Tuesday, July 15, 2008

A Pir and his Possessions

Amidst the crowded by-lanes of Old Ahmedabad city, in an obscure corner, lies the Pir Mohammad Shah Dargah Trust. You may almost miss its entrance – an ancient stone and mortar arched doorway, partly hidden by the motley shops sprawled around it. Inside the gate lie the dargah, masjid and qutubkhana (library) complex.

Born in 1689 in the Bijapur city of Karnataka, Pir Mohammad Shah was a Hussaini Sayyed and a well-respected sufi who lived in Ahmedabad during the rule of Aurangzeb. His parents emigrated from the holy city of Medina and settled in Bijapur where he was born. His father died before his birth and his uncle, Abd ur-Rehman – a sufi belonging to the lineage of Shaikh Abd ul-Qadri Jilani of Baghdad, trained the young Mohammad Shah in religious scholarship and practical Sufism. The Pir memorized the Quran at the young age of seven and became an accomplished qari, performed Haj at the age of twelve and thereafter stayed in Medina for several years pursuing higher learning. He spent his adolescent years visiting great centers of learning in the Islamic world and paying homage at the dargah of saints. He later returned to his home at Bijapur and from there moved to Ahmedabad. At that time, the Kalupur and Rajpur localities of Ahmedabad were well known for the prosperous trading communities of Sunni Bohras, who became his murids. In Ahmedabad, the Pir took up residence at the historical Jame Masjid. The Pir would regularly visit the dargah of Hazrat Shah Wajiuddin to pay his homage and obtain guidance from Hazrat Shah’s descendent, Hazrat Abdullah Gujarati. On his daily sojourns from the Jame Masjid to Hazrat Wajiuddin’s dargah, the Pir would rest a while on the way at an old widow’s front yard. After his passing away in the year 1750, as per his request, Pir Mohammad Shah was buried near the house of this widow. His dargah stands there today.

The Pir was a great lover of learning and possessed an extraordinary memory powers. During his lifetime, the Pir and his murids had amassed a huge collection of manuscrips and books of great academic and spiritual value. These are housed in the qutubkhana. This library has over 2000 original manuscripts in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, Sindhi and Turkish, which are 700 to 800 years old. Many of them contain hand written explainatory notes along the margins by the Pir himself. Among the prized manuscripts is the Mahabharat in Persian written by a Wadanagar Nagar Brahmin who worked in the courts of the Mughals, a copy of the holy Quran hand written by Aurangzeb, Al-Buruni’s ‘Gurt-ul Ziyaat’, and Radha Krishna Geet translated into Persian. The library has a treasure trove of over 10,000 books in Arabic, Persian, Urdu, and English covering diverse subjects. The trustees have prepared microfilms and photocopies of some rare books. Pir Mohammad Shah was a bi-lingual poet himself and wrote profusely in Persian and Dakhani. Among his many works, the best known is Nur ush-Shuyukh in Persian which is versified history in the Mutaqarib meter.

The qutubkhana has small museum show casing various belonging of the Pir, some of the ancient manuscripts and a human-size candle brought here from Mecca. The PMS library is considered on of its kind in western part of India – a treasure trove waiting to be discovered by lovers of Islamic science, literature and art. Rulers and wise men who came to this land are no more, but the knowledge they left behind still prevails.

In the words of the Pir himself:

Agar gaiti saraasar baad gard

Chirag-e-maqbula hargez namirad…..

Even if the world were to come to dust
The lamp (spirit) of the faithful will not die….

Monday, April 7, 2008

The Alchemy of Language

‘Do shambaa bhai doshambaa, daakiyon ne kya kiya…..’ the words of the song rose like bubbles from the depths of my childhood memories and burst at the surface as the irony of it dawned on me.I grew up in Lajpat Nagar – a south Delhi colony which originally began as a refugee colony during partition days, consisting of Hindu migrants from Pakistan. One of the many games that I used to play with my friends as a child was about a police and a thief during which the above song was recited. Except for the first few words, the remaining song was in Hindi. None of us knew or cared what these words meantForty years later, as I sat at a University in Gujarat learning Farsi, I realized that ‘Doshamba’ was a Farsi word meaning ‘Monday’. The children of partition refugees who had grown up on communal rhetoric, sang songs containing words which belonged to a language generally associated with a community they had learnt to hate – the Muslims.Yet again, in Gujarat, which has recently witnessed the worst form of communal violence, my Farsi teacher tells me that fifteen percent of the words in Gujarati language are of Arabic or Farsi origin. This is more or less true for most north Indian languages.The saffron brigade had, at one time, taken upon itself the task of ‘saffronising’ Hindi by ‘purging’ it of all the Urdu words and replacing them with Sanskrit equivalents. Some of them still insist on speaking a form of Hindi which sounds more like dialogues from Ramanand Sagar’s ‘Ramayan’, than the Hindi spoken and understood by the common man!Our languages have grown out of the life of our nation. They imbibe in them the struggles and triumphs of this country, the agonies and ecstasies of a history so rich and diverse that few nations can compare with it. Traders and travelers, conquerors and the conquered, all infused their own native tongues to the existing local languages and dialects. This alchemy of native and ‘foreign’ tongues made what our languages are today – a multicoloured tapestry. Language is a reflection of the culture and history of a region and does not belong to any religion. It enshrines the spirit of the people who speak it.
This write up has also been published in the 'Indian Express' .

