Volume: IV, Issue: I, January-June 2013
AZAN FAKIR: CONTOURS OF PLURALISTIC SOCIETY & CULTURE IN MEDIEVAL ASSAM
Azan Fakir emerged as a prominent Sufi of medieval Assam. He had established his khankah in Sibsagar and it was visited by people of all religion. He was near contemporary to another prominent Vaishnava saint Sankerdev and mutual influence is quite discernible. Azan Fakir had initiated large number of people into his fold as disciples, who had spread his message in the different corners of Assam. He is also stated to had acquired enormous mystical power. However, Azan Fakir emerged as a towering figure because he had authored several zikirs (zikr) in Assamese. These zikirs had not only enriched the Assamese literature but also spread the message of love effectively. He also wrote several kirtans (vaishnavite) and, in fact emphasized on the unity of religions. Perhaps, due to this Assam is free from bitter communal tension even today. He played a great role in moulding the Assamese society. Large numbers of legends about his mystical power is currently found in Assam and due to this his dargah is today visited by all section of people. His dargah has emerged as symbol of pluralism in Assam. The present paper makes an analysis of the contribution of Azan Fakir to the pluralistic society in Assam.
In the thirteenth century, when Assam was witnessing arrival of the people of Shan/Tai race and establishment of Ahom kingdom, she had also come into contact with other religious groups, particularly Islam. In the subsequent period, large number of encounters left a lasting impact socio - cultural, economic and political structure and leading to the evolution of pluralistic and liberal society.
Muhammad bin Bakhtiyar Khalji was first Turkish commander to enter Assam, while making an effort to invade Tibet (1206 AD). An inscription found near Guwahati testifies about the disastrous campaign of Bakhtiyar Khalji, but it had also marked the beginning of Muslim settlement in Assam [Sarkar 1992: 35-37; Saikia 1978:40-45]. There were series of invasions by the Afghan rulers. Sultan Ghiyasuddin Iwaz Khalji, ruler of Gaur (Bengal) invaded Kamrup in 1226-27. Prince Nasiruddin, son of Sultan Iltutmish who as viceroy of Bengal also appointed a tributary king in Kamrup. The first serious attempt to conquer Kamrup was made by Ikhtayaruddin Yuzbak Tughril Khan, the ruler of Bengal who advanced upto the capital city of Kamrup and built a mosque, but his conquest subsequently failed due to climatic conditions [Sarkar 1992:35-37; Saikia 1978:40-45]. Later, Kamrup was invaded by Ghiyasuddin Bahadur, Shamsuddin Firuz Shah (Bengal Sultan), Muhammad bin Tughlaq, Sultan Ilyas Shah (1342-57) Sikander Shah (1357-62) and Ghiyasuddin Azam Shah (1393-1410).[Sarkar,1992:41-48]
Sultan Alauddin Hussain Shah made attempt to annex Kamrup permanently and he had extended the territory up to Hajo and Barnadi. Kamrup was placed under the control of two Afghan commanders namely, Ghiyasuddin Aulia and Musundar Ghazi.
The rich and prosperous kingdom of Kamrup in lower Brahmaputra Valley, known for its elephant and aromatic plants, attracted Islam Khan, the Mughal viceroy of Bengal, who embarked on a prolonged warfare to conquer Kamrup. He had pursued the Kamrup ruler Parikshit and established Mughal rule in Kamrup (Koch Hajo) by end of July, 1613 [Sarkar 1992 : 99-103]. But in the subsequent period the fortune kept on changing sides till the major offensive undertaken by Mur Jumla, the Mughal subedar of Bengal [Talish, M.A.Library, Aligarh Collection: f 56]. Along with Mir Jumla a large number of emigrants came to Assam, who settled down in the new territory, besides a small section of local population had also came into close contact with the Mughal subedar.
There was large scale migration of Muslims into Kamrup as evidences for any large scale conversions are not found . It got impetus due to prolonged occupation of southern portion of Goalpara and Kamrup from the time of Ghiyasuddin Bahadur Shah (1320-21) to 1397-1407. A more regular and systematic process of Muslim infiltration into Kamrup, however, seems to have commenced from the reign of Chakradhwaja who had adopted the Islamic faith and the migration continued with intensity till the Ahom king Suhungmung conquered back the region in 3rd decade of 16th century [Saikia 1978: 131-32].
