Between The Lines

Sheikh Ark

                                                                                                          Ark by G. M. Sheikh 2008


Asghar Ali Engineer


ndia saw wave after wave of outsiders and invaders rather from beginning of history. Only those who are known as adivasis or aboriginals and Dravidians are known to be original inhabitants of India. Dravidian culture may not have had a composite character as also the aboriginal one which was essentially a folk culture. Aryan culture that begins with the Aryan invasion, is the dawn of composite culture in India. I know a section of scholars, especially those affiliated with Sangh Parivar, who maintain that Aryans were original inhabitants and never came from outside. However, most noted historians and scholars do not subscribe to this view and maintain that Aryans came from outside.

I propose to deal with the composite culture that came into existence with the invasion of various Muslim dynasties in the Sultanate as well as the Mughal period. Preceding these Muslim dynasties were many others like Sakias, Huns and Greeks and all of them left their deep imprints on our culture. It is more difficult and challenging to trace their influences now as they constitute the remotest past.

However, the influences of Turks, Tughlaks, Khaljis, Lodis and especially Moghuls have been very well recorded and continue to be part of our culture. But in our mutual animosities we deliberately ignore these influences or even try to reduce our culture to a monolithic one or pure one.

It is well known that all communal as well as bigoted elements try to project a
‘pure’ culture. They try to emphasise a pure Hindu or pure Islamic culture. In
other words we communalise our culture as we communalize our politics.

When we say pure Hindu or Islamic culture we imply that culture is a product of religion and nothing else. This is not true. Religion undoubtedly is an important influence but not the only one. Religion is, among others, one of the factors in giving birth to a culture. Culture, in fact, is a product of several factors like customs, traditions, whether, locally available materials, geographical conditions and so on.

A religion may appear within the frame of a pre-existent culture. And then religious teachings may deeply influence that pre-existent culture and re-fashion it in its own way. For example, Islam appeared within the frame of pre-existing Arab culture and subsequently remolded that culture in its own way. But what we call ‘Islamic culture’ cannot be thought of without Arab culture of its time.

Similarly what we call ‘Hindu’ culture or Buddhist culture came into existence within the framework of pre-existent Dravidian and Aryan cultures and the Hindu or Buddhist cultures cannot be imagined without their pre-existent cultures. Also, when these religions spread to areas other than that of their origin, they imbibed, assimilated and integrated elements of cultures already existing in those areas.

Buddhism spread to various countries like Sri Lanka, China, Thailand, Tibet, Cambodia, Vietnam and Japan and so on. This gave rise to syncretic cultures in Thailand, Sri Lanka, China, Cambodia and Tibet. The Buddhist culture in India cannot be same as say Buddhist culture of Tibet or Buddhist culture of Japan. All these cultures are radically different though Buddhism is a common factor among them.

Islam also spread to many areas far away from Arabia, the land of its origin. It spread from Indonesia in South East Asia to Algeria in North Africa. Though Islam is a common factor and yet indigenous cultures of Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Sri Lanka, India, Iran, Central Asia, Egypt, Sudan, Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria, china, Turkey and Eastern Europe gave rise to numerous cultures different from each other. If religion were the only factor all these cultures would not differ.

In India its existence for almost thousand years gave rise to an Indo-Islamic culture which in northern India is also called by various names like Ganga-Jamni tehzib (culture of the region between the rivers Ganga and Jamuna or Mili-juli tahzib(syncretic culture) or Sanjhi virasat (composite heritage). Though these terms mainly refer to north Indian culture, composite culture is not restricted to north India. India is a land of many cultures and encompasses regional cultures from north to south and east to western parts of India.

When we refer to culture it includes art and architecture, language, poetry, music,
paintings, dances, draperies, food habits, customs, traditions and some religious,
especially spiritual practices. Diverse traditions become so assimilated that we
consider them part of our original culture. Only scholars know its composite nature.

The discourse about Composite culture is deeply influenced by political needs. Communal forces want to deny the existence of syncretism or the composite nature of culture and those who promote national integration and communal harmony try to develop a composite discourse for our culture as it helps bringing communities together.

This composite discourse becomes a great political need in a society like India which is so diverse and in the process of nation building fusion of various communities and harmony among them becomes very necessary. The British rulers were busy dividing us and our liberation from British rule would not have been possible without bringing various communities, especially Hindus and Muslims together. Thus even during our freedom struggle communal forces were emphasizing our separate communal identities.

