The Wandering Sufis (Qalandars and Their Path)

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Item Code: IDK971
Publisher: Aryan Books International
Author: Kumkum Srivastava
Edition: 2009
ISBN: 9788173053610
Pages: 285 (18 Illustrations in Colors)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 9.8" X 7.4”
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This work is a comparative study of two Sufi shrines, one located in Delhi, and the other, at Panipat (Haryana), which are affiliated to an antinomian order known as the Qalandar. Antinomian groups do not follow the Islamic tenets as enshrined in the Shariat, and that is why they are called Beshara (‘without the law’). Sufi orders following the Shariat are known as Bashara (‘with law’). Although the Beshara are divided into a large number of groups, most of which have disappeared with the passage of time, the group that has caught social imagery in India (and also, South Asia) is of the Qalandars. This study, conducted from the perspective of historical anthropology, combining the first-hand fieldwork with a study of historical documents shows that the Qalandar saints deviated considerably from the cultural practices for which they were infamous. Being Qalandar, therefore, was more a matter of ‘mind’ and ‘thought’ than of ‘living’ in that way. The shrines chosen for study are of Abu Bakr (in Delhi) and Bu Ali (in Panipat). The study compares their respective histories and social organizations, submitting that when Sufi shrines are Waqf managed, then they are far more Islamized than otherwise. Further, this study shows that the theoretical distinction made between Bashara and Beshara is blurred in reality. Unless one is told that Abu Bakr and Bu Ali were Qalandar saints, one would not come to know about their affiliation from an empirical study of their shrines. Social life in these shrines is similar to that of the Chishti (and other Bashara) shrines. Historically, it appears that the rebelliousness of Qalandars decreased when they settled down, and, in some cases, had their Khanqahs. They also established the relations of cordiality and symbiosis with Chishti saints. In other words, this work is a contribution to the understanding of Sufism as it is practiced in India.

Kumkum Srivastava holds an M.Phil.and a doctorate in anthropology from the University of Delhi. Before that she did an M.A. in medieval India history. She has worked extensively on medieval Delhi, Mughal art and architecture, folksongs of Punjab, Islam, Sufism and Urdu Poetry. Her research papers have been published in both national and international journals. She started her teaching career in July 1973, Presently, she is with the department of history at Janki Devi Memorial College, University of Delhi.

The present work The Wandering Sufis by Kumkum Srivastava is theoretically well formulated and a good study on the anthropology of religion by combining both historical and anthropological perspectives. As regards the former, she delves into the concept, nature and origin of Sufism, different Sufi orders, and antinomian cults with special reference to the Qalandars and the Qalandariya path from various textual sources. On the other hand, in relation to anthropology, she has followed the method of participant observation in her study of two shrines – one at Purana Quila at Delhi managed by a family and the other at Panipat in Haryana managed by the Waqf Board. Thus, the author had been able to retain the methodological rigour required of both the disciplines in making it a holistic study. Secondly, she distinguishes between a theological study and anthropological study of religion, the former ‘believing in divinity’ and the latter studying religious practices of people from a distance dispassionately to know how people actively live in accordance with spiritual knowledge. Thirdly, the work bears significance also on the ground that not much emphasis has yet been given to the anthropological study of Sufi shrines, that too, by non-Muslims. Fourthly, she convincingly argues that although Sufism is presented in Media and popular work as a homogeneous movement, this does not lead one to conclude that Sufism is monolithic and undifferentiated. Her emphasis on Sufism as a symbol of unifying different communities – Hindus and Muslims specially – is very relevant at a time when there is apprehension of ‘class of civilizations’. She shows how a large number of visitors to these shrines happen to be Hindus. Two more points are important about the work. Firstly, she has tried to understand the character of both shrines and their impact on the visitors. Secondly, she has shown that the Qalandar saints of both the shrines were ‘individuals’ who carved their own paths. As the author says, they were’ Qalandars in mind and not in morphology’.

While celebrating the cultural and religious diversities of our country, our Museum has also been emphasizing the syncretistic aspects of various religious also. The publication of this work is relevant to our museum since it strengthens our approach of emphasizing religious diversities on the one hand and the integrating and networking dimensions of the shrines studied on different communities, on the other.

I congratulate Kumkum Srivastava for successfully meeting the challenges of both the disciplines of history and anthropology. It is hoped that the work religious studies. Sincere thanks are also due to our co-publisher, Aryan Books International, for a good output although in a short time.

