This was Mahmood Farooqui, a man determined to bring back to life and popularity the lost art of Dastangoi, storytelling based on medieval Urdu tales, and to pass this ancient art form on to future generations.

Today he was performing ‘Dastan-e Karn Az Mahabharata’ with the focus on Karna, the underdog of Mahabharat.

Karna, in this composition, is showcased as the underdog who is discriminated against because of his so called ‘low birth’. In spite of a life of suffering and discrimination, this warrior hero, stays firm on his ideals and honor. Thus when breathing his last on the battlefield of Mahabharat, with his head resting in Shri Krishna’s lap, when he asks Krishna whether he would be as famous as Arjuna, Krishna replies that Karna’s fame would last longer than Arjuna’s.

Photos of 1/1 by Rupa Abdi

Mahmood Farooqui’s version of Dastangoi is a class in itself. It draws on syncretic traditions, seamlessly weaving age old issues of dharma, caste discrimination, power struggle, dirty politics played by the rulers for the acquisition of power and wealth- issues which are still relevant and perhaps more so in the current socio-political scenario.

Farooqui draws from oral traditions of Mahabharat, extracts of poetry in Hindi, Urdu and even Persian, Sanskrit shlokas and Quranic ayaats to reflect on the human condition and the issues related to Dharma and Karma. His composition is the mirror of a pluralistic art form where the barriers of religion and language break down to reveal a seamless weave of tapestry that is India.

His delivery is flawless, it flows on waves of passion, rising and ebbing with the content in a seasoned voice, the likes of which are heard only among senior classical and qawwali singers !!

Using only his oratory skills, Farooqui held the audience spell bound for ninety minutes, quite an achievement in these times of short attention span !!

Farooqui’s rendition of ‘ Dastan-e Karn Az Mahabharata‘, proves that the idea and idol of India as secular nation embracing all levels of diversity in its fold, as envisioned by the founders of our Constitution, existed long before our country’s Independence. It was always there in its pluralistic traditions, art and culture.

Photo Credits: Rupa Abdi

Note:

Detailed information about the Dastangoi’s team and future performances can be found on their face book page:

https://www.facebook.com/dastangoi/

Mahmood Farooqui’s blog :

http://dastangoi.blogspot.in/p/dastangoi-lost-art-form-of-urdu.html

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LIVING TOGETHER: 17TH Century Maratha Empire, an Attempt at Harmonious Coexistence

While we Indians pride ourselves over the rich diversity of communities, race and religion that our country has, it also means dealing with differences and contradictions in the way we live, eat and pray. However there has always been a sense of, not just tolerance, but respect for these differences. This appears to be an intrinsic factor of Indian cultural ethos. Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘we must respect other religions, as we respect our own. Mere tolerance is not enough’. There have been times when this sentiment could not hold up against hatered and violence however there were other times too when this sentiment flowered against heavy odds.  Seventeenth century Maratha society was one such period in the history of this great nation.

It is a myth to presume that a society at confrontation with itself cannot find ways to co-exist peacefully. The Medieval period in the Maratha Empire saw three apparently conflicting forces at work, especially during the seventeenth century: there was religious as well as political conflicts among the Bahamani kingdom, the Mughals and the Marathas.  With the consolidation of Maratha power in this century, the Hindu and Muslim communities of the Maratha society found innovative ways of co-existing with mutual respect and peaceful tolerance. There were instances of hate and intolerance, no doubt, but these were offset by numerous examples to the contrary.  The people and the rulers, in their wisdom knew that the only way for a peaceful society was respecting and giving space to the ‘other religion’. Marathi writers and historian have cited numerous instances of this as depicted in the daily lives of administrators and rulers. Examples from which our present day society could learn a lesson or two.

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Bahmani Sultanate 1347-1527 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

Saraswati Gangadhar, author of Gurucharitra, a poetic work of the fourteenth century, mentions that Alauddin II (1435-57), of the Bahamani dynasty which ruled over much of Deccan India, including parts of present day Maharashtra between the 13th and 16th century, held great respect for Narsimha Saraswati, the hero of Gurucharitra.  

