Of Place and Difference
Sufi shrine as the site for collective ecstasy and healing
Mazar, a diverse spatio-temporal manifestation of an alter-reality, is a socio-archaeological construct and resides between conscious and unconscious responses of the community to issues of collective healing, selfhood and spiritual awakening. Centred on the shrines and legacies of Sufi saints, such spaces always defy social time and work like a palimpsest where many layers of realities and imaginings of a community are deposited. Mazar, an outcome of religio-cultural traditions connected to an alternative search for divine intervention and collective rejuvenation, is linked to a vast region spanning Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Iran, Iraq and the Middle East and its spiritualized material culture. In the subcontinent mazars play a cross-cultural role as they attract devotees across religions and nationalities who seek blessings of the Guru via the earthly guru embodied by the absent saint.
The introduction to 'Muslim Shrines in India' edited by Christian W Troll, states, 'In the religious life of the Muslims of India– besides alim, mufti and mosque, shrine, saint and pir play central roles. Muslim shrines conspicuously mark Indian Muslim space. The tombs of venerated space, whether actual or empty, may exist in their bare shape or are architecturally adorned. In the former case they are called maqbara (tomb), turba (heap of dust) or maqam (place); in the latter, mazar, ziyaratgah (a place of visit or pilgrimage) or dargah (lit place of access, shrine) [in Indo-Persian literature, the term dargah is used both for the royal court and the tomb of a pious man. In Urdu dargah means only the tomb of a Muslim saint]. Some of the finest specimens of Indo-Muslim architecture are dargahs/mazars, buildings erected on or around saints' tombs.
The article entitled 'The Early Chisti Dargahs' by Iqtider Hussain Siddiqui which is part of the book, opines, 'The early Chisti Sufi saints who flourished during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries are among those most revered in the history of Islam in South Asia. In their lifetime as well as in death they have been looked upon by large numbers of people as exemplars of piety and spiritual excellence. Some of these saints gained greater popularity after their lifetime, with the result that their dargahs have emerged as centres of pilgrimage. People of different creeds come to make offerings to these dargahs, and to be fulfilled with a spirit of faith and devotion.'
While researching on the culture of setting up dargahs/mazars in the context of South Asia, Iqtider Hussain writes further, 'Four of these early dargahs, located in different towns and cities in north India, belong to the thirteenth century. The oldest dargahs are those of Shaikh Mu`inuddin Sijzi, the founder of the Chisti silsila (order) in India. Popularly known as Khwaja Gharib Nawaz, he died in 1235 and was buried here. His khalifa (spiritual successor), Shaikh Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, popularly known as Qutb Sahib, is associated with a second old dargah. Shaikh Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki (hereafter, Shaikh Bakhtiyar Kaki) died in Delhi in the same year as his pir, in 1235. As for the two remaining thirteenth century Chisti dargahs, they belong to Shaikh Hamiduddin Sufi Nagauri, whom his pir (religious preceptor), Shaikh Mu'inuddin Sijzi, had posted in Nagaur, where he died in 1276, and to Shaikh Fariduddin Shakr, popularly known as Baba Farid, who died in 1265. The latter was the khalifa of Shaikh Bakhtiyar Kaki, and his dargah is located in Pakpatan in Pakistan. Both Shaikh Mu'inuddin Sijzi and Shaikh Bakhtiyar Kaki were Sufi saints from Central Asia. Shaikh Hamiduddin Sufi of Nagaur and Baba Farid, on the other hand, were Indian-born Sufis. Their dargahs command immense respect among people of different religious communities in the countries of South Asia' (3). The mazars/dargahs of Shahjalal, Shahparan, Shah Ali, Bayzid Bostami in Bangladesh came later and are exemplars of this tradition of sufi mentors whose spiritual role crosses over to the social and political domains. Apart from such giant figures, there are innumerable other dargahs/mazars dotted throughout Bangladesh, which although not equally famous, may be seen as 'rhizomatic' (horizontal or non-vertical, non-hegemonic space) development of such a tradition if we borrow the concept of Gilles Deleuze.
What then is the importance of spatio-temporal reality of the mazar/dargah in light of the Sufi philosophy? In a response to A R Saiyed's 'Saints and Dargahs in the Indian Subcontinent: A Review', F Rahman wrote in 'Islam', published by the University of Chicago Press, that it is the '…central concept on the relationship between man and god…The twin concepts of love and grace fused into one sentiment.' The site of reunion between man and his master is the mazar.
So, in the network of various social relations, the performative or contemplative space where the union with the divine can be realized or understood as it remains beyond the ontological bounds of the socio-historical narrative, is the locus of the mazar.
The capitalist order has set off a network of pseudo-performative acts that are result-driven in the most materialistic sense and it is this materialistic reordering of the body and self that has finally atomized the individual and rendered him/her personality insignificant in the context of money and the power it generates. In the same manner this capitalist order reduces religion to a commodity; majoritarian religion too, for its part, acts as a catalyst for such degradation, framing society within the scaffolding of capitalism. Society, structured and restructured as it is through its changing production matrix and metaphysical awakenings, functions as the dominant force that pushes the individual to the periphery. In such a scenario, the instinctive cosmos that resides in man, one that goes against the authority of society, makes a demand to raise its head against the presence of societal regulations. Therefore, the birth of the mazar may be understood as a site for the celebration of the alternative means to achieving personhood, or a way to momentarily escape from the regular frame of personhood.