Earlier Hussain Shah, the Bengal ruler established a settlement of Muslim warriors in Hajo, which had continued even when Ahom recovered the Kamrup-Goalpara region. It is also argued that the Muslim war prisoners were also brought by the forces of Suhungnung and they were the earliest Muslim settlers in the eastern Brahmaputra Valley. Later, they were known as the Mariyas [Gait 1891: 101] .
When Naranarayan, the Koch ruler established peace with Emperor Akbar, Sulaiman Karrani as well as with Ahoms, the trade and commerce flourished, which had also induced Muslim migration. The city of Gauhati and Hajo emerged important centres of military, civil, commercial and cultural activities of the Muslim in the extreme eastern frontier of India (North-east India) after annexation of Koch-Hajo to the Mughal Empire. Large numbers of settlers came as soldiers of invading armies as well as persons employed to provide various supply to army [Saikia 1978: 133-34]. Ahom had imprisoned large number of Mughal soldiers during the wars and Ahoms, moving away from their convention of treating prisoners of war as slave, employed these Muslims (prisoners of war) in various positions of administration to buttress their espionage system, military techniques and for conducting diplomacy [Robinson 1891: 204; Hunter 1879: 245-46]. The Ahom kings also invited several Muslim artisans and employed them as mason, engravers, spinners and state arsenal worker, When Ahom reconquered the Kamrup, the Muslim spread from western to eastern part as well [Hunter 1879: 245-46].
After Hussain Shah’s settlement of Muslims in Kamrup, Mukarram Khan, the Mughal governor of Koch-Hajo made another habitation of Muslim warriors in early 17th century and afterwards the large scale immigration had occurred when Laluk Barphukan surrendered Kamrup to the Mughals in 1679 AD and the subsequent increased volume of trade also led to further increase of Muslim population in Kamrup. Once their leader Niamatullah captured Gauhati for sometime [ Bhuyan 1928: 13]. .
The Muslims in Assam were known as Gariyas and Mariyas and it was generally believed that the word Gariyas had emerged out of word Ghore signifying the kingdom of Muhammad Ghori (Muizuddin bin Sam) and Gariyas had adopted the profession of tailoring and the word Mariyas derived from the Assamese word mariya (having the root verb mar means to beat) who adopted the profession of braziers [Gait, Rep1997:211; Hunter,1879:245-46; Robinson,1891:204].
Socio-cultural Impact of Islam.
The influx of the Muslims in Assam had influenced almost all sphere of Assamese polity. The Assamese people closely got acquainted with Islamic culture and religion, which had widened horizon of their experience specially in socio-cultural life. Several Muslims were appointed by the rulers in army and administration like Rupai Gariya, Muslim officer attached to royal Ahom arsenal, the Muslim captain Bagh Hazarika excelled in the army of Lachit Barphukan. They were also given post of Phukan, Barua, Hazarika and Persian transcribers and there were several Persian knowing officials in Ahom state. The offices of Amin, Uzir, Dewan were opened to Muslims as well.
Several brasswares, artisans known as Mariya Muslims were settled. [Gait Rep1997:145] The canon, gunpowder and handguns were introduced by them [Saikia,1978:148-49]. Large number of Muslims were employed under Changrung Phukan in the guilds of masons and artisan – involved in construction activities. The spacious building with rounded pillars, carved door-frames, geometrical patterns, arched windows, domes, minarets and decorative motifs were features of Indo-Islamic architecture testified there strong presence [Saikia,1978:149:50] .
Thus, the Indo-Islamic influences had helped in the reorganisation of army, diplomacy and administration as well as it also brought a change in the Assamese ways of living by introducing new material elements.
Interestingly, there was no large scale conversion of native population into Islam, despite several invasions and prolonged occupation. This is perhaps due to immense popularity of neo-vaishnavism preached by Sankardeva, where basic tenents appears to be simple, straight forward and practical as those of Islam, besides this has greatly diminished the caste system in Assam. Secondly the Ahom rulers except Siva Singha and his successors all Ahom rulers had fostered a liberal attitude to all religions including Islam and due to this attitude the forced conversion or allurement for conversion to any religion and sect was censured.
