ExperimentalExperience

Archive for the ‘The Idea Of India Project’ Category

The Idea Of India Project Update: Continuing The Search For The Female Sufi Saints And Finding The Business Of The Blessing

In The Idea Of India Project on August 3, 2011 at 3:48 pm

The evidence of new money from the Gulf is vividly evident at the shrine of the female warrior saind Beema Biwi. It is evident in the large, ostentatious and garishly pink structure that now surrounds what was once a small shrine. Donations have helped transform this remote shrine located near the ocean front and directly in the parth of jet aircrafts landing a Trivandrum airport into perhaps one of the most well known and powerful shrines in the state of Kerala. The influence is also evident in the large market filled with smuggled and contraband consumer goods from the Gulf states. WIth stores sporting signs such as Al-Haj cosmetics, Dubai Electronics, and Medina Traders the market is a uniquely modern version of the markets that traditionally welcome devotees to shrine. Where one would expect to numerous small stalls selling garlands of roses, prayer mats, devotional chadors (sheets), sweet meats, music videos and CDs celebrating the life of the saint, here one can find cheap, Chinese copies of the essentials of ‘the good life’ – washing machines, CD players, mobile phones, microwave ovens, flat screen televisions and much else. I could not find a flower seller but a number of touts offered to sell me pirated copies of the latest Hollywood blockbusters.

The Shrine of Beema Biwi, Kerala

The reasons for the absence of such vendors of devotional goods became evident to me once I stepped into the shrine and realized that devotees are no longer able to approach the tomb of the saint, and neither would the caretakees entertain the draping of the coffin with a devotional chador or garlands of flowers. The tomb itself today lies hidden behind a curtain which is only pulled apart when a devotee steps up to receive a blessing. Otherwise the curtains are pulled closed. A huge hall, complete with lotus topped pillars, surrounds the sanctum of the shrine, and devotees can be seeing resting, prayer, sleeping and generally milling about inside. There is an austere atmosphere here, and one of the least welcoming that I have experienced in a shrine. The imposing architecture, the surly caretakers and the perfunctory nature with which the blessings and rituals seem to be performed leaves one feeling uncomfortable hanging about.

There are two tombs inside this shrine – one to Beema Biwi and alongside it another to her son, Abu Bakr. The two were martyred in a battlesome 500 years ago it seems, but few seem to know what the battle was about and against whom. I suspect that the dates of their arrival in India and martyrdom are also not accurate. This seems quite typical of the legend of the saints in the area: their stories are largely forgotten and their past seems to hold no real importance for both the families that maintain and care for the shrines and the devotees who come here seeking solace, salvation and blessings. Just outside the main shrine is another mausoleum – this one to a saint called Mastan Baba. Built sometime in the 1980s the shrine is to a wandering mystic whose history and real name are unknown.

Dominique Sila-Khan, in her work Sacred Kerala: A Spiritual Pilgrimage describes how many of the rituals performed at the Beema Biwi complex echo rituals typically associated with worshop and devotion at Hindu temples. The viewing of the sacred sanctum containing the tombs of Beema Biwi and her son Abu Bakr is called didar a persian word for ‘the blessed glimpse’ and whose equivalent may be the Hindi word darshan. During the annual Chandanakuda mahotsavam festival devotees bring clay and earthen pots, also known as kudans, which have been smeared with chandanam, sandalwood paste, and filled with coins. These can often be seen lying close to the tombs themselves. The tombs are frequently washed and the blessed water offered to devotees – an act quite similar to amrit a ritual typically associated with practices in Sikh temples.

The female saints of Kerala are a powerful influence here for people of all faiths. I had earlier written about the shrine of Manubam Bibi located on the shores close to the Keralan town of Ponnani. Just as there at the ocean front shrine of Manubam Bibi, people of all faiths congregate here in this imposing shrine of Beema Biwi. The shrine today is overtly Islamic but it is clear that the influence, and power of these saints transcends the borders of orthodox faith and sectarian divisions. It was difficult not to see the grandiose architecture of the shrine as an attempt to take control of the Biwi and bring her into the fold of an acceptable and palatable Islamic heritage. As if sheer scale would be enough to claim the right to her power, her meaning, her heritage and her power. The thousands who come here however seem oblivious to these material designs, and quietly go about in their many religious ways and methods of sitting at her feet and asking for her blessings. The remnants of her original, simpler shrine can still be seen under the dome of the new structure. Someone its humble appearance seemed more in keeping with the idea of a woman who traveled here from Arabia and died in the path of faith. The new, garish, and frankly tacky structure seems to want to veil the materialism that now pervades this entire complex and impress upon the faithful that piety is best expressed through power and privilege of wealth. The cold, dismissive attitude of the caretakers, the thriving consumer goods markets, the rather touristy atmosphere, distract from the meaning of the pilgrimage to this shrine. Here, much as I have felt at some other important shrines in India, blessings have become a business.