One may say that it creates an opportunity to access an alternative spatio-temporal zone, it precipitates an encounter: 'an encounter that entailed an awareness of us as beings that inhabited space and of our existence cosmos' (Porter, Roy Malcom, The Essence of Architecture: August Schmarow's Theory of Space).
So a mazar may well be defined as a space within a space signifying a paradox. A space structured along the lines of societal power relations gives rise to a hegemonic regime and such dominance stifles the natural growth and evolution of instinctive cosmology. The site, thus, for the hailing of the human spirit and human identity in defiance of a religious politic that is determined and operated by structural laws, is the mazar.
Behaviours and rituals surrounding the mazar may be regarded thus as the result of a multiplicity of processes and actions through which structuralized dominant social consciousness is subverted for the celebration of the unconscious wakening of the other selves. In short, for a transformation that is possible through the practices that take place in that space. All of the practices for which the mazar is the hub, such as ziqr, etc, have deeper psychoanalytical grounds. In a society that is deeply Shariat-icised and the body is reduced to docility, the primordial desires or collective passion borne out of the unconscious find an outlet in the loci that is the mazar. Mediated through a set of alternative performative acts and utterances to achieve a spiritual state of unconsciousness, the mazar serves to create a place for comingling of both Shariat and Marefat. While the former is connected to the collective conscience and the analytical and ethical/juridical modes of thinking, the later springs out of the unconscious. Contra to such ordered spatial reality, the mazar creates an empty space, a void which reconsiders the body-politic as part of divinity in our search for the potentialities of the self instituted through unconscious reckoning. In effect, the mazar's fundamental premise arises from non-normative narratives and visuals.
Even though the visual narrative of the mazar is essentially created from the aesthetic norms, practices and props of the lower strata – the jari garlands, epitaphs, floors, shamiana, etc– that are used to keep the pristine site fit for the union of the Divine and the devotee the spiritual story that is being told or unfolded, at the end of the day, is unfixed. This is because the totality of space is suffused with and by processes that are in flux. The mazar is never about a fixed point of situatedness as it operates like a palimpsest. Drawing from Foucault (Of Other Spaces, Heterotopias, 1967), one may say it is a 'place without a place' because here 'we are at a moment'. He goes on to explain, 'Time probably appears to us only as one of the various distributive operations that are possible for the elements that are spread out in space.' It would be easier to define it as a multiplicity of happenings constantly in flux. It therefore becomes a space for endless reconstruction along a certain set of goals. This, therefore, gives rise to an anti-structural spatio-temporal situation.
One can also locate the significance of the mazar within those who are eager to understand the transient nature of the illusive world recognising the vacuum within a neatly structured society. The dargah therefore creates a performance site to prepare one culturally for death. Since this space is performative, it holds up the phenomenon for both permanence and ephemerality. Hence, even against its own wishes, it does become a sort of conscious locus for regaining an identity which is connected to a primordial state of being.
The mazar is capable of deploying the power roles and ranks of people in society. One may notice an ethico-ideological relation here: one that forces us to understand the rise of the mazar as a political powerhouse. In fact it is the Sufi saints who in the days of shifting power relations in the advent of 'modernism,' courtesy of the British (mis)rule, played the role of not only the arbiter of faith but also of political dissidents.
Through the Foucauldian discourse on power roles, we fail to define the multiple functions of the mazar as a space. That is because it falls into neither category delineated by Foucault – 'Private space and public space, family space and social space, cultural space and useful space, the space of leisure and work.' The mazar, instead, is a space, 'that is nurtured by the hidden presence of the sacred.' So those who are part of the spatial relationship within a mazar find themselves outside social space and historical time. Rather they – defying the Foucauldian frame which is an exertion of individual power – are transported beyond their recognisable loci.
In fact it is the idea of devotion and unconditional submission of the individual that plays seminal roles in forging a unity. Even if this community resembles a symbolic one, it is, in reality, a spiritual construct. But again, since it creates a commune, for the sake of unity alone, it has its own brand of politics. However, this is not of a fungal-bacterial-statal character, but rather, an organic one – an organic politics that stems from anarchic energy.
Effectively, the mazar is the anti-statal socio-spatial embodiment of the desire to escape the duty-bound self and fragmented conditions that are imposed on the spirit of an individual. The mazar helps in piecing together the fragments of each self and to unify them with the larger communal spirit aching to be one with the cosmic world. In the present spatio-political structure of Bangladesh, it serves as a locus for transcendental aspiration where one articulates an anti-modernist essentiality in pursuit of such cosmic unity. The mazar is a site of psychographic significance which exists outside the normative expectations generated from the existing social structure. The 'commonness' of such social expectations create a docility that Foucault traced to power-relations, domination and the regulatory system. The mazar, with its plebeian practices and uncommon visuals, fosters the subservience of selfhood to that of a selfless ego-less life. It works to pulverise consciousness. And it becomes, in the end, a space beyond space as it keeps alive an ecstatic cosmic condition.
Translated by PAROMA MAITI