Idea Of India Project Update: May 24th 2010 Gujarat’s Faded Testaments – The Parables Of Bet Dwarka

On any given day hundreds of Hindu pilgrims can be seen standing in the courtyard of Bet Dwarka’s famous Krishna temple. On the day of the annual festival, tens of thousands will congregate here. And on that special day, as on any ordinary day, the pilgrims would have been helped to cross the three kilometer stretch of the Arabian Sea that separates the island of Bet Dwarka from the Gujarati mainland by dozens of Muslim boat and ferry owners who are the predominate occupants of the four villages on the island.

There are many Sufi dargahs on the island, including the near 500-year old Syed Haji Ali Dawood Shah Kirmani, revered by both Hindus and Muslims who can be seen quietly offering their offerings and asking for blessings at the shrine at any hour of the day. In fact, there are over seven different Sufi dargahs scattered about the island, a number of madrassas to cater to the educational needs of the Muslims who live in the four main villages on the island.

The close relationships between the island’s Muslim and Hindu communities in fact reveal a blurring of religious and spiritual lines, reminding us of the artificiality of the labels of ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ and the ordinary human being’s ability to find accommodation and tolerance of the practices and values of his neighbors. Perhaps its finest embodiment is the continued performance of music at the Krishna temple by Muslim musicians, including the famous Fakir Mohammed Alia Mir. The temple’s pujaris are often seen at the shrine of Syed Kirmani and will also participate in the tazia processions during Muharram.

The heat of the days, at times reaching 40 – 43 C (104 – 110 F) made it difficult to fully explore the island in the three days that I spent there. But I am determined to return and explore this unique island further. Many pointed to the villages on the far side of the island that they thought I should visit and meet with the people there. Here, in this rather remote corner of Gujarat, there remains a community of people who have resisted the temptations and seductions of the sectarian extremists. Recognizing their mutual dependence, for life, spirituality and survival, members of Bet Dwarka’s communities continue to find ways to overcome suspicion and the interferences of the ‘purists’.

Idea Of India Project Update: May 14th 2010 Gujarat’s Faded Testaments – The Sant Devidas Temple, Parab, Gujarat

We hacked, we burnt, did a lot of that. We believe in setting them [Muslims] on fire because these bastards say they don’t want to be cremated, they’re afraid of it, they say this and that will happen to them.

Babu Bajrangi, VHP and Bajrang Dal leader, speaks about events in Naroda, Gujarat in 2002, Tehelka Video Confessions Transcripts

If you are not paying attention, or are merely distracted by the splendor and dominating size of the 600 hundred year old Sant Devidas mandir, you would miss a small structure sitting alongside it that is the dargah of the Sufi saint Sailani Pir. In this large temple complex, some 30 odd kilometers from Junagadh, in the city of Parab, lies this rare example of a single complex structure accommodating both Hindu and Muslim elements. There are two smaller shrines to two other Muslim saints, Dana Pir and Karmani Pir, at the same complex.

On this blistering hot May day hundreds of people are moving through the temple and completing their rituals by praying at the shrine of the Muslim saint. The story goes that Sailani Pir was a disciple of Devidas Bapu – a deity in the form of a living saint from the village of Mungyasar in the Amreli district. Sailani Pir and Devidas roamed the countryside together. Later Sailani Pir – a Hapsi i.e. of black, African origin, initiated his own ashram near the town of Rajkot, returning to Parab only after completing nearly twelve years of meditation.

Today the shrine to Sailani Pir is undergoing repairs and renovations. If there ever were domes and minarets around it – as we would expect in a tomb to a Muslim saint, they are gone. The new structure resembles and in fact mirrors the architecture of the Devidas mandir that dominates the compound. The workmen carefully apply plaster and paint to typical conical temple elements that now surround the tomb. The cool interior of the shrine however holds the grave, covered in typical green cloth and strewn with flowers. There was no mujawir (caretaker) to be seen, and most of the pilgrims – on this day at least most were Hindus, some from as far away as Ahmedabad on a pilgrimage tour towards Dwarka, quietly circumnavigate the tomb, bowing and kissing the grave as they exit the chamber.

J.J. Roy Burman, who has done extensive search on Gujarat’s shared sacred spaces, believes that few if any Muslims visit this complex anymore. On this day I too did not see any, though I did not actually inquire. I suppose it did not matter whether they came or not because the sites, one Hindu the other Muslim, remain side by side and welcome all.