Ibrahim Adil Shah II (1490-1510) another Bahmani ruler, tried to create cultural harmony among Shias, Sunnis and Hindus through the medium of Art. According to Chitnis (p48) he was a worshipper of Allah and a Hindu goddess. Both the Mandir and the Masjid were sacred to him. His official documents would begin with the words Az-puja-i Shri Saraswati. He built a temple at Bijapur dedicated to Lord Narsimha. He bestowed liberal grants to temples and safeguarded the rights of pujaris. Little wonder that he came to be known as Jagadguru.

The Mahanbhav Matha of Otur (Pune) received land grants from the Nizam Shahi rulers who ruled over large parts of Deccan (1490-1633) with their capital at Ahmednagar in present day Maharashtra. Chand bibi, the regent of Ahmednagar (1596-99) and sister of Hussain Nizam Shah I, sent a note to her officers to respect all such grants to Hindus and Brahmans. The priest of Pedgaon (Ahmednagar) too received land grant from Malik Amber (1549-1626) who was a very popular Siddi Prime Minister in the Ahmednagar Sultanate (Kulkarni p. 113).

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Maratha Empire 1674-1818 (photo credit: Wikipedia)

Among the rulers of the Maratha Empire (1674-1818), Shivaji’s grandfather, Maloji Bhonsale was a disciple of the legendary Muslim saint-poet, Shaikh Muhammad, and when Maloji shifted to Nizamshahi (in Ahmednagar district) he brought Shaikh Muhammad along with him (Kulkarni p.110). Maloji also gave 12 bigha land to Shaikh Muhammad and built a math (hermitage) for him at Shrigonde (Dhere, p60). Ramdas, the great saint poet of 17th century, was a strong critic of the Muslim rule but a great admirer of Shaikh Muhammad (Chitnis, p110). Sant Ramdas was Shivaji’s guru.

Maloji Bhaonsale’s wife and Shivaji’s grandmother, Umabai, took a vow to Shah Sharif of Ahmednagar for a child and when she gave birth to two sons, they were named after this Pir : Shahaji and Sharifji, in gratitude for his blessings (Dhere, p.60). The dargah of Shah Sharif enjoyed two villages, Eklare and Konosi under the Marathas (Bendre). Mir Sayyid Sadi of Nasik and Mulla Hussaini Mosque of Rannebennur (Dharwad) received inam lands from Shahaji (Kulkarni p. 112). Shivaji held great respect for Baba Yakut of Utambar village near Kelashi (Ratnagiri) and Sambhaji undertook the construction of his dargah which eventually remained incomplete. Numerous Muslim holy men received allowances for maintenance and illumination of mosques from Shivaji, including the Pir of Sayyid Sadat Hazrat (Pune region). The Kazi of Indapur and the khidmatgar of the Bhambavade mosque received land and allowances from Shivaji. Many believe that Shivaji’s son, Sambhaji was victorious against the Portuguese due to the blessings of Pir Abdullah Khan and in return the Prime Minsiter, Kavi Kailash granted the Pir certain allowances. Shivaji’s grandson, Shahuji gave an entire village in grant to the Muslim saint Sayyid Ata-ullah of Shakarkoti of Loni in Pune. The Peshwas too were equally generous and benevolent towards Muslim holy men: Pirs Sayyid Sada and Shaikh Salah received grants from Peshwas for construction purposes. Even the dispute among them regarding who would lead the Muharram procession was settled by the Peshwas.  Dargah of Shaikh Salah and Takiya of Angad Shah received one sher of rice and one paisa for Frankincense every day from the royal palace.

The village councils were called gotsabhas and enjoyed supreme positon in the society and state and it decided cases that effected the whole society. The Kazi and the Maulana had a seat in the gotsabha and in every village Got, the proportion of Muslim members was usually proportional to the Muslim population in that village. Both the Hindus and Muslims sat together in the temple village and settled disputes irrespective of caste or religion. Mulansara, a kind of tax originally introduced by the Muslim rulers for the maintenance of the village Maulana continued under the Marathas. Muslim Patils were not unheard of under the Marathas (Kulkarni p.115).

