South Asia’s Islamic Shrines and Transcultural Visuality:
An Introduction

Yousuf Saeed and Christiane Brosius


This edited volume seeks to explore the relationship of place, religious practice and the emplacement as well as traffic of people, images and other media technologies across time and space by applying transculturality and translocality (Freitag/von Oppen 2010) as heuristic lenses. The local, key focus of all the papers assembled here, is studied with the intention to develop a methodological sensorium that allows us to reach beyond the ‘local’ and yet not render it marginal. Both transculturality and translocality seem to offer such potential to conceptualise connections beyond the inflationary binary opposition of global and local. The volume proposes that cross-cultural entanglements are part and parcel of Sufi sites and practices, even though often not ‘obvious’ and/or acknowledged. The shrines, though physically immobile, are connected by agents, images, media, and practices, and thus shape a certain kind of spatial fluidity, always keeping everyday worlds and concerns at the forefront of enquiries about translocal connectivity, a connectivity that is by no means free of conflicts and tensions. 

Entrance to the shrine of Nizamuddin Aulia, New Delhi. Photo by Yousuf Saeed

Islamic shrines of saints in South Asia and other Islamic regions are a unique phenomenon. Also known as dargah, aastana, takia, mazaar or maqbara, they are institutions of religious pilgrimage centred on the grave or mausoleum of an important Sufi saint or Shia imam. Such shrines are visited not only by Muslims but also by people from different faiths, who come here to seek blessings and spiritual salvation. Unlike mosques which are used primarily for the five-times-a-day prayers, shrines play a much wider and complex role in the everyday lives and ritual cycles of the people who visit them. While one is not allowed many social, informal activities and rituals in a mosque, a Sufi shrine provides more space for social interaction, expression of piety or meeting with a living spiritual master for an emotional catharsis or climax. Besides Sufi tombs and mosques, another institution that plays a similar role is a Shia Imambada or Imambargah, shrines of Imams used mostly for mourning the death of martyrs. In the recent years, many of the shrines looked at in this volume have undergone transformation due to increasing influx from international or regional pilgrims and tourists and a rising interest to incorporate them into heritage politics of a city or state, impacting discourses on citizenship or ethnicity. Likewise, they might have been pushed to the periphery by diminished flows of people and access over time (e.g., Partition in 1947), and yet find much acclamation in media narratives. Media technologies are important constituents of localities and spatial presences and hierarchies. The volume seeks to differentiate spatial regimes of Sufi shrines by placing emphasis on the role of visual and audio-visual media.     

One example: Occult practices and amulets available at these Islamic shrines are much sought after in South Asia, Middle East, South Africa and UK! However, such shrines are also prone to commercial exploitation of pilgrims by the shrine-keepers or mujavirs who claim to be the intercessors between the devotees and the buried Saint or God, and provide potions and talisman to the gullible visitors, at a price! On the occasion of a Saint’s Urs, many posters and banners with images and decorative borders that publicise the occasion and schedule of events start mushrooming. Besides creating a vibrant visual culture, they by themselves become a medium of devotion and popular piety. Some even carry images of other shrines like that in Ajmer, Lucknow, Karnataka or even Pakistan, thereby signifying the cultural flow amongst far away regions. However, these shrines and surrounding areas cannot be visualized merely in a traditional, idealistic and romantic way – there is a lot that makes the flow and continuity of this visual culture highly asymmetrical in terms of a variety of tensions and conflicts that are played out visibly or subtly hidden. Social and economic changes impact on this as well as visual and print culture is undergoing, and reflecting, major transformations. Reasons may also tem from ideological shifts (Wahhabi/Salafi tendencies that tend to undermine the more liberal and rustic traditions of a Sufi shrine) and demographic developments with respect to urban and transnational migrations of social agents.

In light of the above scenario, some scholars have nevertheless tried to study such aspects in South Asia and other regions. This eclectic series of essays has resulted out of two initiatives, both of which were part of the Cluster of Excellence project: (1) An international workshop on “Changing Popular Visual Cultures of Muslim Shrines: Transcultural Flows and Urban Spaces” held in Heidelberg in June 2010, and (2) Five short-term fellowships awarded in 2010 to researchers in India and Pakistan on the theme “The Circulation of Popular Images and Media in Muslim Religious Spheres”. While all the above papers open new vistas of study of the popular culture of Islam, they also create opportunity for us to see Islamic shrines and mediated networks through their inter-connections. It is hoped that such a volume/group of papers will lead to a further debate and discussion in the understanding of a transcultural approach towards the constitution and contestation of place, religious and media practices.

Yousuf Saeed, Christiane Brosius

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