Wednesday, May 12, 2010
The Jammu province accounts for around 45 per cent of the total population of Jammu and Kashmir. The province consists of six districts: Doda, Poonch, Rajouri, Udhampur, Jammu and Kathua. Muslims form the majority of the population in the first three districts, and Hindus in the remaining three districts. Overall, the Hindus form a majority in the province, with Muslims accounting for around a third of the population. Other communities living in the province include Christians and Sikhs. Of the Hindu population, around a third belongs to the Scheduled Castes.
Hindu-Muslim relations in Jammu town: Alternate ways of understanding Islam
Jammu is popularly known as the ‘City of Temples’, owing to its large number of Hindu shrines. Most of the inhabitants of the town are, of course, Hindus, but the town also has a fairly substantial Muslim population. Although there are a few local Dogri-speaking Muslims in the town, most of them appear to be fairly recent settlers, from Poonch, Doda, Rajouri and from the Kashmir Valley.
Prior to 1947 Muslims had a very substantial presence in Jammu town. However, in the 1947 Partition riots, the Jammu province witnessed a large-scale slaughter of Muslims, with thousands killed and many more forced to flee to Pakistan. Consequently, Jammu town was almost completely depleted of its Muslim population. The violence in Jammu was in contrast to the situation in the Kashmir Valley at this time, which remained largely peaceful and did not witness any communal violence directed against its small non-Muslim minority, mainly consisting of Kashmiri Pandits. It was only from the 1950s onwards that small numbers of Muslims began settling in Jammu, mainly from other parts of the state.
Despite its recent history of communal antagonisms, which is further reinforced by the strong presence of right-wing Hindu organisations in the town, Jammu has not witnessed any large-scale communal riots in recent years. This is remarkable, given the situation in the Kashmir Valley. There have been minor clashes between Hindu and Muslim groups in Jammu town, generally in the wake of massacres of Hindus in Kashmir, but the local administration has been able to prevent these from breaking out into full-fledged communal riots.
The Muslims of Jammu town lead a somewhat ghettoised existence. Most of them live in the town’s two almost entirely Muslim localities. Living together provides them a sense of safety. There is, however, considerable interaction between the Muslims and the local Hindus and Sikhs, at the personal as economic and professional levels. Despite this, there are few, if any, organised efforts to promote any sort of inter-religious or inter-community dialogue. Communal stereotypes remain deeply-entrenched. Few, if any, of the several NGOs in the town are engaged in actively promoting communal harmony. When asked why this is so, the typical reply is that community, including religious, leaders are simply not interested in such work. This complaint generally goes along with a routine denunciation of religious leaders, who are alleged to use religion simply as a means of self-aggrandizement and are, therefore, not interested in dialogue. They have, so it is often claimed, a vested interest in preserving and promoting communal differences. This fits in with a certain image of many religious leaders of being not ‘really religious’ at all. Another reason that is often put forward to explain the absence of any organised work to promote inter-community dialogue is that although some religious leaders do feel the need for this, they do not have the contacts and the resources to do such work. Since there is little or no interaction between religious leaders of the different communities it is not surprising that even those who are interested in promoting dialogue are unable to do so.
On the whole, therefore, it would be safe to say that in Jammu, as elsewhere, most people have little understanding of the religious beliefs of other communities. The University of Jammu does not have a department of religious studies. Scholars associated with the university have done little research on local religious belief systems and nothing at all and perceptions in the region. There is no literature available on the subject, and none of the several Hindu and Muslim bookshops in Jammu stocks any such literature. The local press also displays little or no interest in the issue.
Local religious mechanisms for inter-community interaction: Sufi shrines of Jammu
Despite the lack of organised efforts to promote inter-faith dialogue in the town, there are local mechanisms that work, in their own limited ways, to promote a certain interaction and ecumenism between the different communities. For instance, it is not rare to find shops and buses displaying pictures of images associated with the different religious traditions. This might be construed, in some cases, as simply good business sense, but in other cases it does reflect a sincerely-held belief of all religions being valid in their own ways. They have an important symbolic importance, especially if they are displayed, as they often are, in public spaces. It is, however, important not to exaggerate the prevalence of this sort of attitude. It is not very common, and is rather the exception than the rule. Then again, such images and associated beliefs are generally confined, not surprisingly, to some Hindus, and it is rare for them to be seen in Muslim, Sikh or Christian shops and vehicles.