The Sant Devidas mandir is that rare instance of a shared sacred space where both Hindus and Muslims can congregate, and seek spiritual salvation and solace. The shrine is being preserved and repaired and though may look increasingly like a Hindu mandir it remains the site and tomb of a Sufi Muslim mystic who found common ground with a Hindu deity and worked alongside him to spread the message of humanity and love.

Karl de Keyzer Travels To Congo And Finds A People, A History And Consequences

A surprising and exciting set of images from Karl de Keyzer, a photographer whose work has always challenged and fascinated me, particularly since he produced the wonderful God Inc. Now come a set of images of the Congo that are lovely for their sharp contrast to the conventional ‘dark Africa’ depictions of the pathologies and struggles there.

What I particularly love about this work is that it challenges you to examine the photographs and think about a country we know has suffered through decades of colonial exploitation, post-colonial wars, economic exploitation and the traps of the Cold War itself.

Here in de Keyzer’s photographs is a far more complex, but human story of a people living with consequences of politics, power, and trauma that continues to affect their lives and that they continue to struggle against and overcome. I am not sure how far de Keyzer will go with his work but these pictures suggest a photographer willing to confront the consequences on Congo’s modernity of a history that is not too far in the past and in fact is very much responsible for the current wars and deaths and bloodshed.

Connections, links, continuities and consequences are the new challenge for photographer. The use of photography to take us towards realizations of history, society, politics, power and exploitation. This work suggests possibilities of completeness and I look forward to seeing how far de Keyzer goes in the book that is soon to be published based on this set of images.

Idea Of India Project Update: May 11th 2010 Gujarat’s Faded Testaments – The Shrine Of Data Pir, Junagadh, Gujarat

I don’t remember the names of those Muslims… but the ones who were there… they were handpicked and killed one by one. There was one Katki in Madhopura… whenever a riot took place, he was the first to come out… That day we targeted him and killed him. There were two advantages to that… it boosted the morale of the Hindus… and damaged the morale of the Muslims…

Confessions of Ramesh Dave, VHP activist, speaking about events during the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, Tehelka Video Confessions Transcripts

I am in Junagadh, Gujarat and at the shrine of Jamil Shah Data Pir, a site sacred to both the Hindu and Muslim communities of the region. The Pir’s connections and relations to the Hindus are enshrined in a local legends. At least one legend speaks of how the Saint initiated four Hindus as his disciples after they refused to follow the orders of a local Sidh Guru and kill one of the saint’s devotees. The four men were given charge of various localities in the region and became followers of the saint.

The shrine today is under the care and charge of Hindu mujawirs (caretakers) – Bhital Babu – a member of the Patel caste and of a family that has managed this shrine for generations, sits in a corner smoking his cigarettes watching the devotees without much interest.

As you walk up towards the shrine you comes across a number of other shrines and many overt signs of increased Hindu-ization of the various sites. The path leading up the hill takes you past the dargah of Chithria Pir, then to the shrine of Kashmiri Baba, then the dargah of Koel Vir (Koelavajir) which actually looks more like a temple and is cared for by a Marathi Hindu, then to the shrine of Hathi Patther, then the shrine of Shakkermouli with its well of sacred waters, and lastly past the dargah of Kamal Shah Baba before you arrive at the chilla (meditation cave) of Data Pir himself.

The steps also happen to be a popular make-out spot for young couples, dozens of whom can be seen, sitting amongst the shrubs and trees that line the steps, in deep embrace and stealing furtive kisses.

Interestingly, most every one I meet along the 3500 steps that take you to the top refers to the dargah of the Sufi saint as a mandir – a Hindu temple. And once you get to the actual shrine – located inside a mountainside cave, you are struck by its similarity to so many remote, mountainside Hindu shrines that dot India’s landscape. Here men sit on their knees, hands held in front of them, praying towards the alter, as small lamps provide the light and an ambiance of deep meditation. It hardly resembles a tomb to a Muslim saint.

The sacred waters here are said to cure the ill, and the paralytic, if they manage to climb up the hill, can learn to walk again if they are struck by a sacred stick kept within Data Pir’s cave – where he is said to have disappeared. People mill about the shrine every day, with thousands of all faiths arriving here during the annual urs and during Bij – the second day of each Gujarati month which is considered a sacred day.

I now begin a few weeks to documenting the state and remains of Gujuarat’s shared sacred spaces, representatives of a time of easy sharing and co-existence of faiths and today perhaps the last reminders of a shared social culture of Gujarat as it comes under assault of bigotry, religious obscurantism, political mendacity and, in no small measure, a minority’s reactionary retreat into separate ghettos of living, working and imagining.

