Syncretic posters at the Sailani baba shrine in Maharashtra:
Exploring portability of religious iconography through networks of circulation

Amit Madheshiya and Shirley Abraham

INTRODUCTION

At the end of the crop gathering season in rural Maharashtra begins the season of jatras, an age-old tradition of annual religious gatherings around a shrine.  Hosted by nodal villages, the religious-cultural tradition of jatras has been integral to rural Maharashtra, as these sacred sites had developed into vast communal spaces where people from various villages gathered for informal societal exchange. Catering to the host of pilgrims, the jatras have evolved to include eateries, markets selling goods of daily use, cattle fairs, and also varied means of entertainment for the diverse audience. This led to intensive communal activity around the jatra, which became a social forum even for matchmaking. It is in this tradition of annual pilgrimage to gods and deities in nearby villages that the cult of the saints and the veneration of their tombs developed in rural Maharashtra. Located in such a hectic social sphere, the interaction between the two major communities- Muslims and Hindus actively influenced each other and one of the consequences of such an influence has been ‘the accession of the Hindus to the Islamic cult of saints and to the rites of the veneration of their tombs.’1  Over the decades, the nomenclature of the urs2  was absorbed into the Marathi word jatra3,  employed as a generic name for a fair in Maharashtra.

The abundance of potent places of pilgrimage in rural Maharashtra is surprising. Nearly all village residents travel to participate in a jatra, either in their own village, or in the neighboring one. This religious calendar of pilgrimage is largely Hindu, with a few Muslim saints whose tombs are venerated by pilgrims of multiple faiths.


Image 01. The 
dargah (shrine) of Sailani baba, in Sailani village (Buldhana district, Maharashtra)

One of the significant Muslim saints of Maharashtra, Sailani baba, and the devotional material produced and circulated around his shrine in Sailani village (Image 01), is the focus of this exploration.

Our project focuses on how new media technologies, and through them, production of printed religious visual material contributes to this syncretism initially generated through social exchange. Further, we wish to explore how the dynamics of production and circulation of religious art permits experimentation in visual iconography, which, in turn, has created and supported new hybridity.

 

EARLY LIFE


Image 02. Political map of India. The state of Maharashtra is seen in western India, in light yellow. Sailani is marked in a red square in the state.

Sailani is a remote village in the Buldhana district of Maharashtra, about 475 kilometers   north east of the capital city Mumbai (Image 02). This place was an uninhabited jungle before Baba Sailani arrived here.4 

Even today, Sailani village, that owes its name to the saint, is largely populated by the descendants of the first mujawir5.  The village’s connectivity to the outer world depends on a lone state transport bus that plies once every day. Though every year, more than one lakh (100,000) pilgrims arrive in the village during the urs6   of the saint, celebrated in the month of March.7

Much of the religious visual media in circulation at the shrine of Sailani appears to have evolved from the oral accounts of karamaat8  available with the mujawir family, passed down to them across generations. The hagiographic literature compiled by the saint’s disciples also takes recourse in the legends narrated by the mujawir family. In the absence of any comprehensive written historical records, these oral narratives become integral in this exploration. Hagiographic tradition pays little heed to chronology and corroboration of facts, and thus we encounter varied accounts from different sources. There are two factions in the extended mujawir family narrating a slightly different account. Most of the karamaats performed by the saint are narrated unequivocally but the matters concerning Sailani’s place of residence, his last wish and last rites record dissonance in the two accounts. Understandably so, ‘as the question of sainthood was finally decided only by death, by union with the Divine Beloved; that is why tradition seldom records the date of birth of a saint, apparently because of its inherent uselessness, but always the exact date of his assumption, which becomes the cult anniversary of his urs.9  The narratives make a claim to the spiritual legacy of the saint and are thus recounted from their contextual perspectives which are mediated by the active present of the factions in mujawir family. And because it is firmly believed in popular consciousness that a saint continues to live after his death, this spiritual legacy is indeed important for the sustenance of the descendants of mujawirs.

Sheikh Husain was the principle mureed10  of saint Sailani when he arrived in this village. Sheikh Husain accompanied the saint around the village and took care of him until his death. Later, Sheikh assumed the role of the mujawir. The biography of Sailani baba that is in the popular consciousness today has been passed down generations by Sheikh Husain and other disciples of the saint.


