Dilatato Corde 5:2
July - December, 2015
Hazrat Babajan (d.1931)
Hazrat Babajan (d.1931)


“Every man desires to live long, but no man would be old.” (Indian proverb)
A motorcycle ride under the blazing sun through streets clogged with traffic takes us to the Babajan Dargah, the shrine of one of Pune’s most beloved Muslim saints. The dargah or shrine is located near the center of the city, at the busy intersection (chowk) of Jaan Mohammed Street and Raosaheb Kedari Marg, a short walk from a bustling fish and meat market and rows of narrow lanes lined with vegetable pushcart vendors and tiny bookstalls.
Around the corner from the dargah, only a few minutes away, is St. Xavier’s Catholic Church, the place where Mariam and I were married. Its handsome grey stone exterior is immediately visible after one proceeds through a broad iron entrance gate, past a simple flower garden and grotto and into a large open courtyard. Throughout the day the church, which was constructed by German Jesuit missionaries in the late nineteenth century, is visited by worshippers of all ages, many of them teenagers and people in their twenties, who come inside to light candles and kneel in prayer. Not far from the church stands an equally busy mosque, and so it is not uncommon for Catholic worshippers at Mass to hear the holy call to prayer (azan) in Arabic drifting through the church’s open windows. A small distance down the same street, under the lush canopy of towering shade trees, past St. Vincent’s High School for boys and St. Anne’s High School for girls, sits the little shrine of St. Anthony of Padua, visited especially on Tuesdays by Catholics and members of other faiths.[1] As in other parts of India, especially in the south, it is not unusual for both Hindus and Catholics to visit the same Catholic shrine, each praying to the saint in their own distinctive Hindu and Catholic ways, with the hope of bringing blessings upon themselves, their families, and the success of their businesses. During a recent visit to St. Anthony’s shrine I could not help but notice one striking difference between Hindu and Catholic devotional practice: the Hindu women reverently removed their sandals before entering the Catholic shrine, just as they do when entering their own temples, whereas the Catholics did not find it necessary.
Also located in this part of the city and only a few blocks away is a very popular Hindu temple (mandir), painted bright red, partially shaded by an overhanging banyan tree, whose expansive and intricate play of twisting and intertwining branches and dangling roots is said to symbolize the limitlessness of the divine and its power (shakti) to bring forth an infinite variety of finite created forms. The mandir, dedicated to the monkey god Hanuman, is overflowing every afternoon and evening with devotees offering flowers and coconuts on their way home from work.
Within this pulsating neighborhood of religious pluralism sits the little Babajan Dargah humbly, inconspicuous to the non-Muslim, perched at the edge of the wide and busy thoroughfare which is Jaan Muhammad Street. It is difficult to carry on a conversation outside the shrine, so loud and constant is the vehicular noise. Just after Abid and I arrive I observe two teenage Muslim boys on bicycles devoutly place their right hand over their hearts as they ride past the dargah.
This shrine, like so many others in the city, is so small as to be easily unnoticed.   It is a modest white marble building, single-story, with a row of tiny minarets on its roof. Three arched doorways face the street, two of them open to visitors and the unbroken stream of traffic. The openings permit immediate viewing access to the saint’s tomb, a rectangular stone structure inside the shrine about three feet high draped with red and green brocaded cloths, upon which are woven elaborate gold patterns. One end of the tomb is adorned with flower garlands. At the other end stands inexplicably what appears to be a tree trunk about six feet high, covered in real silver from top to bottom. The floor is white shining marble. In a small, poorly furnished room adjacent to the tomb, also open to the street, old men sit quietly on wooden benches hunched over Urdu newspapers.
We have come to the shrine today because of my desire to learn about the lives of Muslim saints in this part of India, holy men and women whose example and continued blessing (baraka) inspire crowds to visit their tombs even hundreds of years after their passing. Sometimes the details of the saint’s biography are hazy. And at other dargahs, I was later to learn, with the passing of time the life story of the saint had been all but forgotten. Yet even in the absence of such knowledge, one devotee explained to me, the important thing is to believe that a blessing is available to anyone who approaches the shrine in a spirit of humility before the one God. The details of the saint’s life are less important.
