The Mystic Circle: Sufis, Sants & Songs of the Deccan

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Legend has it that Ibrahim Adil Shah II, the medieval Bahmani sultan of Bijapur, styled as jagadguru badshah (master of the world) and author of the famed treatise on classical music in Dakhani, kitab-i-nauras, advised Hindu litigants to go to Paithan in the Marathwada area of upper Maharashtra to have their disputes settled. The ancient imperial capital of the Satavahana kings, also known as Pratishtana in antiquity, was a seat of Sanskritic learning and justice was dispensed there through eminent courts or nyayalayas. The mid-May heat is scorching as we enter the historic inland town on the banks of the river Godavari, which featured prominently as an important town on the trade routes of the past. Ashoka is said to have sent emissaries (or missionaries?) to Petenikas and epigraphic material from the Pitalkhora caves also refer to the town, said to be one of the oldest urban centres in the Deccan. Aside from mentions in Jaina, Buddhist and Brahminical accounts, there are several references to it in outside sources. In Periplus Maris Erytharaei it is known as Paethana and described as a twenty day march from Barygaza (Baruch). Ptolemy also refers to Paithan as the capital of the Andhra king Pulumayi II (138 – 170 CE) and apart from Tagara (Ter), the ancient city was the other important inland market in Dakkhinapatha, or the Deccan. It was known for its textiles and even to this day, Paithani saris are highly regarded.


The curvy narrow streets that wind up through the town bear no indication of its ancient glory. Our destination is the temple of the medieval Maratha bhakti saint Eknath (d 1599). This is Sant Eknath's devghar, his home temple where he worshipped, says Pushkar Gosavi, a builder by profession who lives across the street. Gosavi is also the saint's fourteenth generation descendant—he conducts the affairs of the samasthan, the temple trust, looks after the devghar, and performs several of the religious functions. “It's been 415 years since Nath Maharaj has left” Gosavi tells us, “and we are merely following the ‘route' that he has laid out.” The greatest work of his hallowed ancestor, Gosavi informs us, was to bring together all kinds of folk. Hundreds of people used to gather here for a meal everyday, “typical Marathi style jevan (food), with puranpoli” Gosavi says, distracting me momentarily as my mind wanders off with inwards prayers of an opportune and delicious lunch ahead—such stray thoughts assume great meaning while travelling. He spoke to all people, Gosavi continues, reminding them in more ways than one, through various tales, songs and discourses, abhangs and bharuds (devotional songs), that there was just the one God, and all quarrels on that front are in vain.

Hajarat maula, hajarat maula, sab duniya palan wala

Sab ghat mo soyi virajey, karat hai bhola bhala

Eka janardhani nij path Allah, asal vohi it par Allah…hajarat maula.

(Loose translation—Hazrat Maula, the master, who overlooks the world,

He resides everywhere, does his work silently;

There is but one Janardhan, one lord, Allah; the real one is but he, Allah…Hazrat Maula)


In reciting his ancestor's words, Gosavi invokes an early phase of Hindu-Muslim relations, and the fascinating links between Sufis, Sants and other mystics of the period. By the time of Eknath, there had already been nearly two and half centuries of Muslim presence in the area with the early Sufis travelling to the Deccan in the final decade of the 13th century. And it is in this context Gosavi brings up (and recites from) a fascinating and curious exemplar of this Sufi-Sant conversation—Eknath's famous composition, the Hindu-Turk Samvad.

As Carl Ernst writes in The Eternal Garden (2nd ed., 2004) there was a profound impact due to Islamic presence in that region of Maharashtra and it is “of special importance because of the dominant role of Maratha culture in the formation of modern Hindu identity.” Ala' al Din Khalji had successfully wrested control of Deogir ruled then by Yadava kings. With the magnificent fort at its heart, the town was to eventually be renamed Daulatabad—the realm of prosperity. Reactions to Muslim presence in Marathi literature were few during that period Ernst points out, and the first significant literary reaction was Eknath's writings. Eknath's satirical dialogues, samvads, written in the popular idiom, Ernst says, explored the nature of the divine and devotion as a means to break out of the shackles of caste. The Hindu-Turk Samvad in particular “reveals the religious arguments that might typically have taken place between Hindus and Muslims in the sixteenth century, while at the same time arguing that both are fundamentally in search of the same divinity.”


