Home History The Polyvalent Qadamgāh Imām ʿAlī In Hyderabad, Sindh – II

The Polyvalent Qadamgāh Imām ʿAlī In Hyderabad, Sindh – II

The Polyvalent Qadamgāh Imām ʿAlī In Hyderabad, Sindh – II
Alī Asġar’s jhūlo in Qadamgāh Imām ʿAlī, Hyderabad

Most of the rituals performed at the Qadamgāh Imām ʿAlī are enshrined in local Sufi religiosity. The main purpose of the vow (manat) is to create a formal link between the devotee and ʿAlī.

Making a Shiʿi Devotional Pole in Hyderabad

It was in a later period that the last ruler of the Tālpūr dynasty in Hyderabad, Mīr Nāṡir Khān Tālpūr (r. 1829–43), built a shrine for the Mowlā jā Qadam and put the stones on display. The story goes that the shrine was built at the request of the people, and that it was initially open the general public. This probably took place around the time when the Mowlā jā Qadam left the Pakka Qila, the fort from where the Tālpūrs ruled Sindh. But the new location, which is still the same today, was very close to the Qila, if not leaning against it, and to another important Sufi shrine: Pīr ʿAbd al-Waḥab Jīlānī, devoted to a descendant of ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī, to whom I shall return. Notwithstanding, the consequence of this transfer was the creation of a new devotional pole that handled both the Sufi and Shiʿite repertoires which, although physically separated since they were located in two different sites, allowed easy passage from one to the other.

It is amazing that no English source refers to the Mowlā jā Qadam. It should be pointed out that the policy of patronage of Shiʿite constructions by the Tālpūrs, like in other Shiʿite states of India, as we shall see below, focused on imāmbāṛās, as indicated by the construction of the imāmbāṛās in Hyderabad, Khairpur, Kot Diji and other places. This type of building indeed played a key role in the expression of Shiʿite devotion, especially during the celebrations of Moḥarram. It is where the holy relics that are paraded around during the commemoration of the martyrs are stored, and it is here that the stories of the tragedy are also told by the ẕākirs (preachers). In Sindh, a specific term is used to designate them: piṛ (not to be confused with the Sufi master or pīr). The piṛ can be just a simple platform that houses the Shiʿite ʿalams (standards), without any real building. Now, it is interesting to note that in his book on Hyderabad, Qammaruddin Bohra classifies the Mowlā jā Qadam not as a piṛ, although some of the functions performed are similar to those performed in a piṛ, but as a dargāh, a term which is usually reserved for the Sufi shrines in Sindh.

Beyond a political alliance with the Qajars of Persia, we can surmise that the Tālpūrs aimed to create a new devotional pole that would be attached to the dynasty. It is likely that this state policy was later imitated at a local level by Shiʿite feudal lords, who were often involved in the management of Sufi mausoleums. With the creation of a Shiʿite devotional pole they may have sought to achieve several objectives. First, it may have served to strengthen the supremacy of the Tālpūrs of Hyderabad over its two cousins from Khairpur and Mirpur Khas, knowing that Sindh was a confederation of three states. Second, it is possible that by creating what might be likened to a dynastic mausoleum, the king may have attracted the Sindhis to this place of worship, whereas previously they visited the Sufi sites which were always controlled by powerful families of Sindhi Sayyids.

In other words, this foundation could have contributed to a centralization of the state, to the detriment of the feudal rulers who managed the Sufi dargāhs, but the British were not going to allow this to happen. So far, we have focused on the import of ʿAlī’s qadams from Qajar Persia as a seal of political alliance. Mutatis mutandis, the presence of the qadams may have enabled the Tālpūrs to consolidate their authority, much like Shāh ʿAbbās did after he had taken over Mashhad from the Uzbeks at the end of the sixteenth century. Next to the holy city, which he had restored and enlarged, the presence of the Qadamgāh Imām Reżā, the eighth Imam of the Twelver Shiʿites, had helped to build a sacred route from Isfahan to Mashhad, and to impose his power over this territory of Khurasan.