The single most important and influential local religious institution for promoting inter-community in Jammu town, as almost everywhere else in India, are the town’s numerous Sufi shrines or dargahs. Dargahs are mausoleums that house deceased Sufi saints or Muslim mystics. The general belief is that the saints are still alive, in a spiritual sense, and, being close to God, can sometimes intercede with Him to have people’s requests met. The analogy with a government department is often used to explain this belief. Just as one cannot approach the head of the department without going through a clerk, so, too, it is said, it is sometimes difficult to approach God directly. One is, so it is believed by many, more likely to have one’s requests met if one approaches God through the mediation of the saint. This is especially the case since one recognises oneself as a sinner, and hence acknowledges that one is unlikely to have one’s requests met if one acts on one’s own.
This belief transcends community boundaries and unites believers in the powers of the Sufis in a shared sacred tradition. This is not to say that people from different communities view the Sufis in an identical way. Muslims, typically, see the Sufis as true Muslims, sometimes as missionaries of Islam, and as awliya or ‘friends of God’. Hindus who flock to Sufi shrines tend to see them as pious beings, in the same rank as genuine sadhus and mendicants who have renounced the world, although, strictly speaking, not all the Sufis were world-renouncers. Some Hindus even think of the Sufis as incarnations of God or as deities (devta). Needless to say, this is a view that Muslims do not agree with.
Jammu is home to a number of Sufi shrines, many of them being centuries-old. Interestingly, the vast majority of those who visit the shrines are Hindus, from different castes. The shrines provide the only arena where people of different communities participate together in common worship and devotion. As such, then, they are a unique institution for promoting inter-community interaction at the religious level. Hindus who visit the shrines sometimes prostrate before the graves of the Sufis, a practice not common among Muslim visitors who believe that prostration must be made only to God. Hindu devotees also sometimes touch the feet of the shrine custodians in reverence. They take oil from the clay lamps placed in the shrines, which they believe to be blessed, and apply it on their foreheads or wipe their hair with it. Some of them even press the graves of the Sufis as if massaging the tired bodies of the saints.
People from different communities offer prayers together at the graves, and there is no set format for this. Generally, the visitors pray silently, cupping their hands in front of them or holding them up, in Muslim fashion, in supplication. Sometimes, the custodians of the shrines, almost all of whom are Muslims, recite some verses from the Qur’an and then offer a prayer in Dogri or Urdu for the welfare of all the devotees present. After the prayer is over, people accept little drops of sugar as prashad or tabarruk, which may be offered by the custodian or by a person he appoints, who may be a Hindu or a Muslim.
Thursday evenings are special occasions for the shrines, when large numbers of people visit them. Another popular occasion for visiting the shrines is during the ‘urs celebrations of the buried saints. ‘Urs, in Arabic, means ‘marriage’, and marks the death anniversary of the saint, whose death is commemorated as his symbolic meeting with God. Some people visit the shrines simply out of devotion and reverence. Many, however, come in the hope that they would have their requests met through the mediation of the saint. It is common for Hindus who visit the dargahs to also visit Hindu shrines in order to have their prayers granted. In this sense, the dargahs are seen as seats of invisible power that one can, through proper devotion, access, and not necessarily as specifically ‘Islamic’ or ‘Muslim’ shrines in a narrow sense. The saint is believed to help everybody, irrespective of caste and creed, for, it is argued by many Hindu devotees, true saints are, in a sense, beyond religious and caste boundaries.