The Idea Of India Project Update: A Temple Where I Begin To Understand That Neither Hindu Nor Muslim Means What We May Believe

In The Idea Of India Project on June 23, 2011 at 2:56 pm

The Hindu temple contains two shrines, both to men who were once Muslims. As I write last statement this I realize that the two religious categories mentioned here – Hindu and Muslim actually make little sense. The fact remains that neither the word Hindu nor the word Muslim used here describes a set of clear, precise, differentiated, and orthodox ideas of the two religions. Here, in the village of Deoli, deep in the heart of Eastern Maharashtra where I have been traveling for some weeks, one comes face to face with the realization that these definitional categories hide more than they reveal.

The Shrine Of Miranath, Deoli Maharashtra

More importantly, that by labeling someone as Muslim or Hindu tells us almost nothing about their life, values, experiences and outlook. It may not even tell us that they are followers of even the basic and simple tenets of the religion. And most importantly, it does not tell us how the lived practice of the religion was influenced, physically, emotionally, intellectually and psychologically, by the other religious practices occurring close by. These categories idealize and mislead. They lie.

Muslim modernists have remained uncomfortable with the complexity, fluidity and the indigenous nature of South Asian Islam. It is a discomfort that gives shape to a concerted effort on the part of the orthodox to eradicate any and all variations to the ‘orthodox’ ideas of the religion largely imported from what is seen to be the ‘true’ place of Islam – the Middle East. Oddly, this prioritizing of the alien in fact negates the lived practice of the majority of the world’s Muslims in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia and Malaysia. It takes the popular, the larger, the more complex, the genuinely regional and attempts to cleanse it and reject it. What makes us uniquely South Asian Muslims is precisely what the modernists and reformists reject most vehemently. Their attacks of ‘deviations’ and ‘heretics’, their rejection of the shrines of saints, and regional practices with direct and clear influences of India’s pre-Islamic past e.g the nerchas of the Mapila Muslims of Kerala, are a reflection of these attempts at erasure.

The category of Hindu is even more complex, as it is meant to incorporate into it thousands of years of religious practice, with thousands of different deities and rituals, none of which can effectively be lumped under any one title. In fact, the word Hindu was once associated with all those people who practiced any faith outside the regions main religions like Islam, Christianity, Buddhism, Sikhism and so on. But Hinduism as we know it today, the official, orthodox variety is a product of 19th century reform movements. Pankaj Mishra argued this powerfully in an essay called The Invenstion Of The Hindu argued that there was:

…no such thing as Hinduism before the British invented the hold all category in the early nineteenth century, and made India seem the home of a “world religion” as organised and theologically coherent as Christianity and Islam. The concepts of a “world religion” and “religion” as we know them now, emerged during the late 18th and early 19th century, as objects of academic study, at a time of widespread secularisation in western Europe…But academic study of any kind imposes its own boundaries upon the subject. It actually creates the subject while bringing it within the realm of the intellect. The early European scholars of religion labelled everything; they organized disparate religious practices into one system, and literally brought into being such world religions as Hinduism and Buddhism.

Hinduism’s boundaries, once near infinite, being constricted by, as Ashia Nandy has argued, the values and priorities of Brahmanical, middle-class, westernizing Indians to their uprooting, cultural and geographical. Their reforms were, and remain, a direct criticism of Hinduism as it is lived and practiced across this land. As Nandy states in his essay ‘The Twilight of Certitudes’ in his work Bonfire of Creeds:

The votaries of Hindutva (modern Hindu nationalism) will celebrate the death of Hinduism. For they have all along felt embarassed and humiliated by Hinduism as it is. Hindutva is meant for those whose Hinduism has worn off. It is a ware meant for the supermarket of global mass cuture where all religions are available in their consumable forms, neatly packaged for buyers…To those who live in Hinduism, Hindutva is one of those pathologies that periodically afflict a faith. Hinduism has…handled many such pathologies; it still retains the capacity…to handle one more. (page 129)

Nandy’s argument is very simple: Hindu modernists were deeply anti-Hinduism, going so far as to be embarrassed of its millions of gods and their rather human like frailties and inconsistencies. As Nandy points in another essay called ‘A Report on the Present State of Health of the Gods’ again in Bonfire of Creeds that:

…if you read the literature of Hindutva you will find a systematic, consistent and often direct attack on Hindu gods and goddesses. Most stalwarts of Hindutva have not been interested in Hindu religion and have said so openly. Their tolerance towards the rituals and myths of their faith have even been lower. Many of them have come to Hindutva as a reaction to everyday, vernacular Hinduism.

