Challenges to Liminality: Shared Hindu-Muslim Shrines in Karnataka, South India

Yoginder Sikand

Posted Feb 24, 2006      •Permalink      • Printer-Friendly Version
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Challenges to Liminality: Shared Hindu-Muslim Shrines in Karnataka, South India

          Yoginder Sikand


A remarkable feature of popular religion in South Asia is the still widespread popularity in large parts of the region of shared religious traditions which bring together people of different communities in common worship and ritual participation. These traditions are, by nature, ambiguous in terms of clearly defined communal categories, defying the logic of neatly separated and demarcated communities defined on the basis of a reified, scripturalist and essentialised understanding of religious identity.  Faced with religious movements for ‘reform’, ‘orthodoxy’, such traditions have increasingly come in for attack, as powerful organisations seek to redefine them. Increasingly, ‘fuzzy’ identities are sought to be replaced by clearly demarcated boundaries, resulting in these traditions gradually being identified as unambiguously ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’ or other as the case might be. While the origins of this process may be traced to colonial times, in particular to the introduction of the census as a tool to map and categorise religious communities and to the politics of competing communalisms, it has, in the post-Independence period received added impetus by the active intervention of communal organisations seeking to ‘purify’ these traditions and their followers of what is seen as their tainted association with the religious beliefs and practices of other communities. In the process, many of these traditions have today emerged as arenas of sharp inter-communal contestation.

This article analyses this process transformation of shared religious shrines in contemporary Karnataka, in south India. Of particular concern is the transformation of these traditions from being a means of bringing people from different communities together to emerging now as arenas of inter-communal rivalry. We argue that this must be seen in the context of the introduction of a notion of community based on a reified, textual understanding of religion, each community being neatly marked off from other similarly constructed communities. A complex interplay of economic and political forces, we show, are forcing the traditions that have developed around these shrines to increasingly identify themselves as unambiguously ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’, with all the implications that this has for a rich shared culture that transcends narrowly inscribed community boundaries.

The Spread of Islam in Karnataka and the Emergence of Shared Hindu-Muslim Traditions:

  One out of eleven people in the state of Karnataka in south India is Muslim, and various Muslim dynasties have ruled this region for centuries. Islam made its advent in the region as early as the tenth century, by when Arab traders had set up settlements all along the Malabar and Konkan coasts.  The first Muslim military presence in what is today Karnataka dates to the late thirteenth century, when, in 1296, Alauddin Khilji raided the Yadava capital of Devgiri, later named Daulatabad (‘the city of riches’), sacked it of its immense treasures and then returned to Delhi in triumph. From the fourteenth century onwards, large parts of north Karnataka came under various Muslim dynasties, often at loggerheads with their Hindu neighbours as well as with the Muslim Emperors of Delhi. These included the Bahmanis, the Adil Shahis of Bijapur, the Barid Shahis of Bidar and the Qutb Shahis of Golconda. They were later followed by the Mughals in the seventeenth century and then by the Nizams of Hyderabad in the eighteenth century, who, till 1948, remained masters of much of present-day north Karnataka. Under Haider Ali and his charismatic son, Tipu Sultan, another powerful centre of Muslim rule emerged at Srirangapatanam, near Mysore, extending over large stretches of present-day central and southern Karnataka and even beyond, till it was put an end to by the combined forces of the British and the Nizam of Hyderabad in 1799.

  It was principally through the agency of the Sufis that Islam spread in Karnataka, a process that has been well-documented in Eaton’s classic study of the various Sufi orders in the region.  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 numbers 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. At the level of the political elite, a shared Indo-Persian culture emerged, to which both Hindus and Muslims both made rich contributions. It was in the Deccan that the Urdu language, which was to become the lingua franca of most educated north Indians in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, first emerged. At the local level, although they maintained a strong sense of a separate identity, Hindus and Muslims often worshipped together at the shrines of Sufi saints (dargahs). Many Muslims were but nominal and recent converts to Islam, and as such continued to practice several customs associated with their pre-Islamic past which they shared with their Hindu neighbours, particularly in matters of domestic rituals.

  One of the most intriguing features of this popular religious tradition, but one that has gone almost completely unnoticed in the existing literature on the Deccan, is the large number of shared religious figures venerated by Hindus and Muslims alike, on whom both communities today make claims of their own. These figures and the shrines and cults associated with them represent a powerful popular tradition that harks back to an age when notions of monolithic ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ communities were still non-existent, and the boundaries setting apart one community from the other were still fuzzy and unclear. These figures seem to have played a central role in bringing people of various castes, Hindus as well as Muslims, together in common worship in a shared cultural universe, and, as such, also played an important role in the conversion of non-Muslim communities to Islam. Today, these figures still command a widespread popularity.
  All the figures whose shrines are examined in this article are almost undoubtedly of Muslim origin, although this is a matter of considerable debate and dispute among their followers today. The widespread veneration of Muslim holy figures among Hindus is a phenomenon that is common to almost all parts of India. Sufi saints, seen as powerful beings capable of performing miracles, healing the ill, granting children to barren women, providing a job to the unemployed, averting the evil eye and so on, are widely propitiated as devtas or gods by Hindus, who see them as part of their vast pantheon of deities. The cults of the Muslim saints are particularly popular among ‘low’ caste Hindus in rural areas. Historically, and even today in several places, ‘untouchables’ and other ‘low’ caste people were denied access to Hindu temples, and the shrines of Muslim saints were often the only places of worship which they could freely enter. Stories are told of how these Muslim figures fraternised with the ‘low’ castes and won them over with their love and compassion. Till this day, ‘low’ caste Hindus vastly outnumber Muslims at many dargahs.