Azan Fakir emerged as a prominent sufi in the seventeenth century Assam. He had established his khankah in Sibsagar and people of all religion visited it. He was near contemporary to another prominent Vaishnava saint Sankerdev and mutual influence is quite discernible. Azan Fakir had initiated large no. of people into his fold as disciple, who had spread his message in the different corner of Assam .He is also stated to had acquired enormous mystical power. However, Azan Fakir emerged as a towering figure because he had authored several zikirs (zikr) in Assamese. These zikirs had not only enriched the Assamese literature but also spread the message of love effectively. He also wrote several kirtans (vaishnavite) and in fact emphasized on the unity of religions. Perhaps due to this Assam is free from bitter communal tension even today. He played a great role in moulding the Assamese society.
Large numbers of legends about his mystical power is currently found in Assam and due to this his dargah is today visited by all section of people. His dargah has emerged as symbol of syncretism in Assam Hazarat Shah Miran alias Azan Fakir, the most renowned Muslim saint poet of Assam is said to have entered the Ahom kingdom with his brother Hazarat Nabi Pir from some place in the western country In the middle of the seventeenth century [M.Neog,1980:55; Saikia,1978:201-05] . It is believed that he had entered Assam with the Mughal forces as early as 1612-13 AD and stayed with them in Hajo in the Kamrup district, until 1626 AD. In one of the verses (zikir/zikr) he indicated his arrival in Assam:
Dah ha dukuri nabichan hizri
Aru pache basar jaye
Sah Mirane aei geet rachile
Quran kitabat chai [Zaman,2006:72].
In the year 1045A.H./1615A.D. Shah Miran has compiled this verse. It was not unlikely that he actually acquired true knowledge of the Assamese language and other literary works of Vaishnavite period during the period. Legends has it that he originally hailed from Baghdad and was a scion of family of the prophet.Azan Fakir, while staying at Hajo and Kamrup acquired knowledge of Assamese language, folk beliefs and religious ideas, which was reflected in his compositions of zikir(zikr), zaris and marshiyas. A new style of poetry, therefore, emerged in Assam [Ali, 2001: 100-01].
From some Zikirs, we learnt that Azan Fakir was a grey-haired-man when he entered the Ahom kingdom. Zikir the emotional music form which the Pir composed during 1635-42 AD, shows that the language and style it conforms distinctly to the folk songs of eastern Assam Valley [Malik ,1958:29,82; Saikia, 1978:202-03]. Obviously, we can suggest that he had settled in the Ahom kingdom some years before this date (1635 AD).
In 1636 AD, the second phase of war between the Ahom king Pratap Singha with the Mughals broke out and it ended with a peace treaty in 1639 AD. By this treaty, the road near the city of Gauhati on the south of the Brahmaputra, and its tributary Barnadi on the north had been fixed as the Ahom Mughal boundary. Thus, the present city of Gauhati remained within the Mughal territory of Kamrup. It is presumed that Azan Pir stayed in Mughal Kamrup till this date, i.e. 1628 AD and afterwards he came to the Ahom kingdom which he described in his Zikirs as “Pardesh” (alien country). It is also learnt from some other Zikirs that the Muslims residing near the capital of Ahom kingdom (Sibsagar) became panicky when hostility between the Ahoms and Muslims broke out. The saint had, therefore, come down to Hajo and stayed there [Malik, 1958: 29,82; Saikia ,1978: 202-03]. This suggests that he being a new comer to the Ahom kingdom, probably deemed it better to be away from the capital for his safety. Moreover, by that time probably he had become the source of displeasure for the Assamese Muslim official of the Ahom State like Rupai Gariya due his teachings and preaching [Bhuyan,1975: 180-82]. This reference to hostility between Ahoms and Muslims as found in the Zikirs, was probably to the second war between Pratap Singha and the Mughal Faujder, in Kamrup. When this ended in a peace treaty in 1639 AD, the Pir might have returned to the Ahom capital. Because we find that, he composed Zikirs in the same language and style referred to above in 1657AD. This time he appears to have settled in the country and gradually earned popularity amongst his followers in the country. This growing popularity of Azan Fakir had become a cause of concern to the early Muslim settlers of Assam. Because through his writings and preaching the Pir bitterly attacked those native Muslims who delighted themselves in doing such things which were against Islamic practices [Bhuyan ,1975: 180-82]. This is because the pre-Mughal Muslim migrants to Assam had assimilated into the local society so much that all traces of Islam disappeared from them.