And this vagueness of religious definition, this ‘fuzziness’ of religious practice and sense of identity, as Kaviraj has argued, did not allow for hard separation of beliefs into categories of religion as those found on British period census forms. Kumar Suresh Singh’s survey of Indian communities showed that hundreds of communities can be classified as having more than one religion. That there were at least 116 communities that are both Hindu and Christian and at least 35 that are Hindu and Muslim. Again, the definitions Muslim and Christian and Hindu remain problematic in this idea i.e. that there are no concrete definitions of these terms to begin with. We can only loosely approximate their meaning and boundaries in identity and cultural terms.

Both Hindu and Muslim modernists share their revulsion of the vernacular practices of their faiths. They both tried to tear down the lived faiths. As Pankaj Mishra points out,

Only a tiny minority of upper-caste Indians had known much about the Bhagavad-Gita or the Vedas until the eighteenth century when they were translated by British scholars and then presented as sacred texts from the paradisiacal age of something called “Hinduism.” in the nineteenth century, movements dedicated to reforming Hinduism and recovering its lost glory grew very rapidly. The inspiration or rhetoric of these neo-Hindu movements might have seemed archaic. In fact, they were largely inspired by the ideas of progress and development that British utilitarians and Christian missionaries aggressively promoted in India.

As I stand here at this shrine to a man who was born a Muslim and later adopt as a Hindu guru, these thoughts run through my head. Miranath was born a Muslim but adopted Viswanath Maharaj, a Brahmin, as his guide and teacher. I am reminded of the story of the great Indian poet Kabir, who too was born a Muslim, but raised, educated and nurtured under a Hindu guru. The temple also contains a shrine to a Muslim friend of Miranath, the saint Dina Shahwali. The devotees who flock here for puja, and the thousands who congregate for the annual mela, are largely Hindus. Their devotion to a man whose identity, ideas of faith and spirituality, trespass boundaries of accepted religions, reflects a cultural continuity that defies the modernist definitions and categorization. They represent a necessary, alive and passionate faith that is not transcribed in books, or sustained through mass campaigns of control and direction.

It is here that one begins to understand that the census like precision of categories such as Muslim or Hindu make little sense and do little to help us understand the ease with which these men, and this community transcended the boundaries between faith. It is as Farina Mir, Associate Professor at the University of Michigan, keeps reminding me, that we can’t begin to understand such trespassing of faiths by assuming the clarity and precision of categories such as Muslim or Hindu. Here, standing outside this unique temple to a Muslim man, in this small village of Deoli on the outskirts of the town of Wardha in Eastern Maharashtra, I am beginning to understand her argument.

The Idea Of India Project Update: The Salvation Of The Lunatic

In The Idea Of India Project on June 15, 2011 at 11:08 am

His clairvoyance resulted in his being consigned to a lunatic asylum where he languished for nearly sixteen years. The news of his miracles however spread far and wide and the king Raghoji Rao, a devote Hindu who also become a devotee, finally ordered his release. Today his shrine on the outskirts of the town of Nagpur is perhaps the most well-known sacred site in the region of Vidharba in Eastern Maharashtra.

But it is no longer a solitary shrine. As I walk around in the marketplace that has grown up around the central tomb, I come across a number of smaller tombs and shrines. Some are fairly large structures and are devoted to the close friends and relatives of Tajuddin Baba. Others smaller structures are for those who were devoted to the Baba and had given their lives in his service. Hundreds of people mill about what can only be described as a small village, complete with convenience stores and the usual set of shops selling flowers, chadors, knick knacks, and audio and video products devoted to the story of the saint.

One also comes across a number of holy men who have carved out small homes in various corners of buildings and stores. A number of them have lived here for years – Rehmat Bab an elderly man I met had been sitting in the same spot for over seventeen years. His only movements was from his bed – basically a small mattress stuck into a hole in the wall, and the carpet just outside it. There he received followers of all faiths and spoke to them, gently advising and blessing them. No doubt there will be a small tomb in his name when he passes away.

I am now collecting audio and video materials depicting the saints miracles. There is consistency to the stories that seem to grow around the saints – about battles against flesh-eating demons, the procurement of water, the curing of the ill and so on. Where they originate from few can remember. Perhaps the thousands of wandering mystics and holy men that traverse these regions carry them in their stories. I am not sure if anyone has investigated the origins of these folk legends. Perhaps because they can’t be corralled into our idea of ‘good’ history, they have simply languished in the hearts and narratives of the locals.