The Idea Of India Project Update: May 9th 2010: The Ideological Shadows On Somnath

Mahmud of Ghazni, a legendary looter, descended on Somnath from his Afghan kingdom and, after a two-day battle, took the town and the temple. Having stripped its fabulous wealth, he destroyed it. So began a pattern of Muslim desecration and Hindu rebuilding that continued for centuries. The temple was again razed in 1297, 1394, and finally in 1706 by Aurangzeb, the notorious Mughal fundamentalist.

India The Lonely Planet Guide 2008

Actually, it was not. In fact, there isn’t even evidence that it was really ever razed, but merely ransacked for its loot on at least one occasion. Aurengzeb’s orders were in fact never carried out. But I am getting ahead of myself.

Now, standing in front of the lovely temple of Somnath (no photography please, this is a sensitive site!) I find it hard to believe that it carries within it so many histories, overlapping and contradictory, and that is became the symbol not just of Muslim religious zealotry but also of a Hindu religious resistance and resilience. This beautiful temple on the thrashing shores of the Arabian Sea has become the central motif of a resurgent Hindutva movement and as it had earlier, when in the 1950s it was ceremoniously rebuilt, of Hindu Indian nationalism. In fact, the road to Ayodhya and the destruction of the Barbri mosque, began here in this small, otherwise nondescript town as L.K. Advani began a rath yatra from here to rally the people and spread the message of the powerful Hindu right movement.

As K.N. Panikkar points out in a piece called ‘The Hindutva Ride’ in India’s Frontline magazine:

The nationalism that the Ram Janmabhoomi movement invoked had greater salience with religion than with the nation. It was basically a strategy of religious mobilisation using Ram as a symbol to attract the allegiance of the believers to a political cause shrouded in religious garb. The Hindu consolidation such a mobilisation would entail was expected to ensure easy access to power. Only Ram had to be taken to the people couched in an emotional idiom, which the Sangh Parivar did through a variety of programmes associated with the construction of the temple at Ayodhya.

The most effective of them was the rath yatra from Somnath to Ayodhya led by Lal Krishna Advani. It was communal in conception, aggressive in execution and religious in appeal. As a result, violence erupted along the entire route of the yatra, in which several people were killed and injured.

I am in Somnath, and as I walk through the desperately poor Muslim neighborhoods, with their many small, decrepit mosques and shrines, that sit around the magnificent temple, I can’t help but wonder how what was once just another small temple on the western shores of Gujarat because the central, defining symbol to for medieval Islam, and in a counter-reaction, to modern Hinduism. This question I will explore in a further piece.

The story of Somnath is not as simple as that of Muslim destruction and Hindu reconstruction. It is far more interesting than that, and more subtle in its texture. It is the story of the explicit use of religion for political power and legitimacy and a determination to use ideas of religious service and duty to inspire peoples to support leaders. Whether Mahmud of Gazni or L.K. Advani, they both were inspired to surround the idea of Somnath with aims and aspirations political. And in the process they erased the actually history not just of the region, but of the incredibly complex and involved social and economic history of Gujarat that linked it closely through trade and exchange with the Arab Gulf.

The temple was attacked and ransacked. That cannot be denied. But not for reasons we think. and never for intentions we now bestow.

Digressions On Photojournalism Or Why I Argue What I Argue

the plain reportorial style coerces history, process, knowledge itself into mere events being observed. Out of this style has grown the eye-witness, seemingly opinion-less politics – along with its strength and weakness – of contemporary Western journalism. When they are on the rampage, you show Asiatic and African mobs rampaging; an obviously disturbing scene presented by an obviously concerned reporter who is beyond Left piety or right-wing cant. But are such events events only when they are show through the eyes of the decent reporter? Must we inevitably forget the complex reality that produced the event just so that we can experience concern at mob violence? Is there to be no remarking of the power that put the reporter or analyst there in the first place and made it possible to represent the world as a function of comfortable concern? Is it not intrinsically the case that such a style is far more insidiously unfair, so much more subtly dissembling of its affiliations with power, than any avowedly political rhetoric?

Edward Said on George Orwell, “Tourism
Among The Dogs”, Reflections On Exile, Page 97

This is an essay about photography and photojournalism. It will, for the most part, not sound like an essay about photojournalism but I ask for your patience and a moment of close reading. Details »