I was under the impression that the shrine of Mira Datar near Unjha, North Gujarat would be an architectural and artistic marvel. But when I visited I realized that it was a misconception. I had also visualised that when I would enter the dargha I would be greeted warmly with soulful Sufi Qwalli music. This was yet another misconception.
In contrast to my hypothetical illusions the shrine of Mira Datar is a humble structure of modern concrete and cement and plastered with a green coat, a building resembling any normal Islamic darghas. But what has made it special is its dargha turned abode for thousands of country folk who have been suffering from complex mental diseases. There were hundreds of souls, many of them were healthy looking humans yet mentally disturbed, some with severe depression, a few with schizophrenia, a sight that could scare any normal person.
Islam in India was spread much less by the sword then by the Sufis. After all Sufism with its holy men, visions and miracles and its emphasis on individual search for union with god, has always borne remarkable similarities to the mystrical side of Hinduism. Under Sufi influence it was particularly at the level of village folk worship that the two religions fused into one, with many Hindus visiting the graves of Sufi pirs, while Muslim villagers would leave offering at temples to ensure the birth of children and good harvest. These practices ultimately lead to the birth of many syncretic cults throughout the country. The fundamental basis of these cults were however, solving problems of daily lives including healing of complex illness.
Mira Dattar, the 15th century revered saint from Gujarat was one among the many Sufis, whose miraculous power still draws the country folks to his dargha near Unjha. Mira Datar was not the original name of the saint. His name was Sayed Ali. According to tradition, it is believed that Sayed Ali’s grandfather Sayed Ilmuddin had come to a village near Lucknow from Bukhara in the 14th century with a purpose of Islamic teaching. At the same time another Muslim preacher Kutb Alam had also come to Gujarat from Bukhara to preach Islam. Incidentally, Kutb Alam was Sayed Ali’s maternal uncle.
Sayed Ilmuddin also came to Gujarat after a successful preaching in Lucknow region and met Kutb Alam. Sayed Ilmuddin was introduced by Kutb Alam to King Ahmed Shah and was made as the commander of the Sultan’s army.
Sayed Ilmuddin had a son named Sayed Dost Muhammad. It is said that when Sayed Ali was born to Sayed Dost Muhammad and his wife Aisha Bibi, his face was glittering with the spiritual light (noor). From childhood, Sayed Ali boasted slews of miracle power. There was a spiritual power in his tongue.
Around the time Sayed Ali was growing up in Ahmedabad, the Lodhis were ruling from Delhi. Lodhis had a large territory including the eastern borders of Gujarat in Madhya Pradesh. A local rebel, a tribal king from Mandavgadh had become a powerful threat to the Lodhis. In order to subdue him the Lodhis sought help from the Gujarat Sultan Mehmood Begda. It is said that the Mandavgadh King had many black magicians through which he could protect always when there was an attack against him. The story goes; these black magicians under the influence of the king had created havoc in the region, exploiting the innocent people.
Sultan Begda after receiving the help request became strongly determined and immediately sent a message to Unnava for Dost Mohammed (father of Sayed Ali). It is believed that 12,000 soldiers under the command of Dost Mohammed fought wars against the King of Mandavgdh, but without success.
Mehmood Begda found very helpless. In a divine vision he was told that Sayed Ali would win the war against the tribal king.
Sayed Ali, then 18 years old, was informed. He joined the battle field and fought bravely. Finding helpless the King called the black magicians to join the war against Sayed Ali. They tried their best but could not face the young brave fighter. Finally he won the battle and entered the palace where the king lived. The defeated king ran away from the fort. Chasing after him finally Sayed Ali reached a cave, where he met the absconding king. Sayed Ali said to the king that if he seeks pardon with Allah and promising not to torture anyone of his kingdom he would be forgiven. The king accepted the request but when Sayed Ali put his sword down then the king picked up it and beheaded Ali.
His martyr body was shifted to Unnava, where the present dargha is located. Sayed Ali became famous by the name Mira Dattar, Meera means brave and Datar means person who gives. Since then the shrine has become a sanctuary for needy people, belonging to all castes and religions suffering from extreme mental diseases.
As I entered with my friend Ramjee Nagrajan inside the dargha, we were not greeted, but moved seeing the plight of people, especially young ones, many of whom were in trance, rolling their bodies on the floor, some were chained, others were screaming, crying and laughing.
For a few minute I was speechless. As I gained courage, I moved to a family of three, Muhammad, a man in his 40s, his second wife and a 4/5 years old son. Muhammad is a taxi driver in Mumbai. He had come to the dargha with a hope that his wife would be healed here. He tried with a few doctors, but without success. I did not know how to comfort him as my rational mind was not accepting that faith can only cure a severe mental disease.
I was told that the Khadims of the dargha use an ancient method of healing employing a technique of removing imperfection prevalent in body and caused by black magic.
I left the dargha with a few questions in mind –
- Who are the people/community that constitute a larger percentage that seek healing at the dargha (are they Bhils and other tribes inhabiting the tribal belt of eastern Gujarat and western MP, among which black magic and superstitious beliefs are a common practice – incidentally the story also is also centred around this region)
- Do the communities also try any parallel practice for healing such as pithora ritual or offering of terracotta horses to local deities
- How the faiths of various forms are interrelated
- the success rate of treatment
- the way the treatment works
The answers to these require scientific investigations, but for time being I was satisfied experiencing a sight of living history – ‘faith’ that has been basis of humanity from the time it was born. To solve human suffering from time to time several institutions had evolved and the abode of Mira Datar was one of them. Faiths moulded with religions have become the only choice for the needy people aspiring healthy lives.