The Saints of Ayodhya: Sufis In The Hindu City

The Sufi dargahs of Ayodhya are easy to miss. Not only are they rather simple structures, often no more than a few graves surrounded by a some stones to demarcate an area of worship, but are obscured by the many dominating and magnificent mandirs that define the landscape of the city itself.

So it was easy to not even notice them as I worked and photographed on the streets of this city. Until i met a Hindu man who pointed out to me that there were dozens of Sufi shrines in the area of the city and its outskirts alone!

The first time I actually went to see one, the shrine of Syed Ibrahim Shah, I was led there by another Hindu man, a local journalist, whom I met at a tea stall and happened to lived adjacent to the shrine itself. Located in a predominantly Hindu neighborhood, it was frequented by people of both faiths who turned to the Saint for blessings and prayers.

There were at some point nearly 80 Sufi dargahs in this city generally considered the third most important Hindu pilgrimage site after Varanasi and Mathura. Some were destroyed during the Babri mosque riots. But many still exist and at any time of the day you can sit at one and watch the quiet arrival of people who come, say their prayers quietly, place a incense stick and leave.

And they are mostly Hindus.

The spread of Islam in India has been predominantly through the words and devotions of Sufi mystics who helped accommodate Islam to different regional environments in India. It has been argued that this, more than conquest or political power, was the main source of the conversion of the region’s non-Muslims to Islam.

Sufi mystic thought mingled comfortable with Hindu bhakti practices and made the message of Islam accessible to a wide range of people of non-Muslim background. Bhakti (“devotion,” from Sanskrit bhaj, “to share,” “to love”), in Hinduism, is a movement emphasizing the mutual intense emotional attachment and love of a devotee toward a personal god and of the god for the devotee.

Shrines are considered unIslamic by the orthodox. Many Muslims I met in Faizabad refused to even visit one. But dargahs of both men and women saints are central elements of religious devotion in South Asia and have offered access to people of all faiths.

The cult of devotion to the Muslims mystic Baba Farid, a 12th century Muslim mystic, dominates the south-eastern parts of Pakistan’s Punjab region. Baba Farid hails from Pakpattan where there is a large shrine in his name.

I am neither Hindu nor Muslim -

Let us sit in the spinning part and abandon pride

Since the Lord dwells in every heart

I have renounced to be either a Hindu or a Turk

(Baba Farid)

But across the border in India, Baba Farid is revered by the predominantly Sikh population, and his shrine in Faridkot in India’s Punjab is an important site of devotion and pilgrimage for Sikhs everywhere. He has been incorporated into the holiest of books of the Sikh religion, the Guru Granth Sahib.

Ayesha Jalal in her seminal work Self & Sovereignty: Individual & Community in South Asian Islam Since 1850 points out that “As the final resting place of the believer, the tomb evokes the organic unity of being, covering the spiritual and secular realms. This facilitated borrowings from regional traditions, …permitting the emergence of what has been variously described as Indo-Persian or the Indo-Islamic style of the arts.” – including poetry, architecture and regional literature.

Muslim devotees refer to the city of Ayohdya as ‘Khurd Mecca’ – Small Mecca, or even as the ‘Share-e-Aulia’ – the city of the saints, suggesting the historically importance of the site with the Muslim community of the region. A caretaker of a mosque in the old city told me that there are nearly 80 Sufi dargahs in the city and though some were attacked and destroyed during the Babri mosque campaign, most of the others were protected by Hindus and Muslims alike.

On a Thursday evening, traditionally the most attended day at any Suri dargah, I watched as Hindu families walked through the gates of the dargah of Syed Ibrahim Shah and sat to listen to the qawwals. Others would quietly enter and place incense sticks on the tombstones, press their foreheads to the cloth that covered it and remain in a prone position for minutes offering prayers and asking for blessings. Some would use the music to dance and hurl themselves into a light trance.

Outwardly unimpressive in architecture and scale, the dargahs are surrounded by incredible legends. One of the most important and revered shrines in the city is to a woman saint by the name of Badi Bua, or Badi Bibi. She was not only considered one of the most beautiful women in the city, but created enemies amongst the local clergy by refusing to marry and devote her life towards the worship of God. When approached by a local suitor who claimed that he was in love with her eyes, she by legend plucked them out and gave them to him.

Today her shrine lies on the outskirts of the city, amongst a small but tense forest of trees, surrounded by the decaying graves of local aristocracy. Every hour or so an individual arrives and sits in quiet meditation speak to her and cleaning the leaves, dead flowers and dust from the tombstone. Unlike a mosque, a shrine is often a place for individual devotion.

And there are more, with legends equally incredible. The shrine to Sheesh Pagiamber is built around a 9 meter long grave which the caretaker claims is how tall this Prophet was when he died here. He is believed to be the son of Adam who came here to preach the message of Islam and died in Ayodhya. Or the 16 meter long tomb to Nuh Aleihi Salaam, believed to be Noah himself and the grave the Ark!

To the Hindutva Ayodyha is only the birth place of Ram and must be cleansed of its other influences. But what these dargahs remind is of a past that the fundamentalists rather erase. The shrines point to an easy intermingling of peoples of different faiths, and the culture of tolerance and acceptance that has been Ayodhya’s actual historical experience.

In the hysteria that led up to the destruction of the Babri mosque and the continued insistence on the construction of the Ram temple, Ayodhya’s pluralist heritage has been forgotten. A city that in fact reflects the syncretic historical experience of India’s Hindu and Muslim communities has been transformed in the minds of the majority into a center of conflict and hate.

And the further one walked away from the Ram Janmabhoomi complex,- the tract of land claimed by the Hindu fundamentalists for the construction of the Ram temple, with its protective walls, metal gates, armed police guards and conspicuous Intelligence operatives on street corners, the more prevalent the city’s own culture became.