The theories of Hindu Rashtra and Islamic nation were the result of such attempts by communal forces. Ultimately these communal forces on both sides succeeded in dividing our nation despite the composite nature of our cultural and some religious practices. The national discourse, of course, emphasized composite nature of our culture but for various reasons, not to be discussed here, this discourse was drowned in the separatist cacophony and more than half a million human beings lost their lives.

Today in contemporary India communal forces are no less active. These forces still talk of Hindu Rashtra and have coined slogan of ‘one nation, one culture and one language.’ Such an approach denies the rich diversity of India and our composite heritage. Thus it is in the interest of our unity to emphasize and re-emphasize the syncretic nature of our heritage to draw people together.

Farid Ayaz and Abu Muhammed: Kanhaiya Yaad Hai Kuch Bhi


It is true that this is our political need but one should not emphasize the syncretic nature of our heritage simply for the sake of political need but also in the interest of our authentic history. History should not be distorted either way – to divide people as also to unite people. Distortion of history, even for positive purpose, is a dangerous thing. History should be written rising above all religious, political or cultural needs. Those who temper with their past would temper with their future as well


Fusion of religious and spiritual practices


slamic ritual practices influenced indigenous Hindu practices and vice versa. Many scholars have pointed out that Satya Narayan Katha which is widely prevalent in northern India today came into existence by imitating Muslim practice of public narration of Prophet’s life story especially in Bengal; subsequently it spread to other parts of north India. The average Hindus is hardly aware of the origin of the practice of Satya Narayan Katha.

Similarly several Sufi rituals, practices and beliefs, carry the deep imprint of indigenous practices. The noted German scholar Gruhnbalm thinks that the Sufi doctrine of fana’ fi Allah (annihilation in Allah) is influenced by the Hindu doctrine of smadhi in which a person annihilates himself in Ishwara, the ultimate being. It is also important to note that many great Sufi saints like Baba Farid of Punjab, Sheikh Mohammad of Maharashtra and others wrote in local languages like Punjabi or Marathi. This made them much more acceptable among the local populace.

Baba Farid is highly respected by Sikhs as his Punjabi verses have been included in the Adi Granth sahib. Punjab University has established the Baba Farid Chair and lot of work on Sufism is done through this department. Sikh Gurus had great regard for Sufi saints.

When the foundation stone for HarMandir was being laid the Sikh Guru Arjan Dev
insisted that Mian Mir, the Sufi saint of Lahore would lay the foundation stone. He
was requested and he came and laid the foundation stone of HarMandir.

Sufis showed respect for the Hindu religion and indigenous practices. Many rituals during the urs (death anniversary) of a Sufi saint have been borrowed by local Hindu customs around a temple. Khwaja Hasan Nizami in his book Fatimi D’awat-e-Islam has described in detail some of these rituals. According to him the annual day rituals of Hindu temple were adopted for urs rituals like taking out sandal paste in procession and chador in a palkhi (palanquin) and washing the grave of the Sufi and offering chador. These constitute the adoption of temple rituals.

The only difference is that the idol is replaced by the grave. In annual day rituals the idol is washed with sandal paste and on urs Sufi saint’s grave is washed with the paste after bringing it in a procession along with a chador. It is interesting to note that in Mahim, Mumbai, the police inspector (generally a Hindu) carries the chador in a thali (large dish) on his head and offers on the grave of Sufi saint Makhdum Mahimi.

 Again in Mumbai there are Hindu, Muslim and Christian shrines where people of all religions go and take vows and pay their respects. Three shrines like Haji Ali, Siddhi Vinayak temple and Mahim and Mount Mary churches are such shrines. Ajmersharif also attracts, along with other shrines like Nizamuddin Awliya in Delhi and Baba Gesudaraz in Gulbargasharif attract large number of non-Muslims.

Sindh (now in Pakistan) and Kashmir have strong Sufi traditions and in both these regions Hindus have been highly influenced by Sufis. In united Punjab too, apart from Baba Farid, Bulleh shah,Makhdumshah Inayat and others were highly respected by non-Muslims as well. Bullehshah was from Qadiriya school and was also influenced by Shatariayah school and hence one finds elements of rebellion in his poetry.