Both the Bhakti and Sufi movements were at their peak during this period, both sought to bring about socio-religious reforms in their communities. With their message of universal love and brotherhood, they placed the service of fellow humans above religious rituals.  Muslims learnt Sanskrit and also studied the sacred poetry of Bhakti saints. The study of the ‘other’ religion promoted a better understanding of each other and helped in eradication of religious prejudices. The well-known Marathi saint poet of this period, Sant Eknath wrote his famous gatha – Hindu Turk Samvad which consisted of a dialogue between a Hindu and a Muslim (Turk) who, at the end of a lengthy dialogue, end up respecting each other as creations of Khuda. Sufis at this time made valuable contributions to devotional literature in Marathi. Shaikh Muhammad, the Muslim saint poet wrote Yoga Sangram (1645), Nishkalanka Prabodh, Pavan Vijaya and 300 abhangas (devotional poetry sung in the praise of the Lord Vitthal) in Marathi. Another Muslim saint of this period, Husain Ambakhan, who was a devotee of Lord Ganesh, wrote a Marathi commentary on the Bhagvatgita. Shah Muntoji Bhahmani, a Muslim saint of the seventeenth century, who hailed from the royal family of Bidar (Bahmani Rulers) was initiated into the Bhakti cult by a Hindu saint – Sahajanand Swami of Kalyan (Bijapur). Shah Muntoji wrote Panchikaran in Dakhani Hindi, outlining the common fundamental concepts in Hindu and Muslim scriptures. His contemporary, Shah Muni, a Muslim saint, lamented that the enmity between Hindus and Muslims was due to the absence of proper understanding of their respective faiths (Kulkarni p.111).

Time and again the people, the mystics and the leaders have proved that the essence of this land is peace and harmony in spite of differences and diversity. Let us sow the seeds of love again in the consciousness of this sub-continent.

 

References and Extra Reading:

 

  • Bendre, V S. Ed. Maharashtr etihasachi Sadhane, vols.1-3: part II vol II: 314,315
  • Chitnis, Krishnaji Nageshrao.2003. Medieval Indian History. Atlantic Publishers and Distributes. New Delhi
  • Dhere, R C. 1967. Musalman Marathi Sant Kavi. Padyagandha Prakashan. Pune.
  • Kularni A R. 1999. Social Relations in Medieval Maharashtra: Experiments in Living Together. In: We Lived Together. Eds. S Settar and P K V Kaimal. 1999. Pragati Publications. Delhi
  • Parasnis, D B (ed.). 1917. Peshwe Daftaratil Sanadpatratil Mahiti, Bombay
  • Potdar, D V. (Introduction) Aitihasik Samkeerna Sahitya, BISM Publication, Pune vol. 8 (ASS Vol.)
  • Rajwade, V K (ed.). 1908. Marathyanchya Itihasachi Sadhane. Vol.15. Kolhapur.
  • Shivacharitra Sahitya, 1930.vol.II. 94. Bharat Itihas Samshodhak Mandal, Dutto Waman Potdar, Pune

The Warkari Movement I : Sant Dnyaneshwar-Beyond Brahmanical Tryranny

A warkari on his way from Alandi to Pandharpur. Photo credit: Wikipedia
A warkari on his way from Alandi to Pandharpur. Photo credit: Wikipedia

Since the 13th century, Pandharpur in Maharashtra became a birthplace of a religious movement which was born locally but had a universal appeal, going beyond caste and religious identity. This movement was given life to by a saint called Pundalik. According to Bahirat (4 p.6), Pundalik lived before the eighth century A.D. It is believed that in his younger days, soon after his marriage Pundalik began to neglect his parents. However one day,  an encounter with the divine, reformed him and he became a devoted son. As the story goes, Lord Krishna and his consort, Rukmini chanced upon Pundalik’s hut in the forest on a rainy day. Pundalik was busy attending to his parents and did not rise immediately to pay his respects to the deity but hurled a brick in His direction for Him to stand on without getting His feet wet. Pleased with Pundalik’s devotion to his parents, Lord Krishna asked Pundalik to worship Him as Vithoba i.e. the one who stood on a brick. At this scene, a form of Krishna arose standing on a brick, around which the temple of Pandharpur was later built.

Interestingly the name ‘Pandharpur’ is derived from Pandurang – one of the many names of Lord Shiva, moreover the temple of Pandharpur, dedicated to Lord Krishan, an incarnation of Vishnu, is surrounded by Shaivite temples. Perhaps an indication that the universal Truth exists beyond all different forms and cults of worship.

