"How do you explain a Muslim Goddess worshipped in Bengal?"

Jan 23, 2013, 00:08 IST | Fiona Fernandez

Saba Naqvi's In Good Faith will come as a surprise for many, and a shock for a few. In these inexplicable times, her book unravels the unknown, unseen and rarely spoken about India, where its communities and their intermingling of faith make for terrific lessons in tolerance and community living. Fiona Fernandez finds out more about her journey through this 'other' India

How did you get hooked on to work on a book that looks closely at intricacies of belief and discovery amid India’s maze of little towns and villages, communities and religions?
I come from a mixed background and the question of identities, pluralism has always engaged me, especially in the context of Hindu and Muslim stereotypes. I wanted to make a point that there is so much more in this amazing country of ours. As I travelled I discovered more and more unusual things. How do you explain to people that there is a “Muslim Goddess” who is worshipped in Bengal, that there are communities who have both Hindu and Muslim identities.

An Indian burqa-clad Muslim woman and her son walk past idols of Hindu elephant God Lord Ganesh on sale at a roadside in The Dhoolpet District of Hyderabad. PICS/AFP

What were some of the initial challenges that you faced while working on the structure of this book, since it wasn’t one story at length?
This journey began 20 years ago. I have struggled with this book and the structure. Initially, I wanted to write an academic work but as I matured as a journalist I recognised that the more accessible format for ordinary readers is just to tell the stories as they are on the ground and to write them up as shirt essays and also my own reflections on what I find across India.

Looking back, which sections/chapters were the toughest to tackle?
Each section represented challenges. I wish I had travelled more in south India though I have essays from each of the southern states. I certainly covered Bengal, Maharashtra and UP more thoroughly. Kashmir was a challenge because there is such a rich plural culture there but so much is also lost. I think I have written in the book — “In Kashmir, we can contemplate both the making and unmaking of a composite culture...it is so beautiful that it is
also painful.”

What were some of the fascinating discoveries/anecdotes that you stumbled upon in course of your research?
For me, personally, it was the discovery that in Andhra Pradesh people are ‘celebrating Mohorram.’ From my father’s side, we are a Shia Muslim family and it was quite fantastic to see the transformation from the bloody Mohorram procession in Hyderabad to the tribal celebration in interior parts of the state. Also the chapter — Mountain comes to Mohammad, was fascinating.

Manganiyar musicians seen here perform live at an international festival in Sydney, Australia. These musicians hail from Rajasthan and profess Islam but have a lifestyle that is remarkably similar to that of Hindus.

Could you tell us a bit about your favourite chapter in the book.
One of my favourite chapters is Hindu warrior, Muslim saint that briefly examines some unknown aspects of Shivaji such as his family’s linkage to a Sufi saint. It then looks at how the Shirdi tradition is now part of the Hindu pantheon although he is believed to have been a wandering fakir. Both these figures are part of the national imagination and not limited to Maharashtra and it’s interesting to examine how the story is told.

Face the faith facts
> The Vailankanni Church in Tamil Nadu attracts about two million pilgrims across faiths, every year.
>The Srirangam Temple in Tiruchirapalli houses Lord Vishnu and his Muslim consort, Thulukka Nachiyar.
> The Patachitra painters of Bengal live on the periphery of two religions and have adapted the best of both Hinduism and Islam.
> The Ramdeora shrine in Jaisalmer district is the main pilgrimage centre of the Ramdeo Baba cult, which is popular with Dalits and lower castes.
> The Kanifnath Kanobha shrine in Maharashtra’s Ahmadnagar district was originally a mazhar.
> Makeshift temples of the Muslim goddess, Bonbibi, line the Sundarban forests.

Extracts> A hindu warrior and a muslim saint
There are two historical figures from Maharashtra who have steadily captured the nation's imagination. The first is the seventeenth-century Maratha chieftain, Shivaji, whose battles against the Mughal rulers are the stuff of folklore across India. The second is a Muslim fakir who died as recently as 1918 in the little town of Shirdi in Maharashtra. Known simply as the Shirdi Sai Baba, he became a pan-India God-like figure in a remarkably short time and has been virtually incorporated into the Hindu pantheon. Both men are extraordinary figures, not so much because of the lives they led, but because of the impact their legends and myths have had on public imagination in contemporary India.

