The Powerful Ephemeral: Everyday Healing in an Ambiguously Islamic Place / Edition 1 available in Paperback
The violent partitioning of British
India along religious lines and ongoing communalist aggression have compelled
Indian citizens to contend with the notion that an exclusive, fixed religious identity is fundamental to selfhood. Even so, Muslim saint shrines known as dargahs attract a religiously diverse range of pilgrims.
In this accessible and groundbreaking ethnography, Carla Bellamy traces the long-term healing processes of Muslim and Hindu devotees of a complex of dargahs in northwestern
India. Drawing on pilgrims’ narratives, ritual and everyday practices, archival documents, and popular publications in Hindi and Urdu, Bellamy considers questions about the nature of religion in general and
Indian religion in particular. Grounded in stories from individual lives and experiences, The Powerful Ephemeral offers not only a humane, highly readable portrait of dargah culture, but also new insight into notions of selfhood and religious difference in contemporary
About the Author
Carla Bellamy is Assistant Professor of South Asian Religion at Baruch College.
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The Powerful Ephemeral
Everyday Healing in an Ambiguously Islamic Place
By Carla Bellamy
UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESSCopyright © 2011 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
The Making of a Pilgrimage and a Pilgrimage Center
Jaora, the town in western Madhya Pradesh that is home to Husain Tekri, is almost well connected with the rest of India by rail. Although some say a major wide-gauge railway station will soon grace the outskirts of the town, significantly improving employment prospects for the economically depressed town's young men, for the time being, travelers from Rajasthan typically roll slowly into Jaora's narrow-gauge railway station. From Jaora the narrow-gauge line eventually makes its way to the renowned Chishti dargah in the city of Ajmer, making it convenient, and therefore common, for pilgrims to visit both the Chishti shrine and the shrines of Husain Tekri in a single trip. For travelers from the rest of India, Jaora is most easily accessible from the city of Ratlam, a stop on all of the major routes on the Delhi-Bombay spoke of India Railways. Jaora is a bumpy one-hour bus ride from Ratlam station. Whether one arrives in Jaora by bus or train, options for the several-mile ride through the town to the shrines of Husain Tekri are limited to an auto rickshaw or the significantly cheaper, slower, and more pleasant horse-drawn tonga.
Sprawling out from the old part of town are Jaora's new poured-concrete suburbs; like suburbs everywhere, they are comfortable, lacking in deep history, affluent, and homogeneous. The route to Husain Tekri from the train and bus station bypasses the suburbs almost completely, instead passing through the winding streets of the old town's bazaars and whitewashed buildings with dilapidated wooden balconies. In these older neighborhoods, religious structures of all kinds are remarkably unobtrusive; as Catherine Asher has shown in the context of Jaipur, Hindu and Jain temples built in the regional style often mimicked home or haveli (mansion) architecture. Similarly, while modest minarets mark local mosques, imambaras built to contain each Muslim community's ta'ziya, or model of the tombs of the martyrs of Karbala, are unadorned and unobtrusive.
As the road to Husain Tekri passes over a bridge, the pilgrim is confronted with two uncharacteristically large religious buildings, unlike those in the old part of Jaora: on the le side of the river, a large Hindu temple topped with a massive sikhara towers over the crumbling old buildings that line the rest of the riverbank. Directly across the river, a brightly painted mosque known locally as the "government mosque" is small in comparison, but it has recently acquired backup: the massive half-finished poured-concrete minaret looming behind it stands as a relatively recent response to the towering white temple. To the right, on the other side of the bridge, the magnificent white haveli of the descendants of a Hindu Rajput thakur (lord) who once donated land to Husain Tekri stands at the top of a cliff overlooking a water tank that, other than a few glorious weeks during a good monsoon season, is a cesspool of rank water used by local dhobis (washermen).
