Sacred Spaces

Dargah is a Persian word meaning “royal court.” In the Indian subcontinent it commonly refers to the tombs of Sufi saints. For nearly a millennium these shrines have formed an integral part of the rural and urban landscapes of South Asia.

The dargah par excellence is the tomb complex of Khwaja Mu’in al-Din Chishti in Ajmer, a shimmering vision in marble accented with gold, silver and mother-of-pearl. The Mughal emperor Akbar showed his devotion to the saint by dismounting his elephant and approaching the tomb on foot across the scorching desert. Today, hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit the dargah each year. One of the cauldrons from which pilgrims and the needy are fed measures ten feet in diameter.

Dargahs come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Few approach the opulent grandeur of the Ajmer dargah, but each has its own unique “flavor” (zawq). There are dargahs on mountaintops, dargahs on islands, and dargahs in the medians of city streets. Some dargahs have a sober and austere air, while others are magnets for raucous antinomian dervishes.

Whenever I visit India, as I have just done, I make sure to pay my respects to the saints of bygone times. After offering rose petals, incense, and prayers at the tombs of my grandfather and father, I turn to the shrines of their spiritual forebears in the Chishti Order. Namely, in Delhi, Khwaja Qutb al-Din, Khwaja Nizam al-Din, Khwaja Nasir al-Din, and Shah Kalim Allah; and in Ahmedabad, Jamman Shah, Shaykh Hasan Muhammad, and Shaykh Muhammad.

Some limit their salutations to the saints of their own lineage or order. I confess that I do not. Two non-Chishti dargahs where I felt the “glance of grace” on my recent visit were those of Sarmad Shahid and Bava Gor.


Dancing at the dargah of Mai Misra.

Sarmad the Martyr was an Armenian rabbi turned Sufi mystic who translated the Pentateuch into Persian. The puritanical emperor Awrangzib had him tried and executed for heresy, but his legacy has proven immortal. His earthly remains lie in a blood-red tomb facing the Great Mosque in Old Delhi, and his indomitable spirit lives on everywhere a stand is taken for spiritual liberty.

Bava Gor was an Abyssinian shaykh who settled with his sister, a powerful exorcist named Mai Misra, in the wilds of Gujarat. Tended by Sidis (Indianized Africans), the tomb complex is a microcosmic Gondwanaland where African drum rhythms induce ecstatic trances punctuated by calls of “Bava Gor!” and “Ya Bilal!” Local legend holds that a tiger routinely visits in the pre-dawn hour to sweep the sacred precincts with its tail.

The dargahs of Sarmad Shahid and Bava Gor exemplify the capacity of Sufi shrines to bridge the gap between diverse communities. Masjids are for Muslims and mandirs are for Hindus, but dargahs are honored and frequented by all. Dargah culture is ganga-jamni—like the merging of sacred rivers, hybrid, syncretic. The interspiritual ethos of these shrines is reflected in the music one hears there. One moment the qawwals (ritual singers) might be singing Persian verses in praise of the Prophet Muhammad and the next, Braj Bhasha folk songs about Radha’s love for Krishna.

Deeply rooted in Indian culture though they are, the shrines of the Sufi saints face an uncertain future. Many Muslims have been drifting toward Wahhabi-inspired reform movements that reject the cult of saints as an un-Islamic “innovation.” Meanwhile, Hindu reformists are doing all within their power to purge every whiff of Islamic culture from their midst. In the shadow of the Indo-Pak nuclear standoff, as religious communities fall into mutually opposed lock step, the pluralism of dargah culture has little room to flourish.

There are other factors at play as well. India is “developing”—i.e. morphing into a hi-tech industrial juggernaut. The booming middle class is thronging to newly erected gridwork suburbs, instant computer-generated neighborhoods. Saints cannot be born, live their lives, and die fast enough to keep up with the pace of urban sprawl. Even if they could, their bones are meaningless to ambitious developers.

We in North America and Europe are in no position to criticize. After all, we invented suburbia. For us, the challenge now is to restore the place of the hallowed, the beautiful, and the authentically communal in our public spaces.