Perhaps it is best to leave them there for fear of reducing them to merely stories. Here at a shrine like Tajuddin Baba’s you can see people standing in front of TV screens watching the story of the saint acted out in made-for-DVD dramas. Poor production and amateurish acting seems to take nothing away from the intensity of the viewing experience. The devotees stand in front of the video stalls and stare in disbelieve and listen in belief. These legends have meaning, and most importantly, they offer hope for cures and possibilities that life may not suggest. To the millions who come to this shrine and watch these stories, this site is a source of salvation, of hope and of strength. These legends are real, and they are repeated between themselves as facts. You can sit at a tea stall and listen to groups of men and women discussing the legends as if they had seen them with their own eyes. They believe. And perhaps they do because it is the means to confront the deprivations of life, and to hold true to the belief that when there is no one else left, the saints will always be with you. Maybe this is all that the legends also offer; a promise that you are not alone and that greater forces will stand with you in times of trouble. In this they are even more important, even more relevant, than history. They are salvation.

The Idea Of India Project Update: The Monsoon Washes Me To Maharashtra’s Eastern Horizons

In The Idea Of India Project on June 11, 2011 at 12:37 pm

The monsoon came with the shock of a slap, the walls of rain ensuring that I was left staring out of my hotel window for nearly three days straight. And though beautiful, and reminiscent of the joys of childhood, the monsoon rains for a photographer are nothing but a dead stop. With life in the cities coming to a near stand still, oceans of water covering almost all open ground and paved roads, the possibilities of the found photograph become limited. Kerala’s monsoon however imbues it with a remarkably raw beauty – the winds pull at the palms, ocean tears at the shores, dark, ominous clouds dance across the horizon and the entire world is painted in a subtle blue/gray. But its a beauty that alienates the photographer as it steals the light, the colors and the community.

So I find myself heading to the drier, hotter and more sun-baked shores of Eastern Maharashtra. Specifically, I am heading to Nagpur – headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the right-wing Hindu nationalist and militant group. There is also a very strong Shiv Sena presence here.  Maharashtra has been the region that a number of right-wing religious parties have drawn their roots from. I am not confident enough to state why this may be so, but I was reminded of something that Ashis Nandy wrote in an essay called “Final Encounter” where he discusses Gandhi and his killer Godse and the broader social and political world that collaborated in Gandhi’s assassination. Nandy, pointing out that Godse was from Maharashtra, states:

…Godse and all his associates except one came from Maharashtra, a region where Brahmanic dominance was particularly strong. He also happened to be from Poona, the unofficial capital of traditional Maharashtra and a city renowned for its old-style scholarship and for the rich, complex culture which the high-status Chitpavan or Konkanath Brahmins had built there…The Maharashtrian Brahminic elite also had a long history of struggle against the Muslim rulers of India in the 17th century and 18th centuries…and…by the 20th century the Maharashtraian Brahmins had reinterpreted their history in terms of the needs of Hindu nationalism. They saw themselves as the upholders of a tradition of Hindu resistance against the Muslim occupation of India. It was on this reconstructed and self-created tradition that a part of the Maharashtrian elite built up their anti-British nationalism. (Nandy, A Bonfire Of Creeds, Page 71)

Nandy uses this background to build his argument that Gandhi’s innovations – intellectual, spiritual, emotional and political were a threat to the given order of society, and in particular to the Brahmanic elite of the region. Gandhi saw the Brahmins as nothing more than interlopers, the ones who had taken Hinduism away from its traditions. Hence Gandhi posed a great threat to the greater Sanskritic traditions. One can assume that the many changes that took place in India in her post-independence journey towards mass suffrage have also proven to be a challenge to the Brahminic elite.

In fact, this very point has been argued by the likes of Partha Chatterjee – that the resurgence of so-called Hindutva - Hindu nationalism, occurs just at the point when India’s democratic institutions begin to offer legal and political rights to the lowest echelons of India’s citizenry. There is much to be said about the Mandal commission recommendations and the rise of the nationalist and Hinduized political rhetoric of political parties like the BJP. But that is an entirely different post some time in the future.

But Maharashtra is also a region of deep and broad pluralism, with literally thousands of important shared Sufi dargahs, and Hindu mandirs scattered across the state. It is to these that I am now traveling, using them as the basis of discussions of the regions syncretic and pluralist traditions. The next three weeks will see me working in and around Nagpur.

The Maharashtra Phase Asim Rafiqui 2011

Maharashtra’s history – social, political and cultural challenges the revisionist narratives of the sectarians. Today Shivaji may be considered the fountainhead of Marathi nationalism and anti-Muslim justification, but even his story and that of his family, defies the reductive versions used to convince people of his sectarian purity and exclusivity. Maharashtra is also where the magnificent Ellora caves are located. The beautiful Hindu, Jain and Buddhist carvings found here were frequently admired and studied by Muslim travels and administrators in the region. Contrary to the modern-day conviction of the iconoclasm of all Muslims, I will be writing short pieces based on the travel writings of Muslims in the region and the great admiration with aesthetic awe with which they experienced these beautiful carvings.