In conversations with me, Jaora residents often mentioned this cross-river conversation between temple and mosque as evidence of the religious tolerance that flourishes in their town. This very well may be the case. However, the thakur's monumental, whitewashed residence faces the temple across the water tank, and some now-defunct buildings bearing the seal of the former Muslim princely state of Jaora sit just downriver from the government mosque. Given their size and their proximity to buildings that, until Independence, were home to two rivals for power, it is also possible that these two religious structures could be read instead as expressions of communalism.
Just after the bridge, the road winds past a Bohra enclave and on to the small neighborhood of Chippapura, home to Jaora's Chippa Muslim community. Religiously, Chippas self-identify as converts to Sunni Islam many generations ago; they still bear the jati (birth-based community) name that indicates their traditional profession of block printing cloth. Chippapura is my home in Jaora; an Internet search in 2002 put me in contact with Ghulam Chippa, a former resident of Chippapura who now works in Toronto as an engineer. It was through Ghulam Chippa that I met his sister, Khadija, in whose home I lived during my initial and follow-up research. I shared this space with an extended family of eight adults and four children aged three to twelve, to which a new daughter was added during my initial research, bringing the population of the home, including myself, to fourteen. One of Khadija's married daughters, who, as is common among both Muslims and some Hindus, came back to her natal home for the birth of her first child, was also resident for several months. Further, as is usual in Indian households, visiting relatives are a fact of life, and so to this large family was added a steady stream of relatives from places as far-flung as Pakistan and as near as the cities of Mandsore (home to Khadija's oldest daughter) and Ahmedabad (which has a major Chippa population). The family is working class; Khadija's sons are local goods carriers and own two small trucks, the cabs of which are endearingly emblazoned with the motto "sabr se," or "with patience," a fine philosophy indeed for those who brave Indian roads. The family income is supplemented by one of the sons, who has a part-time job as the driver for a local upper-class family, and until recently the youngest, just-married daughter was a teacher at a local elementary school, which is run by her uncle. The day-to-day experience of being part of this family's life significantly shaped my perspective on the everyday lives of the pilgrims whose healing processes I sought to understand.
Just beyond my home in Chippapura, the road passes through a small-scale version of the cross-river standoff: a diminutive green-tiled tomb of a local Sufi saint faces an equally diminutive Hindu temple to Hanuman directly across the road. Such pairings of Sufi shrines and temples to Hanuman or to the Goddess are not uncommon; as previous scholarship has demonstrated, Sufi saints can be associated with a local goddess through marriage, and more generally, goddesses, Hanuman, and Sufi saints often engage in the same kinds of healing work based on spirit possession. Similar to the cross-river mosque-temple conversation as interpreted by Jaora's residents, these goddess/Hanuman/Sufi saint shrine confluences are popularly read as laudable expressions of religious tolerance. Regarding a similar dargah-temple confluence in a nearby village, Jaora's local newspaper ran a story with the following lengthy headline during my follow-up research: "One way, a dargah, and the other way, Hanuman ji/Hindu worship and Muslim worship happen side by side/In the village of Lalakheri, the court of [sufi saint] Taj ud Din/A rare example of Hindu-Muslim unity." The story describes the apparently amicable relationship between the shrine to the saint Tj ud Din and a shrine built to honor not just the Hindu god Hanuman, but also the goddess Ambemata (Durga). As does the general population, the popular press often chooses to read dargahs as geographies of tolerance. While some scholars also favor this interpretation, others suggest the opposite and instead read dargahs as geographies of communalism. Neither interpretation, as I came to understand, tells the full story.
Soon after Jaora's own dargah-temple cross-street conversation, the ragged, ever-expanding edge of the town dissolves, giving way to farmland sprinkled with shaggy date palms and the occasional majestic tree. From here, highlights on the road to Husain Tekri include a large cemetery and many of the less salubrious by-products of urban life: the town dump, a muddy swamp that occasionally offers respite from the heat to local water buffalo, and, finally, in disconcertingly close proximity to one another, a petrol pump and a local liquor store. The left fork in the road just after the petrol pump leads to Husain Tekri.