This work is concerned with a comparative study of two Sufi shrines, one in Delhi, and the other in Panipat (Haryana), affiliated to the antinomian order of the Qalandars. Both the shrines are locally well known, visited by hundreds of people, and sometimes, they are also covered in media, both print and television, especially at the time of their ‘urs celebrations.

The Qalandars occupy an important role in people’s imagery, especially because of the qawwalis (and some Hindi films and film songs) in which their reference figures. Their cultural practices and symbolism has also attracted people. However, barring a few historical writings, there have not been detailed empirical and historical accounts, or comparative studies of their shrines, which tell us who they are and what is their contemporary status: do we have Qalandars in the modern world? Has the concept of the Qalandar been deconstructed to mean a ‘free, unattached, unshackled, almost bohemian, untrammeled’ life? Are the shrines of Qalandar saints ‘Qalandar’, as we understand this term, with respect to their cultural profile? These questions have inspired me to undertake this study, where one shrine is family-managed, and the other, by the Waqf Board of Punjab and Haryana.

Sufi shrines are a part of the literate, reflective, and well-developed tradition. Most of these shrines came into existence during medieval times, and since then, historiographies and travelogues have been prepared on them, although like historical material in general, they are partial, incomplete, and scattered. A holistic study of Sufi shrines, therefore, would require not only a first-hand fieldwork account of the social life conducted there, but also, an introspection into their respective histories, thereby linking the present, with the past, if the study is anthropological, or past with the present, if the study is historical. The historical literature on Sufism and its shrines is overwhelmingly in Persian and Urdu. Although much of it has been translated into English, it is expected that one reads the original, and offers the translation and interpretation one deems fit.

Being first a student of medieval Indian history, and then, of social anthropology, I have tried to bring together the approaches of these two disciplines. In doing so, the writings of Sir E.E. Evans-Pritchard, Ernest Gellner, and more recently, of Alan Macfarlane have greatly profited me. Today, historians of the modern world are exploring the possibility of conducting fieldwork in the locations of their study, and anthropologists are gradually moving away from a natural science conception of their discipline, and are paying away from a natural science conception of their discipline, and are paying attention to historical facts and methods.

The rituals performed at Sufi shrines are fewer in comparison to what one finds in Hindu temples. The major one is of veneration (ziyarat), which involves ‘praying’ in a way that pleases one, by folded palms or spreading them, by offering Fatiha, or by reading a holy litany. Washing the grave, covering it with sheets, distributing among the visitors the water with which the grave is washed, or the flowers that are offered to it, as ‘transvalued food’ (tabarruk), and qawwali renditions, are the other activities. Neither are there mediums in whom the saint descends nor are there complex rituals with strong symbolism. What compensates for this is the stout tradition of folklore about the saint – the stories of his presence and the miracles he performs and has performed in the past. People fondly talk about the petitions (mannat) they bring for the saint’s intervention, and the miracles that have occurred in their lives and the miracles they have heard from others. Recounting the stories of miracles is also a meritorious act.

The saint’s life, therefore, is of crucial significance. For the believer, the saint is ‘alive’ (zinda) and ‘animate’ (javed); he is ‘there’; he listens to ‘petitions’; he ‘judges’ people’s faith and devotion; and he ‘intercedes’ on their behalf. In other words, the ‘life-history’ of the saint interests people. Each shrine is individual-centered. The belief is that if the saint finds one ‘pure at heart’ and ‘unflinchingly devoted. The belief is that if the saint finds one ‘pure at heart’ and ‘unflinchingly devoted’, he would pray of him, and the saint’s prayers (and recommendations) would bring fruition. This belief deeps the shrine going.

Both the Qalandar shrines studied here were relatively quiet and non-political. The number of visitors on days other than Thursdays and Sundays was small, thus providing an ideal environ for long, intensive interviews with devotees as well as caretakers. These interactions familiarized me with the snippets from the life of the saint. Each respondent remembered that part of the story of the saint’s life which interested him and with which he identified. Interestingly, when I examined the historical material, I found definite continuity between them, which show that the saint in the historical record is not separate or alienated from the life-history account that the people construct, and transmit.

A visit to the shrine with devotion and firm faith is enough for seeking the saint’s grace, but Sufi shrines all over South Asia have developed their own traditions of supernatural healing and counseling. To some shrines are chained mentally ill and challenged; to other shrines are brought the cases of snake and scorpion bites. A Sufi shrine was recently in the news for the copies of passports that the devotees hung on the branches of the trees in its vicinity, since it is believed that this saint would help them to go to foreign lands, for an affluent life, for job and settlement. Invariably, the specialists of supernatural cure, who are often descendants of the saint or caretakers of the shrine, establish themselves in the shrine, receiving clients, accepting whatever is gifted to them as fee, and also, demanding money in case a ritual is needed to be performed. However, any sort of supernatural service is independent of the shrine; it can be provided in any space, not necessarily within a Sufi shrine.

