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 :




When the Believers faced Jerusalem

At first, Ghogha looks like any small-time coastal settlement of Gujarat – not entirely a village nor a town, as if a village, bored by its own half hearted attempts at urbanization had fallen back into its old slumber. Clusters of mud houses interspersed with cement and brick structures – looking garishly out of place among mud and slate surroundings – dusty roads and by lanes, with puddles of stagnant water and stray dogs lingering at corners.
Closer to the sea stands a forlorn looking government rest house with an old tamarind tree standing in its large courtyard. From the stone wall skirting the courtyard you can see the rocky beach below. Waves loaded with mud and sand constantly lash the rocks. Riding these very waves, sailing in their sturdy ships, the first Arab traders landed at Ghogha around the early seventh century and built a masjid here. This was the time when Qibla (direction to be faced while offering namaaz,) of the Muslims was Jerusalem instead of Mecca. For a brief period of 16 to 17 months, between 622 and 624 A.D., after Hijra (migration) to Medina, the Prophet (s.a.v.) and his believers faced Jerusalem while offering namaaz. This ancient masjid, locally known as the Baarwaada Masjid or Jami Masjid, was built during this period and is one of the oldest if not the oldest masjid in India. Later the Prophet (s.a.v.) received Wahi (Revelation) commanding him to change the orientation point from Jerusalem in the north to Mecca in the south. This masjid, therefore, predates all the other masjids in India whose mehrab face Mecca. This ancient masjid also bears the oldest Arabic inscriptions in India. The masjid falls under the care of Barwaada jammat but in spite of its historical significance, it lies in ruins needing urgent repair.

This small town has over eleven masjids and dargahs, which were built later during the Sultatnate period in Gujarat (1401- 1572), including the old mazaar of Ashraf Shah Baba who made Ghogha his home. A copy of the Holy Quran hand written by him can also be seen here. There is a tunnel under his mazaar which is believed to go as far as Mecca!! A few adventurous youths did make an attempt to verify this belief but had to turn back after a few kilometers due to lack of oxygen !!
In its heydays Ghogha was the center for Islamic learning and a flourishing port which had trade links with Shri Lanka, Africa and Middle East and was appropriately called, Sher-e-abaad , the prosperous city. During the Moghul period, its yearly income was believed to be 1666 pounds. Later it became a major cotton exporting port. However with the passage of time, a decline in cotton prices and the development of railways brought about a decline in the commercial importance of ports along the Gulf of Cambay (Khambat). With the development of the nearby Bhavnagar port, the significance of Ghogha as a port diminished further.
Today this coastal town lies half-forgotten along with its inhabitants, the majority of whom are Muslims and identify themselves as Ghoghari Arabs. However their love for the sea continues with every Ghoghari family having at least one male working on a ship somewhere. Due to lack of local employment opportunities, most of the men folk have left their homes for work in places like Mumbai and Middle East. The locals believe that this is due to the curse of Ashraf Shah Baba. According to local folk lore the Baba cursed the men of Ghogha for casting an evil eye on his beautiful daughter. He cursed the men folk of Ghogha that they would never be able to live with their family and will have to wander away from home in search of livelihood.
A boat making unit started some years ago closed down due to some internal problems. A salt works trade started some time back, met with the same fate. The Ghogha – Dahej ferry boat service started by the State Government with much ballyhoo ended in a whimper. Only a few bentonite processing factories offer limited employment to the locals.
Today Ghogha and its ancient masjid bear a look of decadence. Perhaps the development planners can cast off the Baba’s curse and it would be a great loss to our cultural heritage if this ancient masjid is allowed to crumple to dust.

Note: My above article was published in July 2, 1996 issue of The Times of India

Waiting for the Saviour

Know that al-Mehdi (A.S.) must come, but he will not come until the earth is filled with injustice and oppression. He will fill it with justice and equity…..

 – Musnad Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Vol. 1, P. 99 

When rigthteousness is weak and unrighteousness exults in pride, then my Spirit arises on earth for the salvation of the good and destruction of evil in men….

– Shri Krishna in the Geeta

Yesterday was Shab-e-Baraat and by a strange coincidence there was power cut in our locality. As dusk and darkness approached and the time for the ceremonial nazr drew close, numerous candles were lit. The soft glow of the candles and the fragrance from the incense sticks filled all corners of our house which had been immersed in darkness. Perhaps this was symbolic of what the Shia Muslims of the world expect once their ‘Mehdi’ (a.s.), their savior – their twelfth Imam reappears.

