Syncretic harmony: Walking through Ashtoor jatre in Bidar

A walk through a festival in Bidar commemorating a Bahmani Sultan venerated equally by Hindus and Muslims.

Published : Apr 30, 2022 06:00 IST

Somashekhar Shivaraya Wodeyar, the Lingayat priest of the Madiyal temple located in Aland taluk of the neighbouring Kalaburagi district, along with Sultan Khaleel Shah Bahmani, the putative descendant of the Bahmani dynasty (with skull cap), at the entrance of the tomb of Ahmed Shah ‘Wali’ Bahmani (r. 1422-1436 C. E) during the urs (death anniversary) of the king who is considered to be a saint and is worshipped by both Hindus and Muslims.

Somashekhar Shivaraya Wodeyar, the Lingayat priest of the Madiyal temple located in Aland taluk of the neighbouring Kalaburagi district, along with Sultan Khaleel Shah Bahmani, the putative descendant of the Bahmani dynasty (with skull cap), at the entrance of the tomb of Ahmed Shah ‘Wali’ Bahmani (r. 1422-1436 C. E) during the urs (death anniversary) of the king who is considered to be a saint and is worshipped by both Hindus and Muslims.

In the sizzling summer heat of Bidar, Sultan Khaleel Shah Bahmani, the gaunt-faced putative descendant of the Bahmani dynasty which ruled the Deccan for almost 150 years in the 14th and 15th centuries, welcomed Somashekhar Shivaraya Wodeyar, the bearded Lingayat priest of the Madiyal temple, at the portal of the tomb of Sultan Ahmed Shah ‘Wali’ Bahmani on March 28. Mimicking a ritual whose origins are now lost in time, Khaleel Shah distributed alms to Somashekhar Shivaraya that afternoon, which was the fifth day of the urs (death anniversary) celebrations of Ahmed Shah. The alms that were given were nominal—a multihued cloak, a dried coconut, a few roses and a fistful of sugar—but the custom was a significant part of the mindboggling series of religiously heterogeneous rituals, evolved over centuries, that take place annually at the tomb of Ahmed Shah (r. 1422-36 C.E.), who was one of the greatest emperors of the Bahmani Sultanate. The rituals take place over a period of six days (which fell between March 24 and 29 this year), when the saintly ruler’s death anniversary is commemorated. These days are marked by piety and fervour by thousands of Hindu and Muslim devotees who participate in the Ashtoor jatre (‘festival’) with tremendous enthusiasm.

Ahmed Shah’s massive tomb is located in a pleasant grove called Ashtoor on the outskirts of Bidar in the north-eastern corner of Karnataka. This emperor’s tomb, which is the first in a line of royal tombs, inaugurated the funerary complex of Ashtoor where the latter nine rulers of the Bahmani Sultanate are entombed alongside a straight avenue. Slight architectural differences in the tomb of every subsequent Bahmani ruler are a textbook case in the evolution of building techniques over the century of constructions at Ashtoor . For most part of the year, the site is tranquil and visitors can be seen admiring the majestic and imposingly tall kingly edifices that reveal the incremental power and prestige that the Bahmani empire acquired through the 15th century.

Festivities and prayers

Visit the site during the jatre and the mood is substantially different with Ashtoor converted into a consecrated space where history and myth merged mellifluously. Approaching the site was like entering a village fair with the grounds opposite the necropolis of Ashtoor converted into an impromptu amusement park: there were Ferris wheels, carousels, astrologers, snack kiosks, peddlers of cotton candy, toys and clothes, and scores of other sellers attempting to distract the spiritually devout as they came to pay their respect to Ahmed Shah. Stalls of traders of religious paraphernalia such as marigold flowers and rose petals, incense sticks, sanctified tchotchkes and oil lamps surrounded the tomb. Mini processions consisting of large family groups or residents of a single village, heralded by drum beaters, trudged around the periphery of the tomb, pausing in their stride to allow female members to periodically prostrate themselves on the hallowed ground just outside the tomb.

