Let There Be Light

Religion, rituals and communal harmony in colonial Awadh

Three major strands can be seen operating behind the pluralist tradition of the qasbas: Moharram rituals, Sufi traditions and the usage of Urdu as a medium of language. The religious calendar of Awadh was dominated by Eid, Dusshera, Muharram and urs (birth anniversary of a Sufi saint). Textual Urdu and contextual Islam united Hindus and Muslims of the qasbas

Qasbas in the colonial Awadh were the spaces where ‘we’ feeling was constantly (re)made across the narrow confines of religion and sect. Three major strands can be seen operating behind this pluralist tradition of the qasbas: Moharram rituals, Sufi traditions and the usage of Urdu as a medium of language. The religious calendar of Awadh was dominated by Eid, Dusshera, Muharram and urs (birth anniversary of a Sufi saint). Textual Urdu and contextual Islam united Hindus and Muslims of the qasbas. Thus we see that Saiyyid Ahmad Husain (d. 1933) a taluqdar of Motikpur and Nirauli and Ram Prasad solemnly observing Moharram together. Ram Prasad managed langar (free food served to the community). Muharram rites were transcommunal a century ago. Not only high caste Hindus but also labourers and artisans observed those rituals. ‘Over 50,000 to 60,000 devotees congregated during Muharram. One of the most impressive spectacles at such places was the tazia processions streaming along the streets, with a vast crowd of mourners that included Hindus of various classes and castes. Most of the qasbati people celebrated ‘Hindu’ festivals without the barrier of religion, mentioned Munshi Brij Bhushan Lal in his Tarikh-e Dariabad. The same was the case with Eid and Diwali. Muharram rituals were the cementing force not only for Hindus and Muslims but also for Shias and Sunnis. One can easily sense that Hasan inverts the narrative about religious rituals as the source of conflict to the source of harmony. ‘They [Shias, Sunnis, and Hindus across castes] all commemorated Muharram with equal solemnity.’ Readers might know that theologically Sunnis can either celebrate martyrdom because a martyr lives forever (zinda-e javed) or prefer plain solemnity. But for the Shias, Muharram occasions means ritually recreating the environment: an environment of mourning and atonement, sermons and recitations of dirges (marsiyas), public flagellation, julooszuljana (Husain’s horse) and the death of Abbas, Husain’s cousin. While the theologians of the nineteenth century Delhi and Awadh kept on splitting hairs on Shia- Sunni rituals, Sunni landholding families were busy commemorating Husain’s martyrdom and paying obeisance to ahl-e-bait (Prophet Mohammad’s immediate family). Sheikhs/Kidwais and other landholding Sunni families of Gadai (Barabanki) are one such example. Kidwais, in general, commemorated Moharram rituals across the Awadh region.

Apart from Muharram, the presence of Sufi shrines consolidated communal harmony. Just like Awadh was dotted with qasbas, so were the qasbas sprinkled with Sufi shrines. These were the spots where people, across social groups, bowed in front of their master (peer). ‘Sufism in a locality, as indeed on a pan-Indian scale, continued with its simple piety and gospel of love and absorbed heterodox elements’. So we find that William Crooke (1869–96), a civil servant, observed that the orthodox Hindu castes worshipped the quintets of the Panch Pir or famous local saints like Shah Madar (d. 1050) or Sakhi Sarwar. The history of such shrines and their influence over the locality can be traced back to early Mughals and Delhi sultans. Sufi saints and their successors got trusteeship over revenue-free land (madad-e mash). Chisti, Qadri and Sabri sufi orders were prominent. Rasauli had graves of Qazi Kidwa, Qazi Qeyamuddin and their family members who were the disciples of Nizamuddin Auliya (1238–1325), the great Chishti saint in Delhi. One of their descendants Aabash (d. 1472) became a Chisti saint and also followed Qadiri silsila (sufi order) through his matrimonial ties with Bansa (Hardoi district). Aabkash is also one of the forefathers of Abdul Majid of Dariabad (Bara Banki), the author-journalist. Abdul Majid Dariabadi’s father Maulvi Abdul Qadir (b. 1848) studied at the feet of Maulvi Muhammad Naim Farangi Mahali; so did his grandfather. Several members of the Kidwai clan in Baragaon were either educated at Farangi Mahal or recognized Abdul Bari as their spiritual preceptor. Sheikh Salahuddin Suhrawardy founded the Suhrawardy silsila in Rudauli during the Iltutmish time. Many other patron saints followed, along with their respective families. Rudauli had shrines of saints like Abdul Quddus Gangohi of the Sabiri silsila, and Sheikh Nasiruddin, who received land from Ibrahim Shah (1402–36). Satrikh (Barabanki) had the shrine of famous Sufi saint Sheikh Salar, the father of Ghazi Miyan Salar Masud. Masud’s shrine was built in Bahraich and had an associated shrine at Rudauli built in 1799. Rudauli was the place where, as the myth was, Zohra bibi was born as a blind girl and recovered her sight after the boon of Salar Masud. In the 1870s, average attendance at the Rudauli fair sometimes exceeded 6,000. This was to commemorate the death and thereafter a mythical marriage of Zohra bibi with Salar Masud.

Among the many mazaars was one prominent at Dewa town (Bara Banki) which had the shrine of Haji Qurban Ali Shah. He was the father of Haji Waris Ali Shah (1818– 1905). With time, urs of the son became more famous and many of his devotees attributed miracles to him. His murids ranged were mostly women, poor and lower castes from distant places. Among the rich followers of Dewa Sharif were Thakur Pancham Singh (zamindar of Mainpuri district), Raja Udyat Narayan Singh (Suratgunj in Awadh), Moti Misser Vakil (Bhagalpur) and Guru Mohun Singh (a Thakur zamindar from Bhagalpur). All these instances, among many others, make a compelling case for understanding pluralism as the signature of colonial qasbas. ‘The presence of Hindus, Sikhs, Parsis, and Jews around the urs revealed the vitality of popular beliefs as against the strict codes of Islamic orthodoxy.’


This essay is based on Mushirul Hasan’s From Pluralism to Separatism: Qasbas in Colonial Awadh (2004).

Zeeshan Husain

pursuing PhD in sociology from JNU. This essay is based on Mushirul Hasan’s From Pluralism to Separatism: Qasbas in Colonial Awadh (2004)

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