The Maharashtra pieces will hopefully act as Gyanendra Pandey’s fragments - evidence that confronts and dislocates mainstream and popular narratives of history, offering evidence and stories that perhaps force us to re-examine what we today take as the given truth.

The Idea Of India Project Update: The Thangals And Way Of The Other Muslims

In The Idea Of India Project on June 4, 2011 at 2:36 pm

The Shrine of Thangal Sheikh Mohammed Shah, Kondotty, Kerala

Islam in its Persian-Arabic attire failed to make much sense to the masses [in India]. That is why its “cultural mediators” were constrained to make the Islamic traditions more meaningful to the converts in syncretic and symbolic forms. In the process, the pristine purity of dogma and tenets, which the Faraizis in Bengal and the mujahideen in the northwest tried in vain to restore, was tailored to suit the spiritual and material urges of the people. Local customs and heterodox traditions, which were repugnant to Muslim orthodoxy, found a place in the corpus of beliefs and religious practices. This was reflected in the diversity or religiocultural practices, and also in the variety of political and economic experiences.

Hasan, Mushirul “The Myth of Unity” in Making India Hindu: Religion, Community, and the Politics of Democracy in India Ed. Ludden, D Page 189

There seems to be little written about the Thangals of Kerala. Professor Hussain Randathani tells me that there is some original research that has been done on this line of Muslims in Kerala, but that most of it is in Malayalam and hence inaccessible to me. However, what is fascinating about the man whose shrine I had come to visit in the town of Kondotty, Sheikh Mohammed Shah, was that he may have carried a dual Muslim identity – both Shia, and Sunni.

Both Stephen F. Dale in his work The Mappilas Of Malabar, 1498 – 1922: Islamic Society on the South Asian Frontier and Roland E. Miller in his Mapilla Muslims of Kerala do give us some more details about this unique orientation, but I will write more about that in a future essay. Suffice it to say that under pressure from the orthodox Sunni orientations, many Shia claimed taqqiya, a recognized practice that the Shias can resort to in times of duress. Similar action has been taken by groups of Nizari Ismailis, the Khojas and the Pirana ie. Satpanthis as well.

Rehman Thangal, great-grandson of the the Sheikh, greeted me in his lovely home adjacent to the shrine and we spend some hours talking about the story of the Thangals, and their powerful influence in society and politics in the region of Kerala. Much of that influence is how a bygone memory – the land reforms in post-independence India resulted in the social and material dissolution of the Thangal dynasty. However, they remain a highly respected and venerated family in this part of Kerala. Rehman proudly showed me a number of manuscripts from this ancestor’s library – a hand written Koran, copies of various Persian texts like Gulistan and even small momento that had survived in his family’s collections like a pistol personally given to the Sheikh by Tipu Sultan himself. I was unable to however learn anything too specific about the history of his family. In fact, even he was not sure about the origins and story of the Sheikh whose shrine had been in the care of his family.

The shrine itself is a lovely Indo-Persian structure. Looking slightly worn down because of the heavy cover of rain, its place in the community was also a mystery. I did not see many people stopping by, but then again, it could just be the weather. Rehman told me that a major nerchass is held at the shrine in early March of each year. A series of photographs taken by a Japanese researcher, Misako Kawano, who had visited the family recently to document the cultural traditions of the Thangals, show a fairly large affair involving hundreds of people. Rehman assured me that the event began at the shrine and moved to the front yard of the family home for the evening finale. I will have to return here next March to witness it.

I am now travelling in Kerala to explore the history of the ‘other’ Muslims. The mainstream narratives of India’s Muslims tend to ignore the diversity and plurality of India’s Muslim community. They gloss over the many variants and local traditions that emerged in Muslim religious practice, and prefer to speak of the community as one. In fact, parroting a classical colonialist preference, modern Muslim prefer to see all Muslims as one homogenous, cohesive and uniformly similar social and political body. This view, a result of the exigencies of colonial rule and administration, has remained stuck in the minds of the modern Muslims nationalists and others. As Mushirul Hasan points out (Ibid Page 193):

The colonial government’s reforms of 1909, enacted to defuse the Congress demand for a greater share in administration and decision-making, was a calculated masterstroke; it discarded the notion and jettisoned the prospect of secular nationalism. It established separate electorates for Muslims, along with reservations and weightages, and thus gave birth to a religiopolitical community, sections of which began to see themselves in the colonial image of being unified, cohesive, and segregated from the Hindus…An otherwise diverse community was thus homogenized…in order to be suitably accommodated within political schemes and bureaucratic designs.