Nazr, in form of halwa, made from chana dal, was offered and Sur-e- Fahteha and Sur-e- Qul were recited, first, in the honor of Amir Hamzaa (the uncle of Prophet Mohammad s.a.v.), followed by all our ancestors and departed relatives. We prayed to God asking for forgiveness for the sins of our departed relatives and prayed for the safe journey of their souls to the here-after. It reminded me of ‘Pind Daan’ or ‘Shraadh,’ performed by many Hindus believing this will relieve their ancestors of all sins and help their souls attain salvation.

Later in the night, as there was a fire-work display to celebrate the birth anniversary of the twelfth Imam – Muhammad al-Mehdi (a.s). The halwa was then distributed among our neighbors and the poor.

Shab-e-Baraat also known as Lailatul Bara’at, falls on the 14th/15th of Shaban, the eighth month of Muslim calendar. It is variously known to mean, ‘the night of commission’, or ‘the night of emancipation, forgiveness or atonement’. There are various beliefs and traditions regarding this night among Muslims. Many Muslims believe that on this night God writes the destinies of all humans for the coming year by taking into account the deeds committed by them in the past year. People pray to God both in preparation for Ramazaan and for the forgiveness of the sins committed by them. Some believe this night to be the night of good fortune and a popular legend says that on this night the Prophet (s.a.v.) visits each house and relieves the pain of suffering humanity. Shia Muslims believe that the souls of their ancestors and deceased relatives visit them on this night.

While there is no mention of Shab-e-Baraat in the holy Quran, Sura Dukhan does mention about Laila Mubaraka, which, according to some Islamic scholars is Shab-e-Baraat. It is believed that, on this day, the Prophet (s.a.v.) paid a visit to the Jannatul Bak’i graveyard to pray for the salvation of the souls of the departed including his martyred uncle – Amir Hamza, who had embraced Islam and had become one of its bravest champions. Many observe fasting during the day and perform nafal (optional) namaz at night.

The Shia Muslims associate this night with the birth of their last Imam – Mohammad al-Mehdi and pray for his reappearance. In the Indian subcontinent, candles and fire-work displays light up Shia neighborhoods. The parallels between the Hindu festival of Diwali and Shab-e-Baraat are apparent. Diwali commemorates the home coming of Lord Ram after 15 years of vanvaasa, on Shab-e-Baraat the Shias pray for the home coming of their Mehdi (a.s) since he disappeared or went into vanvaasa several hundred years ago. Diwali symbolizes the victory of Good over Evil. The Mehdi (a.s.) is expected to do the same –vanquish evil and oppression from this world.

Shias consider Hazrat  Ali (a.s), who was indicated by Prophet (s.a.v.) as his successor, as the first rightful Caliph and Imam of the Muslims, and that after his assassination the spiritual headship descended in succession to his and Fatima’s posterity in ‘the direct male line’ until it came to Imam Hassan al’Askari (a.s.), eleventh in descent from Ali, who died in 874 A.C. or 260 Hegira. Upon his death the Imamat passed on to his son Mohammad al-Mehdi – ‘the Guide’, the last and twelfth Imam. The story of the Imam’s of the house of the Prophet(s.a.v.) are rather tragic. The father of Hassan al’Askari (a.s.) was deported from Medina to Samarra by the tyrant Mutawakkil and detained there until his death. Similarly Hasan (a.s.) was kept a prisoner by the jealousy of Mutawakkil’s successors. His infant son, Mohammad al-Mehdi (a.s.), barely five years of age, pining for his father, wandered about in his search and entered a cave from which he is believed to have disappeared. This tragic story ends with hope and expectation in the hearts of the Shias that the child will return to relieve a sorrowful and sinful world of its burden of sin and oppression. This Imam bears, among the Shias, titles of the Muntazar– the Expected, the Hujja – the Proof (of the Truth), the Kaim – the Living. Great sufi’s and Islamic theologists like Attar, Rumi, Jami and ibn-Arabi have referred variously to the twelfth Imam as the ‘Seal of Sainthood,  ‘the Hidden Imam’, or the ‘Imam of the Time’. 

The belief in the appearance of a savior or avataar in not too distant future is common to almost all religious traditions and cultures. There are over 700 prophecies from around the world which promise the advent of a world savior pledging spiritual revolution and redemption. The Hindus await the incarnation of Vishnu in the avatar of Kalki, the Buddhists wait for  the reincarnation of Lord Buddha as Lord Maitreya, the Zoroastrians foretell the second coming of Zoroaster as Saoshynt, the Jews wait for their Immanuel, and the Christians wait for the return of Christ. However the interpretation of all the prophecies suffers from ‘religious myopia’. All religious follower believe that there can be only one savior – theirs. The savior from their particular faith is the only true redeemer. But perhaps  the hallowed concepts of organized religions and messianic traditions themselves need to undergo death and resurrection before this world can be saved from itself. 