The mediation of the saint, some believe, can be more efficacious through the agency of the custodian of the shrine, the mutawalli or sajjada nashin. Usually, though not always, the custodian is a lineal descendant of the saint. He is often believed to have inherited some of the powers of his saintly ancestor. This explains why, in several dargahs, people, Hindus as well as Muslims, wait upon the custodian with their requests. In one dargah in Jammu that I have visited on numerous occasions, most of these supplicants are Hindu women from middle-class, and presumably ‘upper’ caste families. The custodian sits on a raised platform, while the supplicants sit below him. They approach him in turn and relate their problems, and he offers them solace and advice. In the case of some people who are said to be troubled by evil spirits, he runs an iron implement (chimta) on their heads and back while uttering a silent prayer. He tells his supplicants that he himself cannot do anything because he is simply a ‘slave of God’ (rabb da banda). They should, instead, pray to God and abstain from sin, and God might then be moved to grant them their requests or solve their problems. In case their requests are met, he says, they should come back to the shrine and offer incense and oil in honour of the saint. He jokes with his supplicants and speaks to them as something like a father figure, which helps create a certain charisma around him as a true man of God. In line with this, he does not accept any payment, and he says that he does this work simply out of service to God. However, some other custodians are said to accept donations, a practice which has, unfortunately, led to the entire class of sajjada nashins being viewed by many people as corrupt and as no different, in this regard, from charlatan babas and sadhus.
The dargahs of Jammu all have a distinctly ‘Islamic’ or ‘Muslim’ look about them. The graves that they house are all in Muslim style, and are covered with green silk sheets, often with verses from the Qu’ran embossed on them. The structures of the buildings are also ‘Islamic’, with domes and minarets, and sometimes with a small mosque attached to them as well. Inside, the shrines are also often decorated with pictures of Sufi saints or of the Ka‘ba in Mecca and the Prophet’s mosque in Medina and posters that bear verses from the Qur’an in Arabic calligraphy. Yet, they are open to people of all communities for worship, this being in contrast to both Hindu temples as well as mosques. The ecumenical appeal of the shrines is enhanced by the fact that, although a few of the rituals are distinctly ‘Islamic’, most of them are not seen as being associated with one particular religion or community, being more in the nature of local traditions that are followed across community boundaries.
The stories that are told about several of the shrines in the town—their ‘foundational myths’, one could call them—reflect a fascinating historical process of negotiation of inter-community relations in a harmonious way. These stories are often invoked to stress the point that people of different religions should live together in peace, that God is one, that all humans, at a certain level, are basically the same, and so on. A few examples may be cited here to illustrate this point:
The Dargah of Pir Raushan Ali Shah
The first major Sufi to come to the Jammu region is said to have Pir Raushan ‘Ali Shah, whose dargah is located at Gumat, near the famous Raghunath Mandir, in the heart of Jammu town. The pir is said to have been very tall, which explains why his grave is some 20 feet (or nine gaz) long, and hence the shrine’s popular name of Maqbara Naugazan. Some believe the pir to have been one of the companions of the Prophet Muhammad, but, clearly, this is wrong. A more reliable claim is that he arrived in Jammu in the 13th century, before Timur’s invasion of North India. He is said to have performed many miracles, which, so it is claimed, so impressed the Hindu Raja of Jammu that he became his devotee and requested him to settle in his city. When the pir died, the Raja laid him to rest with full honours and had a grave constructed for him.
The Dargah of Pir Lakhdata
The name lakhdata literally means ‘the giver of hundreds of thousands’. It could signify belief in this pir’s status as a giver of Sufi wisdom or as a helper to people in distress and need. The small dargah of Pir Lakhdata is located in a bazaar named after him in Jammu. The life of the pir is shrouded in mystery, although he is said to have been a close associate of Guru Nanak, the first guru of the Sikhs. The cult of Pir Lakhdata is particularly popular among the agriculturist castes of Punjab and Rajasthan, both Hindu as well as Muslim. This tradition is linked with the cult of Guga Pir, said to be a Rajput chieftain who converted to Islam. In some versions of the account of Guga Pir’s life, he and Pir Lakhdata are presented as one and the same person. According to local tradition, after his death, half of Guga Pir’s body was taken by his Muslim followers and buried according to Muslim rites, and to them he is known as Zahir Pir. The other half of his body was cremated by his Hindu followers, who revere him as Pir Lakhdata.
The Dargah of Baba Budhan ‘Ali Shah
Another noted Sufi whose shrine is located in Jammu and who is associated with Guru Nanak is Baba Budhan ‘Ali Shah. His real name is said to have been Sayyed Shamsuddin, but he is known more popularly as Baba Budhan (‘The Old Baba’) because he was blessed with a very long life. Baba Budhan was born near Lahore in the village of Talwandi, the birthplace of Guru Nanak. Tradition has it that he was a very close friend of Guru Nanak, and the two would often meet to discuss spiritual matters.
