A Sufi shrine in South India revered by Hindus and Muslims alike has been a symbol of tolerance. But all that may change if a plan to turn it into a Hindu-only temple goes ahead.
It has been one of the rarest symbols of religious harmony, almost a believe-it-or-not place. A shrine that attracts both Hindus and Muslims, believed to be the final resting place of a saint revered by people from both communities. But it may not remain that way for long if Hindutva activists have their way in what essentially is an attempt to bolster their rather weak presence in India´s south.
The Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the even more radical Bajrang Dal (BD) contend that the Swami Dattatreya Baba Budhan Giri dargah in Chikmagalur in Karnataka state, some 300 km north-west of Bangalore, regarded as one of the oldest Sufi shrines in the region, ought to be a Hindu-only temple. The campaign began in the early 1990s, picked up steam in 1998, and flared up following the death in October 1999 of the custodian of the shrine, Pir Sayyed Muhammad Shah Qadri Qalandar.
The Hindutva activists want the Sufi priest´s body to be exhumed from the dargah premises, where his relatives and ancestors lie buried, and have demanded that his son, Sayyed Muhammad Ghaus, be barred from customarily succeeding him to the position of Sajjada Nashin. For the dargah´s Hindu and Muslim worshippers, this goes against the whole philosophy of co existence and harmony that the shrine symbolises, as its very name so strikingly reveals — Sri Dattatreya Swami Baba Budhan Dargah.
Muslims believe that the founder of the cave-shrine, an Arabian Sufi called Dada Hayat, is one of their own, while Hindus take him to be the incarnation of their god Dattatreya (see box overleaf). In any case, the dargah being a Sufi shrine, it would be open to worship by people of all faiths. None of the available royal records show any Hindu ruler of the area to have had problems with the shrine being tended to by the family of Muslim Sajjada Nashins. Indeed, Hindu royalty had recognised them as Mathadipathis (Heads of the Shrine), and also by the honorific of Sri Dattatreya Swami Baba Budhan Swami Jagadguru. They were also given certain privileges at par with the heads of some leading Hindu shrines. In the erstwhile Hindu kingdom of Mysore, the Sajjade Sri Guru Dattathreya Baba Budhan Swami was among 17 ´gurus´ to have been exempted from appear ing in the civil courts, the only Muslim priest to enjoy that honour.
In the mid-1960s, a dispute arose over the shrine. But that had nothing to do with religion, at least not initially. The Karnataka Waqf Board, the organisation in charge of all Muslim endowments in the state, had issued a notice claiming that the dargah came under its jurisdiction, which was challenged by the Muzrai Department (the Commissioner of Religious and Charitable Endowments). The Sajjada Nashin supported the Muzrai Department´s stance, arguing against the Waqf Board´s claim on the ground that the dargah was not exclusively a Muslim shrine as it was venerated by both Muslims and Hindus.
In a 1975 directive, however, the state government vested the dargah with the Waqf board, which was reversed in 1980 by the Chikmagalur District Court. The lengthy legal wrangle finally reached the Supreme Court, which entrusted the Muzrai Department with the authority over the dargah, and confirmed the Muslim Sajjada Nashin as its sole administrator, while also directing that the dargah´s rituals not be tampered with.
Meanwhile, the dispute was given a communal turn and was sought to be projected as a Hindu-Muslim feud. The rightist Hindu groups, in a bid to expand their limited base in South India, began whipping up communal sentiments. Several Muslim and Christian places of worship in Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu were on their ´temple-list´ including a Portuguese-built church near Pondicherry an Eidgah at Hubli (Karnataka) and the Baba Budhan Giri shrine.
By the late 1980s, fuelled by their pan-India agitation which culminated in the razing of the Babri Masjid at Ayodhya, the Karnataka unit of the VHP launched a campaign to capture the dargah in the name of ´liberating´ it, and set up a “Committee for the Protection of Data Peetha”. On 3 December 1989, in violation of the Supreme Court directive on the dargah rituals, a puja to the three-headed Dattatreya was carried out outside the caye shrine by a group of VHP priests.
Since the demolition of the Babri Masjid, a three-day annual affair called the Datta-treya Jayanti Utsav has [been held here from 1 to 3 Decem ber. In November 1998, the VHP and the BD, with support from some leaders of the local Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), launched a mobilisation drive all over Karnataka to take over the Sufi shrine. While senior Hindutva leaders made threatening remarks, the then BJP MP, Ananth Kumar Hegde from the neighbouring Karwar constituency, went on to declare that he would despatch ´suicide squads´ to ensure the success of the campaign.
Karnataka´s claim to communal ´ peace was tarnished as violence accompanied five chariot processions that criss-crossed the state, reaching Chikmagalur on 30 November 1998 under tight police protection. Although the district administration banned the assembly of four or more persons within a 10-km radius of the dargah, there were about 10,000 Hindutva activists at the shrine. There was fiery rhetoric, with speakers warning of a bloodbath unless the shrine was “liberated”.
The activists tore down the dargah´s green flags and replaced them with saffron ones. The administration and police merely watched, saying that their intervention would only worsen the situation. Encouraged by this, some activists carried a Dattatreya idol inside the cave and worshipped it. Another group also tried to install a Ganesh idol inside the shrine, but were stopped. (Tradition does not permit the removal of Ganesh once installed.)