He came into direct clash with the Assamese Muslim official Rupai Gariya, the armour carrier of the Ahom king. In 1685 AD, i.e. during the reign of Gadadhar Singha, Rupai Gariya brought open charges against the Pir before the king, accusing the Pir of being spy of the Mughals and meeting Mughal soldiers in the jungles. The king, however, did not heed him. At last, Rupai succeeded in convincing the king that the Pir gave wrong guidance to the Muslim subjects in the country and thus polluted the religion. Still the king did not take himself any steps against Azan Fakir. Instead he suggested Rupai do what he deemed best, but cautioned him to act with utmost care and in a rightful way that the king should not be held responsible for his mis-judgement. Rupai Gariya, thus having the king’s concurrence, arrested the Pir and extracted his eyes [ Bhuyan, 1975:181] & [Saikia, 1978: 203-04] . However, subsequently the king learnt all about the intrigue against the Pir and therefore, he immediately put Rupai Gariya to death and the Pir was granted a monastery with free land grant and servitors near the Dikhaw river in Sibsagar [Saikia,1978: 204-05].
Azan Pir is said to have married an Assamese lady, by whom he had three sons. Their descendants are still found in Assam, and they have been known as Suraguria Dewans, a name that originated from the name of the place where they were settled. Azan Pir probably died sometime around 1690 AD [Saikia,1978: 204] .
The other religious movement inform of Bhakti was contemporary development led by Sankardeva (1449-1569). Sankardeva preached monotheistic cult of Vaishanva bhakti consisting savarna and kirtana. He evolved his own interpretation which deviated from other such sects. He preached for supreme surrender to one God, Vishnu or Krishna who is the central reality of soul and matter and first and final cause of creation [Zaman, 2006: 118]. Krishna was regarded as incarnation of God and unlike other Vaishana Bhakti school it rejected dualistic conception of God as Krishna and Radha. It upheld that Madhava was the instrumental for both Prakriti and Purusha. It emphasized worship of God through love and devotion which did not recognize any caste and based on universal spirit [Zaman, 2006: 118; Saikia,1978: 219-22].
The adherents had to accept this world and life respectively as place to prepare for self less service to God through love and devotion. In some of the Bargits, Sankardev and Madhavdeva sing the glory of life (narajanma), human body (naratanu) and the world [Zaman ,2006:119] . These similarities were mere coincidental or emerged due to any direct or indirect influence of Bhakti movement or Islam cannot be established firmly. However Sankardev and Madhavadev had been referred respectfully in the zikirs testify the influences. The frequent use of words like nama in zikir as substitute of kalmia is notable [Zaman, 2006: 119]. Similar influences are discernible on the Bhakti. The movement initiated reforms thorugh new institutions like Namghars( worshipping place) and satras (monasteries) [Zaman, 2006: 119].
Needless to add that Azan Fakir’s compositions called Zikirs on composite themes are sung throughout the Brahmaputra Valley even today and almost all his devotees can sing this particular composition:
There is no feeling of ‘difference’
In my mind o God
Indeed there is no difference
Hindu and Musalman are the creation
Of the same God
Takes the name of the same God at the end of life
Hindus would be cremated,Muslims buried and
Dust would merge with dust.
Some of the zikirs composed by Azan Fakir are pertinent to these mutual respect: “Hindu muslaman, ek allar farman
Gorasthane kabar sari sari
Hinduk puriba musalmanak gariba”[Zaman, 2006: 122; Saikia, 1978: 267].
(Hindus and Muslims are bounded by the same self of the divine rules, whether cremating or engraving signify one end to all ).
“Santa mahanta auliya sakale, eketi namate khate” ( The Saints and auliyas also supplicate to one name ie God) [Zaman ,2006: 122; Saikia, 1978: 267].
The sufi saints also refer to ‘dasya bhakti’ the devotion of selfless servant to his master (God) in zikir :-
“Ati sukhemali sewami bhakti
Thako bridayate dhari” [Zaman, 2006: 122; Saikia, 1978: 267].
( the most pleasure is the path of swami bhakti i.e. the loving devotion to the Master, and I ever cherish it in my heart)
“Nameche parnam dham
Sona mor bahi o
Suna mor bhai” [ Zaman, 2006: 122; Saikia, 1978: 267].