Husain Tekri has currently grown to a collection of six shrines, which pilgrims commonly refer to as rauzas. Each rauza is erected in the name of an important member of the early Muslim community, all of whom date from the first Islamic century: 'Ali, Husain, 'Abbas, Sakina, Zaineb, and Fatima. Beyond these formally delineated religious spaces, it is difficult to know where or how to draw a line that circumscribes Husain Tekri's geography. At this point, Husain Tekri has all the makings of a town: it has a post office branch and a police thana (station), and there are two "doctors" in residence who dispense medication and offer injections using needles of questionable cleanliness. Originally, Husain Tekri was founded as a Muslim charitable trust, or waqf. Recent waqf board documents claim ownership of seventeen lodges containing a total of 213 rooms that range in price from 5 to 100 rupees a night; the documents also claim a total of "230 homes and shops (including both concrete structures [pakka] and shacks [kacca])," the proprietors of which pay rent to the waqf board. As a result of a major change of management several years ago, an old policy has been reinstituted to keep pilgrims from becoming permanent residents at Husain Tekri: after thirty-five days, the rent on the room increases by 50 percent; after sixty-five days, the original rent is doubled; and after this the pilgrim must leave waqf housing for eight days, at which point they can reenter at the original rent and begin a new cycle. Private lodges, of which there are about eighteen, have no formal residency policy; the pilgrim can stay as long as he or she is able to pay.
Though it is not noted in the waqf documentation, many of the temporary shops unofficially rent out their space to pilgrims, making the number of individuals resident at Husain Tekri at any time almost impossible to estimate, particularly since many pilgrims simply camp. Given the number of rooms in the waqf and private lodges, the stores' floor space, the fact that many individuals camp, and the fact that almost no one arrives alone (making each room home to a minimum of two people), it is certain that there are at least 750 people resident at Husain Tekri at any given time. In fact, a common lament is that in recent years Husain Tekri has become a small town (qasba), and that this increase in population has reduced people's fear of the shrines, thus negatively impacting their efficacy.
While it is true that Husain Tekri has grown significantly in the past fifty years, it is unclear when, exactly, the majority of the growth took place. E'jaz e Husain (The Miraculous Cure of Husain), a guidebook to Husain Tekri published in 1946 by a Hyderabad-based press, notes a total of forty-six lodge rooms, adding that an additional twenty rooms were due to be completed. is means that between 1946 and 2005, approximately 147 rooms were added. My own survey of the extant lodges suggested that all but twenty of the rooms were constructed fifty or more years ago, though the waqf board was unable to produce documentation of the exact date of construction of many of the lodges. If true, this means that there must have been an extraordinary building streak from 1945 to 1955. The E'jaze Husain also lists a three-tier rental policy identical to the one recently enforced by the new management of Husain Tekri, which suggests that despite current expressions of dismay about the "settled" character of Husain Tekri, the concern about individuals becoming permanent residents has been around for some time.
Compared to the waqf-owned lodges, the private lodges are a more recent phenomenon. Lodge owners were often reluctant to disclose information about their businesses, but the style and condition of the lodges suggest that they are fairly new, and the information I gathered confirmed this impression. Of the thirteen owners whose information I was able to collect, one had built his lodge in 1984 and the rest had built theirs between 1990 and 2002. Reasons for building the lodges varied: six owners cited failed farms (largely due to prolonged drought); one indicated that the lodge was his legacy because he did not have children; one said that he had moved to Husain Tekri because the drug dealers in his old neighborhood in Jaora had made the neighborhood uninhabitable; and the rest simply saw their lodges as businesses like any other. The private lodges, then, were built largely in response to changing financial circumstances. The growth in the number of shops that line the road that links the rauzas is impossible to measure because most of them are ramshackle sheds, though the very fact that many of them are not permanent concrete structures suggests that the vast majority are recent constructions. Shopkeepers themselves overwhelmingly indicated that the most of the shops have sprung up in the past ten years or so.