It is here, from Kerala, that one can start to unravel the diversity of the Muslims of India. The Mapilla Muslims are the earliest of Muslim communities in the country, and the saints, mystics, traders and settlers that arrived here in the 7th and 8th centuries, the first to carry the message of the religion to the people of the country. The Mapilla Muslims of Kerala retain a culturally and historically distinct Islamic culture that retains many of its influences from regional non-Islamic religions including Hinduism. The Thangals, a family with its lineage to the Ismailis is heir to a complex Muslim heritage whose proponents have actively searched for ways to reconcile and incorporate traditions from outside the orthodoxy of Islam.

Their stories are the stories of Islam in India – complex, varied, and syncretic. My journey in Kerala is meant to reveal this usually forgotten or ignored beginning of Islam in India, and of the many diverse communities and people that belong to it. The culture, history, society and rituals of the Muslims of this region are vastly different from anything we could imagine in North India or Pakistan. This is precisely what I aim to show.

The Idea Of India Project Update: The Goddess Of The Sea

In The Idea Of India Project on June 2, 2011 at 9:54 am

The Shrine Of Manuban Bib, Ponnani, Kerala Copyright Asim Rafiqui

Some days later, there was a wild dance of the elements in Ponnani sea. The heavy clouds burst and brought the heavens down to meet the sea, which reached up and met it halfway, rising in mountainous waves…A fishing boat overturned. The sons of Ponnani were thrown into the water looked around in terror. All around they could see nothing but water. The horizon itself looked like another sea…

Ramanunni What The Sufi Said 

Her naked body emerges from the storm-tossed ocean waves and the fishermen, thrown from their boats, cling to it for safety. The corpse is strangely warm but it reminds the men of the solace and safety of their mother’s bosom. It drags them to the safety of the shore, and the men are overwhelmed by her beauty – a beauty that calls forth veneration and reverence. They cover her with their own clothes, and dig her a grave. Angry at the sea goddess, they build a shrine and begin to worship her and seek her protection.

This is the story that the Keralan writer Ramanunni weaves in his work What The Sufi Said to explain the story of Manubam Bibi whose shrine near the town of Ponnani I have come to visit. Located spectacularly on the edge of a peninsula facing a raging sea, Manubam Bibi’s shrine is revered by Hindus and Muslims from across the region. The shrine, now remodeled along a typically North Indian style dargah complete with minarets and an imposing dome, is surrounded by the homes of local fishermen.

There is an incongruity between the architecture of the shrine and the surrounding environment of sea, sand, palms and beautiful, single storied thatched roof homes. The shrine’s materials of cement, steel and asphalt suggesting an imposition of an imagination from outside the locale. The fishermen’s family homes seems to blend in with the world around them, reflecting the colors, textures and materials of nature itself. I have to believe that the shrine did the same once, but that new ideals perhaps imported from the North of India, or even the Gulf where many Keralan’s travel for employment, have had their effect.

The Shrine of Manubam Bibi Ponnani, Kerala

But regardless, it is the ocean that defines the world here, and as its waves crash angrily against the walls of the shrine, it underlines the meaning of the shrine and the abode of the goddesses herself. The shrine is merely a symbol. The ocean has always held a powerful influence on the imagination of man. Gods and goddesses have been attributed to it. I am more familiar with the Greek traditions – the goddess Amphitrite, the wife of the sea-god Poseidon, who was possibly one of the fifty Nereids – nymphs of the sea, or perhaps even a Oceanides, one of the three thousand goddesses of the sea. But it is quite thrilling to discover that here in Kerala’s north, the fishermen also see the sea as a goddess  - one who protects, wrecks vengeance, nurtures and destroys.

Manubam Bibi is a Muslim female saint associated with the sea. In this she mirrors the legends of many Hindu goddesses associated with the sea. Her devotees come from all faiths, and once again it is a legend that weaves the communities together. The inter-connectedness of the faiths of the land are also the fundamental idea behind Ramanunni’s novel, which, much like the regions folk poetry, speaks against the divisiveness of faiths and seeks to highlight the common aspirations of all men and women. Ramanunni has woven this sea goddesses story into a tragic tale of love – that between a Hindu girl and a Muslim boy. As Dominique-Sila Khan points out in her work Sacred Kerala, while discussing this novel, the beautiful Hindu devotees of Bhagavati who marries a Muslim boy is written as an incarnation of this goddess of the sea.

Manunbam Bibi is not the first female saint I have knelt before. As I step out of the shrine’s inner chamber and push past a crowd of people trying to get inside, I think of the shrine of Badi Bua in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, considered the most powerful of saints in the region. I wrote about her in a post called The Saints Of Ayodhya: Sufis In The Hindu City stating that:

One of the most important and revered shrines in the city is to a woman saint by the name of Badi Bua, or Badi Bibi. She was not only considered one of the most beautiful women in the city, but created enemies amongst the local clergy by refusing to marry and devote her life towards the worship of God. When approached by a local suitor who claimed that he was in love with her eyes, she by legend plucked them out and gave them to him.