Lastly in Sindh, by erecting a “Najaf-e Sindh,”12 the Tālpūrs were also seeking to create a devotional pole centered around ʿAlī since they were Shiʿites, to counterbalance the policy of the Kalhoṛās that had been marked by the construction of Sufi mausoleums, starting with that of Shāh ʿAbd al-Laṭīf in Bhit Shāh. This shrine was built by Ghulām Shāh Kalhoṛo in 1754, two years after the Sufi poet’s death. Ghulām Shāh Kalhoṛo built other Sufi dargāhs, such as Miyyān Nūr Muḥammad’s in Nawabshah in 1758, and Shāh Bahāro in Larkana, in 1774. It is thus relevant to argue that this competition for symbolic power was embodied in the construction of sanctuaries, which, moreover, encapsulated territories. The royal authority was, as a consequence, sacralized. The Tālpūrs were looking for an alternative devotional building and site, since the Kalhoṛās had appropriated the construction of the Sufi dargāhs. For this to happen, the Tālpūrs had to strengthen their Shiʿite networks in Persia and India, at a time when Shiʿite piety was booming.

The Mowla Ali qadamgāh and Its Sufi-Like Setup

From 1947 onwards, when migrants from India, known as the Mohājirs, came to Sindh, the repertoire that dominated the local religiosity was that of a vernacular Sufism, to which both Sindhi Muslims and Hindus of all faiths subscribed. Consequently, in the competition between Sindhis and Mohājirs for the domination of the city of Hyderabad, negotiations between different religious repertoires played a prominent role. My hypothesis is that the Mawlā jā Qadam represented a crucial stake in the showdown between the Sindhis and the Mohājirs, more than a vector for the integration of the Mohājirs in the urban landscape. In what follows, I will demonstrate that, although the onomastic change of the site unambiguously indicates its coming under the control of the Mohājirs, as explained below, the ritual practices show a resilience of the vernacular Sufi substratum of Sindh.

Partition and the “Mohājirization” of Hyderabad

In 1947, after the British left, South Asia went through a very traumatic event, known as the partition. Two Nation-States were born from it, India, and Pakistan, a country created to house the Muslim population of the former British Empire of India. Millions of people migrated from one country to the other, and vice versa. Before the partition, Hyderabad was inhabited by a Hindu majority, but most of them left for India, and simultaneously, Muslim migrants arrived from India. In 1951, i.e. four years after the partition, the migrants in Hyderabad numbered 160,000 on a total of 240,000 inhabitants. The migrants that were called Mohājirs by the Sindhis mostly came from North India, and they spoke Urdu. The majority belonged to the educated middle classes. For the Sindhis it was logical to give them the administrative positions the Hindus had left.

The area around Qila Chowk became a heterogeneous area. In October 1950, riots broke out during the ʿAshūrāʾ procession between “migrants” and Sindhis, starting with rumors of Sindhis kidnapping “migrant” children. There were also rumors of Shiʿis kidnapping Sunni boys for their blood as a necessary ingredient for the rice dishes distributed during ʿAshūrāʾ. Sindhis and Mohājirs accused each other of being predominantly Shiʿis. Maybe the worst confrontations between Sindhis and Mohājirs took place in May 1990, near the Pakka Qila, the political center of the Tālpūrs, which had been built by Kalhoṛās in 1768.

The argument I would like to make here is that the riots between the Sindhis and the Mohājirs from the 1950s onwards were the results of competition between these groups, especially for the control of the Mowlā jā Qadam. To control it, the Mohājirs had to deal with the entrenchment of Shiʿi culture in the Sufi paradigm. It is the relationship between Shiʿi cultural elements and the Sufi framework that we will examine next.

The Setup of the Present-Day Qadamgāh

Before the partition of South Asia, this place was known in Sindhi language as “Mowlā jā Qadam” (Footprints of the Lord), but with the passage of time it became known by its name in Urdu language, “Qadamgāh Imām ʿAlī” (Footprints of Imam ʿAlī). It is said that the visitors and devotees did not only come from Pakistan, but also from India, Afghanistan and many other countries, to pay tribute to the hero of Islam. The relics related to ʿAlī are the most numerous. According to Oskar Verkaaik, in the 1990s, ʿAlī “has left the imprints of his knees, hands, and forehead while praying.” Today, we can find the prints of two hands, two feet and knees, the forehead and nose.

