Faith connected the then Arab empire with the coast of western India in the medieval period. Sidi dynasty blossomed on the Janjira island and became a formidable naval power. British and Portuguese feared the Sidi sway in the Indian Ocean and Konkan continued to be a safe haven for the locals protected against the European powers, at least till the 18th century CE. During this time, the Sufi saints that made Konkan their home, left a mark on the landscape.
The locals across the villages in Konkan revere the religious teachers or seers in the Shia tradition of Islam. The Pir, as they are popularly addressed, were the godmen who helped the sick, troubled and poor villagers. Miracles continues to be an integral part of oral histories about Pirs in Konkan. Walking on water, shooting balls of flame in air, and speaking from the grave are many such markers for a “Jinda Pir” (Living Pir).
The coastline is dotted with numerous dargahs for the Sufi saints from Gujarat to the North to Kerala in the South along the Western coast of India. Raigad district, with the twin towns of Murud and Janjira is known as resting places for Pirs from the medieval period. I had a chance to visit the shrines in Ratnagiri district. On my visit to Sangmeshwar, Rajapur and Ratnagiri Talukas in Ratnagiri district, I came back with an enormous lore and legends about the Pir, the city and the overlap of various belief systems in the area. The Sufi shrines in Sindhudurg district seem to retain the Arabian charm in its architecture and the trove of lore that surrounds it. I do not imply one greater than the other, but the Konkani assimilation seems to have played out differently in the districts of Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg for the Sufi shrines.
Associations between the sufi saints, their lore and the location of their shrine presents an interesting aspect of embeddedness of the narrative in the local landscape. The legend of Sir-Pir (Sir = head, in Urdu) in Sangmeshwar Taluka plays out as an episode of martyrdom of the sufi saint, who received a blow on his neck to save the fellow jamaat in the village. And the place where his head touched the ground, became sacred. A dargah to Sir Pir stands there to this day. The Urs (festival or celebration in honour of the Pir) attracts both Muslim and non-Muslim devotees from around Konkan to Sir Pir.
Another legend of Sarwari Baba at Utambar near Anjarle (in Dapoli taluka of Ratnagiri district) speaks of the benevolence of the Pir and annual fests with malida going to every neighbouring dargah and mosque. The dargah at Achra, Bandivade, Sindhudurg, Phungus, Hatis, Vijaydurg, and Jaitapur reiterate the community participation. In some cases, the Pir and the dargah seems to be a non-Muslim area of activity than Islamic. I understand the weight of this sentence, and let me lay it out fully.
Some of the dargah mark an event (generally the ultimate event) in the Pir’s life or performance of a miracle. The medieval town settling may have had Muslim settlement in the area where the dargah stands today. In some cases, where a peti or a box with the saint’s belongings was acquired from the sea, the dargah was constructed adjacent to the water or on the port itself. Barring these exceptions, the dargah might have been in original Muslim moholla of the town. With the modern land politics, the traditional areas of the town may have moved. In some cases that I gathered; the non-Muslim land-grab politics has complicated the place of dargah in a town. The original Khadim (or caretakers) of the dargah often live a couple of villages away and make it to the dargah only when the weather permits, or during special occasions. The families have moved out, leaving the last thread of attachment in the form of the dargah.
The narrative that the Pir is benevolent to non-Muslims has proved to be a double-edged sword in Konkan. The Urs participation of non-Muslims has indeed seen a remarkable uptick, and has maybe saved numerous dargah from being relocated or demolished. However, that has also translated as a total non-Muslim grasp on the maintenance of the dargah. Some non-Muslims that I interviewed, lauded their family’s efforts of lighting a lamp at the dargah every night, “to keep the tradition alive”. And I appreciate that as well; but why did the Khadim family ‘leave’ in the first place? I found it troubling to accept the hanging conversations around land and ritual performance concerning the dargah.
I personally love going to dargah (wherever it is permitted for a woman to do so) and smell the light fragrance of the incense or ittar in the air, and maybe talk pleasantries with Khadim begum. The dargah in Konkan are also the places where you come to heal. Spiritually, or, if you wish to seek a counsel on physical health, then that too. The dargah at Phungus (yes, the one with impressive glass work inlay) has traditionally been a place to seek advice on mental and physical health. Miniature silver cradles hang in the dargah as offerings for begetting a child, and numerous threads tied to the latticework indicate the wishes of the devotees. Dargah stands at the confluence of syncretism, ritual healing and well-being, and an embodied manifestation of oral and aural narratives about some respected person in the community.
I would hate this post to be interpreted as a call for action to reclaim the dargah from non-Muslim areas or something, but I want to leave the reader with some semblance of a complicated backdrop for a clean image of “syncretism”. The dargah in Konkan has changed from its Arabian prototype (if we can call it as such), or from its Deccani relative (dargah in the mainland). The white-washed dargah stands by the water, indicating land for the ships at night, and a resting place for travelers (and now coast-guards) during the day. But the question continues to linger – what is a Konkani dargah, really?
10 of 30 in the series “Konkan: May-illuminate”