Every Thursday evening crowds mill around the dargah of Baba Jeewan Shah in the heart of Jammu. From their dress, most visitors seem to be Hindus, the vast majority being women. Many of them look middle-class and probably ‘upper’ caste as well, although some seem from more humble families. Pilgrims stream into the shrine, which is draped with a green cloth and surrounded by a marble screen. In the courtyard, a Hindu lad wearing a Muslim-style cap, a disciple of the Muslim custodian of the shrine, distributes sweetened puffed rice, while a group of Hindu and Muslim women sit around and chat. In a small room that opens out into the courtyard Aslam Sahib, the custodian, sits on a mattress, surrounded by a crowd of women and a few young men. They approach him in turn, explain to him their requests or problems, and he responds with a prayer and instruction.
P is a regular visitor to the shrine. She is a Punjabi Hindu, and her family migrated to Jammu from Lahore in the wake of the Partition. She teaches at a government school is also involved in a local Gandhian welfare organisation. She first heard about the shrine from her aunt, and after visiting the first time felt solace and comfort which drew her back to it. She visits temples as well, and argues that for her God is not restricted to only one sort of place of worship. ‘He is everywhere, even inside your own heart, so you don’t need to go to a temple or shrine or mosque to find Him’, she explains, although she continues to visit the shrine because she experiences a deep sense of peace there.
P believes that the Sufi saints incarnations (avatar) of God. She sees Baba Jiwan Shah as a powerful, yet loving, being. But more than providing access to a source of power, the dargah also affords her a release from the tensions of the day-to-day world. When she feels depressed, she says, she visits the dargah, where she pours out her woes to the buried saint. There she also seeks the advice of Aslam, the custodian, whom she regards as an ‘uncle’. Aslam speaks to her as a friend, and there is nothing specifically ‘Islamic’ in the advice or suggestions that he provides her. ‘He tells me to be good, to refrain from bad things, to lead a pure life. He never seeks to impose his religion or to denigrate other religions’, she says.
P identifies herself as a Hindu, but is critical of Hindu groups that preach hatred for other communities. ‘There is no difference between the RSS and the Jama‘at-i Islami’, she says. ‘Both preach hatred and intolerance’. As she sees it, one need not restrict oneself exclusively to the religion one is born in. ‘There’s no harm at all in taking good things from other religions as well’, she explains. And for this, she says, dargahs provide the ideal platform. It is only in dargahs, she points out, that people of different communities gather together to worship. She speaks about the several Muslim friends she has made whom she first met at the dargah of Baba Jeewan Shah. She also refers to the practice of ‘high’ caste Hindus, Dalits and Muslims eating together in the langar or the dargah’s community kitchen. ‘It’s such a wonderful feeling—us worshipping together in the shrine’, she says, contrasting this with the deeply held negative stereotypes that many Hindus and Muslims share of each other.
Her husband, P tells me, is a staunch BJP supporter. In his younger days he also used to attend the RSS shakha. They keep squabbling, she says, about politics. Yet, she says, whenever he comes to pick her up from the dargah he also goes inside to pay his respects to Baba Jeewan Shah. ‘True men of God have no religion or caste’, she opines as I try to figure out her husband’s rather inexplicable behaviour.
I met T at the sprawling Nath monastery of Pir Khoh, perched on a hillock on the outskirts of Jammu town. He is a sadhu of the Nath order and lives in the monastery. I ask him how the monastery got its very Muslim-sounding name and the head of the monastery the title of pir. I tell him that I am familiar with one version of the popular story about Sidh Gharib Nath’s friendship with the Pir Mitha (see above), and I ask him if he is familiar with it. T does not seem to agree with the story, and tells me a different version of the legend instead.
Many centuries ago (T is not sure when), the son of the Mughal ‘emperor’ of Kabul died in his infancy. The distraught ‘emperor’ desperately tried every available means to revive him, but to no avail. He ordered all the sadhus in his kingdom to come to his court and try to bring his son back to life. When this also failed, he locked them all up in prison. When the great Guru Gorakhnath heard of this he instructed his disciple Baba Rattan Nath to go to Kabul. When Rattan arrived at the palace of the ‘emperor’ he tried to revive the child by taking the name of various deities, but nothing happened. Then, all of a sudden, he slapped the child and he came back to life again. Witnessing this miracle, the ‘emperor’ granted Ratan Nath the title of piron ka pir or the ‘pir of pirs’. And that is why, T says, the heads of the Nath monastery are also called pirs.
I tell T that I’ve been to the shrine of Baba Rattan in Bhatinda, a Muslim-style grave looked after by a Muslim custodian. I tell him of the different stories I have heard about the Baba: that he was the only Indian companion of the Prophet Muhammad; that he lived for seven hundred years; that he travelled all the way to Mecca and became a Muslim at the hands of Muhammad himself; that he was half-Muslim and half-Hindu; that he was a crypto-Ismai‘li, and so on. T, however, is not interested in the different theories that I offer. He insists on the veracity of his own story of the Baba, which, I think, is deliberately intended to assert the claim of the superiority of Hindus over Muslims. T denies this, however, and says that if that were the case Pir Mitha and Sidh Gharib Nath would not have lived together in the cave of Pir Khoh.
I tell T that I have heard that till some three decades ago the Muslim custodian of the dargah of Pir Mitha and the head of the Pir Khoh monastery would often meet, and that there were ritual exchanges between the two shrines on holy days. ‘Yes, yes’, T tells me, ‘at that time there was not so much rivalry between Hindus and Muslims’. I ask him why the tradition cannot be revived today. T thinks for a while and says, ‘I suppose we are now all so busy with our own work’. He points to the sprawling temple, with marble floors and gaudy statues of a range of deities, and a large crowd of worshippers streaming in. ‘As you can see’, he tells me, ‘ the work in the temple keeps us busy all day, leaving us no time to do anything else’.
This is Part IV of a VIII Part series by Yoginder Sikand, first published in 2010