Hence from 13th century onwards Pandharpur became place of pilgrimage for the Warkari Bhakti movement. Most Marathi sant poets who worshipped Vithoba (Krishna, an avatar of Vishnu) and all those who followed their teachings form a part of this movement. The Warkaris identify with a succession of over fifty poet saints who lived over a period of five hundred years. Among whom the major four are,  the outcast Brahmin- Dnyaneshwar or Jnandev (1275-1296); the tailor Namdeva- (1270-1350), Eknath (1533-1599) who was a householder Brahmin and the editor of Dnyaneshwari; the shudra poet saint- Tukaram (1608-1659); and Ramdas (1608-1681) who is considered as a political saint and teacher of Shivaji.

Sant Dnyaneshwar, image credits: Wikipedia
Sant Dnyaneshwar, image credits: Wikipedia

The Warkaris believe Sant Dnyaneshwar, also known as Jnandeva (1275-1296) to be their founder. However according to Bahirat (4 p.6), Pundalika and his God had been enjoying a wide reputation nearly four of five centuries before Dnyaneshwar. Dnyaneshwar’s father and grandfather were regular visitors to Pandharpur.He was one of the greatest poet saints of medieval India . In a short life span, he produced a stupendous amount of spiritual works which included a major philosophical treatise (the Amritanubhava), a large number of religious poems (called abhangas), and an extensive poetic commentary on the Bhagavad Gita (titled, after his name, Dnyaneshwari).  

His works  also include Changadeva-Pasashthi (containing sixty-five verses addressed to a Hathayogi called Changadeva), Haripatha(containing a collection of twenty eight Abhangas) and Namana (a hymn containing hundred and eight stanzas in praise to the Lord of the universe ).  

Dnyaneshwar was an advocate of Bhakti marga. But bhakti, for him, meant more than sentimental affection, it meant the turning around of the whole being towards the Godhead. Dnyaneshwar’s philosophy and poetry, are rooted in concrete life experience of an ordinary human not given to exotic flights of imagination.

Dnyaneshwar, at a very tender age, became an ‘outcaste Brahmin’ because of his father’s actions. His father was a Brahmin named Vithalpant from Alandi in Maharashtra. Vithalpant left his wife and children to become a sanyasin (ascetic). However after being chided by his guru, Ramanand for abandoning his true ‘dharma’ of looking after his family as a householder, Vithalpant returned to his family. Once back in Alandi, he and his wife were excommunicated by the ruling Brahmin elite who denounced him for mixing up “life stages” and for contaminating sannyasa with worldly family concerns. But the fact was that Vithalpant was no sinner, in fact he had shown the courage and selflessness to return to his family to perform his  duties and sacrificed his desire for renunciation. However he became a victim of Brahamanical tyranny. Ultimately Vithalpant and his wife Rukmini committed suicide. At this time Dnyaneshwar was merely eight years old.

Vithalpant’s story proved that the path to God leads through the world, universal love and service of humanity.   This path is available to all and is not the exclusive right of Pundits and Brahmans. The priests and Brahmans, in their arrogance, claim to “possess” God by virtue of their Vedic knowledge (jnana) and rituals. In their ignorance they do not know that the divine can never be possessed but can only be pursued through a life of service.

Dnyaneshwar is believed to have befriended the poet-saint Namadeva who was by some five years his senior, when the two first met in Pandharpur . Dnyaneshwar’s meeting with this great Sant was of great significance in shaping his philosophy which was later to become the foundation of the bhakti cult in Maharashtra. While in Pandharpur, Jnanadeva became a devotee of the god Vithoba (an avatar of Shri Krishna) . The two saints went on a pilgrimage together, visiting most of the holy places in northern India, including Benaras and Delhi. Following this journey, they returned to Pandharpur (in 1296) where a great festival was held in their honour. This festival was attended by many contemporary saints like Goroba the potter, Sanvata the gardener, Chokhoba the untouchable, Parisa Bhagavat the Brahmin. At the end of this festival Dnyaneshwar expressed the wish to return to Alandi and to enter sanjivan samadhi. 

Dnyaneshwar’s writings are  not in Sanskrit but in popular Marathi. They are based on his own life experiences, a life reflectively lived. He was a thinker and a poet as is evident in  both his Jnaneshvari and his Amritanubhava – works well known  for their searching insights and poetic style. He composed the Amritanubhava, a philosophical poem at the behest of his elder brother and guru, Nivrittinath, at a time when Jnanadeva was probably in his late teens. According to some scholars while the Dnyaneshwari appeals to the masses, the Amritanubhava appeals mainly to the learned. It is more argumentative.