My nephew Abid, although a devout Muslim and regular in his five daily prayers, normally shuns all visits to Muslim shrines. Like many Muslims, he finds spiritual danger in the veneration of saints and in what he understands to be prayers directed to people instead of to God. It is the same kind of objection that Catholics sometimes hear from certain Protestants. Might not the prayer to saints obscure or even supplant belief and worship of the one God? Does not such religious observance finally amount to a form of idolatry and superstition? From the point of view of Abid and like-minded Muslims the question is vital: are not such blasphemous practices the very thing God wanted to eradicate from the earth when He sent down the holy Qur’an? Such protests against dargah visits, then, are raised not only by ultraconservative Wahabis in far away Saudi Arabia, who have managed to banish saint-veneration and Sufism from their land; they are concerns expressed by both Sunni and Shiite Muslims in India and throughout the Muslim world, sometimes dividing even members of the same family.
Abid and his mother Tabassum are themselves in disagreement on the issue of visiting dargahs. He is against it, while she does not perceive any danger to her faith in the one God. Likewise my wife Mariam’s parents, Khatijah and Abdul Kader, when raising their children, took radically opposing positions on the subject. Abdul, a properly instructed convert to Muslim Sunni orthodoxy from Roman Catholicism, had little patience with saint veneration, and he constantly reminded his children that the only one capable of answering prayers was the Creator and Lord of the universe. But his wife Khatijah’s upbringing had included frequent visits to shrines and tombs, and so she passed that practice on to her own four children. Their favorite destination was the shrine of Qamar Ali Darvesh in the town of Shivapur, about an hour outside of Pune. This is the most famous Muslim dargah in central Maharashtra, and the crowds that arrive each day, especially on Sundays, are larger than in previous generations. Mariam recalls all-day outings as a child at the shrine in Shivapur with her mother, siblings, aunts, and cousins. For the children the added attraction in visiting the shrine was a picnic under the trees and frolicking in the cool water of a nearby creek. If their father Abdul was persuaded to come along he might step inside the shrine and pay grudging respects to the saint, but his prayers were offered only to Allah. Years later, after our wedding, Mariam, now a Christian, returned to the Muslim shrine to offer thanks both to God and to Qamar Ali Darvesh for his intercessory prayers that had helped make our marriage possible, against all obstacles.
Since I am his uncle and guest in his home, Abid has agreed to take me to the Babajan Dargah. Once we arrive we remove our shoes, and he asks me to wait outside while he seeks permission for me, the non-Muslim, to enter, so that I may conduct an interview and take pictures. He quickly returns with the news that all my requests have been granted without problem. We step inside.
At one end of the little shrine two middle-aged bearded men sit cross-legged on the floor reading aloud from the Qur’an, one of them rocking back and forth. Neither looks up at me, though I am only a few feet away. Nearby a small old man in a long purple tunic and a white turban is standing quietly. His beard is gray at the roots, but the rest of it is dyed red. He is friendly and probably uneducated. Perhaps he is a fakir, an ascetic who has taken a vow of poverty.
We are approached by a medium-sized muscular man in his fifties wearing a white kurta (pajama-like shirt) and kufi (skull cap). He has the air of authority, and, as the caretaker, is ready to answer any questions. He does not regard me suspiciously, even though I am an American Christian visiting a Muslim shrine. Abid’s introduction has no doubt helped. I tell the man that I am very interested in Muslim dargahs, and I would like to learn about the history of this one. He nods his head solemnly, and waits for me to begin my questions. I soon learn that he speaks good English.
Who is the saint here, I ask, a man or a woman?
“A woman. Her name is Hazrat Babajan. She was from a royal family in Afghanistan.” I learn later that she was a Pashtun princess. Since the Pashtuns are traditionally located in both Afghanistan and Pakistan it is possible that her original home was in what is now present-day Pakistan, what in her time had been western India.
The caretaker continues, offering simple facts. “She traveled to Mecca, Medina, and Iran before coming here to Pune. She lived to be one hundred twenty-five years old. She died in 1931.” I am surprised that she lived so recently, and I am at first a bit skeptical that she lived so long. But I say nothing.
Why is she famous? I ask.
“Already before she died she was visited by large crowds of people. She prayed for them, gave them counsel and predicted their future. When she died thousands of people came here.”
