A lot has changed in the years that Tiruchi’s famed Hazrath Thable Alam Badusha Nathervali Dargah has been in existence. The trees lining the bylane leading up to the shrine have been overtaken by petty shops selling everything from samosas to car seats and ghee-filled chirags (lamps).
Shoppers thronging the busy markets nearby slip in and out for a spot of spiritual succour.
Materialism and mysticism mix in equal measure here.
The first fortnight of Ramzan, the Islamic month of fasting, has always been special for the Dargah, housed in a former temple, as it commemorates the death of Nathervali on the 14th Ramzan at the age of 70, with an Urs, or celebration.
The shrine is named after Nather (Vali means ‘a man close to God’ in Arabic), a nobleman of Turkish-Syrian lineage born as Sultan Mutahirruddin in 927 A.D., in Suharwardy, near Samarkand who gave up his privileged life to spread the message of Islam in southern Asia.
He arrived in Bhatkal with 900 followers on a small ship. After his extensive travels in the region, Nathervali made Tiruchi (then known as Tirusurapuram) his base, with the help of the Sangam-era King Karikala Chozhan, first at the Rock Fort, and then, at the present premises of the Dargah. The saint is interred in the Dargah, along with other notable personalities of Tiruchi’s colonial past.
With the other significant shrine in the region, Nagore’s Hazrat Syed Shahul Hameed Dargah, the Nathervali Dargah remains a symbol of pacifist Sufi ideology that looks for a higher truth through syncretism and meditation.
The way of the saints
Among the many constants of the Urs, is the participation of the five groups of faqirs (ascetics) in the festivities.
The Urs, preparations for which start on the first day of Ramzan with the hoisting of three sacred pennants on the premises of the Dargah, reaches its culmination on the 14th day with the ceremonial transport of sandalwood paste that is diluted and smeared on the various holy spots within the shrine.
This year, the commemoration (its 1,018th) started on June 18 and ended on July 3.
Roshan Ali Shah, a member of the Sha Malang Jamat (meaning in group in Arabic, often pronounced as Jama in Tamil), describes the sacrifices that a faqir from the clan must undertake to undertake the pir penance ahead of the Urs.
“The aspiring pir must be an unmarried man with long, matted hair, and he should have the stamina to sit motionless (except at prescribed intervals) for seven days in seclusion, sustained by sips of milk,” says Roshan Ali, whose younger son is undergoing the second day of his penance when we visit.
“Don’t accept the way of the saint if you cannot live it,” replies Roshan Ali when asked how the penance can be possible in the searing heat of Tiruchi.
“My son is a third-year student of Business Administration in Nagapattinam, and will resume college after the Urs is over.
“As heirs of the 404 followers of Shahul Hameed who came from Gwalior, we are just trying to recreate the penance that he did, to seek an audience with Nathervali. We at least have fans to keep us cool, and a place to stay. What about the saints in those days?”
With many rituals at the shrine borrowing from Hindu tradition, the Dargah appeals to a secular crowd of worshippers, from parents trusting a faqir’s amulets and talismans to ward off their children’s illness and protect them from the ‘evil eye’ to those in search of spiritual solace.
Says Meraj Ali Shah, the sarguru (senior leader) of the Sha Banwa group, “We visit 360 mosques and 360 Dargahs in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, and our chief duty is to apply the sacred sandalwood paste in these places of worship.”
It takes around two years for the group to complete the visits, usually on foot, or increasingly, by bus.
Owing allegiance to Baba Fakhruddin Suharwardy, a Persian-origin 12th century saint who later settled down in Pennukonda, Andhra Pradesh, the Sha Banwa faqirs do not wear shirts, and instead wrap themselves in kafans (shrouds).
“If you become a faqir, you cannot take up any other profession, it’s the decision of a lifetime,” says Meraj Ali.
Devotion in practice
While Islam does not permit the worship of gravesites, Sufi shrines have always been a part of the theological fabric of the world. Of late though, the growing Islamic revivalism in the Arab countries and its inevitable dissemination in south Asia have led to many people turning away from these shrines.
“There’s no izzat (honour) left in being a faqir anymore,” says Faujdar Mohamed Ali Shah, whose Sha Tabaqat Mandal owes its roots to the 101 Khalifas (regents) who followed saint Shahul Hameed from Manikpur, Uttar Pradesh, to Nagore. “Low income and public disapproval is discouraging many of our clan from becoming faqirs. But we continue as before.”
For several decades, if not centuries, fasting Muslims have been woken up for the pre-dawn Suhour meal by faqirs singing rousing numbers, made all the more so by energetic drumming of their tambourine-like Dabs. These faqirs, who belong to the Sha Rifai Jamat, have to be formally ordained before they can take up musical education, says Syed Hashim Moulana, the sarguru of the group that has come to the Nathervali Dargah this year.
“Our songs are usually on religious themes and we have old and new material. But Rifai Jamat faqirs have also played an important role in motivating fighters in the Indian Independence movements with their processional songs,” says Syed Hashim.
The order was founded by Iraqi Sufi preacher Syed Ahmed Kabir al-Rifai (1118–1182).
“We don’t expect to earn an income from faqiri, just to express our devotion to the Lord,” he adds.
Mohabbat Ali Shah, of the Sha Jalaliya Jamat, a Sufi order that owes allegiance to Lal Shahbaz Qalander of Pakistan, is attired simply in a loose shirt and lungi that is brightened up considerably by the sparkling chunky crystal chains around his neck. “These are the symbols of our faqir clan,” he says.
The clan dabbles in faith healing and casting off spells, to earn its keep. “We are always travelling, and people are usually very generous. We often get a lot of gifts in kind – poultry and goats. This is slowly changing with the growing disapproval from radical groups. There are many difficulties in this life, but somehow we make do with what we get,” he says.
Down the ages
Spread over 2 acres, the Nathervali Dargah is among the oldest Sufi shrines in India. Much of the structure, formerly a temple, is made of stone, and requires minimal maintenance, according to Syed Ghulam Rasool, the hereditary trustee of the shrine for the past 40 years.
“There are eight graves here, and all are maintained by the worshippers,” says Syed Ghulam Rasool, who bears the title of ‘Khalifa’ and is one of five (2 hereditary and 3 elected) members of the trust in charge of the dargah’s administration. “Nothing happens during the rains even though this building is 3,000 years old,” he adds.
The number of worshippers varies throughout the year, though it swells to the thousands as visitors stop over here on the way to the Nagore dargah.
“On the day before and on the day of the sandanakoodu celebration, a group of donors from Karnataka cooks 2,000-3,000 ‘padis’ of biryani for charity here in the dargah,” says the trustee. A padi is equal to 1.5 kilograms.
The highlight of the architecture is the 70-feet massive dome built by Muslim ruler Chanda Shahib, who fought the British (led by Robert Clive) by allying himself with the French (under Dupleix).
During the reign of the Arcot Nawabs, Tiruchi was also known as Nather Nagar, reflecting on the shrine’s importance.
Historical records show that Rani Mangammal and Rani Meenachi Ammaiyar endowed the shrine with several villages as a mark of their devotion.