By Anna Suvrova
It is true that in our times a Sajjadanasheen may be in service in a temporal establishment, has a family and may not necessarily live in the Dargah. He is supposed to spend a few nights in a year at the Mazar of his ancestor saint, and participate in Maulud, ‘Urs and other festive ceremonies.
A great deal has been written about the cult of saints by Western travellers, the South Asian men of letters and publicists and, of course, by scholars: this phenomenon seemed to be too broad-based and picturesque to be ignored. Writers of the nineteenth to twentieth centuries passionately exposed the greediness and hypocrisy of Pırs, who made a fortune out of the blind faith and backwardness of the common people. Indeed, the wealth of major Dargahs was becoming more and more flagrantly incompatible with the principles of pious poverty (faqr), which the Sufis propagated, and with the destitution of the majority of pilgrims.
In contrast to the writers, South Asian politicians were compelled to take into consideration the important place the cult of a saint had in people’s consciousness. Thus, in January 1948 Mahatma Gandhi laid down as one of the conditions for breaking yet another of his fasts unto death the restoration of the tomb of Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki in Delhi, which was desecrated by Hindus and Sikhs during the murderous communal clashes accompanying the partition of India.
The first Prime Minister of India Jawaharlal Nehru, Nobel laureate Rabindranath Tagore and the founder of Pakistan Muhammad ‘Ali Jinnah have written about the value of the spiritual legacy of the saints for the culture of the independent states of the subcontinent. Today in Pakistan the veneration of saints is actively used as an important factor of national self-consciousness in the official cultural policy of the state. In programmatic official documents the reader is told that:
The bond between Islam and Pakistani culture was strengthened by the Sufis, saints and scholars. The Sufi poets used native metaphors, similes and love stories to spread the message of Islam. Even music, dance, painting and songs gave eternal life to some of philosophical dimensions of Islam ... It was the popular Islam with its intellectual dimensions that supported the establishment of an independent Pakistan and not the political Islam of the Mulla which had no cultural roots in this territory. (The Cultural Policy of Pakistan 1995: 18)
As a scholarly problem the cult of the saints attracted the attention of the researchers in the last century itself: many pioneers in the field of the study of culture and the literature of the subcontinent, including the outstanding French scholar Garcin de Tassy, German missionary Ernst Trump and the brilliant English anthropologist Richard Burton wrote about it. Naturally, the most significant contribution to the scientific study of the cult of saints was made by the scholars of India and Pakistan, who have published monuments of Sufi literature in Persian and Indian languages: poetical works (Kalam) and theological tracts (risala) of saints, voluminous hagiographic literature, including discourses (malfuzat), epistolary heritage (makta bat), saints’ lives (Manaqib), collections of saints’ biographies (tabaquat al-auliya) and also historical chronicles (tawarikh), which are the most authentic source of information about saints and the part they played in medieval society.
A special role in attracting Western scholars to this field of science was played by the works of the outstanding researcher of the history and culture of Islam, Annemarie Schimmel. Her numerous books and articles retrace the ‘generic’ characteristics of South Asian Islam and the cult of saints as well as their ‘specific’ local characteristics. Schimmel was one of the first to look at the history of Indian Islam and, in particular, its syncretic forms, from the point of view of typology, as mutually identified concepts, ‘facts with twin motivation’, and not as the result of external influences. She also has precedence in the study of Ziyarat in India and Pakistan: it can be said that she detached this problem from the field of ethnology and brought it to the arena of the science of religion.
Studies of the saints’ cult belong to the different fields of humanities. In the first instance these are Islamic and Sufi studies, for which this problem is important but nevertheless peripheral. Then follows ethnology, which studies popular religion with reference to its modern practice and rituals. Philology has made its own contribution in the study of Sufi literature and hagiography. Art criticism has also not remained aloof since many Mazars and Dargahs are of considerable interest as architectural monuments. To me, probably by force of personal predilections, a holistic approach of cultural anthropology seems to be most fruitful, which allows determining the place of the cult of saints in the culture of South Asia and its connection with other forms of spiritual and social life. For the arousal of interest in the tombs of Muslim saints I am obliged to the lasting impression left on me many years ago during my first visit to the Dargah of Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi.
It happens to be in the area of the capital now bearing the name of this saint and situated a little to the south of Shahjahanabad - the Delhi of the Great Mughals. Nevertheless, the hordes of tourists visiting the Red Fort and Jama‘Masjid do not drop in here. But it is exactly here that the genuine and not artificially restored medieval age reigns.
A dizzy sensation of breaking through the barrier of time is experienced by anyone who, with difficulty, elbows their way through the noisy crowd of pilgrims, holding in their hands heaps of rose-petals, among long-haired dervishes, wearing baggy caftans and high pointed caps (kulahas), and among loud-mouthed vendors of flowers, perfumes, beads, cheap popular prints, amulets and other ‘cult articles’.
From the row of stalls upwards in the direction of the fretted portal runs a round staircase, the steps of which have for ages been polished bright by hundreds of thousands of bare feet, and high in the doorway of the portal the delicate silhouette of the marble mausoleum shows through, as if painted on the silvery ‘backdrop’ of the sky of Delhi in winter. Most of the South Asian tombs have been built exactly like this, on hills, hillocks or artificial mounds, and their gold, snow-white, but more often green domes once upon a time dominated the squat urban buildings around them.
Multi-step staircases, leading to the tomb, are not only a constructional necessity: this is also an architecturally materialized metaphor of spiritual ascent, particularly difficult for the infirm and the cripple, a metaphor of both physical and internal upgrade, which has to be surmounted by the pilgrim in order to come nearer to the shrine. For that matter, the domes of maz rs and digraphs not only tower above urban blocks and ramparts of fortresses: they also enliven the landscape of the scorched Deccan plateau and deserts of Sind, the green fields of Punjab and the mountains of Baluchistan.