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Death of a Patriot

On the 24th of February, 2008, the body of a 94 year old poet prince was led to rest. He was Imamuddin Khan Babi, who wrote poetry by the pen name of Ruswa Mazloom, and was the erstwhile ruler of Pajod, a small jagir in Junagadh district of Gujarat. Few in India have heard his name, and even fewer know that in spite of being the jagirdaar of one of the smallest princely states in India he towered above the other princes of pre-independence India.

During partition, when almost all the rulers of the princely states of Junagadh region including Junagadh, Manavadar, Mangrol and Sardargadh, decided to go with Pakistan, Imamuddin said that India was his motherland and his subjects were like his children, and he could not betray his mother and his children. Imamuddin Khan refused to merge with Pakistan in spite of the fact that most of his relatives were leaving for Pakistan and he was also offered the governorship of Pakistan by the grandfather of the late Benazir Bhutto, who was also a Babi and Diwan to the then Nawab of Junagadh. Sardar Patel was touched by Imamuddin Khan’s gesture of patriotism and instructed the government to sanction an annual honorarium of Rs. 10, 000 to him, which Imamuddin Khan continued to receive till his death.

During the communal riots of 1947, a dargah in Pajod, was destroyed by rioters. Instead of rebuilding the dargah, Imamuddin Khan chose to build a library there. This library stands today as a lesson to every Indian who talks about destroying or rebuilding temples and mosques in disputed areas.

According to historical sources, the Babis came to India from Kanadhar in present day Afghanistan, at the time of Humayun. They worked with the Mughal emperors as their governors or generals. As a reward for their services, the Mughals gifted them with jagirs – large tracts of lands over which they ruled as jagirdars. After the fall of the Mughal Empire the Babi Pathans founded the Nawab dynasty of Junagadh in 1748, which continued up to 1947.

During his brief rule of twelve years, Imamuddin Khan provided his subjects with electricity, established a full fledged hospital in his mother, Zenab Bibi’s name. The doctors of this hospital would offer free services to their patients and even visit them at home. Imamuddin Khan also established a school for Harijans, started a sports club by the name of ‘Isharat’. He appointed a Harijan woman as its secretary. He also formed a volley ball team of his state and trained two Harijans to become a part of this team. At the time when the king was the owner of the entire land of his kingdom, Imamuddin Khan introduced a law whereby the farmer who tilled the land became its sole owner.

After independence, he became a member of Congress Seva Dal and continued to work for the progress of his erstwhile state. A lover of poetry, he wrote ghazals in both Urdu and Gujarati, and was popularly known as ‘Ruswa Sahab’. His Urdu collection is titled ‘Madira’ and his Gujarati collection ‘Meena’. His ghazals were based on love, compassion and humanitarian values. Imamuddin Khan offered royal patronage to poets like Amrut Bhatt alias Ghayal, and Ali Khan Baloch alias Shunya Palanpuri, who are now considered among the prominent poets of Gujarat. Several years ago Imamuddin Khan established an amateur association of poets called ‘Milan’. Imamuddin Khan is survived by his son Ayaz Khan. Ayaz works as a librarian at the Raj Kumar College in Rajkot and is married to a Hindu lady, who continues to retain her Hindu name – Kirtida.

