Saturday, June 20, 2009

The Chillas of Hazrat Ghaus: Islamic shrines in Deccan

A couple of years ago when I first visited Hyderabad, the chillas had caught my eye. In North India, I had never seen them nor heard about them.

But in Hyderabad, I found them virtually at every other corner in the Old part of the City. I asked a friend [who is not a Muslim] and he told me that the 'chilla' is a common Islamic shrine in this region. 

Apart from mosques, if something is perceived as an Islamic shrine, then it's a mazaar, dargah or tomb. Or perhaps a Sufi khanqah (hospice). The chilla was a discovery for me.

I was surprised and asked him to wait for a while so that I could take a look at the chilla. The gate had 'Ya Ghaus dastgir' written in nastaliq Urdu. I sensed that it was Sufi-inspired shrine a la mazaar though of a different kind.

There are dozens of them in dense localities in Old Hyderabad. What I could make sense of a chilla was that wherever there was a green flag aflutter with image of a tiger on the wall other than angels, it has to be a chilla. It doesn't need much space.

Later I asked Hyderabadi Muslims and came to know about chillas. The chillas are spaces in honour of the great Sufi saint of Qadiriah order of  dervishes, Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani, [also Gilani], who was born in 1078 AD, a venerable figure for Muslims, especially, in Central Asia and South Asia.

On the occasion of the anniversaries of the Saints, a fresh flag is unfurled amid much fanfare. Hundreds of chillas are waqf properties. The earnings in some cases are substantial and there also madarsas and charitable orphanages run on the premises of the chilla.

Also termed Sultan of Saints, he is commonly referred as Ghaus-e-Azam [highest in the hierarchy of Sufi saints] or the supreme helper. He wrote famous texts like Futuh-ul-Ghaib, Malfuzat and Al-Fath ar-Rabbani [or the sublime revelation]. 

He is held in great esteem and the Gyarahvin Sharif is observed amid much fanfare in some parts of the country. There is a famous story about his childhood. While leaving with a caravan, his mother had given him a few gold coins. When the robbers came and everybody hid their valuables, the Sardar of the robbers asked the young boy about his possessions.

Having told by his mother that one should never lie, the young Muhiuddin Abdul Qadir told the robbers that he had the gold coins sewn in his dress. Initially the sardar thought it was a joke but when he tore the coat and found the gold, he was impressed with the boy's truthfulness and returned all the valuables.

In the last couple of decades, there is a marked shift, especially among middle-class upwardly mobile Muslims, who don't believe in intercession..

The visits to mazaars are also seen as idolatory but these are all extreme reactions. It doesn't mean that respect for Sufis has lost favour among the masses. 
In fact, there is also an urban class that looks at Sufism as chic and fashionable and label themselves as followers of Sufism.

There are millions who irrespective of their religious affiliations have respect for the Sufis and follow their path towards God. It's immature to assume that all Muslims who visit mazaars, are idolaters. 
That's an extreme reaction--more due to lack of awareness, getting judgmental about others and sectarianism. These shrines attract devotees of all religious and sects. Many visit the shrines for mental peace. 

Chillas of Gharib Nawaz

Above the Vindhya ranges [in Northern India] I haven't seen the Chillas anywhere. In Southern India, they are common. The flag is unfurled when someone's wish is fulfilled. Others also visit, pay respect at the shrine.

In parts of Southern India, most of the Chillas are that of Hazrat Ghuas and Hazrat Khwaja Gharib Nawaz of Ajmer. Apart from the Urs, on the sixth of every month there is a 'taqrib'. During Urs, the new 'sehra' is mounted on the chilla.

The poor folk mostly gather, recite fatiha and the 'tabarruk' is distributed. In short, Chillas are the 'Memorials of Sufi saints'. Sectarian differences apart, they represent another unique, localised and distinct phenomenon that adds to the Indian culture, which is a blend of myriad religious practices.