As its title indicates,  Amritanubhava is nectar of wisdom derived from direct experience and it gives a glimpse into the nature of ultimate experience. It  is meant to serve as a guide to the understanding of “Brahman” or “being” According to Dnyaneshwar, being is not an object of thought, but what allows thought to happen in the first place. 

He argues that sense (or sensory) experience only ‘”makes sense” in light of another, deeper understanding; similarly, reason is “rational” only  by exceeding itself. For him the truth of experience is not validated or authenticated by scriptures; but scriptures gain their authoritative standing through their agreement with experiential truth. He says that the absolute does not prove or disprove itself with the help of any norms or methods of knowledge….These methods are “like a lamp lit at midday which neither spread light nor dispel darkness.”

He further argues that words to describe the state of Being are not self-contained, each points beyond itself like the symbols of Jung, which stand for something more than their obvious meaning. In Amritanubhava he says,  “Being by itself, the absolute, is beyond the ordinary conceptions of existence and non-existence.”…..” Looked at from this angle, the scriptural words appear as “the residues of our thought”; in the light of being itself, “they vanish like the clouds that shower rain, or like the streams that flow into the sea or the paths that reach their goal.” He further adds that “if the situation is such that nothing at all exists, who then knows [and can say] that there is nothing? Hence, the theory of emptiness (as nothing) appears as an “unjust imputation” to being: For, “if the extinguisher of a light is extinguished along with the light, who knows that there is no light?”

Dnyaneshwari was completed in 1290 A.D. It was written in Old Marathi and was initially  called Bhavartha-deepika. He wrote it on the instructions of his older brother and  Guru Nivruttinath who wanted to bring to the common man the Vedanta philosophy of Upanishads, which till then was available only to the Sanskrit-knowing pundits. Since then Dnyaneshwari, with its anti-Brahmanical overtones, has been a timeless spiritual guide providing knowledge and inspiration to all. It is still the most respected religious text in Maharashtra and has been the foundation of bhakti tradition there: a tradition so old that its exact origin cannot be pin pointed. It is continuous and free flowing like a river and yet without an organised structure.

The Warkari movement or sampraday, is an inner religion of the heart which advocates ethical human behavior and classless values and therefore has a wider appeal than the caste-based organised Hindu religion which has rigid orthodox rules of behavior, is ritual based and requires the mediatory role of Brahmins. While in its earlier form this movement was open to all, both Hindus and non-Hindus, over the years it appears to have lost its pluralistic nature. 

Following are a few lines from the English translation of Dnyaneshwari by Dr. Ravin Thatte, it talks about  people mired in rituals :

“They quote the scriptures for these acts 

Expect the heavens for these acts 

Little realizing what are the facts

Pleasure is their only aim

Reward their only game

Rigid rituals again and again

This is religion only in name”

References:

  1. Sadarangani, N M. 2004. Bhakti Poetry in Medieval India: Its Inception, Cultural Encounter and Impact. Sarup & Sons. New Delhi
  1. Jnanadeva and the Warkari Movement by Prof. Fred Dallmayr, Ph.D.

(http://www.here-now4u.de/eng/jnanadeva_and_the_warkari_move.htm)

  1. Thatte, R. 2012. A Miraculous Rendering on the Bhagwat Geeta by Sant Dnyaneshwa. Shree Book Center, Mumbai, India
  1. Bahirat, B.P. 1956. The Philosophy of Jnandeva. Pandharpur Research Society, Pandharpur, Maharashtra, India.
  2. Schomer, Karine. W H McLeod. 1987. The Sants: Studies in a Devotional Tradition of India. Motilal Banarasidas. Delhi.

A Pir and his Possessions

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Persian translation of Mahabharat

A midst the crowded by-lanes of Old Ahmadabad city, in an obscure corner, lies the Pir Mohammad Shah Dargah Trust. You may almost miss its entrance – an ancient stone and mortar arched doorway, partly hidden by the motley shops sprawled around it. Inside the gate lie the dargah, masjid and qutubkhana (library) complex.