In the old neighborhoods like Shahi Qila I was met with a gentle curiosity and generous hospitality. In a neighborhood such as Shahi Qila I felt comfortable speaking truthfully about myself and my background and reasons for being there. One afternoon I met Ram Janam Das, a sadhu, who offered me his cot to rest. When I asked if he did not worry if that would pollute his place of worship, he laughed. You are a child of God, he said to me, call him what you want, Ram, Allah, or anything else, it matters not. So rest.

In those moments I felt that I had reached past the outer walls of the city, where the fundamentalists were celebrating their brand of hate and division at the Ram Janmabhoomi complex. Here, in the old city, amongst the centuries old streets and crumbling brick buildings, remained some semblances of a way of thought and spirituality that saw past rituals and rules and into the heart of what religious philosophy could be all about; humanity, dignity and compassion.

And such was the message of the Sufi saints whose words and poems mocked orthodoxy, ritual, clerics and their attendant finery (I will write various posts about this in the near future). They instead preached a human religion, a tolerant message of love and compassion, insisting that the path to the divine was neither through worship or rules, but only through love.

But I wondered if these Saints had the power to save this city from the growing number of fundamentalists who now seem to be present there. Conversations with locals would often deteriorate into angry denigration of Muslims, or of India’s Muslim heritage. Some thanked Ram for allowing the British to rule India and save her from the Muslims. Others dropped comments about not enough Muslims being killed in 1992. Some referred to Pakistan as a lunatic asylum, what with all those Muslims inhabiting together.

One afternoon I was accosted by a man who suggested that I was ‘scoping’ a location with the thought of carrying out a ‘terror’ attack. He had overhead me introduce myself to a passerby and my ‘Muslim’ name had caused him to observe me discreetly from his window. It took me a few minutes to convince him that I had been standing on a corner for the last 30 minutes because I was waiting for a photograph. When I asked him for the reasons for his fear, he replied that the Muslims want to turn Ayodhya into a graveyard and we Hindus have to be on the alert at all times.

At moments such as these I felt that something beautiful was indeed slipping away. Perhaps that the days were not far when we would have danced our last dance alongside the spirits of the Sufi saints who eventually failed to intercede and save their own city.

Notes: Some of the shrines that I learned were located in the city include:

Dargah Hazrat Sheesh Elahi Paigambar

Dargah Hazrat Ayub Elahi Islam

Dargah Hazrat Jalal Ud Din

Dargah to the mother of Qazi Abdul Latif

Dargah Badi Bua

Dargah Kahlifa Hazoor Syedna Nizam Ud Din Aulia

Dargah Hazrat Kotwal Shah

Dargah Hazrat Ibrahim Shah

Dargah Mazar Shah Ali Akbar Chisti Maududi

Dargah/Mosque Shah Jawan Gauri

Dargah Shah Mudar

Dargah Pir Kashai

Dargah Shams Ud Din Faryadi

Dargah Shaheed Qalay Pahalwan

Dargah Kamal Ud Din Shaheed

Dargah Hafiz Aman Allah

Dargah Shah Mohammad Bakhshi

Dargah Jamal Ud Din Aulia

Dargah Harzat Kamal Ud Din

Dargah of The Three Elders

Dargah Fareed Al Din Katal

Dargah Syed Shah Safi Ud Din

Dargah Makhdoom Fatah Ullah Audhi

Dargah Shah Qasim Audhi

Dargah Shah Darweesh

Dargah Makdoom Bundagi Nizam

Dargah Hakeem Mohammad Islam Audhi

Dargah Sheikh Alim Shaheed Pir Badshah

Dargah Shah Jamal Gojari

Dargah Shareef Qazi Kidwai

Dargah Sahib Raad Khan

Dargah Shah Subhan

Dargah Pir Naseer Ud Din

Dargah Haji Makhdoom

Dargah Naseer Ud Din Buzurg

Dargah Kwaja Hati Shah Darweesh

Dargah Yaqeen Shah

Dargah Syed Ul Sultan Muwasi Ashiqan

Dargah Hazrat Jalal Shah Chisti Nizami

Dargah Musafir Shah Shaheed

Dargah Ashiq Au Mashooq Buzurg

Dargah Siraj Ud Din Ali

Dargah Syed Ali Ud Din Kharasani

Dargah Syed Mir Ila Ud Din Audhi

Dargah Alim Buksh

Dargah Qazi Tawab

Dargah Khwaja Kari Shah

Dargah Teen Darweesh

Dargah Nuagazi

Dargah Shah Badliah Ud Din

Dargah Bijli Shaheed

Dargah Mira Jeena

Dargah Buhadur Shah

Dargah Pati Shah

Dargah Qutb shah

Dargah Syed Jalal Shah

Dargah Shah Gadha

Darga Usman Shaheed

Dargah Syed Alim

Dargah Ashik Shah

Dargah Shah Aulees

Dargah Noor Shah Shaheed

Jan 13, 2009 | Ayodhya, History, Shared Landscapes

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  1. The Idea Of India Project Update: The Goddess Of The Sea « The Spinning Head

    [...] Pradesh, considered the most powerful of saints in the region. I wrote about her in a post called The Saints Of Ayodhya: Sufis In The Hindu City stating that: One of the most important and revered shrines in the city is to a woman saint by the [...]

    Jun 02, 2011 @ 8:55 am


  2. The Spinning Head » The Idea Of India Project Update: The Goddess Of The Sea

    [...] Pradesh, considered the most powerful of saints in the region. I wrote about her in a post called The Saints Of Ayodhya: Sufis In The Hindu City stating that: One of the most important and revered shrines in the city is to a woman saint by the [...]

    Sep 05, 2011 @ 7:15 am