A battlefront in the south

The Sri Guru Dattatreya Bababudan Swamy Dargah in Karnataka, a symbol of syncretic culture venerated by both Hindus and Muslims, is caught in a legal tangle with Hindutva activists seeking to convert it into a Hindu temple.

Published : Feb 14, 2018 12:30 IST

At the Datta Jayanti celebrations on Bababudan hill on December 24, 2015, pro-Hindutva activists engaged in arguments with the police over displaying the Bhagavadwaja at the disputed site.

At the Datta Jayanti celebrations on Bababudan hill on December 24, 2015, pro-Hindutva activists engaged in arguments with the police over displaying the Bhagavadwaja at the disputed site.

THE smell of coffee pervades the air as one enters Chikkamagaluru (formerly Chikmagalur), a town located at the foothills of the Western Ghats in the Malenadu region of Karnataka. The rolling hills of the Chandra Drona range are visible in the horizon. Making a water stop on Indira Gandhi Road, the Frontline team asked a townsperson for directions to the hilltop shrine. One had to be careful to call the shrine “Datta Peetha”, for you could be sternly corrected if you referred to it by its other names, Bababudan Dargah or Dada ka Pahaad.

The milestones along the road leading uphill indicate the distance and direction to “Datta Peetha”. At a fork in the road halfway up the hill, the full name of the shrine,“Sri Guru Dattatreya Bababudan Swamy Dargah”, has been carefully scratched off from the signboard.

We pass through coffee plantations and clumps of dense forest and reach a plateau on the 1,900-metre-tall Bababudan hill. A vast portion of this flat top is barricaded with a fence painted blue. A fenced corridor, with a compact graveyard on one side, leads all the way up to the cave shrine with a pillared entrance at the centre of the hilltop. Bare-footed Muslim and Hindu devotees crowd around the entrance to the shrine.

Inside the dimly lit cave on the right side, a Muslim holy man offers sacred water to pilgrims. On the left are a few tombs covered with a blanket of fresh jasmine flowers. The closed enclosure, which holds the sandals of a saint, is not visible. There is a mound of “sacred sand” at another end. The smallness of the cave makes one claustrophobic and this feeling is heightened by the fact that one has to crouch down as the roof of the cave is not more than four feet high in some sections. We soon emerge out of the cave into a bright December sun. A chill breeze blows from the hills.

Two separate events that took place at this remote location in December 2017 sum up the dispute around the shrine. The first one took place on December 3. An estimated 20,000 men from various affiliations of the Sangh Parivar, led by C.T. Ravi, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Member of the Legislative Assembly from Chikkamagaluru, had gathered to celebrate Datta Jayanti. According to a news report, Ravi showed some documents to the audience and claimed that they proved that the shrine was a Hindu place of worship. He attacked Chief Minister Siddaramaiah for delay in taking a stand on the issue. Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) leader Suryanarayana Rao exhorted the audience to always refer to the shrine as Datta Peetha.

“The State government is making efforts to retain this centre as a place of harmony. We will not let that happen. As in the case of Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, I am hopeful that our struggle will soon yield the desired results,” he is reported to have said. After these provocative speeches, a few youths barged through the barricades and uprooted a tombstone at the burial ground before they were stopped.

The second event took place on December 28 when a smaller crowd, consisting of an assorted group of secular-minded people led by activists of the Karnataka Komu Souharda Vedike (Karnataka Communal Harmony Forum), or KKSV, gathered to pay homage at the hill shrine which has remained a symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity in the region for several centuries. The KKSV was also celebrating the 15th year of its founding on that day. While it has been a significant forum against communalism in Karnataka since 2002, its foundational campaign has been against attempts by Hindutva forces to convert the hill shrine into an exclusive Hindu place of worship. It has continued its campaign as part of the Citizens for Justice and Peace (CJP) and is a party to the case concerning the status of the shrine in the Supreme Court as well. Addressing the gathering outside the barricaded area, K.L. Ashok, KKSV general secretary, said: “The forces of the Sangh Parivar have been aggressively trying to make this into a Hindu temple. We have been fighting continuously not to let this symbol of syncretic culture be changed.”

For almost three decades now, since the rabid Hindutva agitation to demolish the Babri Masjid began in northern India and culminated in its destruction, there has been a sustained effort to convert the Bababudangiri shrine into a Hindu place of worship. Various leaders of the Sangh Parivar have even called for storming it in an Ayodhya-like action. In 1999, Anant Kumar Hegde, who is now Union Minister of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship, threatened to send “suicide squads” to liberate the shrine from Muslim control (“A Parivar project in Karnataka”, Frontline , January 1, 1999). In 2002, Ananth Kumar, who is Union Minister of Chemicals and Fertilizers, and Parliamentary Affairs, said: “Bababudangiri would be the Ayodhya of the south” (“A communal campaign”, Frontline , December 19, 2003). Politically, the agitation has helped the BJP’s fortunes in the hill district. Its effects have also spilled over to coastal Karnataka.