Imam Hussain: The Spiritual Warrior

Black was the colour of pathos, and I was submerged in it. Women dressed in black sarees and salwar kameez were beating their chests to the chant of ‘Ya Hussain’. The chorus rose to a fevered pitch followed by a sudden silence. In that momentary silence was crystallized generations of mourning. The place – a Shia Muslim neighbourhood in Lucknow; the time – the tenth of Mohorrum. If grief has different shades, one can see it during Mohorrum. While the rest of the world greets its ‘New Year’ with celebrations, the Muslims, especially Shia Muslims, begin Mohorrum, the first month of the Islamic calendar of Hijri, with mourning to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain – son of Hazrat Ali and grandson of Prophet Mohammad. Over 1200 years ago, in the desert of Karbala, in present day Iraq, Imam Hussain and his small band of relatives and supporters sacrificed their lives for Islam.

From the first to tenth of Mohorrum, and sometimes for a longer periods, majlises (the Mulsim counterpart of Satsang) are held day and night in Muslim neighborhoods and Imambadaas where zakirs and zakiras (male and female religious orators) give sermons which climax with the heart wrenching tale of Karbala.

History has seen numerous massacres of innocent people, but the tragedy of Karbala is one of the few where men, women and children voluntarily allowed themselves to be subjected to hunger, thirst, humiliation and death on the burning sands of Karbala because they believed that Imam Hussain stood for righteousness. Little wonder that for over 1200 years Muslims, have been nurturing the tale of Karbala in their hearts like an open wound, lest they should forget the supreme sacrifice of Imam Hussain and his followers.

Great spiritual leaders are known to make great sacrifices, but at Karbala, common men and women with infants at their bosom, their hearts and souls aflame with righteousness, chose death rather than evil and weakness. Such was the greatness of Imam Hussain, such was his spiritual power, which could uplift common mortals to heights of supreme courage and sacrifice.

The writings etched on the durgah of sufi saint, Khwaja Garib Nawaz, proclaims in Persian:

Shah ast Hussain, badshah ast Hussain
Deen ast Hussain, deen panaah ast Hussain
Sar daad, na daad dast dar dast-e-yazeed
Haqu-e-binney la ilaahaa ast Hussain

Which loosely transliterates as :

Hussain is the king, the king of kings,
He is righteousness; the guardian of righteousness is he.
Gave his head to Yazid, but his support gave he not,
For Hussain is the witness to the truth of God.

The tragedy of Karbala took place in 680 AD on the banks of the Euphrates in Iraq but Karbala has a universal appeal and in today’s climate of violence, it is more relevant than ever. The tragedy of Karbala and its spirit of non-violent resistance and supreme sacrifice has been a source of inspiration to the likes of Mahatma Gandhi and Pandit Nehru. The former’s first Salt Satyagrah was inspired by Imam Hussain’s non violent resistance to the tyranny of Yazid. Gandhi is said to have studied the history of Islam and Imam Hussain, and was of the opinion that Islam represented not the legacy of a sword but of sacrifices of saints like Imam Hussain. Nehru considered Karbala to represent humanities strength and determination. According to the great poet Rabindranath Tagore, Hussain’s sacrifice indicates spiritual liberation. Munshi Premchand, one of India’s greatest Hindi/Urdu writers, a visionary and reformer, eulogised the tragedy of Karbala in his famous play ‘Karbala’. Premchand’s Karbala was published both in Hindi and Urdu in the 1920s. This was the time when Hindu-Muslim relations were strained and the battle between Hindi and Urdu was raging. Premchand’s Karbala was aimed at both the Hindu and Muslim audience. This play was not just Premchand’s tribute to the martyrs of Karbala but also an attempt at reconciliation of declining Hindu-Muslim relations. In his introduction, Premchand drew parallels between Karbala, Mahabharat and Ramayan.

In the words of a famous Urdu poet Josh Mahlihabaadi:

“Insaan ko bedaar to ho lene do,
har qaum pukaraygi hamare hain Hussain”

(Let humanity awake and every tribe will claim Hussain as their own. )

Another poet, Maulana Mohammad Ali Jauhar says
Qatl-e-Hussain asl main murd-e-Yazid hai,
Islam zindaa hota hai har Karbala ke baad”


Which loosely transliterates as:

In the murder of Hussain, lies the death of Yazid,
For Islam resurrects after every Karbala