For many Hindus, these Muslim figures are incarnations (avatar) of one or the other Hindu god, and hence, they are often called by Hindu names and incorporated as Hindu religious figures into the local set of deities. Thus, for instance, Dada Hayat, a Qalandar Sufi whose shrine is located in the Baba Budhan hills in Chikmagalur, is popular among his Hindu devotees as Dattatreya Avatar, an incarnation of the Hindu deity Dattatreya, himself a combination of Vishnu and Shiva. Muslim followers of these figures see them differently, as ‘friends’ of God (auliya), powerful beings, capable of interceding with God to have one’s desires met. It appears that the Muslim custodians of the shrines of these figures freely welcomed Hindus to worship therein, and some even popularised stories of their association with Hindu deities in order to win local support and even possibly as a means to preach Islam to them in an idiom and language with which they were familiar. Hence, as a result of Hindus and Muslims worshipping at common shrines and venerating common religious figures, local traditions evolved centred on what were undoubtedly Muslim figures, but who, with the passage of time, became transformed into figures with a dual identity, seen in different ways by their Hindu and Muslim followers.   

  While in the past, such shared traditions served to bring Hindus and Muslims together in common worship, as well as facilitating the gradual Islamisation of local non-Muslim communities, today many of them have emerged as centres of inter-communal contestation and conflict. Boundaries between ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’, between ‘Islam’ and ‘Hinduism’, have been sharply drawn, and shared shrines and their followers are being increasingly defined as unambiguously ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’, their ambiguous identity being, as we seek to show, suitably reinterpreted to serve contemporary purposes and agendas.

The Baba Budhan Dargah Case:

  Conflicts over shared shrines in Karnataka today can take various forms. In some cases it has led to lengthy court cases, which, in typical Indian fashion, have been fought over for years without the courts delivering any conclusive judgement. In other instances, it has involved outside intervention, in the form of political parties and private militias, resulting in Hindu-Muslim violence and bloodshed. A good example of this is the present controversy over the Baba Budhan dargah in Chikmagalur. The dargah is said to be the oldest Sufi shrine in Karnataka, the hagiographic works describing Baba Budhan, also known as Hazrat ‘Abdul ‘Aziz Makki, as one of the companions (sahabi) of the Prophet Muhammad.  Baba Budhan is said to have fought against the powerful landlords (palegars) of the area and to have crusaded against their oppression of the poor, putting and end to the practice of human sacrifice, whose victims were largely from among the ‘low’ castes. Owing to the stories of his miraculous powers as well as his having fought for the rights of the downtrodden, he gained a large following in the area. Many people converted to Islam at his hands, it is said, while several others, while remaining Hindus, began venerating him as a powerful spiritual being, an incarnation of their own principal deity, Dattatreya.

  The historical records tell us that the shrine of Baba Budhan was patronised by both Hindu as well as Muslim kings, both of whom endowed it with large land grants. In edicts issued by the Hindu rulers of Mysore the shrine was referred to as the Sri Dattatreya Swami Baba Budhan Peetha (‘The Monastery of the Revered Lord Dattatreya Baba Budhan’), while the Muslim custodians of the shrine were granted the honorific title of jagad guru or ‘Teachers of the World’.  They were, in addition, the only Muslim religious heads to be exempted from personal appearance in the civil courts of the state.   

  It appears that through the centuries Hindus and Muslims freely worshipped at the shrine of Baba Budhan, each approaching him in their own way, as an incarnation of Dattatreya for the Hindus or as a ‘friend’ of Allah for the Muslims. There is, moreover, no record of any conflict over the shrine or about its Muslim custodians. In the mid-1960s, for the first time a dispute arose over the control of the shrine, setting in motion a process of conflicting claims and counter-claims which has now turned into a major political controversy, causing a sharp deterioration in relations between Hindus and Muslims in the area. The immediate cause for the emergence of the dispute was the claim put forward sometime in the mid-1960s by the Waqf Board, a statutory body set up to administer Muslim shrines and endowed properties in the state, that the Baba Budhan shrine, being a Muslim dargah, should be brought under its jurisdiction. This claim was disputed by the Muzrai Department, in-charge of Hindu endowments in the state, which argued that the shrine was not an exclusively Muslim place of worship since it was held in great regard by the local Hindus as well. In 1975, the government of Karnataka directed that the shrine be vested with the Waqf Board, but five years later this order was struck down by the Chikmagalur District Court, which was later challenged by the Waqf Board.  In 1989, the Court of the Commissioner for Religious and Charitable Endowments restored the shrine to the Muzrai Department and upheld the status of the Muslim custodian (sajjade) as its sole administrator.

