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.