Inside the tomb itself, the scanty light that streamed in revealed walls covered with exquisitely designed, geometrically symmetrical, colourful murals, along with Islamic verses, which, according to the architectural historian Helen Philon, are an expression of Ahmed Shah’s “ecumenical spirituality as well as his artistic cosmopolitanism”. The grave of Ahmed Shah, which is right underneath the dome, is ardently venerated by a steady stream of visitors. In this continuous line of worshippers were both Hindu and Muslim men. Women who were not allowed inside the tomb congregated at the three portals of the tomb and offered their supplications from afar. The men who trooped in cracked dried coconuts ferociously before silently perambulating the grave, pausing after a few laps to pray with intense concentration. Some of them offered a carpet of flowers or fabric which was then draped decorously over the grave while Khaleel Shah, who assisted in the process, muttered, “Sultan ke dost, tera ho deen” (“Oh Sultan’s friend, may you be suffused with faith”). After this, the worshippers walked out while being jostled by hundreds of newcomers who were attempting to enter through the same narrow entrance.

How did this medieval ruler, who was fully invested in the ferocious politics of his times, come to be venerated as a saint across religions through the centuries? Ahmed Shah was the ninth ruler of the Bahmani Sultanate, a polity founded at the crossroads of north and south India in 1347 in the wake of the withdrawal of the Delhi Sultanate from its territories in peninsular India. While it was briefly headquartered in Daulatabad (also known as Devagiri), the capital of the expanding Sultanate was moved to Gulbarga (now Kalaburagi) in 1350. Eight Bahmani emperors ruled from Gulbarga, which by the start of the 15th century had become a palimpsest of politics and intrigue. When Ahmed Shah assumed the throne in 1422 after his brother (and sometime rival) Feroz Shah’s (r. 1397-1422) death, he was weary of the miasmic odour of trickery that had pervaded royal affairs at Gulbarga and shifted his capital to Bidar a few years into his reign.

Like his forebears who patronised Sufi saints alongside their martial activities of expanding the Bahmani Sultanate, Ahmed Shah fostered his relationships with Sufi saints and munificently sponsored the most famous Sufi of his times, Khwaja Bande Nawaz Gesudaraz, whose shrine in modern Kalaburagi continues to attract Hindu and Muslim devotees from afar. He also lured members of the Iran-based Nimatullah Sufi lineage to come to Bidar directly via well-established sea routes from the Persian Gulf. Across the funerary complex of Ashtoor is a white four-storey building known as the Chaukhandi which houses the mausoleum of the Nimatullah saints who were the spiritual advisers of Ahmed Shah. Ahmed Shah’s intimate relationship with holy personages and his reverence for saints, well documented in history, gave him a halo of spirituality. But the historian Ferishta, who composed his authoritative history at the end of the 16th century in the Adil Shahi court of the Bijapur Sultanate, provides the reason why Ahmed Shah himself came to be known as a ‘Wali’, meaning ‘friend of God’.

Ferishta writes of a natural calamity during Ahmed Shah’s time as king in Gulbarga: “A grievous famine was experienced throughout the Deccan; and multitudes of cattle died on the parched plains for want of water. The King, in consequence, increased the pay of his troops, and opened the public stores of grain for the use of the poor. The next year, also, there being no rain, the people became seditious, complaining that the present reign was unlucky, and the conduct of the Prince displeasing to God. The King was much afflicted, and repaired to the mosque in state to crave the mercy of heaven towards his subjects. His prayers were heard, and plentiful showers fell shortly after: those who had abused him now became loud in his praise, calling him Wully (Saint), and worker of miracles. The King returned with joy and thanksgiving to his palace, amid the acclamations of his people, who condemned themselves for their rashness.” ( History of the Rise of the Mahomedan Power in India by Mahomed Kasim Ferishta translated by John Briggs, Volume 2.)

