The dargah culture flourished in the erstwhile Hyderabad state region because of its inclusive nature towards sufism which marks Hindu-Muslim communal harmony in Telugu States.
“Matham marisi kulam marisi, Ooru-vaada goodi ada, Oh, oh jambiya ollampalli jambiya…” (Disregarding religion and caste, village and colony gets to dance, Oh oh jambiya ollampalli jambiya).
These reverberating lines are from the recent popular Telugu movie Mallesham. The song celebrates the age-old Muharram congregation aka Peerla Panduga in Telangana in which both Muslims and Hindus participate. The festival began in the 7th century in the erstwhile Deccan region under the influence of Sufi culture, a stream in Islam.The festival began in the 7th century in the erstwhile Deccan region under the influence of Sufi culture, a stream in Islam. According to scholars, when Islam arrived in India it was ‘Indianised’ and it diversified itself with local cultures and religious practices due to intermingling over the years.
In Telangana, there are hundreds of dargahs across the state that have for generations hosted people from across religions and castes. Sufism flourished at these venues, as Sufi saints stayed here and imparted teachings to the people.
Mohammed Anwar, a Telugu poet and independent researcher, says “The Sufi culture in Telangana or the erstwhile Deccan region flourished because of its inclusive nature. It appeals for brotherhood and affection, and for equal treatment to everyone irrespective of their caste or creed. Lowered castes, mainly Dalits, embraced it or practised it along with their own religious and cultural practices.”
Sufi tombs and shrines have remained as centres of knowledge sharing by different sections of people. For centuries, the residential sites from where saints worked for the people have served as the collective cultural assets of people from different beliefs. They were historically nurtured by different rulers in different parts of the country, like the way they were in Telangana.
Haseeb Jafferi, an expert on the history of Sufism and a descendant of Salabat Jung of the Nizam’s family, says that to know the roots of dargahs, one has to revisit the early parts of the 16th century.
“During the Qutb Shahi, Bahamani and Kakatiyan period, there was an advent of Muslim derivations of Sufi ‘faqeers’ or saints, who came and settled in the Deccan region. One of the reasons behind this is the geographical safety and stability which the Deccan plateau provides for a deep state of meditation. Many Sufi saints came to the Deccan plateau from the ranges in Aurangabad to Vijayawada and Mysuru, which is why we find the most number of Sufi shrines across the Deccan plateau after Delhi, which is epicentre of Sufi shrines,” Haseeb says.
“The reason behind many people in rural areas embracing Sufism and dargah culture is the Brahmanical casteist practices that they suffered from in Hinduism at that time. For Muslims, it was the strict Sharia laws. Dargahs served as open spaces that were inclusive and non-judgemental,” he adds.
Observers say that Sufi tombs or shrines came up when a saint passed away while sometimes dargahs are just an extension of neem, banyan or sacred fig trees. The places are still regarded with deep reverence by devotees across religion and gender.
When asked about Sufi influence in rural areas, Haseeb says, “Sufism has never in its history forced any conversions, it remained neutral. In fact, we can see the influence of the then Bhakti movement in most of the Sufi teachings. Sufism also blended with the local folk cultures.”
Not all dargahs were built in the memory of saints who came from Middle Eastern countries like Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia or Yemen. Many were also constructed for local saints who practised Sufism or preached Sufi values.
Sky Baba, author of Vegetarians Only, who hails from Telangana’s Suryapet, says, “At a time when Dalits were highly discriminated by the caste system, the open arms of Sufism, which normalised equality and offering of Namaz or prayers and a liberal idea of god, gave shelter to them. It’d have not been possible if it was forceful conversion as projected by a section of right-wing historians.”
Sky Baba adds, “The Sufi culture in India is vastly different from that in Middle East or Arab countries.”
Observers and historians say that offerings of flowers or coconut and goat or sheep sacrifice, called Kanduru in Telangana, is unique to the Sufi Dargah culture.
Stories of saints
Saint of different dargahs have different stories about their emergence and how they became popular among people over time. Take the Syed Shah Afzal Baibani Dargah in Warangal, named after the 17th century Sufi saint Afzal Baibani, who hailed from a rich feudal family. Abandoning his privileges, Baibani decided to live in a hut and lead a simple life, preaching simplicity, social equality and service to all without any differences. Soldiers of the Nizam’s army were also said to be his disciples. According to historians, he was appointed the Imam of Warangal. His dargah remains one of the popular Sufi shrines in Telangana.
Another dargah, located in Nizamabad district at the top of a hill called ‘Bada Pahaad’, lies amid thick forests and has another tale to offer. While there are no official records or an authenticated version about the Sufi saint Hazarat Syed Sadullah Hussaini, in whose name the dargah evolved, people along the stretch of Bada Pahaad tell folk stories that backs their devotion and belief in his teachings of love, brotherhood and equality before god.
