India is a land of contradictions and nothing typifies this so starkly as the legend of Ghazi Miyan. There is a lot of talk of magical realism in literature but the legend of Ghazi Miyan introduces it in history – past as well as present.
In Shashi Tharoor’s novel “Riot”, which liberally makes fictional use of the names of real people and places, Professor Mohammed Sarwar informs V. Lakshman that he is “working on the life of a man called Syed Salar Masud Ghazi, popularly known as Ghazi Miyan, a hugely revered Muslim warrior-saint.” He also feels that while a lot is said about the “composite culture of North India”, its “composite religiosity” is not talked about much. In this context, Prof. Sarwar mentions that a number of Muslim religious figures such as Nizamuddin Auliya, Moinuddin Chishti, Shah Madar and Shaikh Nasiruddin alias Chiragh-i-Dilli are worshipped by the Hindus and that Ghazi Miyan happens to be in this league. He also tells Lakshman that “what we need, as my friend and fellow professor Shahid Amin, whom you knew at college, likes to say, are “non sectarian histories of sectarian strife.”
Well, Professor Shahid Amin, who recently retired from Delhi University’s Department of History, has written just that kind of history. Unlike most tomes by erudite historians, it’s a multi-layered, complex, nuanced and intimate telling of the saga of the legendary Ghazi Miyan as it does not attempt to offer a single interpretation and leaves a lot to the intelligence as well as imagination of the reader.
Published by Orient BlackSwan in late September, “Conquest and Community: The Afterlife of Warrior Saint Ghazi Miyan” brings us face-to-face with a tilism, a veritable phantasmagoria where real and imaginary not only co-exist but also constantly interact with each other, resulting in folklore that perpetuates and celebrates the worship of a folk hero who is a Ghazi (an Islamic warrior or jihadi who does not hesitate to slay infidels and break idols to pieces) and, at the same time, is a protector of cows and cowherds, a brother to a Hindu queen, and a saviour of the honour of virgin daughters of the cowherds. Isn’t it incredible that this jihadi warrior is worshipped by the very Hindus that he attacked and that Hindu women pray at his tomb for a male child of his noble qualities?
Ghazi Miyan is also known as Bale Miyan, Bala Pir, Pir Bahlim and Gajan Dulha although his real name is Syed Salar Masud. In Bahraich district of Uttar Pradesh, his dargah has been an attraction for Hindu and Muslim devotees for nearly 1,000 years and a big fair is organised every year here. Ghazipur, Ghaziabad and Salarkotla that dot many regions of the country are perpetuating his memory.
Ever since his legend took shape in the 11th Century, fairs have been organised at various places and historical documents reveal that his fame had reached Bengal by the 14th Century. Shahid Amin informs us that in a letter of 1290, Amir Khusrau mentions about the “fragrant tomb of Sipahsalar Shahid” at Bahraich spreading the “perfume of odorous wood” throughout Hindustan. In 1341, the famous Moroccan traveller Ibn Battuta accompanied Mohammad bin Tughlaq to the Bahraich dargah.
In the 15 Century, Sikandar Lodi had tried to ban the “festival of the spears” of Masud. Even today, these festivals are celebrated and “Neze ke Mele” (Fairs of the Spears) are organised at many places. In the 1620s, prominent Sufi Abdur Rahman Chishti wrote “Mirat-i-Masudi”, a hagiographical biography of Syed Salar Masud, and described him as Sultan-us-Shuhda (Prince of Martyrs).
But, who was Ghazi Miyan?
Syed Salar Masud was supposedly the nephew (sister’s son) of Mahmud Ghaznavi, who raided India 17 times and is believed to have sacked the famous Somnath Temple among many others. Famous for his valour and chivalry, Salar Masud died in 1034 at the age of only 19 in Bahraich. He fell from grace of his powerful uncle Mahmud because he had his eyes on the ruler’s favourite mare, referred to a Lilly ghodi in folk songs and ballads that have been sung for centuries to pay tribute to his memory. He was about to marry a Muslim girl when news reached him that the marauding Hindu chieftain Sohal Deo was about to attack cows and cowherds. Salar Masud left his wedding, went to protect them, died unwed and became a martyr. Innumerable songs, ballads and dramas were composed in his memory. They are sung every year at fairs by Dafalis. He finds a mention in Premchand’s short story in Urdu “Panchayat”, later published in Hindi as “Panch Parameshwar” but sans Syed Salar.
Now, be prepared for the ultimate shock. Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi had no nephew.
(The writer is a senior literary critic)