Today her shrine lies on the outskirts of the city, amongst a small but tense forest of trees, surrounded by the decaying graves of local aristocracy. Every hour or so an individual arrives and sits in quiet meditation speak to her and cleaning the leaves, dead flowers and dust from the tombstone. Unlike a mosque, a shrine is often a place for individual devotion.

I prayed at Badi Bua’s shrine. As a non-religious, anti-clerical secularist I nevertheless carry faith (I hold it as a given that all men of theology and the philosophy of theology are hypocrites and men without faith). The prayer came true. I am now under obligation to return to Ayodhya, and to her shrine, to pay my respects to her once again. I prayed at the Manubam Bibi shrine. I would love to come back to pay my respects here too.

The Idea Of India Project Update: At The Shrine Of Malang Shah Aulia And The Dance Of The Wandering Dervish And The Goddess

In The Idea Of India Project on May 30, 2011 at 7:03 pm

When the Muslim wandering mystic died, the goddess Bhagavati buried him with her own hands.

Here in the town of Pudunagaram, Kerala that is the story they will tell you .

Pudunagaram, Kerala

The wandering mystic’s origins are unknown, though many believe that he arrived here from Tamil Nadu. The Malang were wandering mystic, disdained by the orthodox and quite often even by the Sufis themselves, but they are very influential in this part of Kerala and Northern India. The Muslam Malang Shah Aulia and the goddess Bhagavati are closely linked here, with a devotion at her temple considered incomplete without first passing through the shrine of the saint. Panditji Kanju handed me a small packet of ash once I had completed my darshan at the temple, asking me to mix it with the sacred earth at the saint’s shrine. They say that the mixture of the two can fix a number of health problems. The links between the goddess and the mystic are woven into stories and legends here, and it is a remarkable example of how the people of the region have found ways to articulate and define their inter-relatedness.

Malang Shah Aulia’s shrine is also the site of an annual urs and a performance of an elaborate nerchas. I had never seen one – an annual performance at the shrine where trances and acts of dangerous self-flagellation and cutting are performed. I will write more about this in a later post. Suffice it to say that the performances are intense, involving a group of men surrounded by chanter and drummers, who move into a trance like state and carry out repeated self-mutilation, and also mock sacrifices of a  young boy. Different regions have different ritualistic practices when it comes to nerchas and they have been explored in works like The Kerala Muslims: A Historical Perspective Ed. Asghar Ali Engineer and also in a fascinating article by Dale and Menon called ‘Nerccas: Saint-Martyr Worship Among The Muslims Of Kerala’ in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 

One of the young men hanging out with me at the shrine had made a video of this year’s performance and showed it to me and I can confirm that it is something quite unique, intense and passionate. Such rituals are also of course criticized the more ‘orthodox’ clergy but are intrinsic to Islam’s cultural heritage in Kerala. Such nerchas are yet another example of the deep influence of Hindu practices and their adoption in Muslim ritualistic performances in Kerala.

Malang Shah Aulia and the goddess even dance together!

Many legends tie goddesses to saints, and to Christian martyrs. The pilgrimage of Sabarimala, an event that I documents and wrote about earlier in a piece called The Reality Of Legends: The Sabarimala Pilgrimage And The Dance Of Faiths where I discussed how legends tell of the  Muslim warrior Vavar protecting and defending the Hindu god Ayyappa. The annual pilgrimage to the god’s shrine cannot be completed without first visiting Vavar’s mosque in Erumeli and getting his permission to proceed to complete the rest of the temple.

Hindu Pilgrims And Vavar's Mosque, The Sabarimal, Erumeli, Kerala 2010

In the coming weeks I will be writing about more such legends, and how India’s many religious communities have written their stories together and found ways of tying themselves to each other. Here legends act as shared histories and memories, creating avenues of shared culture and of tolerance. Here Sufi saints care for Hindu goddesses, Christian martyrs are brothers to Bhagavati and share in their annual festivals. It is the face of Kerala that I love, and one that reminds us that communities have a myriad of ways of connecting to each other, of reflecting values that are human and tolerant to ensure their co-existence and social and cultural sharing.

I will be posting more such shared legends in the coming days.

The Idea Of India Project Update: The Kerala Phase Begins Or The Power Of The Feminine Divine

In The Idea Of India Project on May 21, 2011 at 4:32 pm

Temple to Bhadrakali, the fierce Bhagavati, Vamal, Kerala

I am finally in Kerala and beginning my work here with an exploration of the power of the female deity in Hindu, Muslim, and Christian spirituality. Each of the three religions venerate powerful goddesses (for the Hindus), saints and martyrs (for the Christians) and revered holy women (for the Muslims).