In Sindh Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai was extremely popular among Hindus, apart from Muslims. Shah is a great symbol of Sindhi culture and personality. No student of Sindhi culture and poetry can ever work ignoring Shah Abdul Latif. His poetic work has been collected in Risalo and Risaloi is as popular among Hindu Sindhis as among Muslim Sindhis. In fact all Sindhis irrespective of their religion sing verses from Risalo with great devotion. Shah Abdul Latif is, indeed part of our great composite heritage.

Kashmir is another region where Sufis helped create syncretic culture. No one can think of Kashmir without mentioning Nundrishi (Sufi Nuruddin is popularly known as Nundrishi in Kashmir) and the Shaivite saint Lalded.

Though Nuruddin was Muslim and Lalded a Shaivite Hindu both shared very close
relationship of mother and son and both are highly respected by all Kashmiris
irrespective of religion. Both have left deep imprints on the syncretic culture of
Kashmir. Both Kashmiri and Sindhi cultures, despite political divisions, remain
highly syncretic even after partition.

Amir Khusro, a great poet and very close to NizamuddinAwliya, the great Sufi saint from Delhi, was himself a Sufi and has made very seminal contribution to composite culture of north India. His father had come to India from Uzbekistan and Khusro was born in India. His father married a local Muslim woman. Thus he was both an Uzbek from his father’s side and an Indian from mother’s side. He composed poems in Persian but also poems in which one line was in Persian and one line in local dialect Braj. He also composed dohas in Hindi which were on the lips of people. He was very proud of being an Indian and wrote an article on India in which he compares India with other countries and proves India’s superiority, its flora and fauna and maintains that India is unparalleled in its beauty. Anyone would feel proud of India after reading his essay.

Khusro was not only a great poet but also a musician and invented some musical instruments like sitar which is in fact sah tar (three strings) as there are three strings in this instrument. Khusro also invented qawwalia genre of poetry which is sung in accompaniment with harmonium and tabla on Sufi mausoleums. Khusro was very close to Nizamuddin and wrote a dirge on his death in Brij which is highly popular even today.

Urdu language itself is the great symbol of our composite culture. It was borne in the bazaar by mixing of different communities like Turks, Hindus, Indian Muslims and others. It was always spoken by people in Bazar and never became court language except towards the end of Moghul period. Urdu is a mixture of local Indian dialects like Brijbhasha, Haryanvi, Maithili, Purbi, Persian, Arabic, Sanskrit etc.

Towards the end of the Moghul period it became the language of the ruling class
and was spoken by people of all communities; it never was the language of
Muslims alone as is widely projected today. In fact, Urdu produced great Hindu
poets, story writers and novelists during the freedom struggle as well as in earlier periods.

Among story writers and novelists in Urdu Premchand is the well-known name. He wrote volumes of short stories and acquired legendry fame through his Urdu fiction. Krishan Chander, Rajindra Singh Bedi, Ramlal, Maniktala, Jogendra Paul and several others are well-known fiction writers in Urdu. Similarly Brijnarayan Chakbast, Anandnarayan Mulla, Firaq Gorakhpuri, Jagannath Azad, Pandit Zutshi Gulzar, Kalidas Gupta Raza, Pandit Ratan Nath Sarshar, Daya Shankar Naseem, Fikr Tausvi, Belraj Menra and several others are reputed to be good poets. Firaq Gorakhpuri carved out his own niche after Faiz Ahmed Faiz.

Shankar Mahadevan: Allah hi Rehem

Thus Urdu was and is most significant symbol of our composite heritage.

Muslim poets wrote poems celebrating Hindu holy places and festivals in Urdu. Ghalib who wrote in nineteenth century wrote a long poem in Persian on Benaras and named it Kaa’ba-e-Hindustan (chiragh-e-Dair) in which he showers praises on the Hindu holy place of worship. He says in one of the verses of this masnavi (long duet) that even the grass of Benaras is like a garden and its dust like the essence of soul (jawher). Ghalib says further in this colourful city of temples bahar (season of spring) remains permanent and never changes. In all seasons spring, or cold or summer it always remains like paradise.

Thus Ghalib lavishes praise on Banaras, the holy city of Hindus.He had stayed in Benaras for few days while going from Delhi to Calcutta and he fell in love with this holy city. Similarly Nazir Akbarabadi wrote several poems celebrating Hindu festivals. His poems are in simple Hindustani. Many Sufis also wrote popular songs on Holi, the festival of color. A programme based on these songs was presented at Nehru Centre, Mumbai written by Shamim Tariq, an Urdu writer and journalist. It was indeed a very impressive programme.

