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The legend of Sheikh Chehli

As a child, my favourite bedtime story used to be about a simpleton called Sheikh Chilli, whose life was a never-ending saga of goof-ups. I knew that these stories were fictitious and that no such character existed, but I loved them. Imagine my surprise when I found that there was actually someone with the same name — a Sufi saint whose tomb is in Thanesar and who was supposedly Dara Shukoh’s spiritual master! Dara Shukoh, the mystic prince and eldest son of emperor Shah Jahan, was a gifted scholar, so no master of his could have been foolish. He may have been simple, for all Sufis lived ascetic lives and were renowned for their humility, but it is certain that he would have been very wise. With this discovery I began my quest to find out about a childhood character and his connection to an ill-fated prince. The result was a pleasant surprise.

The first sign that Sheikh Chilli was not the beloved character from my childhood came from the signposts in Thanesar. The word ‘chehli’ means 40 in Persian. Sheikh Chilli could have been a saint who had done a chilla, or a 40-day solitary, spiritual retreat, and ‘chilli’ could be a corruption of that.

Museums and a madarsa

The signboards leading to the tomb were helpful. As I approached my destination, I was taken aback by the sheer size of the complex, with its huge enclosing wall, cupolas, and pavilions surrounding it. Through a tall gateway in the eastern wall, I entered the complex and went into to a courtyard, in the middle of which there was a shallow tank. Around the tank was a well-manicured garden. Surrounding the garden were galleries with rooms on all sides. The Archaeological Survey of India has turned two of these galleries into museums. The grounds and the museum are obviously very popular with the locals as the place was packed despite the blistering heat.

I went up the staircase in the northern galleries to the tomb, built on a high, majestic platform. But what were the galleries for? Research led me to Subhash Parihar’s 1999 book, Some Aspects of Indo-Islamic Architecture. He describes it as a madarsa — one of three built by the Mughals. A madarsa means a place for study, and according to Parihar, the three madarsas were probably meant for educating the ulema (clergy) for civil and judicial service in the empire. Two of them are in Delhi — the Khairul Manazil, opposite Purana Qila, and Ghaziuddin Khan Ka Madarsa, which is now the Anglo Arabic College, near Ajmeri Gate. The third was built in Thanesar, Haryana, as this city was on the Grand Trunk Road.

I walked up the stairs and reached a large platform with a very low octagonal marble base around which ran a marble rail. On the base stood the splendid octagonal marble tomb. There were exquisite jaalis on all sides. The tomb door was closed, so I could only peep in to see two cenotaphs inside. As there is very obvious Persian influence on the architecture, and also marble, some compare the tomb to the Taj Mahal, but to my eye there seemed no resemblance. Another tomb with a vaulted roof on the western wall was open, so I went inside. This is said to be the tomb of the saint’s wife.

Dara Shukoh’s spiritual adviser

The signs give the name of the saint as Abd-ur-Rahim Abdul-Karim Abd-ur-Razak. I went back to Parihar. The tomb of the only important saint of Thanesar from Akbar’s era, Sheikh Jalaluddin Thanesari, is built nearby, so this was not his tomb. Parihar writes that none of the leading saints of Thanesar fit the bill either. Dara Shukoh’s spiritual master was a Sufi saint of the Qadriya order, Mullah Shah Badakhshi of Kashmir and not Sheikh Chehli. The legend of Chehli can be attributed to a report by Sir Alexander Cunningham in 1862-65 where he identifies the tomb as belonging to the spiritual adviser of Dara Shukoh. Cunningham writes that his real name is in dispute and he is known in the area as Sheikh Chilli or Sheikh Tilli.

The madarsa dates back to the mid-17th century when Dara Shukoh was powerful in the Mughal court. Fittingly, one of the rooms in the complex is a Dara Shukoh library. Thanesar was a well known centre of the Sufi Chishti silsila and, according to Parihar, it is possible that Dara Shukoh built the madarsa to promote the Qadriya order. The saint buried there must have been a teacher at the madarsa from the Qadriya silsila and definitely wise to have headed it.

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Printable version | Jan 11, 2021 1:23:28 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/the-legend-of-sheikh-chehli/article24124707.ece

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