Pir Imamuddin Kufreshikan (Imamshah Bawa) Pirana Dargah

Long back, I had read a popular story in one of India’s leading fortnight magazines, the Outlook on Sufism, which has been bringing Hindus and Muslims together in this vast country for the last thousand years. It said: ‘Islam in India was spread much less by the sword than by the Sufis. After all, Sufism with its holy men, visions and miracles, and its emphasis on the individual search for union with God, has always borne remarkable similarities to the mystical side of Hinduism. Under the Sufi influence, it was particular at the level of village folk worship that two religions fused into one, with many ordinary Hindus visiting the graves of Sufi Pirs, while Muslim villagers would leave offerings at temples to ensure the birth of children and good harvest.

The above quote had left a strong footprint deep in my heart, yet I had never got a chance to witness the essence of the fusion of two faiths at a village level. It was last Sunday, I was finally dragged into the abode of one of rural Ahmedabad’s Sufi Dargha at Pirana, a village located about 20 km from the centre of Ahmedabad. Before I made the foray I had read and was told that the Sufi shrine at Pirana has sustained a unique faith even after 550 years of its foundation. But my experience led me to believe that all is not well in today’s Pirana.

The Sufi Dargha, a pearl white Islamic shrine located at the heart of the village is quite unique. Unlike most Islamic shrines, where the flags atop are green in colour, Pirana is white, reflecting peace. The dargah is of Hazrat Imamshah, a Sufi saint revered by both Muslims and Hindus. Hazrat Imamshah Bava was the founder of a unique sect known as Sath Panth (the true path) which merged the best practices of Hinduism and Islam.

I reached around 8 AM at the centre of the village. While driving to the village from the distance I could see a tall watch tower and a cluster of buildings. On the top of the watch tower was written ‘Om’, the Hindu sacred sign. I raised doubt and considered it to be a temple, not a mosque or dargah. With the guidance of a few locals, I reached the dargah of Syed Muhhamad Shah, who was the son of Hazrat Imam Shah. The dargah is pearl white in appearance and topped with a crescent, the mark of Islam. It is surrounded by a courtyard and enclosure consisting of living quarters similar to ones of many Hindu Haveli temples. Within the courtyard and in the dargah itself lie a number of burial chambers of deceased Sayeds, who were mostly descendants of Hazrat Imamshah. When I entered the dargah I was first moved by the sight of seeing an ‘Om’ engraved on a plate hanging from the wall deep inside the dargah. I was puzzled about its identity. Soon, I met the priest, who appeared more Hindu than an Imam. Later, when he revealed his name, it was confirmed that he was a Hindu Priest and most of the rituals carried out in the dargah are in a Hindu manner. A mosque is attached to the dargah, which is almost closed now and I was too discouraged to enter its premise. A couple of minutes later, I met a group of three people, a mother, her son and daughter-in-law, accompanied by a Swami (Hindu Priest), who had come from all the way of Mandsaur in Madhya Pradesh for a divine darshan and also with a desire to get a divine blessing for the cure of a disease, the man was suffering from. The priest asked him to sit on a divine stone and rotate his body, and while doing so pray to Imam Saheb for the cure. The man followed the instruction and made the rotation of his body over the stone with pure faith. It was almost a sight of the medieval times when mystic Sufism had made a profound impact on lay Hindus through such healing tactics.

Though initially I was fascinated by the elements of fusion of two religions, but as I spent time and observed the daily chores I started feeling the religious politicisation. My intention was however not to dig into the political controversies that are ripping apart the core values in Sath Panth. I moved out of the dargah and my curiosity led me to the neighbouring trust office, a sprawling complex crammed with modern structures and a garden. The devotees from Madhya Pradesh also followed me. As I spread myself more inside the trust complex, I was disturbed more by looking at the modern ugly buildings that are encroaching upon the historical structures. I moved out to the bazaar on the main road with the intention to meet someone who could explain to me about Sufism and Sath Panth.

For a couple of minutes, I wandered around the streets that were filled with shops selling roses and chaddars (cloths) for the devotees to dargahs at Pirana. There were a few eateries too selling local snacks. But all seemed to be busy at their work and hence I did not disturb. After a couple of minutes, I reached a small store selling articles of daily needs and readymade snacks. The shop is owned by Sayedbhai, a Muslim gentleman from the village, who is in his mid-sixties. Sayedbhai could sense my intention and asked politely, may I help you…? It was a great relief for me as at last, I found someone who could really help me understand the stories of Sufi mysticism. More than the stories, I was finding a friend.

Sayedbhai, who is a retired employee of Gujarat State Road Transport Corporation, is an entrepreneur now as he owns a small shop. He offered me a stool to sit on and asked about my identity. As the mutual trust prevailed, he revealed the story of Hazrat Imamshah.

Around the time of Sultan Muhammad Begda’s rule, some 550 years ago, Hazrat Imamshah Bava had come to Gujarat from Multan, in Pakistan. The era of Sultan Begda’s rule is often considered as the golden period of Gujarat’s history by historians, as besides progressive measures taken by the sultan, it was also the time of proliferation of mystic Sufi cults in various parts of Gujarat.

Imamshah Bava while travelling with his followers and cattle had arrived at Girmatha, a village located in the neighbourhood of Pirana. At Giramtha, they found that their cattle feed was almost over. So Imamshah instructed his followers to stop here and sent his chief follower to the village head (Mukhia) for seeking help. The Mukhia said: “it is too difficult for us as the entire region is reeling through a severe drought for three years. We ourselves don’t have enough feed for our cattle, so how do we offer help to others.

The follower returned back to Imamshah and revealed what the Mukhiasaid. Imamshah said his followers to go and tell the village chief that in the evening of the day there would be heavy rain in the village and that would bring the curtail of drought down. It was indeed a Sufi miracle. The entire region got flooded in the evening including the village pond which had turned into a flat ground of dust and was now filled with water. According to Sayedbhai, by the time, Imamshah had gone deep inside the pond and had taken his shelter in an elevated patch inside the water-filled lake. Upon experiencing the miracle, the villagers thronged the Sufi Pir, who had sheltered inside the pond. The villagers asked, “Sir, we pay our deep gratitude for your help. We want to meet you personally, but how can we go, since the pond is full of water, and we are not prepared for it.” The Pir said, “Don’t worry, when you enter, the water will recede”. It happened.

After a couple of days, the miracle power of the Sufi Pir had spread far and wide. Once, the local Hindus, mostly belonging to Lohan and Patel communities had wished to visit Kashi and Mathura, the ultimate abodes of Gods of Hindu followers. But it was quite expensive and time-consuming in those days. Then it was also a risk to life while travelling to unknown places. Reaching upon the Pir, the Imam said, “Folks, you can experience Mathura and Kashi here itself, why risk life and spend money then”. The Hindus first did not believe, but as the miracle happened they were bound to trust and became the followers of Imamshah.

Sayedbhai said it was the beginning of two communities coming together and the founding of the Sath Panth cult. While narrating these stories, I found Sayedbhai had become quite emotional as it was all about his roots. I also discovered the spiritual stress inside him as the recent politics in Sath Panth has weakened its core values.
I left Pirana with a determination to visit again next Sunday for delving more into the village life, where the Sath Panth has united communities for generations.