Khanqah-e-Dastgir: Mourning, memory and sacred landscape

By Chakraverti Mahajan. Dated: 7/6/2012 12:52:19 AM

Like questions, events too trigger the flow of memories. Memories, seated deep in one’s subconscious, are linked to landscapes, people and things. Some landscapes leave such a deep impression on one’s mind that when you revisit them, actually or virtually, one tends to compare the existing spectacle with the memorised one. ‘This place used to be like this!’ we often remark to ourselves and to our accompanists––friends, family and colleagues. When I learnt from a Kashmiri friend that a disaster has almost erased one of the prime sacred centres, khanqah-e-dastgir, decked on the sacred landscape of Srinagar––I was upset. Next morning when I flipped through newspapers, I was shocked to see photographs of the shards of the khanqah-e-dastgir. My memory instantly flashed a set of images––a primarily green structure with a golden canopy; large window panes, elaborate wood carvings with colourful papier-mâché work; cosy carpets, grand chandeliers, beautiful khatamband ceilings and a large digital clock; threads and rags of varied colours tied to iron grills near the entrance; pheran clad women mumbling their prayers facing the wooden sanctum; a group of elderly men discussing ‘sacred’ and ‘mundane’ matters and a darvaish like man twisting weeds between his fingers. In my mind’s eyes, I saw a number of stalls on the main road manned by vendors selling food articles. I too saw my interlocutor, Roohi, a female para-medico in her thirties, who brought me to the shrine all the way from Safakadal. The reminiscences of a walk around the Muslim sacred centres of Shehr-e-Khas clouded my mind for next few minutes.
That was a cloudy April morning. We boarded a matador from Safakadal which brought us to Mirwaiz Manzil near Maharajganj. The road, I was told, was built by filling nallah-e-mar, a water channel. We traversed into alleyways behind to reach the Badshah’s mother’s tomb surrounded by graves, old and new. We went further through narrowing alleys to reach grand Khanqah-e-Maula dedicated to Shah-e-Hamdan. From there we walked towards Khanyar. There we were in front of a shrine dedicated to Pir Dastgir Saab, a model of Indo-Saracenic architecture, typical of the Kashmir Valley. When I asked Roohi about the meaning of the word Dastgir, she answered with a counter question, ‘have you heard of dastkari’. ‘Yes, handicrafts’, I replied. ‘Good’, said she and then explained, ‘Dast means hand and Dastgir means he who extends his hand to help devotees.’
‘Dastgir Saab, a well known Muslim Saint of Jilan near Baghdad in Iraq, is known by many names including Gawsul-Aazam, Shah-e-Baghdad and Kahnov but his real name is Syed Abdul Qadir Jeelani. The district gazetteer of Srinagar notes that Dastgir Saab never visited Kashmir. In fact, a traveller from Kabul brought one of his hair to Kashmir in 1802. In those days the governor of Kashmir was Sardar Abdullah Khan; he acquired this relic from him and gave it to a Kashmiri saint, so that it could be periodically shown to devotees. Another important relic includes a copy of holy Quran written on musk deer’s skin. It is believed to be hand-written by Hazrat Ali.
The shrine has acquired its significance not only due to these relics but Dastgeer Saab’s centrality in the everyday life of Kashmiris. It can be judged from the fact that many a devotees visit the shrine consistently day after day. Gulam Jeelani, a friend who runs a silk emporium on the Residency Road, once told me that his parents have named him as a mark of respect for Pir Dastgir. Gulam means servant and Gulam Jeelani means servant of the saint of Jilan, Syed Abdul Qadir Jeelani, i.e., Dasgir Saab.
The urs, an annual festival commemorating saint’s union with Allah after his death, is observed on the 11th day of Rabi-us-Sani, the 4th lunar month of the Hijari calendar. The relic of the saint, enclosed in an elegant vial-and-casket, is taken to the balcony of the shrine. A cleric then holds the relic aloft and shows it to the almost one lakh people assembled. This display takes place on the main day of the urs as well as on the first Friday after the urs. Beginning on the 1st day of Rabi-us-Sani festivity lasts for a fortnight. Every morning and evening during this period, devotees gather at the shrine and recite religious verses and seek the blessings of Dastgir Saab. Shops and stalls, I was told, are set up on the entire road between Nowhatta and the Rainawari crossing.
My encounter with the shrines including Khanqah-e-Maula, Maqdoom Saab and Naqashband Saab that day made me realise that a number of Kashmiris still believed in the benevolence of the saints. I saw devotees deep in their prayers away from worldly rhythms and thought about the claim of waning role of the ziyarats and pirs in Kashmir.
My trance ended in my room in Chandigarh when I thought about the implications of the demolition. I realised my memories of the shrine may differ greatly from the memories of a common Kashmiri in a similar way as our conceptions of normalcy in Kashmir. The aftermath of the event, whether it was a call for ‘Khanayar Chalo’ or arrests of the protesting youth, has yet again shown the fragility of the idea of normalcy in Kashmir. Normalcy in Kashmir is sternly regulated by the memories of personal violations. The Kashmiris relive trauma, which has precipitated deep into their selves, again and again. Apparently everyday life in Kashmir to a casual observer may seem ‘normal’ as life here too revolves around mundane matters such as business, school, college, household chores and wedding ceremonies but ruptures in this normalcy come to fore every time in the wake of events, however trivial they may sound to us. It would be a delusion if somebody says that a Kashmiri would protest this summer because s/he has become habitual of doing that. The Kashmiris protest because every act of desecration reminds them of their own violations. As one of my Kashmiri friends remarked once: ‘Assume that we are either heavily doped or on anesthesia when they say normalcy has returned to Kashmir. Normalcy requires amnesia and for us to forget would be the ultimate desecration.’

 

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