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The Haji Malang shrine: Whose God is it anyway?

By Shiv Kumar

The popular shrine of Haji Abdur Rehman Shah Malang near Mumbai, where Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and other communities have worshipped together for generations, is being contested by fundamentalist Hindus and Muslims

Jagtar Singh is the odd one out in the sea of humanity clambering uphill to the dargahof Haji Abdur Rehman Shah Malang. His deep red turban bobbing above the uncovered heads of pilgrims struggling up the Malang hill, 2,596 feet above sea level, marks him out on this pleasant February morning.

"I am here to thank Baba," the middle-aged transporter speaks softly above the din. Business has been good this year, and Singh has joined the congregation, cutting across caste and creed, in gratitude.

Hindus and Muslims throng this hilltop shrine, as do Parsis, Christians and Sikhs, every February to celebrate the urs of the Baba.

The 13-km-long drive from Kalyan railway station outside Mumbai is the first indicator of trouble beneath the pastoral calm. Road signs en route have ugly blotches of tar clumsily defacing the word 'Haji', betraying the handiwork of Hindutva forces. The overbearing presence of khaki sharing space with the gaudy office of the Shiv Sena at the base of the Malang hill completes the picture of communal strife.

But the hundreds of devotees like Singh who are trudging up the hill do not seem to mind. The long winding path uphill is paved with granite, Cuddapah stone and even white bathroom tiles -- tokens of gratitude now broken down through wear-and-tear.

As I join in the climb, shabbily dressed children -- Hindu and Muslim -- accost me with tiny packets of peanuts. Rs 10 gets me 20 packets for the monkeys that wait to be fed during the 80-minute climb. Local entrepreneurs have put up tiny stalls at every turn to sell freshly crushed sugarcane juice. Sadhus and fakirs alike engage in banter and beg for alms.

Past the two smaller mazaars where devotees of pir saab must stop and pay their obeisance, scores of devout Muslims bow before the Hindu Brahmin priest who oversees worship at the dargah. "I am the 14th generation priest to serve this shrine," says Kumar Ketkar, a trained lawyer.

Today, the first day of the urs, a palanquin symbolising the spirit of pir saab has just been brought from Ketkar's ancestral home at the foot of the hill in traditional Hindu style. After the rituals, spread over several hours, Ketkar and the other trustees of the shrine are greeted by scores of devotees. Many of the local Muslims respectfully touch Ketkar's feet and seek his blessings.

"The celebrations peak on the final day of the urs, the full moon night during the Hindu month of Magh, which is also the 13th day of the month of Chand in the Islamic calendar," Ketkar explains. Most years, this day falls in the month of February. The celebrations will end with another palanquin procession bearing chadors and sandalwood paste from the dargah in the reverse direction. Seven groups of local fakirs belonging to different jamaats elect a leader from among themselves to complete the rituals.

Before they leave, Hindu and Muslim devotees usually visit the nearby Maruti mandir and a mosque respectively.

The Ketkar family's association with the Haji Malang dargah goes back to 1780, when the British laid siege to a nearby fort, then in the possession of the Peshwa rulers. The Peshwas held out for six long months, forcing the British to withdraw. "My ancestor Kashinath Pant Ketkar issued a proclamation ascribing the victory to the pir saab," says Ketkar. Since then, local Hindus and Muslims have worshipped here together.

According to lore, Haji Abdur Rehman Shah was a 13th century mystic from Yemen who settled down here to preach. The local ruler, King Nall, is said to have offered his daughter to the pir as a disciple. The mazaars of the pir and Ma Fatima lie side by side.

This façade of communal harmony, however, is punctured by groups of fundamentalist Hindus and Muslims locked in a fierce contest for control over the shrine. Before his death some years ago in a road accident, local Shiv Sena leader Anand Dighe threatened to take over the dargah by force after claiming it as a Hindu shrine.

"Amar Parvat was the original name of the place because rishis gave diksha to Lord Amarnath here," says Dinesh Deshmukh who heads the Thane unit of the Hindu Manch, an umbrella body of different Hindutva groups. "What they call the mazaars are basically small mounts that have come up around gifts given by the gurus to their disciples," he adds.

Haji Malang's believers contest Deshmukh's claim. "We don't subscribe to their ideology or their stories as we have written records and parchments dating back several centuries substantiating our claims," says Ketkar.

However, a move by some of the shrine's trustees to hand over the dargah to the Waqf Board threatens to isolate moderates like Ketkar. "Under Section 43 of the Waqf Act, 1993, all dargahs, mosques and kabrasthans automatically come under the Waqf Board," says Nasir Khan, a trustee of the shrine. With the Maharashtra government deciding to implement the new Waqf Act from 2003, even the Waqf Board is pressing for takeover of the administration of the dargah from the charity commissioner.

According to Dr M A Aziz, chairman, Waqf Board, and member of Maharashtra's legislative council, little of the rituals at the dargah will change. "We accept Kumar Ketkar as the hereditary trustee. He won't have any excuse not to work under the Waqf Board," says Dr Aziz.

The Hindutva bodies are raising the future of the nearby Maruti mandir as a political issue. "Will the Waqf Board also take control of the temple? Isn't it also part of the complex?" asks Deshmukh.

The Waqf Board has, however, decided to let Hindu organisations take charge of the temple. "The Waqf Board will not manage the temple," says Dr Aziz.

With the trustees now resorting to personal attacks against one another, devotees of the pir saab are hoping that the Maharashtra government will take direct control of the shrine. "The government should enact a special law like the one for the Shirdi Sai Baba and Ajmer Sharif shrines," says Ketkar.

(This article is part of a series on 'Communal Polarisation and Threat to Shared Traditions in India', supported by the National Foundation for India. It first appeared in the

InfoChange News & Features, April 2006