In A Medieval Encounter Between Hindu and Muslim: Eknath's Drama-Poem Hindu Turk Samvad (in India's Islamic Traditions, 711-1750, ed. R Eaton) Eleanor Zelliot writes that Eknath had a unique way of presenting his ideas and characters. Much like Kabir (probably the most widely recognized bhakti mystic), Zelliot writes, Eknath also points to hypocritical practices but “he seems even more interested in finding similar practices and similar beliefs in both religions that can be incorporated into the same higher truth.” Eknath was quite prolific in output and aside from Marathi, many of his bharuds “are in corrupt Hindustani and ten others are spoken as if by Muslims: a darwish, a faqir, and a Habshi…” Eknath's endeavour seems to have been to make high philosophical thought accessible to the common man. Zelliot further indicates,

Although Eknath's town of Paithan was considered so holy it was called the Banaras of Maharashtra, it was also a market city that produced a luxurious silk cloth called paithani; it was on the trade route from the north of India to the sea; and it was forty miles south of Daulatabad…Eknath was not a Brahman recluse, but was a householder as well as a scholar. The material in the bharuds is drawn from all the bustling life, the variety of passers-by, the day-to-day sights and sounds that surrounded Eknath. Both the bharuds and the legends of Eknath's life tell us that Muslims were an important part of life in that area of Maharashtra.

Eknath's guru Janardhan, apart from being a spiritual man, held some sort of rank in the Daulatabad army. There is a legend Zelliot writes further, that Eknath had even led the Muslim armies on one occasion “rather than wake his guru from deep meditation.” Zelliot draws instances from an eighteenth century biography of the saint by Mahipati, wherein there are five accounts of the saint having encountered some facet of Islam. Fascinatingly, of the many bharuds of Eknath, there are several that take the form of government petitions, letters of assurance, etc., heavily Persianized, and indicating, as Zelliot says, familiarity with officialdom. Importantly, she argues further that modern Marathi hagiography has “recast” the medieval saint as a savior of Hinduism from Muslims (much like the ‘social-bandit' Sardar Papanna Goud in Telangana), while in fact what is borne-out by the available literature is entirely something else.


The opening of the dialogue (Zelliot's translation), compactly encapsulates what the fuss is all about:

The goal is one; the ways of worship are different,

Listen to the dialogue between these two!

The Turk calls the Hindu ‘Kafir!'

The Hindu answers, ‘I will be polluted—get away!'

A quarrel broke out between the two;

A great controversy began.


Khuldabad, adjoining Daulatabad, is about an hours drive from Paithan. Previously known as Rawza, it is a town of tombs. The presence of the several early Sufis who had migrated down south inhabits this curious and fascinating town. In Eternal Garden, Carl Ernst recalls the descriptions of visitors who had written about the place—the somewhat bemused French traveller Jean de Thevenot and the poet and scholar Azad Bilgrami. Ernst also writes of his own curiosity on his first trip in 1975: “I too was enchanted, and was possessed by a great curiosity about the figures buried in the stately whitewashed tombs. What sort of people were Muntajib al-Din Zar Zari Zar Baksh (“giver of gold”), and his brother Burhan al-Din Gharib?” The title of Ernst' book inspired from a line of the poet Hafiz, “the cloister of the dervishes is an eternal garden (rawza-i khuld-i barin khilvat-i darvishan-ast)” is an apt description of the shrines of Khuldabad, he writes, besides the verbal similarities: rawza or garden, being the original name of the town and khuld-i-barin, or utter eternity, is close to the current name. Rawza also means mausoleum, above all the one of Prophet Mohammed in Medina. As we journeyed from one dargah to the other along the hot, dusty roads, stopping to take in the atmosphere, the sights, and speak to the caretakers, the image of a ‘eternal garden' enclosed, guarded by some unmarked mystic circle, was greatly amplified by the sense that what seemed to reside in Khuldabad was an immutable repository, a fount of transcendental thought and memory.