  Although the conflict was between two administrative bodies, one Muslim and the other Hindu, it did not, at this time, take the form of a Hindu-Muslim communal controversy. Indeed, the Muslim sajjade of the shrine actually supported the stand of the Muzrai Department and challenged the claims of the Waqf Board, arguing that the shrine was not an exclusively Muslim one. What is clear from the claims of both the Waqf Board and the Muzrai Department was their inability to deal with the fact of the shrine’s liminality, and the difficulty that they faced in categorising the shrine as belonging to one religious community or the other. For both it had to clearly defined as either ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’, and, hence, the controversy soon took on the form of a ‘Hindu’ versus ‘Muslim’ dispute.

  With the case lingering in the courts, politicians were quick to take up the issue, seeing in it a means to garner political support. From the mid-1980s onwards, militant Hindu groups, encouraged by the mass movement launched to destroy a mosque at the town of Ayodhya in north India and build a temple in its place, grew increasingly active throughout Karnataka. Chikmagalur soon emerged as a powerful base of extreme right-wing Hindu organisations. Some time in the late 1980s, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an all-India organisation of Hindu religious leaders allied to the militant and fiercely anti-Muslim Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, launched what they called a campaign to ‘liberate’ the ‘temple’ of Dattatreya from Muslim control. VHP activists now put forward the claim that the shrine was actually a temple of the Hindu deity Dattatreya and that the Muslims had falsely claimed it to be the dargah of Baba Budhan in order to lay control over its vast properties and income. Accordingly, the VHP set up what it called the Datta Peetha Samrakshana Samiti (‘The Committee for the Liberation of Datta Peetha’). In 1989, amidst tight security and in the face of strong Muslim protest, for the first time a Brahminical puja was conducted outside the shrine of Baba Budhan by a group of Brahmins affiliated to the VHP. Following the destruction of the mosque at Ayodhya in 1992, the VHP, now further emboldened, began celebrating an annual three-day festival dedicated to Dattatreya at the dargah, in complete violation of the court’s orders that the traditional rituals associated with the dargah be left unchanged.

  In order to further galvanise public support for the ‘liberation’ of the ‘temple’ from Muslim control, the VHP and its allied private militia, the Bajrang Dal, organised a massive campaign all over Karnataka in late 1998. Some Hindu leaders involved in this campaign publicly announced that they would dispatch ‘suicide squads’ if need be to ‘rescue’ the ‘temple’. Others predicted that ‘a blood bath was certain’ if the government failed to ‘deliver’ the shrine to the Hindus. Passions ran high, and in some places violence between Hindus and Muslims was reported, in which Muslims suffered considerably greater loss of life and property. A massive crowd of Hindutva activists, mostly brought in from outside, gathered at the dargah in early December 1998. They tore down the green flags decorated with Islamic motifs at the entrance to the shrine and replaced them with saffron Hindu flags. A three-headed idol, purporting to be that of Dattatreya, was forcibly taken inside the shrine and worshipped. After the puja gave over, a public rally was held outside, where militant Hindu leaders demanded that the shrine be handed over to the Hindus, that the Muslim custodian be replaced by a Hindu priest, that Hindu-style puja be conducted at the shrine and that the Sufi ‘urs festival be stopped forthwith. They also insisted that the shrine must be converted into a ‘purely Hindu place of worship’.

The intervention of the VHP and allied groups in the controversy only added to the pressure, set in motion by the earlier dispute between the Waqf Board and the Muzrai Commissioner, to clearly identify the shrine as either ‘Muslim’ or ‘Hindu’. To the VHP, like to the Muzrai Commissioner and the Waqf Board, a situation of liminality was one that directly challenged their own understanding of community, religion and identity. The construction of the notion of the ‘Hindu community’ in Hindutva discourse, and, indeed, in dominant varieties of Indian nationalist discourse as well, is premised on a distinction from the Muslim ‘other’, who is generally characterised in terms befitting an inveterate foe. Quite naturally, then, a situation of religious syncretism and liminality, where boundaries between ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ are blurred, if not completely invisiblised, forcefully questions the very basis of Hindutva as an ideology. It is thus not surprising that the VHP has been actively seeking to take control of several dargahs in various other parts of India, in addition to the Baba Budhan shrine, where Hindus worship along with Muslims, and turning them into temples , seeking to actively discourage Muslim-derived practices among Hindus.

