Published in Devlok, Sunday Midday, January 23, 2011

I always find it interesting how behind the golden throne and the Brahmin priests, the flowers and the aarti and the posters that show him as an avatar of Shiva, Shirdi houses the tomb of a Sufi saint called Sai Baba whose wisdom transcended all religious divides.

Across India there are shrines of saints that are equally revered by Hindus and Muslims. Some are described as ‘dargahs’ and some are described as ‘mandirs’ depending on who is controlling the management committee of the site, but to the average devotee such politics does not matter. All they seek is the blessings of the holy man or woman who saw through religious differences and connected with the divine spirit.

Religious fusion does not stop with saints and their devotees. Across India there are shrines where the pantheon of Hindu gods and goddesses make room for Muslim consorts and companions.

In North India, for example there is Guga-Pir, the disciple of Gorarkh-Nath, and of Vasuki, the king of serpents, known for his power over snakebites. The story goes that when he killed his two half brothers, his mother said that the earth should swallow him. Not wanting his mother’s wishes to be untrue, Guga requested the earth to bury him alive. As Hindus are cremated not buried, his mother wished that he embraced Islam before the earth smothered him. Guga did so and his tomb became a shrine. He is considered both a Muslim saint (‘pir’) and a Hindu guardian god (‘vir’ or ‘bir’) across Rajasthan, Haryana and Punjab.

In South India’s majestic Srirangam temple, the presiding deity, Ranganatha, a form of Vishnu, receives a daily offering of rotis – made with wheat (in contrast to the orthodox rice meal) and even wears colored lungis (not the white cloth worn by Hindus) to please a Muslim princess. Her name is not known but she is addressed by her title as Thulukka Nachiyar or Bibi Nachiyar. The story goes that Malik Kafur raided the temple for its riches on behalf of the Sultan of Delhi. The priests covered the primary deity (that is fixed to the ground) with a wall and placed before it the secondary deity (that is mobile and taken out on processions) before it. This secondary deity was taken along with other treasures to Delhi. The princess mistook the image to be a doll and fell in love with it. When Ramanuja, the great Vedanta scholar, requested the Sultan to return the deity, the princess refused to part with it. Eventually she followed Ramanuja and her beloved Ranganatha to the temple city in the south. Even today a small painting of the princess hangs in the temple complex, never forgotten by the deity and his priests.

In Draupadi Amma temples, found in North Tamil Nadu and parts of Andhra Pradesh, one of the guardians is invariably a Muslim warlord called Muttal Ravuttar (meaning horseman).  And in Kerala, the companion of the warrior-ascetic, Aiyappa, is Vavar (derived from ‘Babar’ perhaps). Only when they are acknowledged and venerated is the pilgrim’s offering accepted by the presiding deity.

Fundamentalists and puritans and extremists may not appreciate such local legends, but this is how the common man, usually belonging to the lowest socio-economic strata, made peace with the power politics of the land.