Many young BJP leaders from the region, including C.T. Ravi and another MLA, V. Sunil Kumar, began their political careers with the agitation. The shrine is now enmeshed in a legal battle because of the Hindutva forces’ agitation. Through the 1990s and the 2000s, the Congress and Janata Dal governments in the State failed to preserve the ethos of the shrine. It has become a disputed site and is heavily policed.

Foundational legends

The oft-cited story for the provenance of the shrine is that it was the abode of a Sufi saint, Sheikh Abdul Azeez Mecci, also known as Dada Hayath Meer Qalandar. He is believed to have been a companion of the Prophet Muhammad. He came to India to spread the message of Islam and settled down in the cave. Such tales cannot be verified. They thrive and gather strength in their tellings and retellings, even sacralising the cave and the geographical area surrounding it—the lakes, waterfalls, hills and forests—because Dada had touched them or tread on them. Thus, the hill became Dada ka pahaad, or the hill of Dada. The four graves in the cave are considered to be those of Dada’s early disciples.

Hindu worshippers believe that Dada was none other than the mythical Dattatreya, the three-headed avatar of Vishnu, Siva and Brahma, who is supposed to have performed penance in this cave. Legends have it that a Brahmin and a jangama (one belonging to an order of Saivite religious monks) saw Dada meditating in the cave. They thought he was the avatar of Dattatreya. Observers point out the similarity in the names of Dada Hayath and Dattatreya to argue how an illiterate population in the past could have popularised this idea.

The third person who lent his name to the hill and the dargah was a Sufi saint called Syed Shah Jamaluddin Maghribi, also known as Baba Budan. He lived in the cave, became a disciple of Dada and established his spiritual lineage. His grave is in the vicinity. Baba Budan is reputed to have brought the first coffee seeds to India from the Yemeni port city of Mocha. This story is part of the official histories of coffee in India. He is said to have appointed his nephew as the administrator of the shrine and his descendants have been managing the affairs of the shrine as sajjada nashins (hereditary administrators) with the title of Shah Khadri.

Historical evidence

A June 30, 1916, report of the Archaeological Survey of Mysore mentions a Persian inscription which gives the date of Dada’s arrival as A.D. 1005. This inscription is no longer available on the premises of the cave. If this could be authenticated, it would be the earliest record of the shrine’s founding. The survey mentions that grants were given to the shrine by Mughal and Ikkeri rulers (1499-1763), but evidence for these is not traceable.

Records on the shrine begin to appear from the time of Tipu Sultan (1750-1799). He and his father, Hyder Ali, were said to be devotees of the shrine. In May 1798, the Mysore ruler issued a sanad (edict) to the sajjada nashin . After Tipu Sultan’s death a year later, the status of the shrine and the villages endowed to it were confirmed by the newly restored administration of Mysore (now a princely state) under the regent, Dewan Purniah, in August 1799 and again by the Mysore state in 1812. The rulers of Mysore believed in the divinity of the shrine. Krishnaraja Wadiyar III (1799-1831) presented a silver stick to the shrine.

The Mysore Gazetteer of 1930 states that the growth of coffee was restricted to the precincts of the dargah until 1820 and it was grown for commercial purposes in the region from 1840. A Persian inscription near the tombs to the south of the caves has been translated in the Gazetteer as the epitaph of the sajjada nashin dating back to 1830. In 1864, the Administrative Report of Mysore records that the “...matt is visited by Mahomedan pilgrims from every part of India and even Arabia. Every visitor is furnished, free of expense, with rice, condiments, tobacco and ganja for three days.” The three days is the period of urs , or the death anniversary of the saint.

The 1902-03 district-wise Muzrai Administration Report (from the General and Revenue Secretariat of the Mysore state) records the “Darga of Sri Guru Dattatreya Bababudan Swamy” as a “Mohammedan Institution” which is “important” and certifies the succession of the sajjada nashin . The 1902 Muzrai Memorandum recognises that “Syed Gaus Shakadri, Sajjada, Bababudan Darga, Bababudan Hills” is exempt from personal appearance in the civil courts because of his status as head of the shrine. The Shah Khadri was the only Muslim priest to have been bestowed this honour in the Mysore state. (Muzrai is a Persian word that refers to the allowance granted for the maintenance of a religious institution.)