What is particularly significant about the VHP’s intervention in the controversy over the Baba Budhan 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. Phadke, in his Sri Dattachintan, writes that the avadhutas, considered to be incarnations of Dattatreya, were believed to be ‘beyond caste, cult and social conventions’.  In the Markandeya Purana, Dattatreya appears in the form of an antinomian yogi, defying the rituals and rules of purity and pollution so central to Brahminical Hinduism. He is depicted as consorting with women and drinking wine.  A subsidiary shrine associated with the Baba Budhan dargah, the shrine of Biru at Palang Talab, is looked after by a Dalit priest, thus clearly suggesting the non-Brahminic association of the Dattatreya cult in the region. Many ‘low’ caste followers of Baba Budhan/Dattatreya see him as having bravely fought against the oppression of their ancestors at the hands of the ‘upper’ caste palegars and Brahmins. In contrast, however, the image of Dattatreya in VHP discourse seeks to place him firmly within the boundaries of Brahminical Hinduism. Thus, for instance, the pujas held by the VHP at the Baba Budhan shrine, in violation of the court’s orders, were conducted by Brahmin priests and in Brahminical fashion, which would be equally alien for Muslims as it would for the ‘low’ castes who have their own ways of worship. In other words, the VHP’s efforts to ‘liberate’ the dargah of Baba Budhan seem directed equally at the Muslims as it at the ‘low’ castes, challenging both Muslim as well as Dalit representations of Baba Budhan/Dattatreya.

  In the Baba Budhan dargah case, then, a host of factors have combined to undermine and challenge the centuries-old popular tradition associated with it. Clearly, modern government bureaucracies, in this case the Waqf Board and the Muzrai Department, used to dealing with ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ as two neatly demarcated communities, and with ‘Islam’ and ‘Hinduism’ as two rigidly separated religions, fail to understand and appreciate traditions and shrines associated with religious liminality or syncretism. Militant communal organisations, in this case the VHP, too, cannot recognise fluid religious identities that defy any neat categorisation, for they forcefully challenge their understanding of ‘Hindus’ and ‘Muslims’ as two monolithic blocs permanently at war with each other. The Indian state, now increasingly Hindu in character, has, in some cases, assisted groups like the VHP to take over syncretic shrines and convert them into Hindu temples. In addition, the state as well as groups like the VHP have actively sought to promote a Brahminisation of ‘low’ caste shrines and traditions, absorbing them into the broader Brahminical fold. Consequently, ‘low’ caste traditions associated with Muslim figures are reinterpreted in purely Brahminical terms that serves to rigidly set ‘low’ castes and other ‘Hindus’ against Muslims. In this manner, many shared religious traditions, as the Baba Budhan case shows, are now being transformed in order to serve contemporary political purposes, shaped largely by the growing challenge of Brahminical Hinduism and moulded by modern understandings of religious and community identity.

The Thinthini Mouneshwar/Moinuddin Tradition:

  Mouneshwar, also known as Moinuddin, is the patron saint of the ‘low’ caste Hindu Panchals or goldsmiths of Gulbarga, Bagalkot and Bijapur in northern Karnataka. As his twin names, one Hindu and the other Muslim, so strikingly suggest, his identity is ambiguous, claimed as he is by both Hindus as well as Muslims. His shrine at the village of Thinthini, located on the banks of the Krishna river in the Gulbarga district, is built entirely in Muslim fashion, with a round dome topped with the symbol of a crescent, and surrounded by four slender minarets. In the vicinity are located the graves of successive Hindu custodians of the shrine, all constructed in Islamic fashion, covered with green cloths decorated with the insignia of the crescent and the star. The central structure within the shrine complex has two levels. In the basement is a stone platform on which is placed a flask and an axe, said to have been used by Mouneshwar/Moinuddin, under which is said to be the grave of Mounsehwar. On the floor above is a Muslim-style grave, said by some to be the grave of Moinuddin, while others claim it to be the grave of the Prophet Muhammad. For all purposes it appears like any other shrine of a Muslim Sufi.

  Little is known about Mouneshwar/Moinuddin. According to one story, he was born in a Hindu goldsmith family but adopted several of the practices associated with Muslim faqirs, spending much time in their company visiting mosques and Sufi lodges.  Another story has it that he was a Muslim, a follower of a noted Sufi, identified variously as Hazrat Khwaja Aminuddin ‘Ala Chishti of Bijapur or Muhammad Sarwar/Kodekkal Basavanna of Gulbarga. According to some sources, he had become a Muslim at the hands of a Muslim Sufi but retained the Hindu name of Mouneshwar in order to more closely identify with the ‘low’ caste Hindus among whom he lived and preached. According to yet another version, Mouneshwar and Moinuddin were actually two close friends, one a Hindu and the other a Muslim, who lived together and are buried within the same shrine complex. In all these stories while there is considerable confusion about the religious identity of Mouneshwar/Moinuddin, there is no hint at all of Hindu-Muslim conflict.

