The Syncretic Crucible: Another Trip To Medieval Deccan

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Aib na Rakhe Hindi bola

Maine to chak dekhe khola

Hindi bola kiya bakhan

Je gur Prasad tha muje gyan.

[Don't think bad if I speak in Hindi,

What I experience I speak openly

In Hindi I have preached in detail

All the wisdom from my teacher's blessing]

– From Burhan ‘al Din Janam's Irshad-Nama (Oudesh Rani Bawa, Deccan Studies, 2009)

Rauza1The rich, complex synthesis of the arts, culture, mysticism, shared sentiments, and indeed, of serendipitous winds passing through the open doors of history and influence, are more than amply evident at Ibrahim Rauza, the mausoleum of the medieval sultan of the Bahmani succession state of Bijapur, Ibrahim Adil Shah II. From the striking domed entrance gateway, the serene lawns, to the two structures upon a plinth (the tomb and the adjacent mosque), all fecund with the intense intermingling of a staggering range of ideas, Ibrahim Rauza is truly, a feast for the eyes. “If you look up sir, you will see a carved phanas ka phal (jackfruit)”, says our immaculately dressed elderly guide in the regional Dakhani Urdu, coloured gently with a practiced lilt. “There, sun rays, lotus forms, and there, almost faded away, you will see painted in the alcove, a kalash” he points out, adding that one finds numerous features of southern temple design in the structure. This new phase of Bijapur architecture, “almost synchronizing with the reign of Ibrahim II”, writes Z.A Desai in History of Medieval Deccan (ed. Sherwani & Joshi, 1974), “was marked by better and more refined forms”. From more deftly integrated minars, elaborate bracketed cornices, to foliated parapets and refined arches, Ibrahim Rauza is widely considered to be one of the most glorious examples of syncretic Indo-Persian architecture. The lavishness of the Bijapur style “had reached its culmination” with Ibrahim Rauza, and the “most striking feature of the tomb”, Desai writes on, “is the amazing wealth of surface decorations, comprising of low relief carvings in a variety of geometric and foliage patterns, as well as in the form of beautifully interlaced inscriptions of the entire exterior walls of the central chamber.”

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The Tangled Knots of History: A Trip Through Medieval Deccan

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Dargah2The relatively impoverished landscape of Zaheerabad, in rural Telangana in central India, transforms as we approach Humnabad town of northern Karnataka. Lush, verdant pastures straddle each side of the highway, and the pregnant monsoon air animated by a fey, impish wind, forces our brief stop into a leisurely meditation. This pleasing landscape remains a companion till the outskirts of Gulbarga, a prominent regional city. As we navigate the narrow lanes towards our destination, the dust and dirt of the city streets, the shrill horns of motor vehicles, jarringly forestall our approach. It has also begun drizzling faintly.

The “brooding basalt solemnity” of the medieval shrine of the influential Chisti saint Muhammad al-Hussayni Gesu Daraz (d. 1422), which draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year, stands a mute testament to a mobile, transformative 14th century Deccan. By all accounts, the saint's settlement in the region is a historical event of unmatched significance, linked in no uncertain terms to the broader settlement of Muslims in the region, progression of orthodox Sufism, matters of courts and kings, regional syncretism, not to mention, the curious, inevitable and fascinating birth of the proto-Urdu form, Dakhani. A prolific writer, Gesu Daraz, has an impressive number of literary works to his name (105 by some accounts), several of which are extant, and as KA Nizami informs us, “no other Indo-Muslim Cishti saint” had written that many. Syed Shah Khusro Hussaini, the current sajjada nashin, (‘those who sit on the prayer rug'), the living spiritual heir, ‘blessed descendent' of the famous saint, whom I met later that evening, speaks to me of his hallowed ancestor's love of the local tongue. A medieval mystical work, Miraj al Ashiqin, which he attributes to Gesu Daraz, is believed to have been the first literary work composed in Dakhani, and is dated to 1390 CE. He however, qualifies this by mentioning that the attribution is contentious and has been rigorously challenged by many. Khusro Hussaini has previously written that the saint's works can be generally classified into those that were composed before he came to the Deccan (he resided in Delhi & is believed to have been the chosen replacement to Shaykh Nasir al' Din), and those after his settlement down south. ‘Hindawi' verses (another contemporary proto-Urdu form) Gesu Daraz is believed to have said, writes the sajjada, a reputed scholar of Sufism, “‘ are usually soft, sweet and touching. The tunes are also soft and tender like the couplets, which induce humility and submission…”' However, the saint still asserted the primacy of Persian verse. Hindawi, one can assume, is what Gesu Daraz brought with him from Delhi (Amir Khusro also mentions his occasional propensity to compose in Hindawi) and the region, its flavours and tempers, did their bit. The spoken language (and the many dialects) carried down south by Sufis and soldiers alike mingled in curious ways and eventually, what was but spoken in an unpolished manner began to take sophisticated form. The spoken form began to be written, and eventually appeared in literary texts.