The veneration of ʿAlī is reinforced, so to speak, by the footprints of animals associated with him, such as the footprints of a lion and his horse. It is very important to understand the meaning of this accumulation of relics related to ʿAlī and his family members. Many sacred things associated with the shrines of Imam ʿAlī, Imam Husayn, and ʿAbbās ʿAlamdār are kept in separate rooms of the shrine of Qadamgāh Imām ʿAlī. A few pebble stones of Samarra are also kept in the shrine. Apart from the footprints of Imam ʿAlī, there is a replica of his Shabīh Mubārak where people come to pay homage, also known as Ẓarīḥ Mubārak.

With the pebble stones of Samarra, the Qadamgāh Imām ʿAlī is finally enshrined in a symbolic network with three polarities in relation to the Shiʿite shrine cities of Iraq known as the ʿatabāt: Najaf, the location of ʿAlī’s tomb; Karbala through the relics related to Husayn, and his slaughtered family and companions; and Samarra, where the tomb of the tenth Imam, ʿAlī al-Hādī (d. 868) and the eleventh Imām, Hasan al-ʿAskarī (d. 874) can be found. From the ʿatabāt, only one city was still not mentioned here: Kaẓimayn, where the tombs of the seventh Imam, Musā al-Kāẓem, and the ninth Imam, Muḥammad al-Taqī, are located.

Two additional observations should be made. Another reference to Hasan al-ʿAskarī is expressed through the Chup Ta⁠ʿziya, a procession organized in his memory, as we shall see below. There is also another strong connection to Karbala. In South Asia, most cities, towns, and villages with a Shiʿite community have a “Karbala.” This is a space where events commemorating the tragedy of Karbala are organized. Once more, as we shall see below, many processions work as connections between the Qadamgāh Imām ʿAlī and the Karbala of Hyderabad, called Karbala Dadan Shah.

The main room, where many different devices related to the Imams are exhibited, Qadamgāh Imām ʿAlī, Hyderabad- On the left side, the palisade which separates men from women

Other Shiʿite sacred characters related to Karbala are venerated. There is ʿAbbās ʿAlamdār’s ẓarīḥ. Close to the ẓarīḥ is kept the jhūlo (cradle) of ʿAlī Asġar15 that is made from metal. A wooden cradle of ʿAlī Asġar is kept in the Ẓarīḥ Mubārak of Imam Husayn at Kot Diji that was made by Mīr Fāiʾiz Muḥammad, who was the ruler of Khairpur State between 1894 and 1909. In Hyderabad, a few valuable objects are kept at the Ẓarīḥ Mubārak that were donated by the royal Tālpūr family. This is the second largest Ẓarīh Mubārak in Sindh after Khairpur. The Ẓarīḥ Mubārak of Kot Diji is only visited by the royal family members of the Tālpūr dynasty. It is close to the royal palace and because of security reasons only members of the royal family can access the shrine. The general public can only visit the Ẓarīḥ Mubārak at Khairpur, which was also built by the Tālpūr rulers.

The Mowlā jā Qadam was initially the name given to a building whose function was to house the footprints of ʿAlī carved into a big stone. Throughout the years, many other relics were added as a kind of intention to re-create the whole dramatic process of the Battle of Karbala, and to insert the Qadam into the sacred network of the ʿatabāt. This reliquary enlargement of the site corresponds to the post-Partition period, during which a significant migration of Mohājirs, often familiar with the Shiʿite culture of Awadh, sought to find their place in local society, but instead tried to impose their power over the local inhabitants, the Sindhis. Through the relics preserved in Qadam, connections are built with three major Shiʿite holy places: Najaf through ʿAlī; Karbala through Husayn, ʿAbbās and ʿAlī Asġar; and Samarra with the stone pebbles. These connections reinforce the symbolic power of Qadam as a regional Shiʿite pole, even beyond Sindh. However, as we shall see, local religious paradigms survived this change.

