Thursday, April 15, 2010

Some Muslim Saints in Peninsular India

Before religions became water tight compartments there were times when the saints were respected, whatever their professed faiths. The story of Sant Kabir is well known, when Muslims and Hindus fought for his dead body both claiming it as theri own, body turned to flowers as believed and they both shared the flowers. The Durgah Sharif of Sufi saint Moinudeen Chisti at Ajmer is world famous. In south India there are innumerable saints from the Islamic faith who were laid to rest at various places. People throng these places, cutting across religious barriers. In the coastal belts of Kerala and Tamilnadu there are many such places variously called Durga sheriff, Pallivasal and Khabarstan. Interestingly many of the teachings of these saints, some of them from centuries before and dating from the days of the Prophet himself, transcend the radical and monotheistic Islamic tenets of today. There are verses they wrote which talk about life and spirituality almost on similar lines as the Sidhas, ancient saints of south India. No wonder in that as Islam was in Kerala long before it reached many of todays so called Islamic countries. And early Islam in India had least of pan-national Arab orientation, what now predominates.

The Bhima Palli in coastal Thiruvananthapuram, Sheik Peer Mohammed Sahib Durga at Thuckalai and Attinkara Pallivasal are some of these. Bhima Palli is believed to be the burial place of a close relative of the Prophet, a niece, and attracts large number of pilgrims both from Muslims and Hindus. The Urs festival, when the saints are believed to have merged in god, where people bring flowers, chaddar, pots of coins covered with sandal paste, etc is the major event here. The burial place of Kalladi Mastan, a sufi saint who lived in the recent past, is a sought after place within the mosque complex. In fact this ancient mosque has many rituals where the local temples are also connected, some of the Muslim saints, though saints do not have religion, who were linked to this place are also the Gurus of some famous Hindu saints. Kerala just across the Arabian sea was having trade relations with Arabia from ancient times, that from before the Islamic faith was born, how we find some of the most ancient mosques in Kerala. Many of these are built just like Hindu temples though now being replaced by Arab looking structures and minarams. The ancient Cheraman mosque at Kodungalloor was recently rebuilt this way when several others continue to retain their old grace and simplicity.

The Thuckalai durgah of Sheikh Peer Mohammed sahib, on the road to Kanyakumari from Thiruvananthapuram, is where the mystic left his mortal body as believed. Peer Mohammed sahib, fondly called "Appa", as they call "Garib Nawaz" at Ajmer, is revered by all in the region and annual festivities attract huge crowds mainly from Tamilnadu and Kerala. This saint who is believed to have lived few centuries before has innumerable stories about his doing other worldly acts. The local people believe that Peer Mohammed sahib, who earlier remained at Peermedu in Kerala, after whom the place got the name, and before that at Tenkasi in Tamilnadu, came to Thuckalai during the days of Travancore kings . There are stories that tell how he made the arrogant people in the area, including the kings, humble by some small gestures. One of these pertains to the building of the fort wall, which had to be changed after the saint got involved. A simple unassuming ascetic who used to roam around he is supposed to have been happy with children and playing with them. The final day of demise was also with them and he chose a unique way of parting, with only the children knowing it and their making it a play. It is here that the durga now stands, nearby is the khabar of another person, a Hindu follower. There are views that pure Islam allows only the worship of all pervading supreme god head, Allah, as some one told at the mosque. But that is an abstraction that only few can reach. Human beings are different and they need their own beliefs in tune with their capacities. At another level it is possible to fathom all as one, what is possible for the blessed and the mystics. Everything has its place, man needs to be humble to take it.

The Attikara Pallivasal near the famous pilgrim town Thiruchendoor on the eastern coast is another interesting place with the burial places of two saints, presumably husband and wife, in the coastal plains. These Muslim saints came to India from Arabia to spread the words of the prophet as believed. Some consider it as an old Hindu goddess, and the differences hardly matter to the people. Islam must have been a liberating force at a point of time, with the rigidity of caste and priestly hold in Hinduism, and such changes are possible. Islam disallows middlemen, priests between man and god is notable. Attinkarai Thai, or mother on the river bank as the people call her, was named Fathima and both Hindus and Muslims come here in their search for solace. It is on the banks of a seasonal river which once must have been perennial. The ancient looking mosque here used to be a place where mentally disturbed people used to come and stay for healing. This practice is reduced now due to some government regulations but the crowds of pilgrims come throughout the year. People light incense sticks and bring flowers to be placed on the tomb and some also put green blankets on the tomb. Giving alms to the poor is mandatory here and almost every pilgrim does that. Attinkara Palli Vasal is reachable from Thirunelveli from where there are regular buses to the place. There are comfortable places to stay at reasonable rates and the place attracts a lot of pilgrims from Kerala.

There is another interesting mosque which looks just like a temple at Pottal Puthur, near Tenkasi in Tamilnadu. The huge granite structure looks like a temple and is likely to have been a Hindu temple in ancient times and the rituals here are almost similar to those in Hindu temples. These are simple folks who live around and the Hindu – Muslim divide found in other places in India are invisible here. The pilgrims who come here offer oil for the wick lamps and also incense sticks and some give brass lamps as an offering. Indeed it is one place where the borders between two faiths, Hinduism and Islam, melt away. Watering the trees in the mosque compound , water taken from a nearby river and carried on head, is a major ritual here. Large number of people can be seen doing this ritual, very eco-friendly that in a water scarce region. The use of sandal paste in the rituals is another feature here that sounds like Hinduism. It is another matter that these were once areas with Jainism and Budhism and both have disappeared. In fact many if the Hindu temples must have been Jain or Budhist at some point of time. Some other faiths earlier, as time moves on faiths change is a reality. The Nagerkoil temple nearby was Jain shrine as late as a century back as history tells.

Pictures: One from top, Thuckalai Durga, two, Bhima Palli mosque, three, Pottal Puthur and four and five, collecting water and a girl carrying water from the river at Pottal Puthur mosque