Although the word muzrai is now synonymous with Hindu institutions, before the passage of the Muslim Wakf Act in 1954 the Muzrai Department in Karnataka had a far more catholic responsibility and maintained a number of Muslim institutions as well, one of which was the Sri Guru Dattatreya Bababudan Swamy Dargah.

Records also reveal the demographic profile of the pilgrims at the shrine. A document from the archives of the Mysore princely state’s “General and Revenue Secretariat” says that of the 9,788 pilgrims who visited the shrine in 1904-05, 7,237 were Muhammadans, 638 Hindus, 83 Brahmins, 140 Gosai, 984 fakirs and 706 Parayas. The religious and caste denominations of the pilgrims were recorded meticulously because the dargah was partly funded by the Muzrai Department. Income and expenditure documents from the period also reveal that by the turn of the last century, the dargah was endowed with three villages in its vicinity. A large part of the income that accrued from this was expended in feeding the bhyragee s. The Muzrai Secretary, who inspected the dargah in 1906, refers to it as “Bababudan hill Guru Dattatreya Pitta Bababudan Swamy’s Darga” and praises the sajjada nashin of the time for the upkeep and maintenance of the place.

The report of the Archaeological Survey of Mysore says: “Bababudan mountain is well known as a place of pilgrimage to both Hindus and Muhammadans. The cave containing Dattatreya pitha, or the seat of Dattatreya, faces south and has a porch or veranda in front. According to Muhammadans, what is called Dattatreya pitha is the throne or tomb of Hazrat Dada Hayat Mir Qalandar. Some naively point out that Dattatreya is nothing but a corrupt form of Dada Hayat Mir.” The then sajjada nashin of the shrine, Syed Murtaja Shah Khadri Sajjade, is referred to by the title Sri Dattatreya Swami Baba Budan Swamy Jagadguru.

The Mysore Gazetteer records that the “Urus on the Baba Budans attracted 1,500 pilgrims”. (Since the gazetteer was compiled in 1930, this must be from a year in the decade preceding this.) These historical documents also describe the cave, its environs and the rituals that were practised there. Adding to this corpus of historical knowledge, the Karnataka State Gazetteer of 1982 describes the rituals performed at the shrine thus: “Coconuts, plantains, sugar, sweetmeat, flowers, etc. are offered and incense is burnt in worship.” It also says, the rituals are conducted by a mujavar , a Muslim divine, appointed by the Shah Khadri.


The history of the nomenclature used to refer to the shrine through the 19th and 20th centuries gives a fascinating insight into the syncretic nature of the shrine although it was always recognised as a Mohammedan institution headed by a sajjada nashin . As in the present day, it seems to have had three different names and these were used synonymously. The profile of the pilgrims from 1904-05, for instance, shows categories that would have been evolved into larger Hindu or Muslim communities if such an enumeration was done now: Fakirs would have become Muslim, whereas Parayas would have become Hindus. The nomenclature provides a window to a far more syncretic spiritual space. Such spiritual space became rarer as the colonial state’s understanding of Indian society hastened religious codification. This process was accelerated after Independence.

Legal history

The dispute over the status of the shrine did not begin as a Hindu versus Muslim or secularism versus Hindutva issue. It began as a dispute over the right of management between two government departments, the Karnataka State Board of Wakfs and the Muzrai Department. In 1975, the Wakf Board transferred the hilltop shrine to itself as part of a larger move to take control over Muslim institutions that were under the Muzrai Department. This was challenged in the Chikmagalur District Court, which transferred the shrine back to the Muzrai Department in 1980. In its order, the court stated that the institution was a dargah venerated by Hindus and Muslims and managed by a Muslim sajjada nashin . This decision was upheld by the High Court and the Supreme Court.

In a separate order in 1985, the Karnataka High Court asked the Commissioner for Endowments to codify the rituals that were prevalent in the shrine before 1975. The Commissioner submitted his report in 1989. He made some important observations.

1) There is a mujavar appointed by the shahkhadri to perform daily rites (pooja) inside the caves and he is the one permitted to enter the sanctum sanctorum of the institution and distribute tabarrukh/theertha to the devotees of both communities.

2) He also puts flowers to the paduka/khadave/and lights the nanda deepa.

3) The recognised Hindu gurus of different mutts are also taken inside the cave gate to offer their respects to the paduka/khadave.

4) Persons who do not take food prepared in the langarkhana are given padi (that is provisions such as rice and dal to prepare their own food).

5) The mujavar takes lobana (sambrani) and performs religious rituals in the main shrine between 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. daily.