Indeed, as Ernst writes on, from the earliest of the intrepid Sufis, Mu'min Arif, Jalal al' Din Ganj-i-Ravan at the pariyon ka talab (the Fairies Tank), Zayn al' Din Shirazi, Sayid Yusuf al' Hussayni Shah Raju Qattal, Amir Hasan ‘ala Dihlawi Sijzi, Badr al' Din Naw-lakha, ‘Abd Allah Habib al' Aydarus, to the many nobles and kings who chose to be buried there, Ahmad Nizam Shah, Burhan Nizam Shah, the fascinating and ‘redoubtable' Malik Anbar, Abu al' Hasan Tana Shah, the last Qutb Shahi dynast, the great Mughal emperor Awrangzeb, and the first two Asaf Jah Nizams of Hyderabad, what was it, ask Ernst asks, “drew them all to be buried there?” The saints of Khuldabad, he points out further, are not really known outside the Deccan, yet their critical role in Indian Sufism, the many writings of the prominent Chisti Shaykhs, “constitute a formidable resource for the religious and social history of early Indian Islam.”


Intriguingly, Ernst brings up the pre-Islamic past of the region as an atmospheric backdrop. It is indeed fascinating to contemplate what these spiritual settlers made of the incredible visual sights of the region. As Ernst writes,

Khuldabad poses many other questions that are beyond the scope of this book. Its close proximity to Ellora, the site of splendid rock-cut caves and temples, puts the valley of the Sufi saints nearly on top of the most ancient Hindu, Buddhist, and Jain monuments in the region. While it is perhaps common for new religious centers to be established at places already sacralized by previous religious traditions, it is striking to contemplate the spectacle of Sufi shrines so close to majestic Buddha statues, Jina figures, and the great Kailash temple of Shiva.



A common sight at the various shrines, from the dargah of Muntajib al' Din Zar Zari Zar Baksh to the samadhi of Eknath on the Godavari riverbanks is the ‘photostudio'—a makeshift backdrop with many-hued plastic flowers and a soft-toy tiger on the floor as a prop. It is a strange picture, but such seemingly incongruous sights are common, given the profound complexity of popular religiosity across India. As we seek spiritual salvation and succour, we also seek entertainment, in a confounding blend of gratifications. The intense heat of the stone-floor compounds in the shrines caused many of the visitors, including us, to hop about lest bare feet get scorched through. That too added some hilarity to the solemn experience in addition to our wonderful guide Khalid bhai's jokes. In the shaded areas families sat quietly, some in fervent prayer. The Hindu-Muslim landscape, the spiritual cartograph of the region, despite all that is vexed, is a richly shared one.

As Vijay Mishra writes in Sufis, Nath-Yogis and Indian Literary Texts: Some Lines of Congruence (1985), there are ‘metahistorical dialogues' that occurred between Sufism and Tantric systems in medieval India. Although the encounter between the two “did not lead to any major attempts at religious syncretism”, Mishra writes,

Even before the full force of Islam began to be felt in India (during and after successive Muslim rulers from the fourteenth century onwards), a close empathy, if not harmony, had grown between certain yogic aspects of Hinduism and their speculative counterparts and the Sufis.


