Ahmedabad, India

In January 2016, Christophe Jaffrelot (Sciences – Po), Manpreet Kaur (Columbia), Mariam Elnozahy (IRCPL), and Vatsal Naresh (IRCPL) embarked on a research trip in a joint IRCPL-Sciences Po effort to Gujarat, India as a part of the Shared Sacred Sites Initiative. The team sought to make preliminary inquiries and interviews as part of the larger project investigating the choreography of Shared Sacred Sites in South Asia. This trip expanded the comparative approach to the study of shared sacred sites beyond the Mediterranean Region, the Balkans, and the Middle East to include South Asia, encouraging perspectives on the mingling between polytheism and monotheism in times of identity and ideological tensions, where coexistence between followers of different faiths is contested.

During this trip we spent three days in Ahmedabad, Gujarat to visit six major dargahs (sufi shrines) as important destinations for practitioners of Islamic, Hindu, and Sikh faiths, including the Shah-e-Alam Roza and the Qutub-e-Alam Roza, which will be topic of this particular study. The first one is Shah-e-Alam’s Tomb and Mosque, which is a medieval mosque and tomb complex (Roza) in Shah Alam area of Ahmedabad, India. The second one, Qutub-e-Alam’s Mosque and Tomb, also known as Vatva Dargah, is a medieval mosque and tomb complex in Vatva area of Ahmedabad, India.

Persian inscription marking the entrance to the Dargah
Persian inscription marking the entrance to the Dargah

The Shah Alam Dargah is perhaps the second biggest and most famous dargah of Ahmedabad. Shah Alam (1414 – 1476) was the brother-in-law of Ahmed Shah, founder of Ahmedabad city in 1411. The dargah of Shah Alam is considered to be more than 500 years old; In an essay entitled “The Major Dargahs of Ahmedabad” in the anthology Muslim Shrines in India, Desai writes that the dargah was constructed between 1531-32 during the reign of Bahadurshah by a nobleman named Taj Khan.(1) From the Persian inscription on the entrance to the tomb, it is assumed that the saint died in 1475 and that his tomb was constructed in 1483.(2) The dargah complex contains the tomb of Shah Alam as well as a large mosque, a madrassa (school) and a mussafirkhana (rest house for pilgrims or travelers).(3) The structures are built of red marble stone and upon entrance to the dargah and directly in front of the main tomb there is a multiple lamp stand. This stand is said to have been built for commemorating Narsingh Bhai, a Hindu poet-saint, who was a close friend of Shah Alam, and devotees typically first light a lamp of Narsingh Bhai and then enter into the dargah. J.J. Roy Burman reports that there is a small temple of Narsingh Bhai called Narsingh ki Choli about one kilometer away from Shah Alam dargah. There are daily pooja (prayer rituals) at the temple featuring melas (festivals) and fairs accompanying the pooja. In the past, chadders (ceremonial prayer cloth) used to be sent to the temple from Shah Alam dargah, Burman reports, during the urs (Saint’s birthday) and laddus (sweets) used to be sent during the melas, though now this exchange practice appears to have stopped.

On a day like Uttarayan, a Hindu Kite festival in Gujarat (and the most popular city-wide occassion in Ahmedabad), the Shah-E-Alam Dargah is uncharacteristically quiet and only regular devotees come to pay homage to the saint. Our interactions with patrons of the dargah were not extensive, but we did get the chance to conduct a few informal conversations to discuss the visitorship and patronage of the dargah. When not singing, the qawalli singers sit northeast of the complex, perched on a slightly raised platform flanked by flags and posters that feature traditional visuals of the Kaabah and Hajj pilgrimage often found in mosque complexes of all different sects. Below the posters and sitting on the platform was an old man with a henna dyed beard, who seemed to be a seasoned dargah veteran, though he did not occupy an official position within the dargah hierarchical structure. He and a crowd of other dargah veterans that gathered around him spoke of Shah Alam’s legend when we inquired into the dargah’s history: he emphasized Shah Alam’s spiritual prowesses, capacity for healing, and popularity among devotees.

It was evident that though both men and women can be blessed by the khadim (the caretaker of the dargah) with a peacock feather upon entrance to the mausoleum itself, only men can enter the innermost room which holds the cenotaph (accessible through a small gate). Many women sit outside of the central room – reading and praying for the most part – and are able to look into the central room. Male devotees enter the central room, and are allowed to touch and kiss the cenotaph, as is reflective of traditional devotional mausoleum practices.

Though the complex was uncharacteristically quiet, there were a few individual characters that revealed through informal exchanges the diverse array of reasons motivating pilgrims to come visit the Dargah. A “faqir” (which translates to Muslim mendicant) dressed in black, wielding a staff, told us about how he went to Ajmer (the Dargah Sharif) and received instructions to come to Shah Alam. He explained that he comes every Thursday, and offers blessings in exchange for a small fee. Additionally, he said he went to Ajmer after his sons got married to seek refuge with Khwaja Muinuddin. He represented only one facet of the multifarious range of individuals who pay homage to Shah Alam Dargah. Another notable interaction was with an older Hindu couple visiting from Canada, who shared with us their journey to the Dargah. The woman told us that as a sickly young girl living in Ahmedabad, she had visited the dargah often in the hopes of regaining her strength and getting cured. She hadn’t been back for years, and wanted to pay homage to Shah Alam in gratitude for her good health in her old age and abroad in Canada. Stories like these illustrate the draw to Shah Alam’s roza on behalf of both Hindu and Muslim worshippers.

Qutbe Alam Dargah
Qutbe Alam Dargah

Unlike Shah E Alam dargah, Qutub E Alam Dargah lies on the margins of the city, about 45 minutes outside of central Ahmedabad. It’s a visibly less populated area, though still demarcated with the typical Muslim/Islamic signifiers that were observed in the area surrounding Shah-e-Alam dargah. Though nobody responded directly to our inquiries about whether there was a processional order between the two dargahs, they are historically connected in a patrilineal lineage (Shah Alam is the son of Qutb e Alam, who died in 1452). The khadim led us to the back of the complex, where he showed us a special “pathar” (stone or large rock) that the saint had interacted with in some capacity, though exactly what that interaction entailed was unclear. The pathar was unique in that it was comprised of four materials: gravel, metal, wood, and stone, each material symbolizing a different aspect of strength of the saint. A group of regular dargah veterans – one of whom was clear to let us know that he was Hindu – led us through the ritual of the pathar. Typically, a pilgrim will come and make a wish, and then if you can lift the stone – which felt to be about three or four kilograms – your wishes and supplications will come true. After testing our fate, we proceeded throughout the complex. The two major tombs within the Qutub-e-Alam complex look older and more weathered, and there are still resemblances to Central Asian architecture, though the facade and layout are strikingly different from that of Shah Alam dargah. Some reports also cite that the complex is unfinished. Overall, the trip yielded material and provoked further research on the choreographies of coexistence and conflict at these sites.