The historically formed combination of cube and sphere in the architecture of the Muslim tomb has found a corresponding mystic interpretation. In the figure of the cube is expressed the ideal combination of space, form and surface - this is a symbol of symmetry, equilibrium and stability. On the top the cube is crowned with a spherical dome, in other words, on a geometrical plane the circumference of the base of the dome rests on the square of the upper surface of the cube. In this way, in the space of the tomb square is transformed into circumference, which happens to be one of the metaphors of transformation of the soul of the mystic on the Path (Bakhtiar 1976: 85).
The symbolism of the dome is even more obvious: in it the Sufi concept of the unity of the centre, circumference and sphere is realized. The form and extent of the dome unfold from the pinnacle of the dome by movement downwards, gradually expanding, as the universe emanates from the primordial Existence along the ‘arc of descent’ (Tanazul); whereas by movement upwards they roll themselves up, tapering into the point of intersection of the axes at the pinnacle, which corresponds to mystic ascension along the ‘arc of ascent’ (Taraqqı), from diversity to primordial unity. It is natural that such integral architectural elements of the tomb as doors (Darwaza), portal (peshtq) and arcade (Aiwan) also had their Sufi connotations.
It is true that on the territory of the subcontinent we come across another architectural type of tomb at times - the so-called ‘residential’ tomb, an oblong building with a flat roof without a dome, with numerous halls and with towers or minarets at the four corners. ‘Residential’ tombs were built mainly on plains, near artificial reservoirs or on the intersection of axes of specially laid out parks. There are a lot of such tombs particularly in Punjab, and in recent times Sikh rulers and subsequently Englishmen also used them as their residences.
In Christian tradition the mode of behaviour of a pilgrim visiting a tomb demands reverential silence and outward restraint. In the Indian Dargahs, on the contrary, deafening noise and animated movements always reign, as in an Eastern bazaar. Bustle and hubbub reach their climax at the time of ‘Urs, when a special atmosphere of nervous but nonetheless festive tension, an atmosphere of expectation of miracle, comes into being in the Dargah.
It is absolutely contrary to the mournful and dismal mood which seizes the visitors of a Shi‘a Imam Bara. ‘Urs is an overcoming of physical death, a testimony of life after life and its meaning consists not in the mourning for the saint but in the joy from contact with his baraka. That is why near a tomb you will see neither tears nor hear sorrowful moans -here you will come across altogether different sounds.
One hears the disturbing roar of Tabla (drums), the long drawn-out moan of a harmonium, to the accompaniment of which singers, sitting near the entrance to the tomb, in chorus perform Quawwalı, religious songs in the saint’s honour.
Dervishes impetuously scurry about the place, their long curly hair drifting loose in all directions, their kulahs cocked to one side - this is not a tribute to foppery, although the word kajkulah (one wearing his cap awry) itself has acquired the meaning of a fop or dandy. This is a poetic image, which can be traced back to the Hadith ‘I saw my Lord in the form of a young man with his cap awry’ (Schimmel 1975: 290). 19
Dervishes keep on shouting at fidgety and muddle-headed pilgrims, telling them to make haste: to make a bow quickly at the threshold, to enter the stuffy perfumed dusk of the tomb, throw a handful of petals on it and come out again, into the crush of human hustle and bustle around the Mazar. In the courtyard pilgrims shout themselves hoarse, as if trying to make themselves heard by the saint, mutter prayers and join in the general hubbub.
Inside the tomb, they restrain their ardour to some extent, but still do not shut their mouths: the loud cacophony typical of a fair is replaced by a monotonous hum. In a word, it is perhaps possible to find reverential silence in a Dargah only in the morning on weekdays, when pilgrims are either sleeping or eating, dervishes are sitting in their cells and attendants are busy about the house.
As a woman, my entry into the sanctum is prohibited: I can see the sheet of brocade covering the tomb, overlain with rose-petals, only through fretted lattice. While I try to make out something in the faint, shimmering light and to catch something coherent in the discordant chorus of voices, the Pır, Khwaja Hasan Thani Nizami, makes his appearance.
His spiritual genealogy, Nizamiyya (one of the two branches of the maternal fraternity Chishtiyya), goes back to Nizamuddin Auliya himself. The word Thanı (‘Second’) in the pır’s name signifies that he has succeeded to his father Khwaja Hasan Nizami the first (1879-1955), who happily combined the mission of a mystic with the career of a journalist, writer and scholar (Khwaja Hasan 1987).
In the presence of the Sajjada Nasheen the deafening hubbub quietens down a little and the chaotic turbulence of people is put in order. From all directions people reach out to him for a blessing. Whether radiating baraka, charisma, or simple human charm, he makes the round of his domains, coming to a stop for a short while with everyone who craves his attention.
For common people Pır is a living successor of the saint and bearer of his bliss; they come to him to get their physical and spiritual infirmities healed, from him they seek directions in matters of faith and practical advice, right up to the question of whom to vote for in the next elections. It is from the meetings and conversations with this descendent of a saint and the custodian of his heritage that the conception for this book came into existence.
Anna Suvorova is the Head of the Department of Asian Literature at the Institute of Oriental Studies (Russian Academy of Sciences), Professor of Indo-Islamic culture at the Institute of Oriental and classical cultures (Russian State University for the Humanities), member of the International faculty in National College of Arts (Pakistan), fellow of Academic Advisory Board, Centre for Study of Gender and Culture (Pakistan), fellow of Royal Asiatic Society (UK).
Other Parts of the Book, Muslim Saints of South Asia: