Religious Interactions – A Reassessment

As Indians we should take pride in being a secular nation and as citizens promote an environment free from religious antagonism for the greater good of mankind, writes Susan Mishra

As we live in the 21st century and witness bitter inter-religious intolerance, it is imperative to look into the past to understand the present. There are many examples from medieval era to modern era in south, north and east India where Hindu and Muslim communities lived side by side without feeling of animosity and antagonism.

In Malabar, Islam probably arrived in the 7th century CE with Arab traders, and by the 12th century CE a strong Muslim community existed here. The Zamorins were Hindu rulers of the kingdom of Calicut (now Kozhikode). They had elaborate trade relations with Muslim sailors from the Middle East in the Indian Ocean, as Calicut was then an important trading entrepot on the west coast of India. Under the Zamorins, Muslims enjoyed many commercial, political and religious privileges. The very fact that Zamorin rejected Vasco da Gama’s request to banish all Muslims from his kingdom clearly testifies to the importance given to Muslims in a Hindu kingdom.

In fact, it was the Portuguese who became the common enemy of the Muslims and the Zamorin. The latter received the full support of their Muslim population in terms of mobilizing manpower, resources and financing the wars against the Portuguese. The Muchundi and Mishkal mosques in Kozhikode are living examples of the help given by Hindu Zamorin rulers to their Muslim community. The 13th century CE inscription in the Muchundi Mosque in Kuttichira, Kozhikode records the establishment of the mosque by a certain Shahab al-din Raihan, and the ruler Zamorin granted him land for certain daily expenses incurred at the mosque. The Mishkal Mosque is also located in Kuttichira, Kozhikode, and was built by a merchant ship owner in the 14th century CE. This mosque was attacked, destroyed and burned in 1510 by the Portuguese.

The Zamorin was furious to see the devastation of the city and the destruction of the mosque. The combined efforts and firm determination of the Nairs and the Muslims shattered the dreams of the early colonizers of Malabar. After the Zamorin victory at the Battle of Chaliyam, the ruler supported the restoration and reconstruction of the Mishkal Mosque. It is believed that the stones and wood from the Chaliyam fort were transported and placed in the courtyard of Mishkal to be used in the reconstruction of the mosque. The Khasi Foundation of Kuttichira commemorated 500 years of the great gesture of religious harmony of the time by honoring the Zamorin. In remembrance of the great harmony between the two communities and to thank “King Zamorin” for his solidarity with Muslims, representatives of the Khasi Foundation visited the residence of the current descendants of the former Zamorin kings and presented him with a painting of the Mosque. Mishkal.

With a focus on 21st century Kerala, in Ponnani, a 16th century CE mosque known as Misri Palli retains its original structure through the efforts of a speaker and legislator non muslim. When work began on its demolition for the construction of a new mosque, some people contacted P. Sreeramakrishnan, who rushed to the site and stopped the work. He called a meeting of the mosque’s committee and convinced its members not to dismantle it so that it would be preserved as part of the Muziris-Ponnani heritage conservation project.

Erumely / Erumeli in Kottayam district of Kerala is a vivid example of how myths and legends can link two religious communities and equate a mosque within an important Hindu religious pilgrimage. The mosque here is dedicated to Vavar who is considered a companion of Lord Ayyappa. Every year multitudes of Hindu pilgrims worship at this mosque before embarking on the arduous trek to the holy sanctuary of Sabarimala Ayappa Swami. There are many legends about Vavar and according to one, Vavar was an Arabian commander who was defeated by Lord Ayyappa. Impressed by Vavar’s bravery, he became Ayappa’s close associate and aided him in the wars in the mountainous region. According to belief, Vavar protects the devotees who make the difficult trek through the forests to the main temple at the top of the hill which houses the Sabarimala temple.

Hampi, the 14th century AD capital of the Hindu Vijayanagara Empire and its monuments, is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Legends and inscriptions speak of Hindu support for the Muslim population of the kingdom. In Sindhaghatta, Mandya district of Karnataka, the Muslim community had no mosque and Babu setti, a local merchant, built a mosque to which the local officer Rangayya Nayaka offered a village. What is interesting is that the mosque was not built on a remote site of a Hindu settlement, but was located in the middle of villages given as gifts to learned Brahmins.

Legend has it that Babbaya, a Muslim fakir, settled in Penukonda and had a strong following. After the death of the fakir, a dargah was erected, and the grant of Venkata II records the restoration of some villages originally granted by Vira Narasingha Raya, Sadashiva and Venkata I, to the dargah of Babayya in Penukonda. Mangammal, a Hindu Nayaka queen donated some villages in 1701-02 CE at Tiruchirapalli to the dargah of Babanatta.

The other contemporary ruling dynasty in Deccan was the Muslim Adil Shahis of Bijapur (1489 to 1686). A Farman of Muhammad Adil Shah dated 1653 CE records a grant made by the ruler to Namdev Vithal, a Brahmin from Mubarakabad. Namdev was the leader of Joshis and had approached the ruler for royal favors and the sultan obliged him by granting lands in various localities. He also received a tanka (gold coin) from road and food grains and was also exempt from paying taxes.

Ibrahim Adil Shah II (1580 CE to 1627 CE) was a great patron of music and is credited with composing the book Kitab i Nauras is a book of couplets and verses dedicated to Hindu deities and Muslim saints. Interestingly, most are dedicated to Saraswati, Ganesh and other Hindu deities. The text begins with an invocation to Goddess Saraswati for her blessings and favors. The descriptions of Lord Ganesh and Lord Shiva were beautifully described by the sultan in his compositions.

In modern South India, the seventh Nizam of Hyderabad – Mir Osman Ali Khan (ruled 1911-1948) deserves special mention. He had a liberal view of religion and provided financial aid and donations to temples and Brahmins in his kingdom. Mir Osman Ali Khan took care of the repair and conservation maintenance of the Thousand Pillar Temple at Warangal. The Nizam also generously donated to various temples in his dominions.

Turning to the eastern region of India, in Orissa Salabega holds a permanent position among the devotional poets of Odisha. He lived in the first half of the 17th century and was the son of Mughal Subedar. According to folklore, he was detained on his way while returning from Vrindavan to Jagannatha and he sincerely prayed to the Lord to wait for him on the chariot of Nandighosha so that he could see his Lord. The Lord waited there and gave darshan to Salabega, his dear devotee on the Bada Danda, near Balagandi. A devout devotee of Shri Krishna and Jagannath, Salabega has devoted his life to composing bhajans, hymns and devotional songs in praise of Shri Jagannath and Radha Krishna.

In the Kingdom of Ahom, the Muslim population was well assimilated into Assamese society, and the army included many Muslim soldiers and officers who fought against the Mughals. Ismail Siddique popularly known as Bagh Hazarika played an important role in the Battle of Saraighat in 1671. An inscription of King Ahom Lakshmi Singha published around 1780 CE records a grant in favor of Hazi Anwar Fakir. King Ahom Kamaleswar Singha reconfirmed all previous grants made by Mughal and Ahom rulers in favor of Khadim of Hajo Dargah,

Against the backdrop of northern India, in the ancient region of Awadh, in 1855, at the Hanumangarhi temple in Ayodhya, a conflict arose between Hindus and Muslims. Wajid Ali Shah reportedly appointed a committee to investigate the matter, and the decision was in favor of the Hindus. Upon learning of an impending attack on the temple, Wajid Ali Shah ordered a regiment to guard the temple. Other examples include the 250-year-old Hanuman Temple in Lucknow, believed to have been built by Nawab Asaf-ud-Daula’s mother, Alia Begum. The mosque, popularly called Padain Masjid in Aminabad, was built by Rani Jai Kunwar Pandey, a Brahmin as a gift to her close friend – the Begum of Nawab Saadat Ali Khan.

When we try to look at the past through a 21st century lens, we will inevitably see Hindus and Muslims as polar opposites. Although there are challenges in Hindu-Muslim relations, it would be naïve to dismiss the relative social harmony in which the two communities have coexisted in India. As Indians we should take pride in being a secular nation and as citizens promote an environment free from religious antagonism for the greater good of humanity.

(The author is a researcher and recipient of the Devangana Desai CSMVS Mumbai Senior Fellowship. She is also the author of two books.)

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