The Qadamgāh between Shi’i Repertoire and Sufi Setup

The Sufi culture of Sindh is performed in the dargāhs, the name given to the structures, which were built to cover a saint’s tomb. The visitation of a dargāh is known as a ziyārat and most often seen as a substitute for the ḥajj, the canonical pilgrimage to Mecca. The dargāhs are under the control of Sufi brotherhoods, which are generally led by powerful landowners. Different categories of society attend the ziyārat, but it is clear that most of the pilgrims belong to the lower middle or destitute social classes. Furthermore, the Sufi religiosity is rooted in the ideology of the waḥdat-e wujūd, the unity of being. This ideology has been carved by Sufi poets, such as Shāh ʿAbd al-Laṭīf (d. 1752).

For Shāh ʿAbd al-Laṭīf, the final goal in life was the same as for all followers of religion: to be merged with God, through the guidance of a spiritual master. Shāh ʿAbd al-Laṭīf was himself a follower of the jogīs, who were for him masters of renunciation. He praised them in his poetry and narrated how he performed pilgrimages in their company to important Hindu places, such as Dwarka or Hinglaj. In other words, the Sufi ideology in Sindh is an alternative religiosity, which does not prevent the acknowledgement of institutionalized Islam, from the five daily canonic prayers, to the performance of specific funerary rituals. Nonetheless, the Sufi ideology cleared a space beyond the formal belonging to a specific religion. Consequently, the Sufi could be Muslim or Hindu.

Most of the rituals performed at the Qadamgāh Imām ʿAlī are enshrined in local Sufi religiosity. The main purpose of the vow (manat) is to create a formal link between the devotee and ʿAlī. The ritual of manat is similar to those performed in the Qadamgāh Imām ʿAlī and in the Sufi dargāhs. The first part involves actions that are supposed to purify the space. It starts with the lighting of candles (chirāgh), for the purification of the air, so a sacred space and time can be created. The purification continues with the burning of incense (agarbatti). The ritual is performed in the evening, and the favorite location for the ritual is the ʿalam of ʿAbbās.

After these two preliminary actions, the ritual itself can start. After the believer has made a vow, the ritual of tiding threads (dhāgo) follows. The threads are attached to the main gates of the Qadamgāh, as well as to the shabīh of ʿAlī, and near the ʿalam of ʿAbbās. When the wishes are made, worshippers untie the threads, and throw them into the river, or wear them around their necks. Another way to materialize the manat is to fix locks, especially to the ẓarīḥ of ʿAbbās ʿAlamdār. Similarly, they are fixed to the shabīh of ʿAlī, and to the iron fence surrounding the ʿalam of ʿAbbās ʿAlamdār. The duration of the ritual varies and depends on the devotees. Once the vow is fulfilled, the devotees bring gifts or naẕrānas to the Qadamgāh. They are of different types, and include sweets or flowers, but the best gift for spiritual benefits (s̱awāb) is an offering of niyāz, cooked food.

Other rituals highlight the Shiʿi identity of the Qadamgāh Imām ʿAlī. Pilgrims attend lectures, for example, which are often held at the Qadamgāh Imām ʿAlī. In this case, it works as an imāmbāṛā. According to the caretaker of the shrine many people have converted to Islam through these lectures. The lectures include various topics on Islam. Some lectures on the twelve Imams also take place at the shrine. Another formal link between the Qadamgāh and Shiʿi culture is revealed when the processions starting at the nook and corners of the city end or begin at the Qadamgāh. (Continues)


About the Author

Michel Boivin is the author and editor of fifteen books. His most recent book is entitled The Sufi Paradigm and the Makings of a Vernacular Knowledge in Colonial India: The Case of Sindh (1851–1929) (New York, Palgrave McMillan, 2020).

Courtesy: Brill

Originally published in Journal of Material Cultures in the Muslim World- Online Publication Date: 09 Feb 2021