Born in 1689 in the Bijapur city of Karnataka, Pir Mohammad Shah was a Hussaini Sayyed and a well-respected Sufi who lived in Ahmadabad during the rule of Aurangzeb. His parents emigrated from the holy city of Medina and settled in Bijapur where he was born. His father died before his birth and his uncle, Abd ur-Rehman – a Sufi belonging to the lineage of Shaikh Abd ul-Qadri Jilani of Baghdad, trained the young Mohammad Shah in religious scholarship and practical Sufism. The Pir memorized the Quran at the young age of seven and became an accomplished qari, performed Haj at the age of twelve and thereafter stayed in Medina for several years pursuing higher learning. He spent his adolescent years visiting great centers of learning in the Islamic world and paying homage at the dargah of saints. He later returned to his home at Bijapur and from there moved to Ahmadabad At that time, the Kalupur and Rajpur localities of Ahmedabad were well known for the prosperous trading communities of Sunni Bohras, who became his murids. In Ahmadabad the Pir took up residence at the historical Jame Masjid. The Pir would regularly visit the dargah of Hazrat Shah Wajiuddin to pay his homage and obtain guidance from Hazrat Shah’s descendent, Hazrat Abdullah Gujarati. On his daily sojourns from the Jame Masjid to Hazrat Wajiuddin’s dargah, the Pir would rest a while on the way at an old widow’s front yard. After his passing away in the year 1750, as per his request, Pir Mohammad Shah was buried near the house of this widow. His dargah stands there today.

Human-sized candle
Human-size candle

The Pir was a great lover of learning and possessed an extraordinary memory powers. During his lifetime, the Pir and his murids had amassed a huge collection of manuscripts and books of great academic and spiritual value. These are housed in the qutubkhana. This library has over 2000 original manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Sindhi and Turkish, which are 700 to 800 years old. Many of them contain hand written explanatory notes along the margins by the Pir himself. Among the prized manuscripts is the Mahabharat in Persian written by a Wadanagar Nagar Brahmin who worked in the courts of the Mughals, a copy of the holy Quran hand written by Aurangzeb, Al-Buruni’s ‘Gurt-ul Ziyaat’, and Radha Krishna Geet translated into Persian. The library has a treasure trove of over 10,000 books in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and English covering diverse subjects. The trustees have prepared microfilms and photocopies of some rare books. Pir Mohammad Shah was a bi-lingual poet himself and wrote profusely in Persian and Dakhani. Among his many works, the best known is Nur ush-Shuyukh in Persian which is versified history in the Mutaqarib meter.

The qutubkhana has small museum show casing various belonging of the Pir, some of the ancient manuscripts and a human-size candle brought here from Mecca. The PMS library is considered on of its kind in western part of India – a treasure trove waiting to be discovered by lovers of Islamic science, literature and art. Rulers and wise men who came to this land are no more, but the knowledge they left behind still prevails.

In the words of the Pir himself:

Agar gaiti saraasar baad gard

                                                   Chirag-e-maqbula hargez namirad…..

Even if the world were to come to dust

The lamp (spirit) of the faithful will not die….

Haven on Earth

The mighty Kanchendzonga
The mighty Kanchendzonga

In the year 1592, when men in power were still God fearing and honored their word, a sacred covenant between the Lepchas – the indigenous people of Sikkim, and the Tibetan Bhutias was solemnized. This historical event took place near Gangtok, the present capital of Sikkim. A bull was sacrificed to the Gods and an oath was sworn over its blood that the Lepchas and Bhutias would never fight and live as blood brothers in peace and harmony. Who ever broke the sacred oath would be cursed along with his descendents. From then on, on the 15th of every ninth month of the Tibetan calendar, the people of this region would make an offering of food and drink to their God to celebrate this sacred covenant. However the Tibetan rulers of the Sikkim could not keep their word for long and broke the sacred oath, inviting the wrath of the curse on themselves. The Namgyal dynasty that ruled over Sikkim from 1642-1975, came to an end on  16th May 1975 and Sikkim became the 22nd State of India. However during my recent trip to the eastern Himalays I realized that while the rulers of this region broke the sacred oath of peace the people of this region continue to follow the sacred covenant.