Shivaji is represented as a military hero, his adventures against the Mughal armies posited as a Hindu-Muslim battle. He cuts an appealing figure because he is the underdog, a David-like figure up against the mighty Goliath of the Mughal Empire. The Shiv Sena takes its name from Shivaji and not the Hindu God, Shiva. Historians have long challenged the myths created around Shivaji by Hindu ideologues. They have argued that his fabled encounters with Mughal kings were a straightforward territorial contest and not the Hindu version of a holy war. Moreover, Shivaji’s father, Shahaji Bhonsle served the Muslim Adil Shahi kings of Bijapur for years and was one of the kingdom’s most powerful generals.

In Good Faith, Saba Naqvi, Rupa, R395. Available at leading bookstores

But what is less known is that Shivaji had deep links with the Sufi saints who were active in the region. If anything, it is this association that raises interesting questions and perhaps challenges the fundamentalists’ appropriation of Shivaji as an anti-Muslim hero. Shivaji’s grandfather, Maloji Bhonsle, had begun the family tradition of consulting Sufi saints. He had particular faith in a saint who lived near Ahmadnagar, named Shah Sharief, whose blessings he sought to have children. So when Maloji did eventually have two sons, he named them after the Sufi saint-Shahaji, who was Shivaji’s father, and his uncle, Serfoji. And Shivaji himself was particularly close to a Sufi saint named Sayed Yaqub, whom he would often consult before launching a military campaign.

These are all historically recorded details, but what is startling is that unless one sets out to search for such information, it remains virtually unknown across India. These fascinating details came my way thanks to a chance meeting with Dr PV Ranade, former Head of the History Department of Marathwada University in Aurangabad. When we met in 1993 for the first time, Dr Ranade was despairing that even the so-called ‘secular historians’ have chosen to ignore some of these facts. In the political climate of Maharashtra, Shivaji was not open to historical scrutiny-many intellectuals, scholars and historians had been attacked for suggesting anything contrary to the popular myths prevalent in the State.

Dr Ranade cited several sources to maintain that the Sufis had struck deep roots in the Maharashtra hinterland. In a paper on the parallels between Sufism and Vedanta, he wrote: ‘The spiritual authority of the Sufis extended to almost all the houses of the landed aristocracy. Shivaji’s father and uncle carried the celebrated name of Shah Sharief, the Sufi saint of Ahmadnagar, on their person.’ The Shah Sharief shrine still preserves the originals of a huge land grant made by Maloji.

Shivaji’s grandfather had also gifted land to another prominent Sufi named Sheikh Mohammad, who set up base in Shrigonda, 70 kilometres from Ahmadnagar. There he wrote numerous works in Marathi such as Pavan Vijay, Bhakti Bodh and Achar Bodh. His landmark Marathi work, however, was the Yoga Sangram, which drew parallels between Sufism and Vedanta and freely combined the diction of Muslim and Hindu scriptures. Sheikh Mohammad’s works were given pride of place by the Hindu Bhakti saints and are believed to have inspired Eknath, the greatest Bhakti figure from Maharashtra.

In an article titled ‘Binocular Glossary of Vedanta and the Tasawuf of Sheikh Mohammad’, Dr Ranade writes: ‘Sheikh Mohammad did his job so very ably that his works were accorded almost a holy sanction in the Maharashtrian Warakari silsila. In fact, the poet Saint Samarth Ramdas, who is believed to have been the spiritual mentor of Shivaji, paid salutation to Sheikh Mohammad in the following words: “Glory to Sheikh Mohammad, you have unfolded the mystery of the universe in such diction and style that it baffles the reason and logic of ordinary mortals… I will carry the sacred dust raised by your feet on my head.’ ”

This marvellous confluence between Bhakti and Sufi is part of Maharashtra’s heritage. And even today, it remains alive in parts of the State. At Sheikh Mohammad’s dargah at Shrigonda, one of his followers, Sheikh Maqbool, still recites the Yoga Sangram daily before a village audience of both Hindus and Muslims. He recites in Marathi: ‘The Vedas and Puranas tell us that he who respects the name of Hari will be blessed…’ The namaz follows this extraordinary recitation.

There is, therefore, another side to Chhatrapati Shivaji, a narrative that has never been able to evolve or the story told. All of this must force us to confront the reality that history is often told in ways to confirm stereotypes and prejudices.
Extracted with permission from Rupa Publications. 

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