  The Thinthini shrine, like many other similar shrines in the area, has, in recent years, undergone a process of considerable Brahminisation, and, as a result, its Muslim links are now sought to be denied or suppressed. According to Muslim informants this process began in 1948, when the area, which was till then under the rule of the Muslim Nizam of Hyderabad, was incorporated into the Indian Union. The transformation of the tradition is clearly evident in the stories that are now told about Mouneshwar/Moinuddin and his life. According to one of the custodians of the shrine, a young Hindu Panchal, Mouneshwar was actually a Hindu saint. The Muslim-style grave on top of the samadhi of Mouneshwar, he says, is that of the Prophet Muhammad. According to him, driven out of Mecca and unable to find shelter anywhere, the Prophet approached Mouneshwar, who, in his generosity, provided him with a grave within his own shrine complex, thus suggesting the superiority of the Hindu over the Muslim. Another popularly recounted story is that Mouneshwar, a Hindu saint, was, like other Hindu religious figures, ‘persecuted’ by the local Muslim Sultan. After his death, in order to conceal his grave and ward off the threat of destruction from Muslim ‘iconoclasts’, his disciples constructed his shrine complex in Muslim fashion so that the Muslims would spare it, believing it to be the dargah of a Muslim saint.

  Both these stories are, of course, completely fanciful, but they show how what was clearly once a liminal tradition centred round a figure whose confessional identity was blurred, but was probably a Muslim, is now being sought to be completely Hinduised. This process of Hinduisation has meant that over the years the number of Muslims visiting the shrine has sharply declined. As part of the process of the Hindu appropriation of the shrine, visible Hindu markers have been employed to give it a clear Hindu appearance. Thus, for instance, an idol purporting to be that of Mouneshwar, has been installed in his shrine, this being a complete break from tradition, for the Mouneshwar/Moinuddin cult is based on the worship of a formless God, an indication of a distinct Sufi influence. Pictures claiming to represent Mouneshwar are sold at the shrine to throngs of pilgrims, depicting him as a Hindu sadhu, donning the ‘holy’ thread reserved only for ‘high’ caste Hindus. A massive copper bell has been installed at the entrance of the shrine, and the Hindu holy syllable ‘Om’ has recently been painted on some structures within the shrine complex.

The custodians of the shrine being Hindus, and Muslims being only a small minority in the area, the Hinduisation of the shrine has carried on unhindered, unlike in the case of the Baba Budhan dargah where the Muslim custodians have sought to challenge the claims of the VHP and allied groups through the courts. The ‘low’ caste Panchals seem to have enthusiastically promoted the Hinduisation of the Mouneshwar/Moinuddin tradition, for it provides them with a higher status within the Hindu caste hierarchy, as followers of a powerful deity. In order to prove their own claims to ‘high’ caste status, the orthodox Hindu credentials of the Mouneshwar tradition are forcefully asserted, while his clearly Muslim links are either denied or conveniently explained away.

The Sultan Ahmad Shah Wali Tradition

  Bidar, in northern Karnataka, is home to numerous Sufi shrines. Under the Muslim Bahmani Sultans, numerous Sufis were attracted to the area from north India and from as far as Iran and Central Asia. Their dargahs are till this day popular places of pilgrimage for Muslims and Hindus alike. One on the most intriguing shrines in Bidar is the massive tomb complex of Sultan Shihabuddin Ahmad Shah Wali (d. 1436), son of the founder of the Bahmani dynasty, Hasan Gangoh, who later took the name of Sultan Alauddin Shah.

  Sultan Ahmad was widely known for his piety and generosity and for his Sufi leanings.  He was a disciple of the great Chishti saint, Hazrat Gesu Daraz Banda Nawaz.  He is said to have been so just, kind-hearted and tolerant that his Muslim subjects considered him to be a wali of God, while the local Lingayats revered him as an incarnation of their saint Allama Prabhu. His fame as a saint is believed to have owed principally to his prayers during a particularly severe drought, which caused it to rain and thereby relieved the people of their misery.

Every year, twenty days after the Hindu festival of Holi, a large fair is held at the massive tomb of Sultan Ahmad at Ashtur, a village on the outskirts of Bidar town. On the occasion, the Lingayat priest of the subsidiary shrine of Sultan Ahmad at the village of Mudiyal comes walking all the way to the shrine, a journey of five days, along with a large procession of Lingayats, Muslims, Hindus and Dalits. He dons a long, green Muslim-style robe and a green and red Muslim-style cap, both of which are believed to have been gifted to one of his ancestors by Sultan Ahmad. He offers coconuts and flowers at the grave of Sultan Ahmad, while the Muslim custodian of the shrine reads the fatiha, the opening verse of the Qur’an, and distributes little pieces of sugar as tabarruk to those present.

