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[Book Review] Monuments And Shrines As Flesh & Blood of Indian History

Starting from the Jinn venerated Kotla, Taneja follows through various such venerated spaces and finds the presence of a shared culture that creates a commonality and bonding among people.

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Anand Vivek Taneja & cover page of his book

The backdrop of the book is in the ruins of Firoz Shah Kotla, a fourteenth-century Tughluq-era fort that has now been turned into a religious space which is believed to be inhabited by jinns who also have the status of saints. The author weaves together a variety of sources, from ethnographic narratives to self-field notes and a wide reading in the historical and anthropological literature on Islam in South Asia, Urdu literature and poems, short stories, vernacular epics such as Hir Ranjha and the songs and stories of Bollywood films to construct the central arguments of his book.

Why Jinn Worship

Anand Vivek Taneja begins with his own experiences seen at Kotla ruins along with the experiences of others. At Kotla there are letters of petitions that are addressed to the Jinns. These letters are accompanied with proofs like Aadhaar which are the identification of postcolonial biopolitical state.  The popular belief being that the Jinn bureaucracy is similar to Indian government needing similar proofs for appropriate action. This points a need of the people requiring a parallel governance that is more perfect and just. The petitions, that list troubles of debt, love, marriage, familial issues, show a desire of the oppressed in need of a world as they deem should be instead of as it currently is. It is common in dargah-culture to consider the mazaars as places of justice and hence the letters to jinns, to correct what they believe as injustice in their life. Justice is served as a belief more than a happening. Sufis have a history of royal interventions to get needs of the poor fulfilled. This reverence is a reminder of this historical past.

Taneja tries to explore as to why a dark, abandoned royal palace becomes a site of veneration. Ibn Batuta narrates that Mahomed Tughlaq used to sit personally to address injustices for two days in a week. People would submit their shikwa to one of the four chamberlains and if they did not accept their complaint, then the petitioner could directly address the Sultan. At Kotla we see this past manifest in ritual while being absent in narrative or historical consciousness. The presence of the jinn-saints in the ruins of 14th-century royal palace, a location of pre-colonial Islamic sovereignty, is an image, a counter-memory of pre-colonial ideas of justice “flashing up” against the violence and illegibility of the postcolonial state [sic].

Jinnealogy

Taneja defines Jinnealogy as a theological orientation that encompasses the registers of ironic commentary, counter-memory and apotropaic magic[sic]. Jinns bear witness to previous eras in history and serve as a supernatural bridge between epochs, binding past people and events to the present. These are the very beings that are worshiped at Firoz Shah Kotla.

Taneja tells the story of Shah Waliullah (RA) who was once praying in the mosque at Kotla when he saw a snake approaching which he killed. That night as he was sleeping, he was carried back to the court of the king of the jinns in the ruins of Kotla, where the king stood accused of murder. He had killed the son of the king of the jinn, who had taken the form of snake. In his defense Shah Waliullah quoted a hadith of the Prophet (SAW), that it was legitimate to kill a dangerous creature approaching you if you are praying. Had he known that the snake was actually a jinn in disguise, he would have done no such thing. The king asked the gathered jinns if what Waliullah said was true. An old jinn said, “Yes it is true. I have heard it myself from the lips of the Prophet.” The old jinn was a sahabi (a person who has seen the Prophet) and due to his interaction with this old jinn, Shah Waliullah gained the stature of one of the Tabi‘un (a person who has seen a sahabi).It is Jinnealogy that makes it possible for Shah Waliullah to overcome the thousand years between his life and that of the Prophet’s to become one of the Tabi‘un.

Archival Amnesia

Next the author moves to relating his own experience with the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI). It is the government body responsible for protecting the protected monuments of India. The author gives a view of the forgetfulness applied by ASI in case of the documents.

When the author tries to access these documents he found that they were not organized in any way. ASI’s archive was not an archive of authorized memory but of authorized forgetting, where files, once consigned to dust and darkness, were never to reappear in public. The authorized forgetting that characterized the ASI’s archive was present not just in the impenetrability of the bureaucracy or in the disorder of the record room but also in the files themselves. In postcolonial files the author shows how ASI investigated cases using oral traditions instead of looking into their archives. One latest incident of 2014 is given here.

Influencer and the Influenced

Spaces like Kotla create a cross-cultural influence as seen in India. The author documents innumerable examples from general practices to Bollywood, the influence Islam as a culture has had on the whole Indian society at large. Islamicate is a term that distinguishes Islam “in the proper, the religious, sense,” from the “the social and cultural complex historically associated with Islam and the Muslims, both among the Muslims themselves and even when found among non-Muslims”. In this sense not only Hindi cinema has been an Islamicate culture but the dargahs too have been a part of such culture, disseminating the same among the populace.