Holi, Dasehra and Diwali were officially celebrated in Mughal Darbars with great
pomp and pageantry. On the day of Diwali Moghul princesses would go round and
distribute saris to poor Hindu women and Red fort was decorated with lamps and
it was known as jashn-e-chiraghan(i.e. festival of lamps). Both Nauruz and Diwali
were celebrated in a grand manner. Nauruz is a central Asian festival.

It is also important to note that both the Hindu epics Ramayana and Mahabharata were translated into Persian and Arabic and were beautifully calligraphed. I have seen one such copy of Ramayana calligraphed in Arabic script and bound with golden margins like the Qur’an in Alwar Museum. It is said there are 60 different Persian and Arabic translations of Ramayana and Mahabharata.

Dara Shikoh, son of Shah Jahan who was appointed successor to the throne of India but lost to Aurangzeb in the battle of Samugarh, translated Upanishad into Persian and named it Sirr-e-Akbar (The Great Mystery). Dara Shikoh had mastered Sanskrit language by spending few years in Benaras with well-known scholars of that language. He was of the opinion that concept of tawheedi(oneness of God) was found in Upanishad AFTER Qur’an. The handwritten manuscript of Sirr-e-Akbar prepared by Darasikoh himself is in the library of Darul Musannifin, Azamgarh and it was shown to me by its Director. Dara Shikoh begins with Bismilliah al-Rehman al-Rahim on left side and Ganeshanamaha on the right with a small figure of Ganesha.

Dara Shikoh also wrote his magnum opus which he named Majma’-ul-Bahrayn i.e. Commingling of Two Oceans (i.e. Hinduism and Islam). He compares teachings of the two religions and concludes that the difference is of language (one is in Sanskrit and other in Arabic), not of content. Hinduism and Islam have remarkable similarities in terms of contents and he discusses all the theological terms of two religions and draws this conclusion. Books like Majma’-l-Bahrayn are true representative of our composite culture.


Music, and architecture


uslims and Hindus made rich contributions in the field of music, paintings and architecture also. We evolved a composite architecture which can be seen in Hindu temples as well as in structures constructed by Muslim kings, emperors and nawabs. Adilshahi structures are an excellent example of composite architecture in Bijapur which was centre of Adilshahi rule.

Ibrahim Adilshah, popularly known as Jagatguru, was also a scholar of Sanskrit and wrote poetry in Kannada as well as in Persian and Deccani Urdu. Golgumbad, counted among the wonders of the world is a mausoleum of Ibrahim Adilshah and his wife and other relatives and its architecture is a good example of our composite architecture.

One even finds idol of Lord Ganesha in one of the forts built during Adilshahi rule near Kolhapur.

Muslims enriched Indian classical music through their own contribution. Dhrupad and Khayal are their contribution in Indian classical music. Khusro also invented some ragas. There have been several Muslim gharanas (schools) which made rich contribution to Indian classical music. Tansen was one of the greatest musician during medieval times. In our own times Bade Akbar Ali Khan, Ustad Bismillah Khan, Zakir Husain, they are all great musicians in their own right

On the other hand Shankar Shambhu two brothers were great qawwali singers and sang qawwalis on the day of urs at Ajmersharif. Wherever they were they would come to Ajmer on the day of urs (death anniversary) to sing qawwali there. They had great faith in Khwaja Moinuddin, the Sufi saint of Ajmer.

Thus we see that India has a great and rich tradition of composite culture which our communal politics has completely ignored today, raising slogans of pure Hindu and Muslim culture thus widening the communal divide between two religious communities. Unfortunately our textbooks also downplay our syncretic culture. It is time we do away with this divide by projecting this rich culture call it ganga-jamni tahzib, sanjhi virasat or by any other name.



–The text of this essay first appeared under the title
“Some Thoughts on Composite Culture of India” in:
Secular Perspective May 16 to June 15, 2008

–Courtesy: Centre for Study of Society and Secularism
Mumbai: – 400 055.
E-mail: csss@mtnl.net.in

Asghar Ali Engineer (1939-2013) was a scholar and activist whose interventions for secularism, democracy and communal harmony through lectures, writings made him a public intellectual to reckon with. His autobiography “ A Living Faith: My Quest for Peace Haarmony and Social Change” was released in 2011 by then Vice President of India, Hamid Ansari


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