One of Imamuddin Khan’s own couplet would be an apt epithet to his memory:

Aadmi amal se khud apna faisla kar le,

Ek kadam par dozakh hain, ek kadam par jannat

(Let man decide his own fate by his deeds
On one side is Hell and on the other Heaven)

Monday, November 19, 2007

The Passage of Time

Bhavnagar is among those few towns of Saurashtra where you can still wake up to the sound of peacocks and prabhatias (morning bhajans). After being weaned on dust, noise and squalor of cities like Delhi and Ahmedabad, I found Bhavnagar quite quaint when I moved here in the early 90’s. Here life moved on at its most leisurely pace. People still travelled in tonga’s instead of zipping around in Marutis. The town and its people still retained the old world charm – ageing bungalows with their tiled roofs and wooden arches, nestling among groves of Neem and Copper pod trees, in whose foliage Painted strokes and Spoonbills bred every winter

One of my favourite haunts in Bhavnagar, was, and still is the old Gandhi Smriti Library. This is no slick British Council library of Ahmedabad or the posh American Centre library of Delhi with their computerized catalogues, whirring air conditioners and the air thick with silence and snobbery. Instead here you find old books with yellow pages and tattered margins giving off that aroma of nostalgia which only old books can give , creating an ambience of the bygone era – when Saurashtra was more proudly called ‘Kathiawar’, the land of Kathi Rajputs, shepherds and bards. On languid summer afternoons you can find yourself almost alone in the library with only the cooing of the pigeons on its wooden rooftop for company. Occasionally you might find an old Gandhian, clad in Khadi, peering into the bookshelves; he might even come and sit down beside you to inquire about your reading interests. As the afternoon slips into evening the old librarian comes ambling down to switch on the lights for you and to ask you whether you were doing fine!!

My friends living in metros often mock me for living in such a ‘not happening’ place, and I tell them that they are not aware of what they were missing. But like the rest of the country, Bhavnagar too is on the path of ‘development’. The old bungalows are being demolished to make way for multistory buildings and malls. The builder’s lobby has its greedy tongue licking away at the open fields and skies of Bhavnagar. With the trees – their homes destroyed the Strokes and the Spoonbills visit us in fewer numbers. Traffic has increased two-fold and I wonder how long will it take for Bhavnagar to turn into the monstrosity that our metros have come to represent...

The above write up has appeared in the 'Indian Express'

Pluralistic site under threat

Ironically all fundamentalists, Hindu and Muslim, share a general dislike for all things good and beautiful in this world. First it was the turn of the Taliban to tear down the beautiful sculptures of Lord Buddha at Bamiyan in Afghanistan and now it is the turn of the Saffron brigade in Gujarat to rally for the de-recognition of the unique Champaner-Pavagadh UNESCO heritage site – a 27sq km archeological park which represents pluralistic culture and traditions in a communally divided Gujarat. Its derecognition would mean that it will no longer be protected from vandalism, wear and tear and encroachment, ultimately resulting in its destruction.

About 45 km away from Vadodara city in Gujarat, scattered over 6 sq km around the Pavagadh Hill, lie assemblage of over 100 small and large monuments largely unexcavated and bearing archaeological, historic and living cultural heritage properties. The history of the Champaner-Pavagadh archaeological park dates back to pre-historic times, when it was first inhabited by the Stone Age man. Subsequently, early settlements were recorded in the 6th and 7th century AD when the site became part of the Maitrak dynasty ruling from Valabhi in Gujarat. With the decline of Maitraks in the 9th century, the region came under the influence of Gurajar Pratihar and Parmara rulers. It then passed into the hands of Khichi Chauhans of Rajasthan, the descendants of Prithviraj Chauhan in 13th century. The site’s Muslim period began with Sultan Mehmood Begada, who shifted his capital from Ahmedabad to Champaner fort to keep the Sultans of Mandu at bay. This was in the year 1484. This region came under the Mughals in the year 1535 when the fledgling town was plundered by Humayun. By the end of 16th century, the town gradually lost its eminence as an important center of commerce and governance. The architecture is a blend of Muslim and Hindu styles with some pre-Sultanate monuments having Jain motifs and temples. The Muslim monuments, mostly built by Mehmood Begada, like the Jami Masjid, Nagina Masjid, Kevda, Lila Gumbaj are typical of the Sultanate architecture with medieval Hindu influence, attributed mainly to Hindu artisans. The site includes, among other vestiges, fortifications, palaces, religious buildings, residential precincts, agricultural structures and water installations, from the 8th to the 14th centuries. This site is the only complete and unchanged Islamic pre-Mughal city in India. The Kalika Mata Temple on top of the Pavagadh Hill is considered to be an important shrine, attracting large numbers of Hindu pilgrims throughout the year.
This site was given the status of World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2004 after 22 years of persistent effort by a Vadodara based NGO, Heritage Trust, led by a noted architect – Karan Grover. However, a debate is currently raging among the pro-heritage and anti-heritage lobbies, the latter being largely fueled by Niraj Jain, a BJP member from Vadodara, who is advocating for the de-recognition of this archeological park as a World Heritage site. In spite of the obvious advantages to the local people from the world heritage site status of this area, which include strengthening of the local economy due to increased tourist influx and consequent reduction in the labour migration to surrounding cities, the anti-heritage lobby is complaining against the restrictions put on construction of commercial and residential structures in the protected zone, lack of local consultation, and they feel that Muslim monuments are getting more attention than the Kalika Mata temple, the latter complaint has obvious communal overtones.
Ironically while the ani-heritage lobby led by a BJP member is demanding a de-recognition of this place as a World Heritage site, the much touted ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ website of the Gujarat government proudly proclaims the inclusion of "Champaner-Pavagadh Archaeological Park" to Unesco's World Heritage List as another feather in the cap for the Modi government !!

