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Shirdi is losing its Sufi traditions

By Shiv Kumar

In the temple town of Shirdi, Moharrum is no longer celebrated alongside Ram Navami, a practice begun by the Sufi saint Sai Baba. The cracks in the town's legendary amity between Hindus and Muslims are beginning to show

A stone's throw from the bustling shrine of Sai Baba in Shirdi, 200 km from Mumbai, priceless chronicles detailing the life and sayings of the Sufi saint are crumbling to bits.

More than 200 pages of hand-written manuscripts written by Haji Abdul Baba between 1895 and 1918 -- the year Sai Baba passed away -- are lying at his former cottage which has been turned into a shrine by his descendants.

"Abdul Baba used to write down the utterances of Sai Baba that dealt with the unity of the Hindu and Muslim faiths," says his grandson Hameed who manages the shrine. The text of Abdul Baba's manuscripts draws parallels between the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad and the Hindu legends associated with Vishnu, Shiva and Brahma.

Sai Baba's discourses, as chronicled by Abdul Baba, also dealt with the prevalent Sufi traditions of the time, in parts of Deccan Maharashtra and northern India. According to Hameed, his ancestor's notes are a blend of Deccani Urdu and the now-extinct Modi script that was widely used in Maharashtra until the mid-1950s.

With little assistance from the Shirdi Sansthan, Maharashtra's richest shrine, which has annual revenues touching Rs 100 crore, Hameed has been forced to dump the precious notes into a cupboard along with the tattered effects of Abdul Baba. "It would help if the authorities helped preserve these documents," he says, showing the papers encased in ordinary polythene bags.

Only a small fraction of Sai Baba's devotees who throng the magnificent shrine next door make their way to the still-humble cottage of Abdul Baba. But Hameed dutifully allows everyone to handle the parchment and other effects of his ancestor, regardless of the resulting wear-and-tear.

The managers of the Shirdi Sansthan are disinterested in Sai Baba's chronicles. "It is the private property of his descendants," says Bhausaheb Watchure, government-appointed administrator of the shrine.

Hameed himself is reluctant to hand over the manuscripts to the trust, saying he is worried about their safety. "It would help if private bodies came forward to preserve these papers," he says.

Delhi-based researcher Yoginder Sikand, who has studied the evolving worship of Sai Baba, warns that Maharashtra's politicians who control the shrine are uncomfortable with the saint's Muslim origins, as depicted in the chronicles. "The Sai Baba shrine is completely Brahminised and all traces of Islam are being erased from here," Sikand says.

For instance, says Sikand, the trust has abandoned the practice, started by Sai Baba, of celebrating Moharrum along with Ram Navami. Now only Ram Navami is celebrated in Shirdi though the trust's museum clearly documents the two festivals being celebrated together here.

As he emerges from the little mosque, 85-year-old Ghulam Habib Abdul Rehman Pathan seems an unlikely candidate to sing paeans to Bollywood. A devout Muslim sporting a luxurious beard, Pathan remembers a time when Sai Baba's shrine at Shirdi was humbler and devotees came in tongas and bullock carts to pray.

"After Manoj Kumar made his movie on Sai Baba, life changed entirely here," says Pathan. The cult film of the 1970s has paid rich dividends to Shirdi's residents. With pilgrims flocking from across the country, the simple mud huts of Sai Baba's early devotees have transformed into brick-and-mortar structures housing small businesses.

Even the dilapidated mosque that Sai Baba made his home has given way to an elaborately carved stone structure. "The mosque gradually crumbled and the place got several facelifts in subsequent decades," recollects the wizened Pathan who, as a boy, earned Rs 1.50 a month as a watchman.

Working on a project for the National Foundation for India, I am eager to find traces of the legendary amity that saw groups of Hindus and Muslims worshipping side-by-side here. Instead, I find middle-class India swaying to tunes from tinsel town. "You will identify the Muslims in the queue as they usually donate a chador at the mazaar," says Razzaq Shaikh, a local leader.

On the face of it there is little discernible difference between the worshippers clad uniformly in western-style shirts and trousers for the men, and churidars for the women.

Eastman Colour has touched up even the images of Sai Baba sold at wayside stalls. "Few people buy photographs of the real Sai Baba clad in tattered robes leaning against the walls of his mud hut," admits the owner of a local photo studio. "People have forgotten that Sai Baba lived a simple life," says Shivaji Bhaskarrao Shinde, an employee of the Shirdi Trust. His family heirlooms include coins, notes and photographs of his great
grandmother Laxmibai with the Sufi saint.

Old-timers say Sai Baba used to hold langars, or community kitchens, where Hindus and Muslims were served food out of the same pot. "Baba himself used to serve non-vegetarian food to his devotees," says Shinde. Now, the Maharashtra government has banned the sale of meat near the shrine, to the consternation of local Muslims and dalits. Even the Moharrum procession at Shirdi has been abandoned, in sharp contrast to the opulent Ram Navami celebrations, even though Sai Baba himself insisted on observing the rituals of both communities.

The Maharashtra government's move to placate the rich mercantile Hindu castes has paid off, with the Shirdi Trust earning Rs 90 crore last year.

As murmurs of discontent grow in Shirdi, the trust has come up with a brainwave. "We have enough land in this town to recreate a model of old Shirdi to educate and entertain pilgrims," says Bhausaheb Watchure, the bureaucrat who manages the Shirdi Trust.

(These articles are part of a series on 'Communal Polarisation and Threat to Shared Traditions in India', supported by the National Foundation for India. They first appeared in the Tribune)

InfoChange News & Features, April 2006