The Dargah of Pir Mitha
Pir Mitha’s dargah is located on the banks of the river Tawi, not far from the Jammu palace. According to local tradition, he came to Jammu from Iran in 1462 during the reign of Raja Ajab Dev. It is possible that Pir Mitha was a Isma‘ili Shi‘a, although today there are no Isma‘ilis left in Jammu. One day, so a version of the local legend has it, the Raja’s wife fell seriously ill. The pir is said to have cured the queen by performing a miracle, as a result of which the king and many of his subjects became his disciples. A large section of the Bhishtis or water-carriers, considered to be a ‘low’ Hindu caste, accepted him as their spiritual preceptor. Soon, the pir’s fame spread far and wide, and many began converting to Islam at his hands. Because of this, the pir was faced with stiff opposition from some Hindu priests. His most vehement opponent was Siddh Garib Nath, a Shaivite Gorakhnathi yogi. However, as the story goes, the two soon became friends and, consequently, the pir is said to have ceased his missionary work. The pir and the yogi became, so it is said, so close that they decided to settle down together in the cave where the pir lived. This cave is known as Pir Khoh or the ‘Cave of the Pir’.
Legend has it that the yogi entered the cave and travelled all the way to Matan in Kashmir, never to return again. After he disappeared, his disciples came to Pir Mitha and requested him to accept them as his followers. The pir declined, and told them that they should be faithful to their own guru. When this failed to satisfy them, the pir relented somewhat and told them that they could, if they wanted, take his title of pir, generally associated with Muslim mystics. That is why the cave is today called as Pir Khoh and the heads of the Nath yogis who reside there are known as pirs.
A sizeable number of devotees of Pir Mitha today belong to the Jheer community. The Jheers identify themselves as Hindus, and although they are of ‘low’ caste background (their ancestral profession consisted of drawing water and cleaning utensils for the ‘upper’ castes) they now claim to be Rajputs. One branch of the Jheers, who are known as Kashps, revere Pir Mitha as their patron saint. It is customary for many Kashps who live in Jammu to visit the dargah every morning after having a bath. All their auspicious ceremonies are conducted only after paying respects at the shrine. Many Kashps are migrants or descendants of migrants from Sialkot, now in Pakistan, who fled to Jammu in the wake of the Partition riots in 1947. Several Kashps claim that they managed to flee their homes to Jammu unscathed because of the blessings of their pir.
The Dargah of Baba Jiwan Shah
Baba Jiwan Shah was born in 1852 in the Sialkot district of Punjab in a family known for its piety. At the age of 23, upon the advice of his preceptor, the Chishti Sufi Sain Baqr ‘Ali Shah, he left his village, spending 12 years in meditation and austerities at Akhnoor on the banks of the river Chenab. He then headed for Jammu, where he took up residence in a graveyard, meditating near the grave of the Sufi Sher Shah Wali for 12 years. After this, he spent the rest of his life in the region around Jammu, preaching and making disciples, who included Hindus as well as Muslims. Among these are said to have been Maharaja Pratap Singh, ruler of Jammu and Kashmir (1885-1925) and his brother Amar Singh. The king fixed a regular monthly stipend (wazifa) for him and would often invite him to the royal palace. Another disciple of the Baba was a certain ‘low’ caste man from the Chamar caste, who is buried in a small shrine near the dargah of the Baba in the Mohalla Jeewan Shah in the heart of Jammu town.
The Dargah of the Panj Pir
At Ramnagar, in the outskirts of Jammu town, is the shrine of the panj pirs, the five Muslim saints. The panj pir cult is widespread all over northern India and Pakistan. The composition of the panj pirs varies from place to place, and in some cases, it includes both Muslim as well as Hindu figures. The origins of the cult have been traced back to the Hindu cult of the five Pandava brothers, heroes of the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata, as well as to the Shi‘a Muslim tradition of revering the five members of the ahl ul-bayt, the ‘holy family’ consisting of the Prophet Muhammad, his daughter Fatima, her husband ‘Ali and their sons Hasan and Husain.