 

Our Bhutia driver with his Lepcha friend
Our Bhutia driver with his Lepcha friend

 

 

Kalimpong was my first experience of the eastern Himalayas. We arrived by road from Bagdogra at night, occasionally stopping on the way for tea at some roadside dhaba. It was a different world – the silence, the hills and the trees breathing refreshingly moist cold air, the narrow winding roads fading into a foggy corners, the simple rural folk, the place seemed so romantically remote and away from the everyday absurdities of city life.

 

The next day, a local Bhutia driver took us around Kalimpong, telling us a little bit about all the major land marks. He was a gentle and friendly man and would greet every third person on the road as we drove around the town. When I commented on his popularity among the locals, his response was simple – “since we do not know how long we are going to live, we might as well live with friendship and love while we are still alive !”

 

A church at Grahams home, Kalimpong
A church at Graham’s home, Kalimpong

 

 

Kalimpong, as well as the rest of the region of eastern Himalayas, is home to people of different tribes and faiths. There are Nepali Hindus, Lepchas and Bhutias who are mostly Buddhist and a small Christian and a Tibetan Muslim population. The Lepchas, meaning ‘ravine folk’ are believed to be the original inhabitants of Sikkim. They are the people who lived with and worshiped nature – they venerated the spirits of rivers and mountains before adopting Buddhism or Christianity. Their closeness to nature is reflected in their language, which though not well developed, is rich in vocabulary related to the plants and animals of this region. The Bhutias are of Tibetan origin who migrated from Tibetan to Sikkim, Himalayan West Bengal and Bhutan after the 15th century. They follow Nyingmapa and Kagyupa school of Tibetan Buddhism. Majority of Nepalis here are Hindus, except the Sherpas and Tamangs, who are Buddhist.

 

The Jame Masjid, Kalimpong
The Jame Masjid, Kalimpong

 

 

Few outsiders are aware of the fact Tibet had, and perhaps still has, pockets of Muslims entrenched within its borders. Tibetan Muslims trace their origin to immigrants from China, Kashmir, Ladakh and Nepal. Islamic influence in Tibet also came from Persia and Turkestan.

After 1959, during the Chinese aggression, quite a few Tibetan Muslims managed to escape out of Tibet into the border towns of Gangtok, Kalimpong and Darjeeling. A large number of them moved to Kashmir. However, according to one report, about 50 Tibetan Muslim families still reside in the Kalimpong-Darjeeling region. Tibetan Muslims in Darjeeling, Kalimpong and Nepal have a joint Tibetan Muslim Welfare Association based in Kalimpong. I met some of them outside the Jame Masjid in Kalimpong. When I asked one of them if there was any friction among the different communities, he seemed to be taken by surprise, ‘What is there to fight about?’ he wondered. ‘We are simple folks, and our only concern is to earn a living and save for our children’s future’ he added. That moment all the petty politics of hate and communalization over the Jamia Nagar encounter and Malegaon blast come to my mind and I felt a bit ashamed of myself. The rest of India broke its sacred covenant of brotherhood long time ago and God knows how many of our future generations will face the wrath of the curse.

 

It was in Kalimpong where a Buddhist taxi driver and a pious namaazi taught me the refreshingly simple philosophy of peaceful co-existence. It was in Kalimpong, too, that I got my first glimpse of eastern Himalayas and Kanchendzonga, the highest mountain peak of India. The serene landscape of hills rolling into the far horizon with the mighty Kanchendzonga rising far above the clouds reminded me of what Pir Inanyat Khan, the great musician and Sufi, once wrote – the spiritual centre of a region lies at its highest point.

To see some more photos of this beautiful  region please check my flickr account at :

 

http://www.flickr.com/photos/naqaash/

 

Derasar and Dargah co-exist in Gandhi’s Gujarat

To the uninitiated, no two religions could be as far apart as Jainism and Islam. The former, carries the principals of non-violence to the extreme, wherein even the lowest life forms such as insects are not to be harmed; while in the latter consumption of certain birds and animals for food is a part of everyday life. But life style and diet do not make up a religion. Nor do rites and rituals. These are mere symbols to remind us of a higher Reality and tools to make us more receptive to this Reality. One has to rise above them in order to discern the common threads that run through all religions.

