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Through the din of traffic, squealing brakes and automobile gears gnashing, I can hear only music.
The strains of nadaswaram waft to my ears on the torpid August afternoon when our car pulls up at Nagore Sharif near Nagapattinam in coastal Tamil Nadu. My colleague, photographer Azhar, and I exit our air-conditioned cocoon into the shock of afternoon humidity. My glasses fog up; his camera lenses reciprocate.
But the music, I hear it still. As the nadaswaram fades, the tranquil hum of a harmonium fills the space. It is followed a few moments later by the beat of qawwali, which segues sweetly with the notes of a shehnai.
A more fitting welcome to Hazrat Syed Shahul Hameed Dargah cannot be imagined.
This 16th century mausoleum to a Sufi saint sees more Hindus than Muslims flocking to it every day. So it has been for centuries. On this searing hot afternoon, they are filing in slowly and taking their places on the floor for the evening’s worship. By dusk, when the lights come on in the dargah's minarets and corridors, there will be no place to stand or sit. Our visit coincides with the fasting before Eid, which lies only a few days away, and the 14-day Kanduri festival celebrated in commemoration of the saint’s death anniversary.
Abu, a swarthy, bearded man in a dark-grey cotton jubba, a starched white mundu (dhoti), and a black linen cap with silver sequins, greets me warmly, pumps my hand and spirits me out of the car into the dargah. I am usually resistant to being accosted at religious places but I yield without complaint, mesmerized by the attar that I smell around me. Rather than suspicion of being fleeced, I feel gratitude. A deep, inexplicable gratitude. Within seconds, Abu has gauged my lack of depth in Tamil and switched to accented but fluent Malayalam, his kohl-lined eyes twinkling as he tells me that he learned to speak the language from his friends in Sharjah where he used to work. He guides me into the cool interiors of the dargah, passing an archway into a tile-walled corridor lined with stalls selling religious memorabilia and keepsakes, and materials for votive offerings.
It is not my first time in a dargah but the familiarity I feel here is redolent of something else — of being inside a Hindu temple. Flowers and sweets, along with incense and packets of sacred ash, are offered in a basket for worship. At the Rowla Sharif (the sanctum that houses the saint’s grave), the Khalifa — the chief religious authority of the shrine and a blood-descendant of the saint — conducts worship. He asks my name, and the names of my family members, and breathes a prayer for each of them. It doesn't feel very different from the archana performed at a Hindu temple. Syncretic practices abound here. For instance, devotees worship with flowers, light ghee lamps and tonsure their heads as they might at a Hindu shrine.
In the early 16th century the Sufi saint Shahul Hameed visited Nagore near Nagapattinam. Shahul Hameed is believed to be a 13th generation descendant of the famous Sufi saint Hajrath Muhiyudin Abd al-Qadir al-Jalani and a direct 23rd generation descendant of Prophet Muhammad through his grandson Hassan. Born in Pratapgarh (in modern Uttar Pradesh), he was schooled in Islamic scriptures at Gwalior under the tutelage of Hazrat Mohammad Ghouse, the distinguished Sufi saint who was held in esteem by Mughal emperors Humayun and Akbar.
After a pilgrimage to Mecca, Shahul Hameed travelled widely, visiting the Maldives and Sri Lanka before finally settling in Tamil Nadu. Legend has it that the king of Thanjavur, Achutappa Nayak, was suffering from a mysterious ailment brought on by sorcery. Shahul Hameed discovered the source of the evil spell -- a pigeon impaled with pins in the attic of the king’s palace and set it free. He then instructed the king to bathe in the waters of a tank, considered auspicious, to rid himself of the evil spell. The Nayak was cured of his ailment, and in gratitude to the saint he granted him lands at Nagore. To this day, pigeons are set free to mark this occasion. A number of Tamil hagiographical works credit the saint with several miracles including one in which he stopped a Dutch ship from sinking by floating a mirror in the Bay of Bengal.
— Bijoy Venugopal (@bijoyv) September 18, 2014
Following the saint’s death in 1579, a dargah was built at the site. Hindus, who flocked to the saint’s audience, have built most of the shrines present today at the site and dedicated them to Nagore Andaver (the God of Nagore), as they know the saint.
In 1739, 195 years after the saint’s passing, Pratap Singh, the Hindu Maratha ruler of Thanjavur, erected the tallest of the five minarets at the dargah. Known as periya manara (the tall minaret), it is 131 feet high and faces west outside the main portal. A ritual dip in the sacred tank (known as peerkulam or Shifa gunta) is believed to rid the believer of illnesses. Devotees also dedicate silver filigree figurines of human forms and other material objects including motorcycles and washing machines, in the hope of having their prayers answered.
The saint’s fame has spread far and wide, particularly to Sri Lanka and southeast Asia. Abu points out Malaysian pilgrims in the crowd, as well as some visitors from Sri Lanka. Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar also visit the Shrine. Memorial shrines to Shahul Hameed have been built in Singapore and Penang.
After visiting the dargah, we stop to see the tank. From this vantage, all five minarets of the dargah are visible. Its surroundings are littered and dirty, as is so at most places of pilgrimage where the human tide of devotion leaves its mark. It is a clotted green pond of stagnant water, with steps leading down to it from the embankment and separate bathing areas for men and women. In structure, it resembles the bathing tank present at most Hindu temples and not the tank for ritual ablutions present at mosques.
The nadaswaram sounds again. Along with it I hear drumbeats and the percussion of cymbals. The music is calming and reassuring but the tranquil sense harmony one experiences at Nagore extend beyond music. Many practitioners of both faiths — Hinduism and Islam — do not support the syncretic rituals performed at Sufi shrines. However, in a time when the world is being cloven by divisive fundamentalist forces, a visit to Nagore has the power to unveil our eyes and cleanse us of prejudice.
Faith, as I understood it at Nagore, is more powerful than blind devotion. It is an uplifting, elevating emotion destined to free humanity from the choking shackles of dogma. Giving into it demands no effort, just the humble acceptance of mankind's equality.
Photos: AZHAR MOHAMED ALI