He turns to the bearded fakir and says something in a low voice. The latter disappears and soon returns with the large front page of a newspaper mounted behind glass. The headline, in bold italicized print, reads, “POONA’S HOMAGE TO FAMOUS MUSLIM WOMAN SAINT.” The subheading reads, “PARDAH 21-9-1931 AT-2:00 P.M.” Below it, extending to almost the entire page, is a black and white photo of thousands of people gathered at the site of the saint’s death. A close-up photo of Babajan has been inserted by the newspaper into the top middle of the street scene. How wonderful, I think. The saint has been photographed! The photo shows a very old woman with high cheek bones, kind but intense eyes, and white bushy hair. At the very top of the page are the words (misspelled): “WENDS DAY SEPTEMBER 23, 1931 THE EVENING NEWS OF INDIA.” The long bottom caption of the photo showing the huge crowd reads (I have not corrected the English), “The Muslim community of Poona has been greatly moved by the death of the famous saint Babajan. It is claimed that she was 125 years of age and the possessor of magical powers in addition to her power of insight into the future. Her funeral yesterday as the picture shows was very largely attended thousand of people both Muslims and Hindus taking part in the procession.”
On one of the shrine walls I notice another framed photo of Babajan, one that gives a clearer view of the saint. She is sitting on the ground in a long light-colored coat or tunic, her left hand raised thoughtfully to her right cheek as she looks intently into the camera with sorrowful eyes and furrowed brow. Her hair, though white, is so thick and curly, so young looking, that one might mistake it for a wig.
“Remember,” our caretaker informs us, returning to the newspaper, “this was 1931, and the British ruled. People were not allowed to gather in public, but here are thousands of people gathering in the street.” He goes on, “And the British wanted to have her buried elsewhere, because you couldn’t bury someone close to the street. But her body was so heavy that no one could move it. It was under the neem tree where she had sat so many years giving people spiritual counsel. So the British could do nothing but allow her to be buried here inside this dargah.” That explained the silver-plated tree stump I had seen. It was the same tree under which Babajan had lived the last twenty-five years of her life.
What do we know about her background and life as a child? I ask. He repeated that she was of royal lineage.
Why do people come here today?
“They come to have their prayers answered with the help of the saint. Her prayers are very effective. Thousands of people come here each year for her annual celebration, called ‘urs,’ which this year is May 26-28th. They place flowers at her tomb and give food to the poor.”
He had said that Babajan’s prayers were effective. People come to her asking her to pray to God for them. They do not therefore regard her as God’s replacement.
Was she a Sufi?
“Yes, she was a Sufi.”
Can women also come inside here? I ask. Many of the Muslim shrines in India honoring male saints do not permit women to enter.
“Women and men may enter, young and old, people of all religions, all are welcome.”
I thank the man and ask him what his name is.
I ask Mr. Poonawallah if I might take his picture. He shakes his head no. Are you sure? I ask. He smiles and waves his hand farewell as he walks away. The brief conversation has already
I approach the bearded man, i.e. the fakir, and a new man, also old, standing next to him wearing a white sherwani and a white topee atop his head. He looks stern, and his eyes gaze at me forcefully. I wonder what he is thinking. He has gray sideburns and a bushy beard growing under his chin. The two men allow themselves to be photographed side by side, the fakir smiling broadly, the other man remaining expressionless with his hands folded in front of him.
As we step outside the shrine into the bright sunshine and prepare to return home I visualize to myself a young princess growing up in the luxury of a Muslim palace, attended to by many maidservants. She would one day renounce home and all comfort to undertake arduous pilgrimages to far off lands in scorching heat. At some time in her life she had been deeply stirred to constant prayer and devotion to God and to the service of others. She lived so long that most of her life was spent as an old woman, yet her advanced age and waning strength did not lessen her desire to offer counsel and prayers to anyone who approached her. Already approaching one hundred, she put herself at the service of the people of Pune. She chose to live on the street. And, remarkably, her followers were said to be both Muslims and Hindus.
Stories abound about Babajan’s flight from a marriage arranged by her parents, about her travels throughout the Middle East in male disguise, a cover that also allowed her to make a pilgrimage to Mecca unaccompanied by any man. Who knows how many of these stories have been embellished? What is important, I think, is that a young woman had renounced opulence and privilege for the sake of God, finally arriving in Pune as an old woman to spend the remainder of her life living under a tree, turning away no one seeking her help. This was surely the work of both divine grace and steely determination: the story of the princess who renounced the world for God.
We would not be able to attend the saint’s urs-celebration this year, because we would be traveling to Rajasthan. But someday I will return to help celebrate the life of the holy woman who lived under a tree.
[1] It is believed that St. Anthony died on a Tuesday.
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