Discussing the historian SAA Rizvi's hypothesis, Mishra writes that the Andalusian philosopher Ibn al' Arabi's concept of “the oneness of being”, “unity of existence”, or wahdat al' wujud, eventually “coalesced with the dominant stream of Sufism.” Although one can speculate on the correspondence between that and Advaitism, as Rizvi did, and one may see compatibility with Gorakhnath's doctrine of dvaitadvaita-vilakshana-vada (the monism-dualism distinction debate) the saints of the Nirguna tradition (Namdev, Kabir and Nanak) were not necessarily talking about Vedanta, but more about “local and populist renditions.” The speculative correspondence between Ibn al' Arabi's ideas and Hindu mystic tradition may be a bit of a philosophical leap on the part of Rizvi, Mishra writes. What is borne out here though, is that in popular traditions, in popular literature, as in the case of Eknath's Hindu-Turk Samvad, there are clear instances that bypass doctrinal discussions and offer a sense of commonality and unified experience. Discussing three texts, Mishra brings Abd' al Quddus Gangohi's Rushdnama. Regardless of what one may consider to be syncretic or not, Mishra argues “it is demonstrably true that the Ruśdnama represents the classic instance of a specifically Sufi attempt at embracing philosophical positions which were intrinsically Hindu.” Gangohi employs Nath Yogi terminology widely, preferring the use of ‘Alakh Niranjana' as the supreme creator in referring to the Islamic khuda. Interestingly, Mishra argues that,

Adbul Quddus “borrowed” ideas from the “indigenous” mystical traditions because he saw the possibilities of “transference”, of the ‘metahistorical' dialogue which mankind has always pursued whenever confronted with possible “affinities.”

We can extrapolate a sense of “unity of Being” from Quddus' writings; correspondence with Nathpanthi ideas and Ibn al' Arabi's metaphysics offered a bridge of sorts, “paved the way” for Sufis and Sants to communicate through literary texts. From the very early days, Mishra adds, and even before the times of Muin ud' Din Chisti and Baha ud' Din Zakariya, this communication between Sufis and Hindu bhakti Sants “manifested itself in the works of versifiers and saint-singers.” Mishra points out here that the refined lover-beloved motif that is common to such devotionalism was a great contribution of Sufism. He also writes of Malik Mohammad Jayasi's Padmavat in this regard.


We pay a visit to the tomb-shrine of Sant Manpuri Parshad just outside Daulatabad. The caretaker, Rajendra Dubey, whose ancestors moved to the Deccan during Awrangzeb's time, tells us that the saint was originally from Multan in Pakistan. As Nile Green writes in Indian Sufism Since The Seventeenth Century: Saints, books and empires in the Muslim Deccan, his tomb posthumously became a focal point for a cult, having transformed into a shrine, much like how Sufi tombs metamorphose. As Dubey also informs us, the Hindu Sant is said to have had a close friendship with Shah Nur, believed by some to be a Qadiri saint, but it is more likely, Green argues, that he belonged more to an “autonomous tradition of individualist dervishes who lived and taught outside the bounds of formal membership of the Sufi orders”, much like the Andalusian Ibn al' Arabi. Images of the two friends adorn the walls of the samadhi, and as Green writes,

An anthology survives of Manpuri's devotional poems (bhajans), blending the vocabulary of Sufi and Sadhu and pointing to the close links forged between Muslim and Hindu mystics in the Deccan. One of the poems said to address Shah Nur is preserved in an eighteenth century poetic anthology (tadhkira) that was compiled in Awrangabad by Inayat Ali Khan Awrangabadi.


If the sights of the area, prominently the Ellora caves and the Daulatabad Fort, provide us with some spectacular visual context, it were the travels from one town to the other, one hamlet to the other, and the atmospherics of the shrines— marriage ceremonies and feasts being conducted in some, to the visitor-less quietude of others—that help in part to construct of foggy narrative of a captivating medieval past.

The medieval texts that have been ‘politicized' by “the practical political goals of nationalist hagiography” as Ernst argues, are profoundly misplaced from their “original political context” and,

Some of the most extreme ideological portrayals of Indian history at the same time are the loudest in claiming to rely on objective “facts” that are ignored by their opponents. The language and rhetoric of positivism is most often invoked (perhaps unconsciously) when ideology is most nakedly displayed.

The septuagenarian scholar and devoted conservation and heritage activist of Aurangabad, RS Morwanchikar, spoke to us before our trip to Paithan. I asked him what his estimation of that medieval period was; how did he see the complex social and spiritual exchanges between a variety of different people. “It is the Paithani fabric; what else says it all?” Morwanchikar replies. Aside from the peacocks, stars, paisleys, flowers, the mystic circle of the Deccan has been irrevocably woven into the fabric.