The rauzas also reflect Husain Tekri's slow expansion over time. According to a recent official waqf report, the largest rauza, that of Imam Husain (as it is formally known), was constructed in 1918 with funds donated by the Bombay-based merchant (seth) Haji Ismail Muhammad, and the rauza of Hazrat 'Abbas (as it is formally known) was built in 1923 by a Bombay-based merchant known as Aladin Sahib. The most recent guidebook to Husain Tekri (published in 2003), citing the history Tarikh e Jaora (History of Jaora), credits the construction of both of these rauzas to Ismail Muhammad, stating that their construction began in 1888. The Tarikh e Jaora itself, which was originally published in Urdu in January 1947, notes 1888 as the date of the start of construction of a rauza, though it states neither the donors' names nor the names of the rauzas.
In any case, it seems that by the early twentieth century, several rauzas had been constructed next to the water sources where the miraculous events of Muharram in 1886 were understood to have taken place. The oldest record of Husain Tekri's founding comes from the Tarikh e Yusufi, a history of the princely state of Jaora commissioned by the royal family and published in 1889. In this version of the story there is no mention of the construction of any rauzas, and the discussion of Husain Tekri's origins ends almost immediately after it relates the events that led to the founding of Husain Tekri, which the text places in the year 1304 Hijri, or 1886. By 1920, after the construction of the rauza of Imam Husain, the reputation of the sitemusthavebeenwellestablished:aletterhousedintheNationalArchives in Delhi records a donation of land made by the thakur Roop Singh of Shujaota to Husain Tekri Sharif. While British documents in the archive indicate that this donation was made as part of a resolution to a land dispute between the thakur and the nawab that had dragged on for several decades, the thakur's letter of donation mentions none of this, instead stating that the thakur "has heard that Husain Tekri Sharif is in need of land for making additions, [and] because this humble petitioner has a special faith in Imam Husain, I wish to contribute to this worthy cause so that, by means of this gift, there may be blessing and plentitude." Singh's descendants, who live in their ancestral home in Jaora, confirmed that the family had indeed donated to Husain Tekri, though they noted that their family made significant donations to all of Jaora's major religious institutions. As has been argued elsewhere, many Indian "religious" institutions were important sites for displays of cross-tradition alliances; Husain Tekri was clearly part of this phenomenon.
It is certain that donors to the rauzas of Imam Husain and Hazrat 'Abbas were Khoja, a jati-based community of Muslims. Interviews I conducted with some of the descendants of Ismail Muhammad confirm the scholarly consensus that the nineteenth century was a tumultuous time in the lives of Bombay Khojas; the arrival of the Aga Khan and his attempt to win the backing of the Ismaili community created divisions within the community, ultimately leading to a clear delineation of the three Khoja factions present in contemporary India: Ithna 'Ashari, Nizari Ismaili, and Sunni. us, as Nazim Ismail, a descendant of Ismail Muhammad, explained to me in an interview conducted in Bombay in the summer of 2005, "Some of us became strong followers of the Aga Khan, and some of us did not."
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Table of Contents
ContentsList of Illustrations, ix,
Note on Orthography, xv,
Introduction. Ambiguity: Husain Tekri and Indian Dargah Culture, 1,
1. Place: The Making of a Pilgrimage and a Pilgrimage Center, 31,
2. People: The Tale of the Four Virtuous Women, 49,
3. Absence: Loban, Volunteerism, and Abundance, 94,
4. Presence: The Work and Workings of Haziri, 129,
5. Personae: Transgression, Otherness, Cosmopolitanism, and Kinship, 172,
Conclusion. The Powerful Ephemeral: Dargah Culture in Contemporary India, 215,
Appendix A. Tarikh e Yusufi, 221,
Appendix B. Husain Tekri Kya Hai?, 223,