This explains why Ahmed Shah was incorporated in the multitudinous pantheon of saints in the Deccan. Khaleel Shah, in his hagiographical narration of why Ahmed Shah is so revered, repeats the account of Ferishta but shifts the scene to Bidar: “Ahmed Shah came to Bidar in 1426 and when he shifted his capital here, there was a drought that lasted three years. Over this period, this saint, this holy king among men, distributed all his wealth to people of all castes and religions to help them through this deadly period. One day, he gathered all his noblemen—both Muslims and Hindus—and asked them to pray in their own ways. As he prostrated himself while doing namaz, it started pouring. And even as he finished his namaz, he passed away, but Bidar prospered after that.” There are some factual inaccuracies in this account because Ahmed Shah lived until 1436. But it is true that Bidar prospered after Ahmed Shah shifted his capital to that city.

Legend and Lingayat believers

One had to walk down a path opposite Ahmed Shah’s tomb for a short distance to where Somashekhar Shivaraya was camped to listen to another interesting legend that sustains the Lingayat believers who are the primary non-Muslim devotees at the shrine. The priest was decked up in an unusual garish cloak, which looked like it had been inspired by the garb of sajjada nashins (descendants of Sufi saints who administer Sufi shrines); but the symbol of ‘Om’ on his tall conical hat set him apart. His father, Shivaraya Somanna Wodeyar, sat next to him but was dressed more plainly as he had passed on the responsibilities of ‘temple head’ to his son. Somashekhar Shivaraya had walked to Ahmed Shah’s tomb from his temple in Madiyal village, which is located 170 kilometres away in Aland taluk of the neighbouring Kalaburagi district, along with a diversified entourage of around 500 devotees who, again, via some diktat lost in the mists of time, have to make this journey only at night.

“The urs is always slated for the fifth day after Holi every year and lasts for six days. I’ve been leading the procession from 2015 when I became the chief priest of our temple in Madiyal. People of all castes, women and Muslims come here and this is a very important event for us Lingayat Kudu Vokkaligas [a Lingayat sub-caste],” Somashekhar Shivaraya said. When asked about the ancientness of this tradition, Shivaraya Somanna said, “I did this for 46 years but I have seen my grandfather and father lead this procession. My father said that he has seen his grandfather lead the devotees.”

Dr Rajshekhar Patil Hebli, a Kalaburagi-based social activist and Ayurvedic doctor, who was also part of the Lingayat encampment and has been a regular visitor to the jatre since 2000, had many more details to share. According to Patil, the Lingayat Kudu Vokkaligas are followers of Allama Prabhu, one of the sharanas or companions/followers of Basava, the founder of the Lingayat creed. (A.K. Ramanujan in his classic book Speaking of Siva discusses the greatness of Allama Prabhu and states that other vachana saints “recognised him [Allama Prabhu] instantly as the Master”.) Patil said, “After the fall of Kalyana, when the sharanas were scattered all over, they spread out from Ashtoor to spread the message of Basava [in the 12th century]. Allama Prabhu departed for Srisailam on his final journey from Ashtoor. When Ahmed Shah was chased by his brother Feroz Shah [in the 15th century], he came to this place and chose this spot for its spirituality and decided to be buried here in this place. That is why we venerate him.” (The fall of Kalyana or modern Basavakalyan in the 12th century occupies a poignant spot in the collective memory of Lingayats because the sharanas were scattered all over South India after this event. See “Religious Fault Lines” Frontline, May 11, 2018.)

In Patil’s fantastic retelling, he stressed the danger posed to Ahmed Shah by the Adil Shahis of Bijapur. Considering that the Adil Shahis of Bijapur were one of the five Deccan Sultanates that emerged from the implosion of the Bahmani Sultanate some 70 years after the death of Ahmed Shah, it is clearly implausible that Patil’s version is faithful to history, but again, in the land where history and myth are smoothly interwoven, Patil’s account showed how faith and belief motivate a shared cultural devotion irrespective of what the historical record says. Other members of the crowd surrounding Somashekhar Shivaraya added that for them there was no distinction between Allama Prabhu and Ahmed Shah and they considered both to be the same. In fact, for the Lingayat worshippers at Ahmed Shah’s tomb, they were participating in thejatre of “Sri Sri Sri Allama Prabhu”, as a pamphlet stated.