The legend goes that Sadullah was a revenue official in the Nizam’s administration and spent the state’s treasures for the welfare of the poor when they were hit by a severe drought, as he was influenced by Sufi ideas. Chased by the authorities, Sadullah took shelter in Jalalpur, a nearby village, along with four allies. A Hindu shepherdess, Golla Sayavva, helped them by providing food and water. Drawn slowly by Sadullah’s kindness and love for the poor, she became his disciple.
As the days passed, the search for Sadullah became rigorous. He decided to go into the forest on the hills to meditate. Sayavva, though initially hesitant, decided to go along with the other four as a disciple. On the hill, where Sadullah and his disciples were said to have departed, graves were constructed. The dargah located here also has a grave for Sayavva.
For generations, the dargah, which is at a height of over 1,200 feet, has been a centre of communal harmony, witnessing thousands of devotees visiting from different districts of Telangana and neighbouring Karnataka and Maharashtra. Mahammed Alimuddin, one of the patrons of the dargah, tells #KhabarLive, “Guru doesn’t see anything beyond the individual. It doesn’t matter whether you are rich or poor, he delivers the message of love. It is that love that draws the people to his dargah.”
In Karimnagar district’s Jammikunta, the Bijgir Sharif Dargah aka Hadrat Inkeshaf Ali Baba Bijgir Sharif is greatly revered among Muslims and as well as Hindus. The dargah was built in the name of the Sufi saint Inkeshahwali Rahamatullah Ali, who is believed to have come from the Middle East. Tombs of his kin who followed his path are also seen at the dargah. Every year, the dargah holds a three-day Urs festival, where Sufi Qawwalis and teachings are recited at night. The place sees more Hindu devotees on Fridays and Sundays.
Both dargahs, the Bijgir Sharif and Bada Pahaad, have Hindu temples in the vicinity where devotees offer pujas and conduct rituals.
Mohammed Iqbal, President of the Bijgir Sharif Dargah committee, tells #KhabarLive that there is no written history available about the arrival of Sufi saints but the dargah’s history comes from the local people.
It is believed that the Sufi saint Inkeshahwali stopped at Bijgir because of the water bodies and the scenic nature of the surroundings, and decided to deliver the message of Sufism. Over a period of time, even after the saint’s departure, people considered the place divine.
Abdul Kareem, Vice President of the committee, says, “Inkeshahwali, who came from Saudi, settled here and delivered his message. After his demise, it was turned into a dargah to carry his legacy forward.”
MA Hussain, a senior journalist from Jammikunta, says, “The dargah is a hub of communal harmony. On certain occasions, we can find more Hindu devotees than Muslim. They also worship the goddess at the Hindu temple nearby.”
The soul of Telangana and Deccan
Goreti Venkanna, the famous folk lyricist and singer, has written several songs on the Sufi Dargah culture and its essence in rural life in Telangana. Venkanna, who hails from Gowraram village in Nagarkurnool district, says that Sufism flourished in Telangana under the Qutub Shahis and Asaf Jahis (Nizams) while stating that several Telugu philosophers and poets also highlighted Sufis teachings. Venkanna says that in parts of Telangana Sufi culture is an amalgamation of local folk cultures and certain features of Vaishnavite and Shaivite sects within the Hindu religion.
“The three prongs of the Muharram peers are influenced by the Vaishnavite thilakam. The dattis (cloth bracelets) adorned with shankam are also vastly influenced by Vaishanava culture. The simplicity of the Sufi saints is also seen in the Shaivite saints. Devotees at Sufi Dargahs have other beliefs, worship other gods, and are tolerant of other faiths,” Venkanna explains.
In six books, including Vallanki Talam, Venkanna has explored the philosophical underpinnings of Sufism and folk saints in local histories and spirituality, equality and nature. “People in the Deccan have historically seen ‘god-ness’ through different means. Now some are trying to disturb that harmony for the sake of politics, but those attempts cannot stop the people from practising what they have been doing for ages,” Venkanna says.
The Ameenpur Dargah in Rayalaseema’s Kadapa has a unique tradition – visitors wearing saffron-coloured clothes, which is usually seen in Hindu devotees.
In his Varadagudu album, Venkanna sings about the arrival of the first rains of the monsoon in the state, first at a Shaivite temple and subsequently at a Sufi Dargah.
A culture under attack
The Sufi Dargah culture is opposed equally by Hindu right-wing and Muslim right-wing elements. While the former claims it is an ‘outside’ culture that is drawing Hindus into its fold, the latter argues that the culture is against Islam as it entertains saints or messengers other than Allah.
The Telangana BJP alleges that the ruling TRS government is doing appeasement politics by visiting dargahs, with local leaders even mocking Chief Minister K Chandrasekhar Rao (KCR) for wearing a datti.
Sky Baba says, “Though initially it appears as if the Hindutva elements are attacking Muslims, they will soon take on Dalits and other lower castes. To uphold our inclusive and pluralistic culture, we should preserve the Sufi Dargah culture, otherwise Telangana will become like other states where religious hatred is prevalent.”