( Oh my brethren listen the name of God is the greatest of all treasure ) Similar sentiments are found in Sankardev’s writings:
“matharo pakilo chuli
Paramu manaiye bujibe noware
Namehe sar katha buli” [Zaman, 2006: 122; Saikia, 1978: 269].
(My hair has greyed, yet my sinful mind understand that praises of the Lord is the essence of all matter).
Similarly the following remark of Azan Pir, in one of the zikirs against those who practise love and devotion to God only to win His mercy on the day of last judgement reveals how the path of Niskama Bhakti has been glorified in the zikirs:
makkar dawarat banda anek juguti
jap mai par hale erile piriti [Saikia, 1978: 269-70].
(In the portals of Mecca the devotee makes many a plan but when the leaps across the last tangle, he sets aside the love of God).
Islam does not deprecate the value of this world and life, as the field of action and the training ground for life, the world to come, the present world is of great importance to man. Consequently, the conception of Maya (illusion) appears to become repugnant to Islam. In the doctrines preached by Sankardeva, we find constant references to Maya. His idealism can be well compared to Sufi leader Ibn Sina’s (Avicena) conception of ultimate reality as eternal beauty, seeing reflection in the universe mirror.[Allen,Rep,1960 :103] In the poem, Veda-Stuti, Sankardeva writes:
tumi satya brahma tomata prakase jagata ito ananta
jagatato sada tumi prakasa antaryami bhagawanta
etekese jnanigane awasesa jagatake bole hari [Saikia, 1978: 270].
(Thou art the eternal and absolute Truth. This unreal world appears to be real only in Thee and Thou manifests Thyself in the universe as its inner controller. It is for this that the wise people regard this universe as Hari).
The Assamese Zikirs also seem to have brought in a similar conception. It is not possible to ascertain whether their authors were directly inspired by the conception of Ibn Sina, which is believed to have found an echo in the thoughts of Kabir, or whether they received such ideas from the doctrine preached by Sankardeva. It may, however be presumed that they were inspired by the latter. In order to prove this contention the following illustration would be perhaps helpful. In one of the Bargits Sankardeva says:
narayana lila janaba kei…
jata dekhu kaya suta vitta jaya
mayako sava dhandha [Saikia, 1978: 270-71].
(Who can understand the divine sport of Narayana? All that you see – the body, children, wealth and wife – are vagaries of Maya).
A similar view is found expressed in some Zikirs:
dhan jan puttra bharya sabe akaran
chaya muthe beri ache mayar kara [Saikia,1978: 271] .
(The wealth, friends as well as wives and children are all futile. They are only shadows that surround you on account of Maya).
The first line is a clear echo from Sankardeva’s Bhagavata, Book X. Again:
tumi jal pata tumi pahu chanda
tumi hai mafarak dhara
harin rupe chari ei bane somai
vyaghra rupe dhari khowa
srajan palan tomare hatat
tumi ji lage kara.
tumi hai khuala tumi hai buala
tumi hai lagala mat
hate bajarat tumi hai furala
matila amatar mat [Saikia,1978:271-73].
(Thou spreadest the net and ambush a deer and trappest a Mafar; As a deer Thou enterest this forest and Thou as tiger devourest Thyself The power of creation and preservation are in thy hands, and Thou actest in whatever way Thou pleaseth It is Thou who feedest me and givest me a bath and leadest me through the fares and markets of the world, and tend me with the sweetest words).
Such expressions appear to be clear echoes of that Vaishnava conception of the relation of God and the world, which we have illustrated above with a quotation from the Veda-Stuti. The spirit of complete surrender as a servant to God and the earnest longing for His kindness as reward, permeates through the Vaishnava literature of Assam. The Zikirs are also found to be completely imbued with such spirit. To cite only a few illustrations, we may quote the following lines from the Bargits of Madhavdeva and the Zikirs:
moke dekhiyo na kene ahe jagannath
mai bar papera papi or
dayar thakur hari yadumani ai ram
adhame tomar nam dake [Saikia, 1978: 273-74].
(Why hast Thou not turned to me, Oh Jagannath,
I am the worst of all sinners.