For example Dil which has been part of Hindi cinema from time immemorial is not a part of Hindi at all. The word to be used is hruday for heart in Hindi. Notably Dil has ended with a much deeper meaning while hruday refers to the physical entity of the heart. Similar is the relation between the culture of Islam and Hinduism in India, inseparable and bound to each other.

Translation

The author further expounds that Islam is not external to Hinduism; rather, the ethical and cosmological world of North India, its invisible religion, is impossible to imagine now without the presence of Islam. Parallels from literature have been listed by the author to pin down this point.

Dara Shukoh in his Majma-ul-Bahrain wrote that Sufi and Hindu thought differed only terminologically terming Qur’an and Upanishads are a single continuity, a thought that is pertinent in the spaces like Kotla. When Islam came to India via saints it created a single moral community that included both Hindus and Muslims. The Sufi idea that it should transcend its own concepts led them to the adoption of Hindu vocabulary. Hence in Sufi text (like Saiyad Sultan’s Nabi Vamsa) there are references where nabi became avatar, sufi became isht-dev (and later ghar ke peer back to Muslims) to express thoroughly Islamic worldview through an ostensibly Hindu vocabulary. While Masjids adopted pillars, mandirs adopted domes.

Taneja explains that Islamic polities of pre-modern India dealt with the large non-Muslim population by following political theory with an expansive understanding of shari’a, inclusive of laws and life-ways of other communities. The sufis made a deliberate intervention in politics from thirteenth century onward, giving an ethical direction to the state. This is why the ritual and built forms of Sufi dargahs are so similar to those of pre-modern royal courts.

Natural Nature

Several examples are in the book illustrating how these revered places are tied to nature and now due to the apathy of locals and government policies these links with nature have got disconnected.

One example taken is of Sathpula a 14thcentury dam which was once southern part of Tuglaq city where a dargah of Hazrat Nasiruddin Mahmud exists also known as “Chiragh-e Dehli”. The author gives accounts of this place from three different times.

First, by Dargah Quli Khan from approximately 1739, who describes it as a place where people came to bathe in the spring water, sit on the grass to eat, rest and then leave. The second account, in 1847, an account of the same dam in Syed Ahmad Khan’s Asar us-Sanadid where it is written that the khadims have put a trap to earn money and selling water like teerth. The purist argument of kufr-o-shirk is also placed prominently in this book. Later Taneja gives his own account where he notes that there is no more sacred water. The flowing water has been diverted and is now naulakha nala. This demonstrates the stages in which linkage of these sites with the nature has been eroded.

The loss of this linkage of these sites with nature is another reason for their irrelevance and ultimate demise. A way to reconstruct these sites would be to link them back to the nature.

Laws and Resurrection

Lying within their borders post-partition India had most of the monuments that belonged to the newly created Muslim state. The question of how to preserve them, even from Hindu violence, was answered by making them museumized. There is no restriction between a site being a regular place of worship and also under ASI, but the ASI tends to keep it dead for reasons of their own.

The religion of Islam is linked to backwardness which leads to irrationality and hence leading to the conclusion that their religious practices are dangerous for the protection of heritage. Qudusia Bagh masjid and Safdarganj tomb is locked and killed while Jaisalmer Fort and Madurai Meenakshi Temples are allowed to be living monuments even though both are marked as protected under ASI. Even during court cases involving ASI the author shows that the law sides with ASI “for greater good” disallowing all rights of worship for the purpose of protection.

The idea of ‘blackened and dilapidated building is how a protected monument should look’ is a modern concept. There were no old buildings when they were built, they were beautiful with a “Wow!” factor within them, something that is currently missing even from our consciousness. Indian National Trust for Art & Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and Aga Khan Trust for Culture are working hand-in-hand with the locals to restore the ancient monuments of India to their previous glory but this work is not all smooth because of the rules present and the idea of conservation every at large understands. This is another way to reconstruct these sites and make them relevant.

Conclusion

Starting from the Jinn venerated Kotla, Taneja follows through various such venerated spaces and finds the presence of a shared culture that creates a commonality and bonding among people. The author envisages such a shared culture of existence between the multicultural environment of India and sees these spaces as the key to such a goal. A Sathpula full of life, laughter and song is more coveted than a dark and abandoned one-as it currently is.

These sites contain traces from which one can easily find the whole narrative of India’s shared culture and tradition. The author also lists how these spaces are being destroyed by various ways even by the Government and so are creating a divide among the people. It is also clear throughout the book that the way ahead to preserve these spaces is to keep them relevant and venerated so that the same shared culture comes alive. On the other hand we have a section of people trying to recreate the India of the yonder days. As long as the populace is not conscious about all of these factors while agreeing and believing in the recreation of India as in a mythical past rather than a more practical and traceable past, things are not going for betterment but rather moving in the retrograde, not individually but the nation as a whole.

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