Image 03. Front cover- Shaan e Sailani Savane Hayaat, compiled by Sheikh Afsar Sheikh Mujawar. Buldhana: 1995.

Image 04. Back cover- Shaan-e-Sailani [The back cover mentions ‘Jamunwaale baba’. It is used to refer to Sailani baba, since he used to sit under the jamun (purple berry) tree.]

According to available sources about Sailani baba’s life11,  Kale Khan and Ameena Bi lived in Delhi in the mid 1800s. The chapbook (Image 03, 04) mentions that they enjoyed a prosperous life but had always lamented the absence of a child. One day, they hosted a fakir12   in their house. Impressed by their warmth and hospitality, he blessed them with their heart’s desire. He prophesied that the child will be a savior to many, but will leave home at the age of 12. Abdul Rehman was born to Kale Khan and Ameena Bi in Delhi in 1872. He trained to be a wrestler at home and participated in many shows, always defeating his opponents of the same age. After hearing the voice of Allah, and, as prophesied, he left home at the age of 12. He began journeying southwards in 1884. On his way, he joined an akhara13  in Balapur (a town in the Akola district of Maharashtra) and participated in various wrestling competitions. After winning one such competitive fight he was accosted by a fakir, Noor Shah who invited him for a fight. During the fight, Abdul Rehman was humbled by the old fakir and fell on his feet, asking for guidance. The fakir challenged him to wrestle for divine powers and help the poor and weak. He further sent Abdul Rehman to meet Khairuddin Muzzarat in Dharangaon Chopra in Jalgaon district. Khairuddin Muzzarat took him under his tutelage and imparted him divine knowledge. His pir14  also gave him the name Sailani, knowing that his mureed would travel far and wide and shall remain a wanderer. Sailani traveled across Maharashtra and far as Hyderabad, all this while performing karamaats. Saint Sailani belongs to the confluence of the four Sufi orders Naqshbandi, Suhrawardi, Qadiri and Chishtia. He patronized fourteen khalıfas15  who are spread across Maharashtra propagating the spiritual lineage. During his wanderings he came to Pimpalgaon Sarai village where he met Sheikh Husain, his first mureed. Sailani baba died here in 190716.  From the following year, people began gathering at his urs celebrations.17


1  See Suvorova, Anna. Muslim Saints of South Asia The eleventh to Fifteenth Century. London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004, 2. 
2  This is a festival commemorating the death of a Sufi saint.
3  Or yatra, in Hindi. Both terms are used alternately.
4  The accounts do not mention a definite date/year, or an approximation of one in which he first arrived in Sailani. But since it is believed that he lived in Sailani for around fifteen years, and died in 1907, it can be said that he must have arrived around 1892. 
5  The keeper of a shrine, who inherits the position from his forefathers. 
6  Popularly, this is also called Sailani yatra. 
7  It is said that Sailani baba died on the day of Rangpanchmi, the fifth day after Holi. To commemorate his death, the main day of the urs is observed on the day of Rangpanchmi, every year. Hence the dates of the Sailani yatra fall in the Phagun month of the Hindu calendar. The yatra lasts for about fifteen days. 
8  This is also referred to as grace, or miracle-work of saints.
9  See Suvorova, 2004, 38.  
10  ‘The committed one’, a disciple, novice.
11  Compiled from the narratives of Sheikh Hashim Mujawar and Sheikh Rehman Mujawar. With references from Shaan-e-Sailani Savane Hayaat, compiled by Sheikh Afsar Sheikh Mujawar. Buldhana, 1995.
12  He is a religious ascetic or mendicant monk, commonly considered a miracle worker.
13  This is a traditional institution for wrestlers. (see Alter 1992) (full reference: The Wrestler's Body: Identity and Ideology in North India. University of California Press.)
14  Elder, Sufi preceptor.
15  Referred to as a deputy, the leader of a branch of an order.
16  Roy Burman, J J. Hindu Muslim Syncretic Shrines and Communities. New Delhi: Mittal Publication, 2002,108.
17  See fn 11
 
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