Comments (7)
  • Dear Pir Zia,

    I agree with your article, but I would hasten to add—as a devotee of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother—that the Hindu “reformers” can hardly be called Hindu at all, let alone reformers. The Hindutva movement must be separated from the set of spiritual practices historically classified under “Hinduism” as the two are really not related. The Hindutva-vadis are in fact far closer to Nazi fascist ideologies than to Hinduism, which has always assimilated all religions and paths and accepted them as valid attempts to attain the Divine. Certainly the Hindutva-vadis are hardly reformers in any sense of the world and are worlds apart from genuine reformers of Hinduism like Ramakrishna, Vivekananda, Sri Aurobindo, Ramana Maharishi, Rabindranath Tagore, and so many others.

    Let us hope and pray for lasting peace and solidarity in South Asia. Ameen!

    — ned on March 8, 2009

  • I also feel (as a Pakistani) that Hindutva is at least partly a reaction to the partition of South Asia and also the result of secular political parties in India not being able to offer up useful visions of Indian national identity. It is all a big mess, really.

    — ned on March 8, 2009

  • I too have recently returned from India. My sole purpose was to visit my Sheikh at the Annual Bandhara in Kanpur. When back in Delhi I always visit the Dargahs’ of the Naqshbandiyya-Mujaddidiyya Saints of my Lineage. But I always make it a point to pay my respects at the Dargah of Hazrat Inayat Khan. I have been there now 5 or 6 times…and I am always amazed at how beautiful and tranquil the place is. And how Powerful it is! You can feel his power actually pulsating! I’ve brought some people there who complain they can’t meditate! Their minds won’t stop they say. Well in a few minutes Dhyana comes unannounced! And they fall into a deep-deep meditation…I often say…if i lived in Delhi, I would go there every day!!
    Peace!
    kanpur kenny

    — Kenneth Dunn on March 8, 2009

  • Salams Pir Zia,
    I agree that the dargah/mazars of the subcontinent are precious, and in Pakistan there was a recent attack on one of the most sacred Pathan mazars close to Peshawar. 
    This is a complex and nuanced subject, but I believe these dargahs must be viewed as completely indigenous, islamic and “syncronistic” simultaneously, without contradictions.

    — azeem on March 18, 2009

  • Beloved Zia, Thank you for the beautiful reminder. It has been 2 years since I’ve been to India to visit the dargahs of the sufi saints. I spent many nights in your grandfather’s dargah. There was a full moon during that time,so now that i am back in the US I need only look at the full moon and it beams carry me back there. Yes , these are very powerful places, may they remain in our hearts, as well as in our cities.

    — daniel ( ALi Jemal ) Mount on March 28, 2009

  • A very good attempt.I am a research scholar on the topic of Dargahs of Delhi.I find so much peace in the heart of the Dargahs.there is very less work done on this topic and there is a need of people like you who could do a lot more in this direction.please ,share much more in this regard.29,november2009

    — zakia akhtar on November 29, 2009

  • Dear Pir Zia, Long fascinated by the figure of Sarmad the Martyr (aka Sarmad the Cheerful), I took advantage of my days in Delhi after Murshid’s ‘Urs to seek out Sarmad’s dargah (absurdly easy to find, right below gate # 2 of the Jama Masjid). His red tomb shares a space with the green tomb of his teacher (about whom I know nothing). I entered and no one bothered me; I sat for an hour or two and absorbed the spirit of this remarkable figure. There is no doubt in my mind that he is my kindred spirit on several levels, and of course, being a recovering professor, I started thinking of writing an article about him. But then I thought he would be better served by a novella, and, as I have long wished to try my hand at fiction, I thought this might be my opportunity. Murshid says that one should share one’s intention only with those who might help one to accomplish it. That most certainly includes you, Pir Zia, but perhaps others who read your blog whom I do not know. Anyone with good ideas is welcome to contact me at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address). I really want this to happen. Warm regards, Sharif Munawwir

    — Sharif Munawwir Graham on February 9, 2010

Add your comment
  • Please enter the word you see in the image below:

© Copyright 2010 Seven Pillars. All rights reserved.
.