Little is known about the history of the panj pir shrine in Jammu. Legend has it that five brothers of a Muslim family spent many years there in meditation and austerities and then they all left to go their own ways. One day the five pirs appeared in a dream to the Maharaja and admonished him for sleeping with his feet pointing to their chillah, the placed where they used to meditate. The next morning, the Maharaja ordered the spot to be excavated, and an umbrella and five kettledrums were found. Believing this to be a holy place, he ordered the construction of a dargah there. He then appointed his royal charioteer, Alif Shah, and a Muslim woman, Khurshid Begum, as custodians of the shrine.
The great popularity of the panj pir shrine, especially among the local Hindus, is believed to be a largely post-1947 phenomenon. It is said that following the Partition riots some Hindus attempted to take over the shrine, claiming that it was actually a temple of the five Pandavas. They went so far as to forcibly install a Shiva linga on top of the grave-like structure inside the dargah.
However, so the story goes, the next morning people discovered that the linga had cracked into pieces on its own. The Hindus took this as a sign that the shrine was actually a Muslim dargah and so withdrew their claims.
At present, the dargah is looked after by a Hindu Rajput, Kuldip Singh Charak. He is the husband of a Muslim woman, Shamim Akhtar, the daughter of Khurshid Begum, the first custodian of the shrine. He took over this responsibility following Khurshid Begum’s death in 1986.
The participation of people from different religious and caste communities in the Sufi shrines of the town helps, in its own ways, in breaking down barriers between them. Sometimes, it provides a means for people to build friendships across community boundaries. In a way it also helps challenge, or at least question, deeply-rooted social hierarchies. Thus, while ordinarily many high caste Hindus may not eat food cooked by Muslims, in the shrines they accept the sweets prepared by Muslims or so-called low caste Hindus. It is also not rare for Muslim Sufi shrine custodians who are practising Sufis themselves to accept Hindu disciples, while not asking them to renounce their own religion.
In one shrine that I visited, a Punjabi Hindu is a disciple of the Muslim custodian. He regularly attends the shrine, where he dons a Muslim-style cap and sits in the courtyard to distribute sweets to the visitors as prashad. This he does on his own volition and has not been told to do so by his spiritual master (pir). But he still identifies himself as a Hindu and goes to temples as well, and this his Sufi preceptor does not forbid. In this and several other cases, the categories of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’, while in a sense still valid, do not denote the radical separation, difference or conflict that, unfortunately, they often seem to.
It is important, however, not to exaggerate the ecumenical potential of the Sufi shrines. For many Muslims who attend the shrines the Sufis are seen, above all, as pious Muslim and often as missionaries of Islam. At the same time, they also taught, so their Muslim devotees would stress, love for all creatures of God, irrespective of religion and caste, but their Islamic identity is not in doubt. Another phenomenon that must be taken into account when assessing the possible role of the shrines in promoting interfaith dialogue and interaction is the declining influence of popular Sufism in some sections of the Muslim community. Several educated Muslims in Jammu, as elsewhere, see the cults centred on the shrines as ‘un-Islamic’. The opposition to the cults of the shrines is articulated in what are presented as ‘Islamic’ terms. Thus, it is argued that these cults are a later development, and thus are an ‘innovation’ (bid‘at) from the path of the Prophet. A tradition attributed to the Prophet is routinely cited, according to which the Prophet declared that every bid‘at leads to hell. Hence, several practices associated with the cults of the shrines, such as singing qawwalis or belief in the intermediary powers of buried saints or the belief that the saints are still alive and can hear one’s requests, are branded as ‘un-Islamic’ and as leading those who are involved in them to hell.
Furthermore, these beliefs are said to be shirk or akin to polytheism, as they allegedly set up helpers in addition to God. Several of the practices and beliefs associated with the shrines (such as, for instance, offering flowers and sweets at the graves) are also branded as ‘Hinduistic’ (hinduana), and are thus condemned as ‘un-Islamic’. In this form of Islamic discourse, criticism of the cults of the shrines is also associated with a critique of the shrine custodians, who are said to have a vested interest in promoting ‘un-Islamic’ beliefs (such as faith in the miraculous powers of the saints) in order to fleece the credulous. In turn, they come to be seen as working to promote Muslim backwardness, including political marginalisation.
