A Friday Afternoon at Shah – e – Alam: a Sufi Shrine in Ahmedabad

As a student of humanity, I have always felt that a monument without people’s connection is like a human without wearing cloths. In a Hindu, Buddhist or Jain shrine or in that matter even in a Catholic Church, one can spent hours appreciating its sculptural wealth, identifying them and analysing their context. But in an Islamic shrine the scope is limited. However, what makes it interesting is its strong association with people and scores of rituals.

Shah – e – Alam Roza in Ahmedabad is a well-known Sufi shrine, which draws huge crowds on every Friday to offer the Juma Namaz in the afternoon. The complex offers a festive look till the sunset, the time when the loban is carried out.

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The tradition is deep rooted and can be traced to the time of Mehmud Begda, Gujarat’s most celebrated Islamic ruler in the 15th century AD.

Ahmedabad as an Islamic city was only 100 years old then. But the city had attracted a large influx of immigrants from lands near and far, and it had spread even on the western side of river Sabarmati. As power and prosperity grew it had offered patronage to scholars and saints from the wider Islamic world. Sufi saints played a pivotal role in shaping its Islamic character. Two celebrity Sufi Saints, Sheikh Ahmed Khattu and Saiyyad Burhanuddin Qutb-i-Alam who had settled on the either side of the river at Sarkhej and Vatva respectively had made profound impact. After their passing away the Gujarat Sultans built massive darghas in their honour.

Saiyyad Qutb – i – Alam’s son and successor Saiyyad Sirajuddin Mohammed, well-known as Shah – e – Alam was a celebrity Sufi Saint. It was he who nurtured young Mahmud Begda as a father figure till he became Sultan. He was venerated by royalty, scholars, students and the common people alike. A suburb called Rasulabad developed around his seminary and after his death an imposing structure called today Shah – e – Alam Roza developed around his grave.

Shah – e – Alam had made deep influence in the society and there are scores of stories that prevails today, all telling his miraculous actions. It is reported that every week after Friday prayer the Saint held an open session where people from different walks of life, teachers and students, poets, and scholars, merchants and mendicants assembled and discussed religious and non-religious topics.

Today, all that glory has faded and Rasulabad better known as Shah Alam has turned into a sanity town. But surprisingly, the sanctity is still kept alive.

I made two visits recently with an objective to experience life in the Roza. On a Sunday morning, it was quiet and peaceful. I documented mostly its architectural details. The next visit was on a Friday afternoon just after the juma namaz. There were hundreds of devotees in the complex. The atmosphere was charged with soulful qwalli performed by two ustads, who claim as descendents from the time of Shah Alam.

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Friday is the most sacred day for Muslms. According to the Islamic tradition, the most propitious day the sun rises is on Friday. I met two mastans who skilfully rotated their eyeballs. I was told that during Rafai Silsila, a religious procession to offer ceremonial chaddar at the dargha, these mastans performed miraculous act.

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Hours passed and as the evening approached, crowds gathered momentum again for the evening namaz and loban. There were two sections. The women were not seen in the mosque courtyard. They were mainly gathered in the courtyard surrounding the roza. The male devotees spanning all ages and occupations were centred in the mosque courtyard. However, before entering they cleaned their feet, face, palms and hand for self purification at the tank placed between the two courtyards. This act is common across most religions in India. The namaz was performed at 5.45 PM. A mass congregation of devotees, offering a spectacular spiritual sight, I had ever witnessed in my life – marked the evening namaz. The final episode was loban, aimed at purifying the complex by burning incense frankincense. Mostly women and children gathered to witness the loban and seeking blessings. It was a dramatic and intense moment for every soul present there.

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I returned home after capturing the moments of the day and educating myself a little more about the Islamic heritage of the city.

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