Muharram, also known as Peerla Panduga in Telangana, is one of the important festivals of the state. It commemorates the martyrdom of Hussain, the younger grandson of Prophet Mohammed. While the capital city of Hyderabad witnesses large-scale gatherings followed by a procession carrying the peers, many villages across the state conduct processions attended by Hindus and Muslims, in which they recite Sufi and Telugu folk songs. The procession involves a dance performance by men called the Dula to the rhythm of dappu beats and songs. The devotional practices resemble some Hindu customs, showing how dargahs have been the bedrock of religious harmony over generations.
Goat sacrifice by meat-eating Dalit-Bahujan devotees near dargahs to offer Kanduru, lighting of lamp at the entry of dargahs or the ritual of coconut breaking resemble Hindu practices followed at folk goddess temples by Dalits, Shudra castes and tribals.
Preserving the culture in the digital age
Though our culture and traditions get showcased on platforms such as media, TV and cinema, the Sufi Dargah culture is not shown as much as it deserves, say observers. Till about a decade ago, audio cassettes and CDs with Sufi preaching and songs, mainly in Urdu and Telugu, were available at different dargahs but with changes in technology these have now disappeared.
Aslam Babri, a toy-shop owner at the Bada Pahaad Dargah, says, “I used to sell audio cassettes and CDs of Sufi and Telugu songs remembering Baba Sadullah and his story. No one asks for them now and the distributors too have stopped production.”
When asked how these songs can be accessed, Aslam says that a simple search on YouTube will yield audio and videos made with local actors.
Aslam asks, “When we can enjoy everything with visuals, why would anyone seek old audio cassettes?”
Though there are videos of Urs celebrations on YouTube, there are no specially made videos that highlight specific Sufi saints.
Several individual enthusiasts upload the Muharram peer procession and celebrations in their respective town or village on YouTube. Sufi Qawwalis too can be found on YouTube with a simple search.
When it comes to the representation of the Sufi Dargah culture in mainstream Telugu movies, not much can be found until recently. In Mallesham, a movie that showcased the inspiring journey of a Telangana weaver who goes from being a Class 10 dropout to a Padma Shri winner, the Muharram celebrations were shown in a vibrant manner.
Many observers agree that not much has been done in popular culture such as Telugu movies to celebrate the religious harmony that Sufism and Sufi shrines have contributed to society.
In a conversation with #KhabarLive, Raj Rachakonda, Mallesham’s director notes, “Peerla Panduga is probably one of the few festivals in the world celebrated by both Hindus and Muslims. And to neglect it is stupidity, like ignoring an endangered species. Once it’s gone forever, you cannot revive it. I made a small attempt at preserving it for posterity. But imagine how many more such precious cultural and artforms are being lost.”
Raj further talks about other subaltern artforms in the state, such as the oral history of Sathakalu or Markandeya Puranam by Dubbulollu, that too have been neglected in pop culture. He asserts that including such cultures in a film’s story would add value to the film. He says, “Mainstream filmmakers have to realise the value they will add to their films as well as how it would give a much wider audience for these rare cultural practices.”
When asked why there is no effort from the committee to promote the history of the dargah digitally, Mohammed Iqbal of the Bijgir Sharif Dargah says, “Individuals do that on their own by recording our events, we don’t feel that it’s necessary. Inkeshahwali’s message of love and brotherhood somehow reaches the people. No matter whether we do or not, people will keep coming here.”
Stressing the need for preserving the Sufi Dargah culture, Venkanna says, “Some might oppose this culture for politics, but they cannot stop the people of different sections from coming to the dargahs. The Dalit-Bahujans have to carry forward this cultural legacy to stay away from religious animosity and to continue with peaceful coexistence.”
On the need to continue the Sufi traditions or culture, Haseeb says, “It’s part of our cultural fabric, it cannot be taken away; the message of love will continue.”
Amid opposition from Hindu right-wing and a section of orthodox Muslims who argue that worshipping tombs and shrines instead of Allah (God) is against the principles of Islam, Muslim devotees who visit dargahs say that merely offering respects to the saints is not wrong.
Venkanna says, “How ever much one opposes such cultures that keep the people united, it cannot go away.”
Jilukara Srinivas, prominent cultural critic and writer, says that the Sufi Dargah culture in India will not be curbed just because a few oppose it, as it shaped itself as per the socio-political and economic landscape.
Talking about the history of attacks on Sufi traditions and about its survival, Srinivas says, “There has been continuous criticism of dargah culture and Sufi traditions across centuries. Pan-Islamic or Arab-centric way of Islamic practice may influence Muslims to some extent, but it shall not succeed because of its foreign character. A dargah is a spiritual and joyful place where people from different religions and faiths come together and worship. It’s a place for spiritual democracy. It’s a cultural place for inclusive and secular practices. So, it will survive amidst all the spiritual criticism and physical attacks by Islamic and Hindu fanatics.” #KhabarLive #hydnews