I spent days after days conducting a participant observation of the interaction between specialists of the supernatural remedy and their clients at the Delhi shrine. Being under the management of the Waqf Board of Punjab and Haryana, the Panipat shrine was not permitted any indulgence in supernaturalism, as it is contrapuntal to the ideals of puritan Islam, although it thrived surreptitiously. The amulets and talismans given to people had no relation with the Sufi ideology or the shrine, in the sense that the name of the saint was not written on the piece of paper that constituted the panacea. That is the reason why I have not dwelt much on supernatural cure and counsel.

This work submits that the Qalandar saints of both the shrines did not live the ‘Qalandari way’; neither were they peregrinators nor did they sport the cultural artifacts and practices of Qalandars; neither were they weird, laughable and ridiculous characters from The Arabian Nights nor were they the antithesis of the Shariat-following Sufi saints. However, they were ‘individuals’, who carved their own paths; they were not part of an established system. They were ‘Qalandars in mind’, and not in morphology.

Many people have contributed to the successful completion of this work, First, I am extremely grateful to my supervisor, Dr. Soumendra Mohan Patnaik, much younger to me in age, who taught me the minutiae of anthropology and, at the same time, gave me freedom to arrange and present my work the way I wanted. I take this opportunity to thank Professor Surinder Nath for various acts of kindness. I express my gratitude to Dr. Indu Anand, the Principal of Janki Devi Memorial College, for letting me take leave from my teaching work. I am indebted to all my teachers in history and anthropology for correcting my mistakes and helping me take up academic challenges. Whatever little I have learnt about life and love. I owe it to Jai Mehra.

I would like to thank my husband, Vinay, for immense support, infinite patience, and wholehearted encouragement; to Sonal, Tushar, and Rohan for their tolerant indulgence in allowing ‘Mom to follow her heart’; to my father-in-law, Bharat Bhushan Srivastava, for helping me with translation of Urdu and Persian manuscripts; to my mother and sister, who believed in mi; to Ajit, for his constant persuasion, and enquiry into the progress of my work; to Neera, for providing sound advice and moments progress of my work; to Neera, for providing sound advice and moments of peace at Friday meditations; to Rehman, for helping me locate medieval texts; to Kishor Basa for alleviating my depression with his wit and humour, and commonsense; to Jagdish Chopra, my dear friend, for his genuine concern about my well-being in moments of stress; to Satish for his constructive criticism; to all my Sufi friends for teaching me that ishq (love) is the essence of life; and to my respondents at dargahs, who infused new hope and restored my faith in humanity. The story of the lives of the two great Qalandar saints, the subjects of this work, was my constant source of inspiration.

One who would have been happy to see this dissertation finished was brother-in-law, Paramjit Pal Grover, more a friend than a relative. I dedicate this work to his memory.

The study of Sufism is not only a subject of this work, it is also a part of my life. I do not recall exactly when and how I imbibed the philosophy and values of the great Sufi masters like Mu’in al-Din Chishti, Baba Farid, Nizamuddin Auliya, and started searching for the deeper meanings of the verses written by Rumi and Amir Khusrau, and those of Bu Ali Shah Qalandar.

Living in the largely Muslim dominated area of Daryaganj in the walled city of Delhi, with one well of our haveli (mansion, named Akhtar Manzil) being shared with Masjid Daiwali, I woke up to the prayer call (azan) of the imam and slept after the evening (maghrib) prayers. Visiting Sufi dargahs (lit., ‘royal court’) seemed the normal thing to do when one was ill or when one wished for some boon, like wanting a child (particularly a son), or a job, or promotion, or redressal of some grievance, or a solution to some domestic or legal crises. Performing hazari (attendance) at the shrine, drinking charmed water, stirring small bits of paper, with verses of the Quran written on it in saffron ink, in water, wearing tawiz (amulets), tying heraks (strings) to the latticed grills at the shrine to make a vow (mannat) and removing them once the wish was fulfilled, eating tabarruk (prasad, blessed or transvalued food), sugar-wafers (batasha), offering sheets (chadar), asking the water-man (bhisti, mashqi) to sprinkle water in the shrine (as in Nizamuddin Auliya), was routine.