  Sultan Ahmad has several subsidiary shrines dedicated to him at various places in the Bidar and Gulbarga districts. These are believed to actually have been chillahs marking places where the Sultan halted on his journeys. Alternately, they may have been dargah-like structures dedicated to the Sultan built on lands granted by him to various Lingayat families as jagirs. In contrast to the main shrine of the Sultan at Ashtur, whose custodian is a Muslim, these subsidiary shrines are all controlled by Lingayat priests. Till 1948, this area formed part of the vast dominions of the Muslim Nizams of Hyderabad, and Hindus and Muslims would regularly visit these Muslim-style shrines. Since 1948, when the Indian armed forces overran Hyderabad and incorporated it into the Indian Union, in the course of which scores of Muslims were killed, these shrines have been undergoing a rapid process of Hinduisation. In 1948, a Shiva lingam is said to have been forcibly installed on the Muslim grave-like structure at the subsidiary shrine of Sultan Ahmad at Mudiyal. The shrine of Sultan Ahmad at Jiroli has now been completely Hinduised. Its Muslim-style domes have been torn down, and replaced with a Hindu-style tower (shikara). The Muslim-style grave-like structure inside has been converted into a platform with a Shiva linga placed on it. At the entrance of the inner chamber of the shrine, pictures and idols of various Hindu deities have been recently installed. 

The denial of the cult’s Muslim links is apparent in the stories that are now told to explain its origins.  The Lingayat custodians of these shrines deny any association with Sultan Ahmad and insist that Allama Prabhu and Sultan Ahmad are two distinct figures. An ingenious argument given for some distinctly Muslim practices associated with the cult traces them to a spiritual competition which the Sultan and Allama Prabhu, so it is said, once entered into. The Sultan was defeated, and accepted Allama Prabhu’s superiority, and begged him to take him as his disciple, which he did. In gratitude, the Sultan ordered several shrines to be built to perpetuate the memory of his guru. Needless to say, this story has no basis in fact, for the Sultan was born at least three centuries after Allama Prabhu is believed to have died. As in the case of the Mouneshwar/Moinuddin tradition, the reworked story points to a radical denial of the Muslim origins of the tradition of Sultan Ahmad, attempting to place it firmly within the Hindu tradition and stress the claim of the superiority of the Hindu over the Muslim.

The Raja Bagh Sawar Tradition

Several shrines dedicated to the fifteenth century Sufi Taj Baba, more popularly known as Raja Bagh Sawar (‘The King Astride a Tiger’), are located at various places in northern Karnataka and neighbouring southern Maharashtra. His principal shrine, where he is buried, is at the town of Basavakalyan in the Gulbarga district. Looked after by a family of hereditary Muslim custodians, the shrine is one of the biggest Sufi dargahs in the region.

  Taj Baba is said to have been born in Simnan, in present-day Iran, and to have later migrated, along with his family, to India, settling down first at the town of Hansi in the Punjab. There he became a disciple of one of the leading Sufis of his times, Hazrat Qutbuddin Munawwar Hansvi, who, in turn, was a disciple of the famous thirteenth century Chishti Sufi, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi. After the death of his master, Taj Baba left Hansi and travelled through Gujarat, Khandesh and Andhra, finally arriving in Gulbarga, riding, so the story goes, on a tiger. More than one hundred shrines dedicated to him, big and small, are found all over the Deccan at places that he is said to have visited.

  The largest of the subsidiary shrines of Taj Baba is located at the village of Yamanur, near the town of Nawalgund in the Bagalkot district in northern Karnataka. In contrast to the principal shrine at Basavakalyan, this shrine is looked after by a family of hereditary Maratha Hindu priests. In recent years, the shrine has been gradually Hinduised. In the mid-1990s a new wall was built around the shrine, with a Hindu-style entrance topped with idols of Hindu deities. A board was put up at the entrance announcing the shrine as the ‘temple’ of ‘Chang Dev alias Raja Bagh Sawar’. Two statues, purporting to be that of ‘Chang Dev’ and his ‘Brahmin guru’, Gyaneshwar, were installed on top of the main gate of the shrine. Lithographed pictures of Raja Bagh Sawar are now sold at shops near the shrine, depicting him as a Hindu sadhu riding a tiger, holding a whip made of fierce snakes in one hand and a rein consisting of scorpions in the other.

  Inside the shrine, puja is now conducted in Hindu-style, with offerings being made to massive copper ‘alams, outstretched palms that probably originally represented the ‘holy family’ (panjatan pak) of the Prophet Muhammad, his daughter Hazrat Fatima, her husband Imam ‘Ali and their two sons, Imam Hasan and Imam Hussain. While several customs associated with the shrine are distinctly Muslim, such as, for instance, the recitation of the fatiha, the opening verse of the Qur’an, by a Muslim faqir during the puja, the Hindu custodians insist that Raja Bagh Sawar (‘Chang Dev’) was a Hindu Brahmin and not a Muslim. As for the Muslim rituals associated with the shrine, these are said to be a result of the patronage given to the shrine by a Muslim king who was defeated in a spiritual contest with the Brahmin ‘Chang Dev’ and who, suitably humbled, gifted the Brahmin the land on which his shrine today stands.  This reworking of the story of Raja Bagh Sawar bears close parallels with the case of both the Sultan Ahmad as well as the Moneshwar/Moinuddin traditions, seeking to stress the claim of the moral superiority of the Hindu over the Muslim.

