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Friday Review » History & Culture

Updated: January 18, 2011 20:14 IST

Shrines tell their tales

R.V. Smith
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Illustration: Tony Smith
The Hindu Illustration: Tony Smith

Each shrine has a story to tell

Shrines spring up at various places. The 250-year-old Gaurishankar Mandir in Chandni Chowk owes its origin to Apa, a solider who had a dream in which he saw the Devi. She commanded him to build a temple which was earlier known as Shivala Apa Pant. The Hanuman Mandir near Connaught Place is said to date back to antiquity though historical evidence points to it having been built during the Moghul era by Sawai Raja Jai Singh. The Kalkaji temple is reputed to be over 3000 years old and is believed to have been built in response to a Raja's dream.

The main Jhandewalan Mandir too is ancient and perhaps the most popular one during the Navratras. The sanctum sanctorum where the idol of the goddess is installed resembles the interior of the Vasihnodevi shrine. The tomb of Sheikh Chilli on the outskirts of Delhi is a shrine of a different type because the person venerated is far removed from the image of the storybook character who is the butt of many a joke.

Sher Jang's dargah was built by Bashir Khan who was employed in the Central Ordnance Depot's Fire brigade in Delhi as the orderly of Fire Master Harnam Sigh. He was a favourite of his boss, who used to go shooting beyond Bashir's village home on week-ends and spend Saturday nights there with his wife and children after a delicious meal prepared by the affectionate Bashiran. Time passed and first Harnam Singh retired from the COD and then Bashir. But the latter being in good health turned his attention to a white-washed grave in the Reserved Forest area on the Delhi-Agra Road.

Revered shrine

The grave was of a pir, Sher Jang, which after a few years became a revered shrine with a glazed dome, a wide roof and a marble verandah. This was an achievement on the part of Bashir since earlier not even a tree grew over the grave. In course of time not only Muslims but also Hindus, Sikhs and Christians started visiting the shrine, which became a centre of communal harmony.

On Thursdays the biggest crowd gathered to offer devotions and receive the blessings of Baba Bashir, who had grown a beard and become the Sajjada Nashin or caretaker. His heirs have now taken over the management of the place, whose popularity continues to grow.

According to some researchers Sher Jang lived long ago in a jungle and befriended tigers, panthers and other wild animals which used to pass by his hut. His real name was Shah Fateh Mohammed and he had a disciple, Sallu Shah. People from the neighbouring village gave him the name of Baba Sher Jung because even tigers seemed to be under his command. Sallu Shah also passed away and is buried in Katra Dabkaiyan of Agra city, where he too is venerated as a saint. In old Delhi there is a shrine honouring a goat and another one on the Ridge is sacred to pigeons.

Steeples have a charm of their own. They seem to reach the sky and establish communion with the Great Beyond. Churches and temples usually have steeples and mosques a central dome and minarets.

The Sanatan Dharam Mandir in Subash Nagar, New Delhi, too has a graceful steeple (shikha) which looks even more attractive when dark clouds loom over the horizon. After Raksha Bandhan and Janmashtami it is however shorn of its decorations but the idols of gods and goddesses are there in the middle niches to draw attention to the unusual shrine. More so when the setting Sun illumines them and paper kites lunge at each other in a tangle. While offering prayers devotees look at the idols and then allow their gaze to wander higher and view the ‘shikha' as a medium through which their supplications would enter heaven.

That's the general perception and it is probably for this reason that shrines are built by followers of different religions the world over.

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