Little traditions in composite India

Little traditions in composite India

Last Updated: Thu, Jan 10, 2013 02:32 hrs

The Patachitra painters of Midnapur district of West Bengal are Muslims who depict Hindu gods and goddesses and sing devotional songs that accompany these paintings. They have a “fluid identity”: a professional name that is Hindu and a “real” name that is Muslim. In the Sundarbans of Bengal, there is a Muslim goddess, Bonbibi, who resembles the various Shakti deities and is a product of the harsh and perilous environment. In large parts of Andhra Pradesh, Muharram, a period of sorrow and lamentation for Muslims, is “celebrated” by diverse Hindu tribal communities, with songs recalling the battle of Karbala and the martyrdom of Imam Hussain. In Odisha, the procession of Lord Jagannath, on its return journey, pauses every year at the samadhi of his Muslim bhakt, Salebeg, a Mughal nobleman who composed hundreds of bhajans recited across the state today.

These and similar stories are narrated throughout the book, a product of Saba Naqvi’s extensive travels across the country over the past 20 years. In every corner of the nation, she has discovered evidence of syncretic traditions and shared beliefs and practices that are at odds with present-day immutable communal dichotomies. Ms Naqvi embellishes her lucid descriptions of different temples, shrines and practices with wonderful stories that surround their origin, supplemented with references from local scholars and archives.

These traditions obviously emerged from communities located far from metropolitan and urban centres. In fact, it was very likely that their religious identity was readily superseded by the more basic and urgent need to survive in a dangerous and an inherently iniquitous order that was exploitative of the weak. Ordinary people, therefore, sought protection in the arms of gods and goddesses and in miracles from the shrines of saints.

India has an extraordinary wealth of such cultural pockets made up of little traditions that constitute the colourful tapestry of the country’s composite culture. Such traditions include the association of Lord Vishnu with a Muslim consort, Thulukka Nachiyar (a respected Muslim lady in Tamil), in Srirangam temple in Tiruchirapalli. In Rajasthan, the Langa and Manganaiar are Muslims who sing bhajans composed by Bhakti saints. Again, Rajasthan has five major folk gods, of which two, Gogaji and Ramdeoji, are worshipped by Muslims. Important symbols of Hindu-Muslim synthesis in Assam are the devotional songs, called zikirs, composed in Assamese by the sufi saint Azan Fakir.

Across India, there is evidence of firmly held faith in saints from the Sufi and Bhakti traditions. Besides the shrines at Ajmer and Nizamuddin, one of the most important amongst them is the dargah of Waris Ali Shah, outside Lucknow, which draws thousands of Hindus and Muslims due to the “magical powers” associated with it. In Lucknow, we have the dargah of Khamman Pir, considered the patron-saint of coolies, railway platform vendors and engine drivers: trains slow down when they near the shrine and engine drivers bow their heads in veneration.

Today, these age-old cross-denominational beliefs and practices are being threatened by the determined insistence on exclusiveness and separateness on the Hindu side and purity of faith among Muslims. In Maharashtra, as Ms Naqvi points out, the Shiv Sena has taken the lead in converting the dargah of a sufi saint, Kanifnath Kanobha, in Ahmadnagar, into a temple. According to earlier records, this dargah was that of a “Musalman-Hindu saint” who flourished in the region in the 14th century. Now, the shrine has a trishul, a temple bell and images of Hindu divinities, with no trace being left of its Muslim origin.

Ms Naqvi looks at the situation in Kashmir with anguish where “we can contemplate both the making and the unmaking of a composite culture”. The sufi character of the state has been systematically attacked by hardline Muslim groups, while the shared traditions have been diluted by Hindutva. For instance, according to a 400-year-old tradition, the Amarnath cave, the home of Lord Shiva, was discovered by a Muslim shepherd, Adam Malik, after which his descendants became the caretakers of the cave and obtained a third of the pilgrims’ offerings. This tradition has now been challenged by the votaries of Hindutva, who argue that the cave has been consistently visited by pilgrims for over 2,000 years.

The book throws a welcome spotlight on the beliefs, practices and shrines that exist across the country, bravely asserting the composite culture that has been the Indian reality for several centuries. We share the author’s anxiety at the concerted attempts being made to undermine these traditions and to replace them with an alternative narrative that is harder, more sharply defined and much less accommodative. We can only hope she is right when she says that the various sufi shrines across our country will eventually expel fundamentalist forces, for these traditions, as Ms Naqvi says, “transcend religious boundaries and epitomise the rich cultural landscape of India”.

The reviewer was India’s Ambassador to Saudi Arabia, Oman and the UAE

Saba Naqvi
Rainlight/Rupa Publications
191 pages; Rs 395

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