The Koddekkal Basavanna/Muhammad Sarwar Tradition
Located in the Gulbarga district in northern Karnataka is the village of Koddekal, centre of the cult of Muhammad Sarwar/Koddekal Basavanna. Built like a Sufi dargah, the shrine is looked after by a family of hereditary Lingayat priests belonging to the ‘low’ caste Nekar community of weavers. Little is known about the life of Muhammad Sarwar/Kodekkal Basavana. According to the Nekar custodians of the shrine, he was the thirteenth or ‘Mohammada’ incarnation of Basavanna, the founder of the Lingayat movement , or, alternately, of Allama Prabhu, Basavanna’s teacher, charged with the special responsibility of bringing Hindus and Muslims together. On the other hand, his Muslim followers insist that he was one of them, a disciple of the famous Sufi, Hazrat Makhdum Jahaniyan Jahangasht. According to this story, he played a leading role in spreading Islam in the area, making seven disciples from among the Nekar Lingayats of the village of Koddekal, from whom the present custodians of his shrine are descended. These seven Nekars are said to have been ‘incompletely’ converted to Islam, retaining many of their Hindu practices and beliefs even after their change of faith, which accounts for the liminal nature of the tradition that has developed centred on the figure of Muhammad Sarwar.

  The grave of Koddekal Basavanna/Muhammad Sarwar is housed in a Muslim-style domed structure with slender minarets topped with the Islamic symbol of the crescent and the star. The grave is constructed in Muslim fashion, covered with a green cloth decorated with the insignia of the crescent and star. Above the grave are large glass domes from which hang long, intricately crafted metal medallions with the Islamic creed of confession, the shahdah (‘There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah’) embossed on them. A picture purporting to be that of Kodekkal Basavanna/Muhammad Sarwar, a recent addition, is placed at the entrance. He appears as a sadhu draped in a tiger’s skin with a cobra under his arm, carrying a pot in one hand, the other hand lifted up in blessing. On one foot he wears a ‘Hindu-style’ wooden sandal (padarakshi) and a ‘Muslim-style’ leather shoe (kausi) on the other.

  The followers of Koddekal Basavanna/Muhammad Sarwar include Muslims as well as Nekar Lingayats, the latter forming the vast majority. The cult itself is based on the conception of a formless God. Unlike the other Lingayats, the Nekars associated with the cult do not wear the phallic symbol (lingam). In place of the lingam, they worship the scripture (vachana) of Koddekal Basavana, which they consider as their atma lingam (‘the lingam of the soul’). The rituals associated with everyday worship at the shrine are similar to those conducted at other Hindu village shrines. During the two annual festivals associated with the shrine, however, the priest dresses up like a Muslim, plasters the grave of Kodekkal Basvanna/Muhammad Sarwar with a fresh coat of sandalwood paste (a custom associated with most Sufi shrines in India) and then prays after a Muslim faqir recites the fatiha and asks for blessings on the Prophet Muhammad and his ‘friend’ (dost), Muhammad Sarwar.

  The Muslim style of the shrine, the rituals associated with the tradition as well as the extensive ruins of Muslim monuments in the vicinity suggest that Koddekal was probably a major Sufi centre at one time, particularly under the ‘Adil Shahis, lending credence to the Muslim version of the story of the origins of the Koddekal Basavana cult. However, today, the Lingayats and other Hindu devotees of Koddekal Basavana tend to deny the Muslim origins of the cult. In contrast to the Sultan Ahmad/Allama Prabhu and Mouneshwar/Moinuddin case, Hinduisation has taken a very different form here. The role of Koddekal Basvanna in promoting harmony between Hindus and Muslims is recognised and even stressed, but he is placed firmly within the framework of the broader Hindu tradition, as an avatar of a Hindu/Lingayat deity, albeit one who was also charitable towards the Muslims. The distinctly Muslim grave complexes located in the village are now claimed to be graves of various Hindu saints. The mainstream Lingayat tradition does not recognise incarnations of Basavanna, and, clearly, in this case, a considerable departure has been made from established tradition to deny what seems to be the undeniable Muslim origins of the cult and to incorporate it into the broader Lingayat/Hindu fold.


As these cases of shared Hindu-Muslim shrines in Karnataka show, religious liminality does not necessarily promote inter-communal harmony and understanding. Rather, because of their ambiguous character, many shared shrines have today emerged as arenas of inter-community contestation and rivalry. Liminal traditions in Karnataka, as elsewhere in India, are under considerable pressure today, being forced to define themselves as unambiguously Hindu or Muslim as the case might be.