Monday, October 8, 2007

Twin Nightmares

‘As I entered the dimly lit corridor, the stench of human excreta hit me. This combined with the dampness in the air, weighed down on my consciousness like a manic depression. The feeling stuck to my senses for days later like a stain that would not wash off. Wandering around aimlessly along the long stretch of the corridor were the inmates – blank faces, unwashed bodies, lice infested hair. Some gazed at me with frenzied eyes – reflecting a mind at conflict with itself.
I was visiting one of our country’s mental asylums to see a recently admitted relative – a young girl called Chetna. Her aging parents, no longer able to cope up with her violent bouts, had no choice but to temporarily admit her here while they looked for a better place. An ‘asylum’ was a misnomer for a place that was more like a cage than a shelter, where the mentally insane were ‘put away’ from the ‘normal’ society. Under funded and under staffed, like most government institutions, this too was run with equal apathy and incompetence.
If there is anything worse than insanity it is partial insanity. Chetna, like many other inmates, lived on the edge of reality – at times conscious of her surroundings, the filth and the stench, the insane world of her fellow inmates; and at times withdrawing into her schizophrenic world of hallucinations, depressions and uncontrollable anger. I saw her sitting in one corner talking to herself and then break into a mocking laughter. Perhaps she knew something that we did not; perhaps she found our world crazier than her own.
It is a general belief that it matters little how one treats an insane person since they are barely in their senses. On the contrary, patients like Chetna live through twin nightmares. The inner created by her schizophrenic mind and the outer, created by an insensitive society.
Fortunately for Chetna, her parents found a shelter home for her run by an NGO – a much saner and humane place. However for the remaining inmates of the mental asylum there is no escape from the twin nightmares of their real and schizophrenic worlds.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Trip to the hills

Foot hills of Himalayas - Dec. 2003

We were on a short holiday at the foothills of the Himalays.The night saw us driving through the winding road, from Dehradun to Rishikesh… the road was unlit with the forest on either side…as if waiting and watching….and suddenly we sighted …half hidden among the night shadows a mother elephant with two calves…on the edge of the road...
The forest guest house at Rishikesh, where we were lodged, stands on the banks of the Bhagirathi…amidst the chilling fog that hung in the night air…we could hear the roar of the river…as we took a post dinner walk along the guest house’s driveway. We were asked not to wander too far into the darkness, as stray leopards were known to prowl in that area at night. Next day we went rafting and kayaking on the glacial waters of Bhagirathi. Crystal blue freezing waters, flowing amid lush green peaks…meandering like a blue serpent - sometimes flowing calmly…sometimes gushing and roaring over rapids….rafting over the rapids was an onslaught on the senses…. We also took a dip in the freezing waters….with life jackets tied to our chests and skin suits underneath….I have never felt so cold in my life before….the lungs inside my chest seem to freeze and I could hardly breath…
Next day we went to Rajaji National Park. It is huge and has a diversity of landscapes. Our jeep was following a dried river bed…on the white sands along the river bed we sighted elephant foot prints…a group of chital would suddenly appear from nowhere..a bulky wild boar..his fur coarse and dirty…small tusks sprouting out of the sides of his mouth. He continued digging the earth unconcerned about our presence. At places the jungle was so dense that the sunlight could barely filter through…at places it opened into dry scrub…tussoks of giant grasses and weeds growing along dried river banks…a Gujjar settlement…. silence and stillness
everywhere..occasionally punctuated with the cry of a bird somewhere in the bushes…sunlight would penetrate in streaks through gaps left by fallen trees…old and ancient….as ancient as life….to die and melt back into the furnace of life and death. We wandered in the forest for two hours and then returned to civilization reluctantly.