Every Wednesday, I would visit Nizamuddin Auliya’s shrine with my friends, both Hindu and Muslim, since Thursday was a day which brought a great crowd there. Between November 14 and 28, when there was an exposition at Pragati Maidan, when parking of vehicles became a nightmare, we would often park it in the open space besides the dargah of Abu Bakr Tusi and chat with the shopkeepers, the caretaker Mohammad Naseem Sultani, or the visitors to the shrine. When these visit became a habit, I do not remember clearly. My face became familiar at both these shrines. Whenever I was despondent or elated, I would go there and receive some sort of solace. People visiting the saint’s shrine also started sharing their stories with me, how the saint had worked miracles (karamat) with them, how they came there every Thursday, or sometimes as an ‘outing’ on Sundays. I would keep a record of these wonder stories, narrate them to my family and friends, write down the names and telephone numbers of the men and women I had met and talked to at length. I spoke with them often on phone, asked their welfare and in case of any problems how far they had progressed in litigation, or remedy of an illness, or birth of a Chile, or a son’s admission to a college (engineering or medical), or a daughter’s marriage, or divorce, or possession by a spirit. For fulfillment of any wish, the devotees were asked to light incense sticks (agarbatti) at the grave, or tie a tawiz, or bring the affected person there everyday for a week or two weeks or till the time he was completely cured.

People related similar tales about all shrines, be it the shrine of a Qalandar saint or a renowned saint of high merit and spiritual accomplishments. Most of my respondents belonged to middle and lower classes. They included a police officer of a high rank, many teachers of a nearby school, a cloth merchant of Chandni Chowk in old Delhi, a university lecturer of Arabic, a septuagenarian Unani specialist, office clerks and accountants, school going boys and girls, young college going and jobless youth, casual workers, labourers and masons, daily wagers, casual visitors, especially those who came on Fridays to pray at the mosque in the premises of Abu Bakr’s shrine. A school peon and a young Punjabi boy and his father, dealing in velvet upholstery in Panipat, frequent Bu Ali’s shrine regularly. Childless couples from India (and sometimes from abroad) visit Bu Ali’s shrine as he is known to bless such people. Eunuchs from a part of the procession during the ‘urs ceremony of the saint. Mendicants, destitute, beggars, homeless, vagabonds also find solace and refuge here.

Islam is perhaps one of the most misunderstood religions in the world. Many non-Muslims have variously called it Mohammadism, Islamism, Moslemism or the Muslim religion (Armstrong, 2002; Ba-Yunus, 2002: 107). Many equate Islam with Sufi thought; to some it means violence and terrorism. For others, it invokes images of exploitation of women. Even in the academia, as Edward Said (1978,1993) has pointed out, Islam has suffered from cultural and political biases. Ahmed (1988) argues about the sociology of Islam requiring the juxtaposition of the Islamic ideal with contemporary Muslim realities. The deficiency of the sociological literature on Islam was noticed by Ba-Yunus and Ahmad (1988). Turner (1975: 1-2) had earlier written:

An examination of any sociology of religion textbook published in the last fifty years will show… that sociologists are not interested in Islam or have nothings to contribute to Islam or have nothing to contribute to Islamic scholarship. …There is consequently a need for studies of Islam which will raise important issues in Islamic history and social structure within a broad sociological framework, which is relevant to contemporary theoretical issues.

Even when they focus on Islam, like Max Weber, they were often inconsistent in their approach. In Weber’s sociology, one must start any research inquiry with an adequate account or description of the actor’s subjective world. For Weber, the study of social action constituted the subject matter of sociology. Turner (1975: 3) observes that Weber in his study of Islam has abandoned his own guidelines. Much of the literature on Islam points out that Islam does not distinguish between religion and politics (Kedouri, 1972). It provides an overall societal ideology.


1.Sufism: Concept, Nature and Origin1
2.Sufi Orders36
3.Antinomian Cults with Specific Reference to the Qalandars and the Qalandariya Path72
4.The Shrine of Hazrat Sheikh Abu Bakr Tusi Haydari Qalandari, The Matkey Shah of Purana Qila, Mathura Road, Delhi106
5.The Shrine of Hazrat Sharfuddin Bu Ali Shah Qalandar of Panipat (Haryana), One of the Two-and-a-Half Qalandars134
6.Organization and Practices at the Shrines175
Concluding Observations214
IQalandar in Poetry and Prose231
IIQawwalis Sung at the Shrine of Bu Ali Shah241
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