  Several factors have worked to steadily undermine such syncretic traditions. North Karnataka is where the centres of most of the traditions that we have looked at here and elsewhere are located. This area was, till 1948, part of the Muslim kingdom of Hyderabad, and, prior to that, for centuries under the rule of various local Muslim dynasties. With the incorporation of the Nizam’s Dominions into the Indian Union after the Police Action in 1948, Muslim influence in the area was forcefully challenged in the area. Several Muslims were killed in the western districts of the Nizam’s Dominions after the Indian forces took control. Then, laws were passed dispossessing large landlords, many of them members of the erstwhile Muslim nobility, of their estates, which were then distributed to their former tenants, mainly Hindus. With the decline of Muslim influence and the restraining power of the Muslim political elite, shared Hindu-Muslim shrines, many of them Sufi dargahs, that had Hindu custodians gradually began undergoing a process of Hinduisation, subtle in some cases and overt in others. Cultic figures, in many cases of Muslim Sufis, whom both Hindus as well as Muslims had venerated for centuries, were now sought to be presented as unambiguously Hindu, and the rituals and stories associated with them were suitably modified. The gradual spread in the region of the Islamic reformist Tablighi Jama’at movement, with its hostility towards popular Sufi cults, which it sees as ‘un-Islamic’, only helped to further accelerate this process, as fewer Muslims continued to visit these shrines. Muslims who continued to pray at these shrines found themselves too heavily outnumbered to protest against their transformation into temples.  From the late 1980s onwards, the Hinduisation of syncretic shrines in Karnataka has been particularly noticeable. This must be seen in the context of the growing strength of right-wing and militantly anti-Muslim Hindu groups in the region, coinciding with a well-organised mass mobilisational campaign all over India to generate public support for the destruction of the Ayodhya mosque. 

  For bureaucrats, politicians as well as a new generation of educated people taught to believe that Hindus and Muslims are two completely separate and well-defined communities, Islam and Hinduism being seen as completely unrelated and neatly bounded bodies of knowledge and forms of ritual practice, shared religious identities are a direct challenge to their ways of seeing the world. Consequently, local communities and traditions that had earlier comfortably existed in a situation of liminality are increasingly forced to identify themselves as either Hindu or Muslim. Outside political interests, as in the case with the on-going controversy over the Baba Budhan dargah, further add to this pressure. Economic factors, too, seem to have played a major role in the marked Hinduisation of such shrines. Many of these shrines have followers who number in hundreds of thousands, mostly Hindus from various castes. Several small shared shrines have in the last five decades been converted into large, distinctly Hindu temples, their histories being suitably amended to emphasise their claims to orthodox Hindu status, thus converting them into popular Hindu places of pilgrimage, attracting growing numbers of the devout, who are encouraged to make liberal donations to the ‘temples’ and their custodians.

In the reworking of the histories of the figures associated with the shrines, the Islamic component is not always denied. Indeed, it can still be retained, although interpreted differently in order to emphasise the claim of the ‘superiority’ of the Hindu over the Muslim. Thus, for instance, in the case of the Thinthini shrine, the Muslim-style grave is now claimed to be that of the Prophet Muhammad, who had, so the story now goes, beseeched the Hindu Mouneshwar for a place to lay his head.  Or, for instance, the distinctly Muslim rituals associated with the subsidiary shrines of Sultan Ahmad are now interpreted as following from the defeat of the Sultan in a spiritual contest with the Hindu saint Allama Prabhu, after which the Sultan, accepting him as his guru, constructed several shrines dedicated to him. The fact that these traditions are entirely oral, with few, if any, records of these shrines exist dating to their formative period, has meant that it has been possible to for them to be suitably moulded to completely transform their basic character and firmly locate them within the broader framework of an ill-defined ‘Hinduism’. Integral to this process of reinterpretation is the incorporation of stereotypical notions about the Muslims so integral to a prominent strand in contemporary Hindu discourse: the Muslim ‘other’ as ‘inferior’, ‘militant’ and ‘iconoclastic’.

  The Hinduisation of syncretic shrines may be seen as part of a long historical process of the formation of what is today called ‘Hinduism’. As Ilaiah points out, what we know as ‘Hinduism’ today is largely an amalgam of local traditions, many of them non-Brahminic, that have, over time, been gradually absorbed into a system defined by an overall Brahminical hegemony.  Thus, tribal and ‘low’ caste deities, such as Shiva, Kali and Krishna, have been suitably Brahminised and incorporated into the Brahminical pantheon of deities. Shrines of ‘low’ caste deities are taken over by Brahmin or other caste Hindu priests, and stories are woven claiming them to have been the incarnation of one or the other Brahminical deity. The same process of Brahminisation is clearly observable in the case of the shared religious shrines and traditions that we have looked at. This process is given further impetus by efforts on the part of ‘low’ caste groups to rise up within the local caste hierarchy by emulating the practices associated with Brahminical Hinduism. Many of the shared traditions that we have looked at have been historically associated with the ‘low’ castes, such as the Panchal goldsmiths, the Lingayat peasants and Nekar weavers. As these castes seek to improve their social standing, their popular religious traditions are suitably modified, giving them an orthodox Hindu pedigree. In this sense, the gradual Hinduisation of shared traditions in contemporary Karnataka is hardly a new phenomenon. Rather, it can be seen as part of the historical process of the spread of Brahminical Hinduism through incorporation of non-Brahminic shrines, traditions and cults. Militant Hindutva organisations have today given this process an added impetus, targeting these traditions, suitably reinterpreting them in the process of constructing a Hindu identity based on an unrelenting opposition to the Muslim ‘other’.