6) The above practices include certain practices that are found in Hindu temples also, such as i) offering flowers to padukas; ii) lighting the nanda deepa; iii) giving theertha to pilgrims; iv) breaking coconuts; v) taking Hindu gurus to religious mutts with respect; and vi) giving padi to pilgrims.

In 2003, the Sri Guru Dattatreya Peetha Samvardhana Samithi (a Hindutva body) challenged the High Court order. It sought the quashing of the 1989 report and the holding of a fresh inquiry. The High Court in its order in 2007 asked the Endowment Commissioner to hold an inquiry and submit another report. This decision was confirmed by the Supreme Court in its order in 2008. Pending final decision, the Supreme Court ordered that “ status quo to be maintained in terms of the order dated 25.2.1989 passed by the Commissioner for Religious & Charitable Endowments in Karnataka”.

The Endowment Commissioner’s report of 2015 formed the basis of the Supreme Court order of September 3, 2015, asking the State government to take a decision on implementing the recommendations contained in the report. Rather than taking a decision, the State government appointed a three-member committee in 2017 to go into the issue and submit its report. H.N. Nagamohan Das, a retired judge of the Karnataka High Court who headed the committee, confirmed to Frontline that this report was submitted on December 4, 2017.

The report is yet to be placed before the State Cabinet for a decision. With Assembly elections in Karnataka slated to held before the end of May, chances that the report will be tabled are slim and it is certain that the Siddaramaiah government will tactically delay a decision. His government’s wariness in taking a firm decision on the issue calls into question the Chief Minister’s secular credentials. Whenever the Cabinet takes a decision, it is certain that it will be contested again in the Supreme Court, delaying the final resolution to the vexed problem of this unique shrine.

The KKSV and the current Shah Khadri, Syed Ghouse Mohiyudden, have objected to the 2015 Endowment Commissioner Report on the grounds that it is based on a “...biased understanding of Indian religious history, unreasonable and unsustainable arguments, false documents and suppressed facts”. Some of the salient recommendations of the 2015 report include the appointment of a Hindu archak (priest) by the management committee of the shrine to perform daily pooja and give theertha to devotees. This reneges on the list of rituals that prevailed at the shrine before 1975 as stated in the 1989 report and encourages the transformation of the shrine into a Hindu temple. The KKSV also contended that if the State government implemented these recommendations, it would change the religious nature of the shrine contravening the provisions of The Places of Worship (Special Provisions) Act of 1991.

Hindutva assertion

Since the late 1980s, there have been demands to Hinduise the dargah. Recognising its potential as an issue that could rally Hindus, Hindutva bodies resorted to agitations. An event called Dattatreya Jayanti began to be organised every year in early December. It was initially held for a day but was extended to three days in mid 1990s. Bajrang Dal cadres took the lead at these events, which included provocative speeches calling for the liberation of the shrine from Muslim control. In 1990, the green flag at the entrance to the cave was torn down. In 1998, an idol of Dattatreya was taken inside the cave and worshipped.

Hindutva leaders such as Pravin Togadia (of the VHP) and Pramod Muthalik (of the Sri Rama Sene) have participated in the Dattatreya Jayanti programmes. Other festivals such as Datta Mala Abhiyana have also been added to the roster of festivals by a pliant district and State administration.

The consolidation of Hindutva forces at the shrine could have been prevented if successive governments in the State had taken a firm stand. Instead, their actions have sought to confirm the latent communalism of a large section of society. There are reports that Congress Ministers have participated in the Dattatreya Jayanti celebrations.

The holding of Dattatreya Jayanti and the events surrounding it illustrate Hindutva assertion. On two occasions, in 2008 and 2009, when this correspondent attended the events, the air was thick with anti-Muslim slogans such as t urukarigedhikkara (condemn Muslims). The speakers at the events threatened Muslims with dire consequences. Every year since then, the event has been used as an occasion to spew vitriol against Muslims. This aspect has been widely reported. When the BJP was in power in Karnataka between 2008 and 2013, it even tried to change the status quo of the shrine (“Communal work”, Frontline , October 23, 2009).

The linking of the shrine with Tipu Sultan has provided Sangh Parivar forces with a baseless excuse to charge Hyder Ali with converting what was a Dattatreya temple into a Muslim shrine.

The nuances in the culture and lived traditions among Muslims in India, which have resulted in the kind of rituals that take place at the shrine, are lost on Hindutva elements when they reductively argue that the rituals followed in the dargah are Hindu. The rituals conducted at the shrine are an intrinsic part of lived Islam in South Asia.