O Hari, Thou art the embodiment of love
And this vile person calleth out thy name).
Bigotry was positively repulsive to these Muslim holy men of Assam. They sing the glory of the Vedas as much as they do of the Quoran :
sari vede giyanke kai ai Allah [Saikia,1978:274].
(The four Vedas also speak out knowledge, O Allah).
Besides such utterances, most of the Zikirs not only reveal a sense of high esteem for Hinduism but also clearly show the sincerest endeavour of these holy men to strengthen amity and mutual respect. The references to Allah as ‘Niranjana’ or the comparison of the effect of the recitation of the name of God to pious ablutions in the Ganges, or to the value of the holy water of the Ganges are illustrations of such endeavour on the part of these men of Islam of Assam. It was perhaps for such persistent endeavours on their part that many of the Zikirs look like attempts at a synthesis of Hindu and Islamic thoughts and ideals. It is, again, on this account that many of the Zikirs tend to be the property of both Hindus and Muslims and to become complements to the popular philosophical songs of the Hindu mendicants (baragi) called ‘deh-vicharar git’. The imageries employed in some of the Zikirs, have a Hindu impress when they refer to the harp of Kailasa, so sacred to Lord Siva (kone saji diba kailasar tokari) or to Sankardeva and Madhavdeva. Then again, what is most fascinating is the fine blending of these elements with words of Perso-Arabic origin. A few of the expressions coined by these popular poets may perhaps be cited here : ilimar batha (the oars of enlightenment), duniyar swami (the Lord of the Universe), tripani ajur ghat (the place of ablution on the Triveni, the juncture of three holy rivers), niranjan purushe khela gulistan (the flower garden where the spotless Lord plays), suvarnar bandegi (the golden salutations), ei tanu fana (this perishable body). Such expressions, while being rooted to the soil, bestowed the proper colour and atmosphere on these Islamic compositions. It is interesting how the Muslim fakir, Azan, is referred to in the body of the text of Zikir as Ajan-deva Fakir in the same style as Sankardeva and Madhavdeva are mentioned. It may be noted in this connection how the Hindu baragi was attracted by Perso-Arabic words and sang in one voice with the Muslim fakir, as it were: ‘duniyai ediner, duniyai dudiner, duniya phulanibari’ in a few Zikirs there are curious references to the use of vermilion marks on the forehead and of conch-shell bangles on the hands as symbols of married womanhood as in Hinduism.
Though, the Muslim population was assimilated in Assamese society gradually and were given various important position in administration like Barua, Hazarika, Saikia and they had also displayed exemplary patriotism that they received derisive comment from Shihabuddin Talish. The Muslims have added new elements in the material culture of Assam whether building construction or manufacture of various items. But remarkable development took place in the socio-cultural aspect of life which is still visible and has a relevance in today’s militancy prone state, where the message of love has a relevance.
The interaction between the Islam and Vaishnavism (Bhakti) in Assam helped the growth of a deeper sense of mutual respect and tolerance in the minds of their adherents. Sankardeva and Madhavdeva were taken as guru by several noted Muslims like Chand Khan, Haridas. The impact of this harmonious relation between Islam and Vaishnava Bhakti pervaded all aspects of moral, social, art and material culture of the people. The Zikir and Zaris were composed by Muslim pirs and auliyas but several of them have also exalted the glory of Sankardeva and Madhavdeva and Bhakti and such relationship between Hindus and Muslims in Assam led to the germination of deep rooted secular, liberal and tolerant outlook/attitude in the society that when whole country faced communal violence Assam remain a oasis of peace and tranquillity except for a rarest of rare incident. When the communal bitterness was increasing in mainland, in Assam Hindus and Muslims could assemble in the courtyard of a Namgarh or a mosque to express their disapproval of any hostility among the people of same land. Even today, the singing of zikir produce similar devotion to Sankardeva as well as to Islam and remind the people of their oneness. The finest example of cultural miscegenation in this north eastern corner of India could become possible due to the remarkable spirit of toleration, understanding and accommodation which still persist despite being under tremendous stress recently. Perhaps, this did not face much problem even during the days of Assam agitation and militancy. But lack of inculcation or encouragement of such syncretic culture and growing ignorance of cultural legacy largely due to absence from curriculum are bound to affect it and it must be saved before its being becoming extinct.
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