Dominque-Sila Khan has done a very nice job exploring about this issue in her book Sacred Kerala: A Spiritual Journey where she points out that:

There is scarcely any religion in the world that does not revere a powerful feminine figure, be it a full-fledged goddess, a saint, a pious person or a mere symbol…the ‘mother figure’ pervades all three main religious traditions in Kerala. (page 114)

My journey in Kerala has begun with a search for this small, delicate temple to the goddess Bhadrakali in the village of Vamal, near Thalassery, Kerala. There is in fact a small Muslim community in the vicinity of the temple. There is in fact a mosque a mere 10 yards down the road, and it is not unusual to see Muslim women entering the temple to receive blessings and leave a small offering. This particular temple is also famous for its Teyyam dance performance.

Vamal, Kerala by Asim Rafiqui

Female deities and women of powerful spiritual persuasions will be a core focus of my work in Kerala. There are many instances of goddesses and christians saints being associated with each other as sisters, jewish martyrs from Karbala being venerated by Christians and Muslims, and of course powerful Sufi women saints who attract people of all faiths to their shrines.

The Kerala Journeys, The Idea Of India Project Copyright Asim Rafiqui

Kerala will also be the focus of an exploration of the history of the Mapilla – the earliest community of Muslims to arrive on what is today known as the Indian shores. Before the imagined ‘invasions’, the Muslims were trading and settling on these shores as early as the 7th century AD. I will also be exploring the history of the Malabar coast and its central role in global trade in the centuries before the arrival of the Europeans. This centrality of the Malabar coast was first bought to my attention thanks to Janet Abu-Laghoud’s remarkable books called Before European Hegemony: The World System 1250 – 1350.

The journey has begun. It promises to be an exciting one.

The Idea Of India Project Update: Photo Schematic #5

In The Idea Of India Project on May 10, 2011 at 7:49 am

There is really, on the face of it, nothing interesting about this scene. But as I stood there, waiting for my daughter to complete her carousel ride, I could not help but feel that it had real possibilities. On the face of it there is nothing really going on. The light too is rather ordinary. But what caught my eye are the many different layers along which action can occur. And the presence of the strong central shadow created by the carousel’s central axis (not visible, to the left of me) divided the scene into an even more interesting degree.

As you look into the center of the image you begin to see that the scene has many different layers to it. That is, as objects and people move across the frame, they do so on different planes, angles and heights. This is very exciting and in fact can create an amazingly complex composition. So what looks as something very ordinary and avoided, in fact, can yield something very interesting.

From the view above, I managed, in just the few minutes that I had, the following frame.

The Park by Asim Rafiqui 2011

Again, what I love about it is that many layers, the many different things taking place, all the way through towards the rear of the frame. As a photograph it takes time to examine, which is very exciting. If I had more time (hey, I was there with a 7-year-old in a frenzy to experience all 50 rides in the park in the same day!) I think even more complex frames could have been found.

The Idea Of India Project Updates: Photo Schematic #4

In The Idea Of India Project on April 26, 2011 at 2:11 pm

This situation is a race against time. An element that makes this entire situation worthy of exploring is the dusk sky that can be seen in at the top of the frame. If this goes black, the image is lost. My eye is on the lovely blue of the dusk sky, and my other eye is on my watch to see how much time I have to play here. Add to this the fact that I have to find movement within the frame, and that a person has to be present in that doorway with the lovely flourescent light. So once again, a number of things have to come together as I try to put this frame together, starting from the rear of the image which is the crucial element of the visible, dusk sky.

Of course, I should mention that this is a busy intersection near the Surat, Gujarat railways station and the rushing traffic – cars, taxis, rickshaws/CNGs, motorcycles, scooters, bicycles, pedestrians, State Transport buses, private buses, hand carts, camel carts, itinerant wanderers and the occasional curious Policeman, is a constant source of distraction and danger just behind where I am standing. The issue of distance to frame becomes key as well as anything close and the frame loses depth, and anything further and the proportions become pointless. Or at least to my eye they do. In this video I am still not quite at the perfect distance, but I am quite close. But I can’t really go further back without endangering myself and upsetting a lot of drivers. I don’t want to go any closer. I have negotiated this distance through stubbornness and reliance on the politeness of the drivers using the road.

Most all the elements are there, except for a small portion of the trees and cellular transmission pole on the top left. But I fear that I may not be able to do much about that in the final version either. But certainly the light is lovely, as since I am shooting daylight film, should offer a range of color tones across the entire frame – the yellow-red of the street lamp, the green (the color it will be rendered on day-light balanced film) of the flourescent light within the temple, and the soft dusk blues of the sky above. Lets see what I finally arrive at.