The large number of Lingayats, along with members of other castes such as Dalits and Kurubas, that day showed that in some convoluted way Ahmed Shah had been incorporated in the pantheon of the Lingayat community, and especially the sub-caste of the Lingayat Kudu Vokkaligas. Thus, in some tangled way, a Muslim ruler of medieval India had become an intrinsic part of the faith system of the local Lingayat community over the centuries since his death in 1436 C.E. It is interesting to note that unlike the dargahs of other Sufi saints which mark only one urs on the death anniversary of the saint, two separate urs’ are held at the tomb of Ahmed Shah: the first according to the Islamic calendar (which took place on March 19 this year) and the second permanently slated to commence five days after Holi every year.

While this Lingayat veneration for a Muslim king may appear strange to many, several scholars have demonstrated that it is emblematic of the syncretic character of popular faith in medieval India, and especially the Deccan, where the Bahmanis reigned over a polyglot and multiethnic empire. The lands that the Bahmanis ruled lay at the crossroads of north and south India and stretched across the Deccan plateau from the Arabian Sea to the Bay of Bengal, a region which roughly corresponds to the modern States of Maharashtra, northern Karnataka and Telangana. By the end of the 15th century, differences among the Bahmani nobility, who were divided between ‘foreign’ and ‘native’ components, ensured that this grand empire imploded, leading to the emergence of the five legatee Sultanates of Bijapur, Ahmednagar, Bidar, Berar and Golconda (commonly known as the Deccan Sultanates). Of these, Bijapur, Golconda and Ahmednagar survived as robust States into the 17th century before the Mughals managed to conquer these Sultanates (See “The Bahmani Remains” Frontline, November 9, 2018).

Syncretic culture

As long as they lasted, the Deccan Sultanates continued to manoeuvre their multiethnic societies located at the crossroads of the subcontinent by fostering a kind of syncretic culture in the region which has lasted through the centuries. Both Islam and Hinduism have undergone transmutations over the centuries, meaning that mixed celebrations such as the Ashtoor jatre occupy a liminal space on the margins of codified religion now, but they continue to remain hugely popular in local milieus. The widespread, grandiose celebrations of Muharram in the region by both Hindus and Muslims that continues to this day also has its genesis in the rule of the Deccan Sultanates (See “Festival of Harmony” Frontline , October 11, 2019). It could be argued that Sufi saints, who had intricate relationships with the rulers of the Bahmani and the Deccan Sultanates, and were also immensely popular among the people, helped in providing legitimacy to the rule of these Sultans. Thus, all the dargahs (Sufi shrines where saints are buried) that remain prominent in the former realms of these medieval polities spread across southern Maharashtra, northern Karnataka and Telangana, owe their provenances to these rulers.

It is useful to turn to the statement of the historian Yoginder Sikand to understand the role of Sufis in the Deccan and their contribution in engendering a shared culture in this region. He writes, “It was principally through the agency of Sufis that Islam spread in Karnataka, a process that has been well-documented in [Richard M.] Eaton’s classic study of the various Sufi orders of the region [ Sufis of Bijapur, 1300-1700: Social Roles of Sufis in Medieval India (1978)]. Using local motifs and idioms, the Sufis were able to exercise a powerful appeal, making numerous converts to a form of Islam heavily coloured by local influences. In addition, they attracted a large number of Hindus as well, owing principally to their charisma and the widespread belief in their powers as intermediaries with God. Consequently, the traditions that developed around the figures of many of these Sufis came to be shared by Hindus and Muslims alike, although this did not rule out differences in the ways in which they were seen and regarded by Hindus and Muslims. Living together for centuries, many Hindus and Muslims in northern Karnataka inevitably came to share, to a considerable extent, a common cultural world.” (“Shared Hindu-Muslim Shrines in Karnataka: Challenges to Liminality” in Lived Islam in South Asia: Adaptation, Accommodation and Conflict , edited by Imtiaz Ahmad and Helmut Reifeld.)

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