Perhaps Angar Pir, a sufi saint knew this when he protected these Derasars from the attack of Allauddin Khilji ; and so did Akbar when he granted the sacred Shetrunjaya Hill, in Palitana Gujarat, to the Jain muni Hiravijaya Suri to continue the construction of what was to become one of the largest complex of Jain temples (Derasar).

According to Shvetambara canonical books, Shetrunjaya was already a famous tirtha by the fifth century. Today, the entire summit of majestic mount Shatrunjaya is crowned with about 900 temples and shrines. The peak is a little over 3 km climb of about 3500 steps from the base. The Jains put all their devotional passion and considerable wealth into the creation of the most ornate marble temples; with exquisitely detailed relief carvings covering every inch of this temple complex. The entire complex was built and rebuilt over a span of 900 years. The act of ascending a path to reach a place of pilgrimage is a part of the Hindu and Jain consciousness, this is the reason why many of their holiest temples are located along hills and mountain ranges.

The Jains have five separate hill locations for their holiest clusters of temples and Shetrunjaya Hill in Palitana is considered the most important among them. Every devout Jain aspires to climb atop Shetrunjaya at least once in a lifetime, akin to the Haj of the Muslims, and as he makes this pilgrim bare footed, the Jain devout with a white coloured seamless cotton cloth wrapped around his body could be easily mistaken for a Haj pilgrim in an irham!!

Next to the Derasars, lies the Dargah of sufi saint Angaar Pir. Lured by the great wealth of the temple complex, Allauddin Khilji attacked these temples around 14th century and according to legend, Angaar Pir rose to the protection of these temples, and with the power of his prayer he hurled heavenly fire on Khilji’s army. Today, childless women visit the Pir’s Dargah to be blessed with a child. They offer miniature cradles to the Pir.

It is noteworthy that both Islam and certain sects among the Jains are against idol worship. The Jains are divided into two major sects, the Svetambar and the Digambar. Some sub sects among the Svetambar are apposed to idol worship and believe in internalization of the faith. Shri Mahavir, who was the twenty fourth and last Tirthankara (one who has attained enlightenment and shows the way to others) of the Jains, was himself against idol worship.

Both Jainism and Islam came in close contact with each other during historic times and influenced each others architecture and painting. This is apparent in a number of Masjids in Gujarat such as the Jami Masjid in Champaner.
During Akbar’s reign many Jain munis were invited to his court. Apart from Padmasundar, who is believed to be the first Jain monk to meet Akbar, we have a continuous flow of distinguished Jain saints to the court of Akbar and his successor Jahangir. The most famous Jain visitor to Akbar was Hiravijaya Suri who met him in 1582 C E.
Akbar was so impressed by Hiravijaya Suri that he conferred upon him the title of “Jagad Guru” or “the preceptor of the world.” The faith of the Jain community in Akbar and the Mughal polity was strengthened when the ruler issued orders prohibiting the killing of animals on certain days sacred to the Jains. When Hiravijaya Suri left the court, he asked Bhanuchandra and his disciple Siddhichandra to stay back. They lived under the patronage of the royal court even after Akbar’s death, and Siddhichandra who had also learnt Persian, wrote “Bhanuchandra Gani Charit” a biography of his master.
There is yet another instance in Indian history when these two faiths came even closer. The Navayath community of coastal Karnataka are believed to be the descendents of Arab men and Jain women. Visiting Arab traders would marry the daughters of local Jain traders. Many of the Arabs would then continue on with their maritime trade travels living the women and children behind. As a result, the children grew up under a strong Jain influence of the mother, and the community today has retained many Jain customs like eating before sunset, dominance of vegetarian food and the dress and jewellery of the women of this community are similar to the Hindu-Jain traditions. This community has a unique language called Navayathi which is basically Konkani with a preponderance of Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, and Marathi words and the script used is Urdu. The Navayaths claim that their Arab ancestors were of the Shaafi sects who were traditionally a trading sect like the Jains, and were peace loving, diplomatic and friendly. According to some scholars the abundance of Persian words in Navayathi indicates that some of their ancestors may be from Iran while some historians trace their origin to South Yemen.
The rest of Gujarat and India could learn a lesson or two from the Jains, for when flames of hatred were unleashed in Gujarat after the Godhra carnage, the Angar Pir Dargah at Palitana remained untouched and the credit for this goes to the Jain community of Gujarat.