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The Comic City

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Mudder ho gaya” (there’s been a murder), announces the young man who has hitched a ride with us at Langar Hauz, from the back seat of the car. “Four men chopped some guy down with swords. Just earlier. On the street. Everyone was watching”, he continues on in the typically idiosyncratic local Urdu dialect of the city. The comic cadences of this ‘contaminated’ tongue have for long elicited much laughter across the nation, particularly due to the antics of the late great Hindi film comic Mehmood. It is no laughing matter but it is certainly ironic and indeed, even emblematic, that as we pass the scene of the crime secured by ten policeman just moments later, a lone motorcyclist merrily rides on through this poor fortification and straight over the street chalk markings of where the dead man lay felled. The cops look momentarily bemused and a plain-clothed senior cop yells at his subordinates as they, literally and proverbially, eat dust kicked up by the passing bike. The young hitchhiker echoes my inner thoughts but a short few seconds later: “That’s how it is; that’s a true Hyderabadi”. Charminar

It is about 11 AM and we are driving through the narrow streets of the dense, labyrinthine, and at one time, profoundly troubled neighbourhood of Tappachabutra in Old Hyderabad. I learn later through TV news that an old rivalry led to that mornings’ street slaughter. The victim, a 40-year-old small businessman, was hacked to death in front of bystanders by four young men. It was an act of revenge allegedly; the dead man had done time for killing the gang leader’s father over fifteen years ago.

The archetypal Hyderabadi of urban lore heeds no one and instead takes great pride in his defiance of all authority. He is quick to temper and it is difficult to ascertain what he takes offense to, since his fickle mind is driven by an expansive culture of protocol and theatricality – oftentimes expressed through silly or sentimental shairi. He always carries a small knife, an ustra or a jambiya, is surrounded by lackeys who although seem to cater to his every whim, are in actuality, crafty parasites. If not sitting indolently at old Irani cafes or dimly lit grubby bars, spouting street wisdom, plotting either a retributive attack on his nemesis or a cunning scheme to win the affections of a girl who unambiguously finds him revolting, this broad caricature is mirrored in college canteen conversations, stand-up comedy acts and plays, and regional feature films. It is reflected in the rickshaw drivers, who perplexingly, seem always to rebuff passengers, looking away in utter disdain when asked if free.

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Some Accounting For Taste (Food, Faith & Syncretism in the Deccan)

by Gautam Pemmaraju

Charminar_hyderabad_india_photo One fairly nondescript morning a few years ago I found myself headed to Barkas in the old city of Hyderabad to meet my friend, Saleh Ahmed bin Abdat, the Public Relations Officer (PRO) of Al-Jamaitul Yemenia bil Hind, which administers affairs related the migrant community of Yemen, particularly the Hadramaut province of Southern Yemen. As part of an ongoing project, I have been speaking to members of the community for several years now. Barkas, close to the scorpion-shaped Falaknuma Palace, is a corruption of the English word barracks, for it was here that cadre of the Irregular Arab Forces of the princely ruler of Hyderabad, the Nizam, were housed. It was 7 AM and we were scheduled for a shoot with Sheikh Ba’wazir Ba’shaiba, a 76-year-old local resident, who had recently returned from his first ever trip to the land of his ancestors. The septuagenarian, as part of the last ruling Nizam Mir Osman Ali Khan’s personal staff, had tended to the erstwhile autocrat of the independent state of Hyderabad till his dying breath. The Sheikh was a Khanazad – one of the many wards adopted by the Nizam to keep him company in his palace at King Kothi. We were late to arrive and consequently missed what was to be a delicious start to the day – a saucerful of Harees, the Turkish/Arabic originator of the more popular Haleem, a thickish, pulpy stew (or porridge) of wheat, goat meat or lamb, and spices.

In his foreword to Lila Zaouali’s Medieval Cuisine of the Islamic World, Charles Perry points to the oldest surviving Arabic cookbook, Kitab al-tabikh, compiled in the 10th century by the scribe Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq. The Nabataeans, as the Aramaic-speaking Christians of Iraq and Syria were known, he informs us, contributed significantly to the Arab repertoire of dishes (and terms used to describe them). Perry points out that the pioneering scribe Ibn Sayyar devotes an entire chapter to stews called nabatiyyat, and it is here we see a mention of Harisa, a Nabataean dish: “whole grain stewed with meat until done, and then beaten to a smooth, savory paste.” Interestingly, in this illuminating foreword, Perry also mentions that there is no proscription against meat at all in Islam and ‘this surely explains why meatless dishes were called muzawwaj (“counterfeit”)’.

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