Another claim made by people such as C.T. Ravi is that the tomb of Baba Budan is located some distance away. In an interview to Frontline (“Communal work”, October 23, 2009), Ravi had stated: “To call the Datta Peetha a disputed shrine is wrong. The real Bababudan Dargah is situated in Nagenhalli village.” Interestingly, this accusation began to be made only after the 1990s when there was an anomaly following a resurvey of the lands that had been taken from the shrine.

Liminal identity

The initial legal joust between the Muzrai and the Wakf Departments demonstrates the liminal space that the Sri Guru Dattatreya Bababudan Swamy Dargah occupies. In legal framework, a religious place has to be Hindu or Muslim, it cannot be both. There is a bureaucratic effort to codify faith and to make it rigid allowing little space for dynamism in practice.

Sudha Sitharaman, an associate professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Pondicherry, writes that “...the conflict over worship in the dargah is located at the intersection of debates on religiosity concerning the definition of the customary and conventional, whose raison d’etre is to ascribe a distinct identity, and thereby radically transform the fluid role ritual practices have played historically in the realisation of pious life. Within these contexts, secularism has entailed the legal and administrative intervention into religious life so as to construct ‘religion’ as a passive repository of beliefs and identities...” ( Conflict Over Worship: A Study of the Sri Guru Dattatreya Swami Bababudan Dargah in South India , 2010).

Historically, the shrine has been a place where “low-caste” Hindus and Muslims, who believed in the intercession of saints, congregated. But what do the Hindutva bodies want as far as the rituals are concerned?

Yoginder Sikand, a historian who has extensively researched the issue of the shrine, writes: “What is particularly significant about the VHP’s intervention in the controversy over the Baba Budha dargah is the Brahminisation of the Dattatreya tradition that it aggressively promotes, in line with the sternly Brahminical Hinduism that it represents. The Dattatreya image associated with popular Hindu religiosity in the Deccan is one that is clearly non-Brahminical, if not distinctly anti-Brahminical, in its origins” ( Shared Hindu-Muslim Shrines in Karnataka: Challenges to Liminality , 2004).

The status of the shrine that is now referred to as disputed is a glaring failure of the secular polity. It has become a rallying symbol of Hindutva ascension in Karnataka and in the rest of the country. The case of the Sri Guru Dattatreya Bababudan Swamy Dargah has immense ramifications for the country as it shows how a shrine that had a syncretic past with an accretion of myths and legends around it can be converted into a disputed site. But there is reason for optimism as the people’s movement led by the KKSV has stalled the designs of Hindutva forces to convert the shrine into a temple.

Gauri Lankesh, the Bengaluru-based journalist who was assassinated on September 5, 2017, was a leading member of the KKSV and was involved in its efforts to preserve the syncretic character of the shrine. In December 2003, when Gauri Lankesh led a Harmony Convention in Chikkamagaluru, she and other activists were arrested and kept in jail for two days. While in jail, she wrote: “My heart spills over with a new enthusiasm when I think of all those young boys and girls who spent time with us in jail. I feel a new spurt of life that drives me to go on. It was a place that forged new friendships, new affections. In a very real sense, it was an abode of harmony. It was not something I alone experienced. I have no doubt that hundreds of people who were together with me there felt just the same way” ( The Way I See It: A Gauri Lankesh Reader , DC Books and Navayana Publishing, 2017).

Where have the Sufis gone?

It is clear that the Sri Guru Dattatreya Bababudan Swamy Dargah was a syncretic shrine managed by Muslim custodians through recorded history. It has also occupied a special space in the history of Sufism, particularly that of the Qalandar sect and its cosmos in India, but the unique character of the shrine is much altered now. The sacral geography of the shrine has been changed by the district authorities, who have razed several buildings on the hilltop. The urs at the shrine (which is the most important event in any dargah’s calendar) has not taken place for more than 10 years now.

In 1998, Sikand visited the shrine and wrote a valuable account. The concluding paragraph of his travelogue is worth quoting in full as it describes his parting with a Sufi:

“‘I don’t know what you’re going to write about the dargah,’ he said, as he struck a match and lit his chillum. ‘But always remember son,’ he mused, closing his eyes and blowing a cloud of smoke out of his hairy nostril, ‘Come what may, God is always with those who are faithful to Him.’ And, clearing his throat, he recited in a voice that seemed full of pain a couplet which he said that he had picked up from some wandering qawwal:

Allah ko dhundo Allah ke pyaron mein, Allah samaya hai in ishq ke maro mein

(Search for God among God’s loved ones, For God is to be found among those smitten by love)” ( Sacred Spaces: Exploring Traditions of Shared Faith in India , Penguin, 2003).

Where have all the Sufis gone? There are none at the shrine now.

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