At The Shrine Of Malang Shah Aulia And The Dance Of The Wandering Dervish And The Goddess

When the Muslim wandering mystic died, the goddess Bhagavati buried him with her own hands.

Here in the town of Pudunagaram, Kerala that is the story they will tell you .

Pudunagaram, Kerala

The wandering mystic’s origins are unknown, though many believe that he arrived here from Tamil Nadu. The Malang were wandering mystic, disdained by the orthodox and quite often even by the Sufis themselves, but they are very influential in this part of Kerala and Northern India. The Muslam Malang Shah Aulia and the goddess Bhagavati are closely linked here, with a devotion at her temple considered incomplete without first passing through the shrine of the saint. Panditji Kanju handed me a small packet of ash once I had completed my darshan at the temple, asking me to mix it with the sacred earth at the saint’s shrine. They say that the mixture of the two can fix a number of health problems. The links between the goddess and the mystic are woven into stories and legends here, and it is a remarkable example of how the people of the region have found ways to articulate and define their inter-relatedness.

Malang Shah Aulia’s shrine is also the site of an annual urs and a performance of an elaborate nerchas. I had never seen one – an annual performance at the shrine where trances and acts of dangerous self-flagellation and cutting are performed. I will write more about this in a later post. Suffice it to say that the performances are intense, involving a group of men surrounded by chanter and drummers, who move into a trance like state and carry out repeated self-mutilation, and also mock sacrifices of a  young boy. Different regions have different ritualistic practices when it comes to nerchas and they have been explored in works like The Kerala Muslims: A Historical Perspective Ed. Asghar Ali Engineer and also in a fascinating article by Dale and Menon called ‘Nerccas: Saint-Martyr Worship Among The Muslims Of Kerala’ in Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 

One of the young men hanging out with me at the shrine had made a video of this year’s performance and showed it to me and I can confirm that it is something quite unique, intense and passionate. Such rituals are also of course criticized the more ‘orthodox’ clergy but are intrinsic to Islam’s cultural heritage in Kerala. Such nerchas are yet another example of the deep influence of Hindu practices and their adoption in Muslim ritualistic performances in Kerala.

Malang Shah Aulia and the goddess even dance together!

Many legends tie goddesses to saints, and to Christian martyrs. The pilgrimage of Sabarimala, an event that I documents and wrote about earlier in a piece called The Reality Of Legends: The Sabarimala Pilgrimage And The Dance Of Faiths where I discussed how legends tell of the  Muslim warrior Vavar protecting and defending the Hindu god Ayyappa. The annual pilgrimage to the god’s shrine cannot be completed without first visiting Vavar’s mosque in Erumeli and getting his permission to proceed to complete the rest of the temple.

Hindu Pilgrims And Vavar's Mosque, The Sabarimal, Erumeli, Kerala 2010

In the coming weeks I will be writing about more such legends, and how India’s many religious communities have written their stories together and found ways of tying themselves to each other. Here legends act as shared histories and memories, creating avenues of shared culture and of tolerance. Here Sufi saints care for Hindu goddesses, Christian martyrs are brothers to Bhagavati and share in their annual festivals. It is the face of Kerala that I love, and one that reminds us that communities have a myriad of ways of connecting to each other, of reflecting values that are human and tolerant to ensure their co-existence and social and cultural sharing.

I will be posting more such shared legends in the coming days.

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