Opposition to the cults of the saints is one of the major focuses of some Islamic groups active in the Jammu region, as elsewhere in India. These include the Hanafi Deobandis, the Islamist Jama‘at-i Islami as well as the vehemently anti-Sufi Ahl-i Hadith, all of whom have established a limited presence in Jammu in recent decades.
The Deobandis have a large madrasa in Jammu town, and the imam of the largest mosque in Jammu is also a Deobandi. Besides, there are several Deobandi mosques and madrasas elsewhere in the Jammu province. The Deobandi cause has been further facilitated by the growth of the Tablighi Jama‘at, a Deobandi-inspired movement that seeks to purge Muslim society of what it sees as ‘un-Islamic’ accretions. The movement is said to have started working in the area from the 1970s onwards. As elsewhere, differences between Deobandis and the shrine custodians are intense.
Several ‘ulama or Islamic scholars who are attached to the shrines whom I met denounce the Deobandis as hidden fronts of the Saudi ‘Wahhabis’ and as being agents of what they call the ‘enemies of Islam’. They see other Muslim groups, such as the Jama‘at-i Islami and the Ahl-i Hadith in a similar light. Some of the ‘ulama attached to the shrines identify themselves with the Barelvi school of thought, which is associated with the late nineteenth century Imam Ahmad Raza Khan of the town of Bareilly, in present-day Uttar Pradesh, who ardently defended the Sufi tradition from its detractors. Others identify themselves simply as dargah wale or ‘people of the Sufi shrines’.
In assessing the ecumenical potential of the Sufi shrines it must also be borne in mind that for many Hindus who attend the shrines the Sufis might be seen as pious men of God, but this does not necessarily or always translate into positive perceptions of or closer interactions with Muslims, although this sometimes does happen. It is possible for a Hindu to hold deeply-rooted negative stereotypical notions of the Muslim as the religious ‘other’ at the same time as he or she regularly visits a Sufi shrine. Often, this is because, for many people, the shrines are visited only in the hope of getting requests met or problems solved, and not necessarily simply out of devotion and faith or a quest for religious truth.
In fact, at the shrines there is no overt discussion of religious doctrines in any great detail, these being often limited in their expression only to brief prayers, mainly silent and undertaken individually. Hence, although there is certainly an encounter and exchange between people of different communities, as such there is very little inter-religious dialogue at the theological level at the shrines. Thus, it is hardly surprising that the vast majority of the Hindus who visit the shrines would learn little about Islam or the doctrines of the Sufis since this is hardly discussed, except perhaps in a very general way when the custodian might refer to these when talking about the need for proper ethical behaviour to people to come to him for assistance.
It is likely that since Jammu is a ‘communally-sensitive’ town and since Muslims live here as a small minority, the custodians think it pragmatic not to overtly stress the Islamic aspect identity of the shrines for fear of being looked at with suspicion. It is pragmatic, possibly, in another way for some custodians who accept donations, because an overtly Islamic identity would possibly mean less Hindu visitors and, hence, a decline in their incomes.
Given the ways in which the histories of the Sufis associated with several of the shrines are framed and remembered, and given the fact that people from different communities visit the shrines in sizeable numbers, the dargahs could, it might be thought, be motivated to play a more interventionist role in promoting greater understanding between the different communities at the religious level. There are several constraints, however, in this regard.
To begin with, each shrine is an independent entity and there are few formal links between them, and so they do not operate as a group. Secondly, the shrine custodians might appear not to wish to overtly stress the Islamic identity of the shrines in a more explicit way, for reasons mentioned earlier, which limits their own interest in inter-religious dialogue initiatives. Thirdly, many of the custodians do not have the ‘right’ sort of contacts, funds and cultural capital that might be needed to organise dialogue initiatives with religious leaders of other communities. Fourthly, in some cases there is simply no interest in the issue since for some shrine custodians their primary consideration is earning a livelihood through the shrines rather than social reform or activism. There is also the simple fact of inertia, and the feeling that since Muslims are in a minority in the town they should maintain a low profile. To add to this is the general perception that such efforts would make little or no difference at all in promoting communal harmony in the region in the absence of a political solution of the Kashmir issue.
Part 1; to be continued
[Picture: Lake Manasdal, near Jammu. Photo: Wiki.]