It was less than a year later that the 15th Sajjada Nashin of the dargah died. He was succeeded by his son, Sayyed Ghaus Muhiuddin Shah Qadri, as administrator of the shrine. Hindutva leaders protested, demanding that a Hindu be appointed in his place and that the body of the late Sajjada Nashin be exhumed from its resting place. Two months later, the VHP organised a three-day Dattatreya Jayanti festival at the shrine amidst tight police security.
Predictably, fiery slogans were raised and threats of forcibly ´liberating´ the dargah were issued. Some Bajrang Dal activists pelted stones on Muslim graves lying in the vicinity of the shrine. The controversy over the dargah shows little sign of abating, especially because the Hindutva leadership is well aware of its considerable mobilisational potential. The state has chosen to see the issue as simply one of law and order, and allowed the Hindutva groups to carry on with their campaign relatively unhindered. A unique institution that has for centuries being bringing people of different religions and castes together is emerging as one more communal battlefield in India. The biggest casualty, once more, is, and will be, tolerance.
The Swami Dattatreya Baba Budhan Giri dargah is one of the few institutions of its kind in India. Its founding is associated with a Sufi from the town of Taif in Arabia, Dada Hayat Qalandar, about whose life not much is known except from some hagiographies.
Shaikh Abdul Aziz Makki (more popularly known as Dada Hayat) was the among the first of the Qalandars, or wandering dervishes, who arrived in India in the early Islamic period. He apparently gave up Christianity to embrace Islam when Muhammad declared his prophethood in Mecca, and joined the Ahl-i-Suffa, a group of some 400 of the Prophet´s special disciples who are regarded as the precursors of the Sufis. The hagiographies present Dada Hayat´s arrival in South India as a result of a command issued to him by the Prophet to travel to the Chandradrona hill in Chikmagalur where his dargah stands today.
It is said that when Dada Hayat and his disciples finally reached their destination, night had already fallen. His disciples went off to sleep while Dada Hayat entered a cave on the top of the mountain and began preparing for night prayer. Just then, he saw a group of palegars, local feudal lords, and their henchmen dragging along a man bound in chains. The cave where Dada Hayat sat was one used by a Brahmin and a jangam, a Lingayat priest, as a court to try criminal cases. When they saw Dada Hayat inside the cave deep in meditation the palegars were enraged. They unsheathed their swords and rushed towards him in a bid to kill him, but legend says that due to divine intervention the swords fell from their hands and the chains around their captive suddenly snapped loose.
Realising that Dada Hayat was no ordinary mortal, they begged him for forgiveness. The next morning, the Brahmin and the jangam, who had witnessed the miraculous events of the night before, came to the cave. They stood before the meditating Dada Hayat and repented for having opposed him. It appeared to them that Swami Dattatreya, the much-awaited incarnation of the Hindu Trinity of Brahma, Vishnnu| and Shiva, had appeared to them in the form of Dada Hayat
They spread the news among the local Hindus! who began flocking to the cave in large numbers to pay their respects to Dada Hayat. So impressed were the people by Dada Hayat´s kindness, love, compassion and tolerance, that many of them converted to Islam at his hands. Thousands of others who did not wish to renounce their ancestral religion, began re garding him as the incarnation of Dattatreya.
The identification of Dada Hayat with Dattatreya became so complete over time that in the records of the inams, or land grants, given to his dargah, the Muslim sajjada nashin, or custodian, is inevitably re ferred to by the Hindu honorific of Jagadguru, “pre ceptor of the World”.
Popular lore has it that because the Prophet Muhammad blessed him with a long life, Dada Hayat is still alive today. It is said that after establishing his shrine at Chandradrona, he left through a tunnel in his cave for a long visit to Arabia and Central Asia from where he brought along a Yemeni, Sayyed Shah Jamaluddin Maghribi, to look after the dargah.
Maghribi is today popularly known as “Baba Budhan”, and the hills around Chandradrona is named after him—the Baba Budhan Range. Maghribi, a renowned Sufi himself, is said to have been accepted by Sultan Ali Adil Shah of Bijapur (1557-79) as his spiritual preceptor. It was Maghribi who played a major role in reviving the dargah of Dada Hayat. After staying there for four years, he went on a long journey that took him to holy places in Iraq, Syria and Arabia. While in Yemen, Maghribi procured some coffee seeds, which he brought back and spread the cultivation of coffee in south India. Today the hills around Chandradrona and beyond are covered with vast coffee plantations which form the mainstay of the local economy.
Before Maghribi passed away in the mid-16th century, he nominated his nephew, Sayyed Musa Hussain Shah Qadri, as successor and the sajjada nashin of the dargah. The custodianship of the shrine continues till date with this family. The late Sayyed Pir Muhammad Shah Qadri Qalandar, the sajjada nashin whose death has raked up a fresh controversy over the dargah, was the 15th in line from Sayyed Musa.
Over the centuries, various Muslim as well as Hindu rulers patronised the dargah, endowing it with considerable wealth and land. They included Channamaji, the Hindu queen of Nagar, Haider Ali and his son Tipu Sultan, rulers of Mysore, and Sri Krishnaraja Wodeyar III of Mysore. It is this Muslim-Hindu royal patronage that has helped the dargah emerge as one of the unique pilgrim centres for both Muslims and Hindus.