Following the Sacred Graves: Image, Voice, Fragrance at the Mazars of Kolkata

There are three and half Qalandariyas. Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, Bu Ali Shah Qalandar, Data Hayat Mir Qalandar, and Rabia Basri. Basri which means she was born in Basra. Qalandariyas even have a woman saint. (Halim Ali, the motwali of Pagla Baba Mazar, Tollygunge)

Pir Pagla Baba Mazar
Tollygunge, Kolkata

I nod. I need to learn that it is through perception and popular belief as history that the mazars draw the sacred geography of Kolkata, the postcolonial city. Rabia Basri (d801) could not perhaps be a part of the Qalandariya silsilah that started in early 12th century until another sense of time is invoked where anything can join in or leave the labyrinth of memory. And I am traveling through the lanes and by-lanes of Kolkata, passing the shops glittering with the gold printed green of the chadors to cover the graves of the Sufi Pirs, to reach brick houses heavy with the devotional concentrations of men and women who stand around the graves. In most of the courtyards a frangipani tree stands as the witness of such intensity. I talk to people and take photos of those who display flowers – marigold, tuber rose and dahlia, also rose water and sacred relics. I sit with women, head covered, ecstatic and calm in the serene interior, where the Pir talks to you in fragments, from the grave. He speaks through the fragrance.

It was 8 pm. Wednesday night. I took a left turn from a wide and clean Jubilee Park Road to enter a by lane stifled with bikes parked at both sides. Hundreds of young men gathered around the courtyard of Pagla Baba Mazar. The smell of incense and intoxication was spread around the shrine like an enchanting fog, which was getting thicker as the night deepened. I was sitting in front of the grave of Hazrat Isha Ali Jwalali Qalandar Dervish urf Khidmat Ali Shah urf Pagla Baba. I could hear the prayer for Panjatan Pak being chanted after the Isha Namaz. Young men and families flocking the mazar repeated the darud, Hindus and Muslims alike. Tomorrow they would come back for the Thursday qawwali session. I scrolled down Facebook and came to know that Amjad Sabri is shot dead in Karachi. People here, perhaps, do not know who Amjad Sabri was but they do certainly gather to attend.

Madhumita Saha, with a pink handkerchief over her head, was divulging her crisis to the main Khadem, Hamid Ali, who transferred it to Muhammad Shah, the second Khadem, to give me some time. Of course, Muhammad Shah resolved Madhumita’s crisis by giving her a piece of cloth to tie around the tree. Hamid Ali confirmed, ‘It is open for all. Any caste. Men-women alike. See?’


Muhammad Shah was doing other sacred acts, too. He was coiling the neck of the devotees one by one with an iron chain and, after dislodging it, he was striking the back of the devotee with it. He was also striking on the head, shoulders, and the back of the devotees with a sacred broom and, being kind enough, he did not let me miss my share of blessings.


This is the Qalandariya form of the redemption of sin,’ told Muhammad Shah. ‘No other silsilah would do this. Very special.’

‘Madari Fakirs also do it, no?’ I wanted to prove that I am no fancy researcher.

‘But where are the Madaris? Nobody sees them around anymore.’ We are the only Qalandariya mazar in Kolkata.’ Hamid Ali was confident.

‘Being the Qalandariyas, the worshippers of Panjatan Pak and we commemorate the shahadat of Imam Ali (a.s.) on 21 Ramadan. You can come to attend that too.’ Both Hamid Ali and Muhammad Shah requested me to eat at the langar, community kitchen, as it is open for all.


Lakshmana Sena built a mosque and khanqah for Shah Jalaluddin Tabrizi in Pandua. But mosques were a phenomenon where the state came into contact with the Sufi saints. Outside that, basically the sufi pirs were disseminating Islam through the mystical path of Sufism. As Sufi pirs from northern India were dying and being buried in Sylhet, Pandua and everywhere, their graves started to be revered as the symbol of his spiritual height. Shah Jalaluddin Tabrizi, Fariduddin Shakarganj (d1269), Hazrat Shah Qamis actually travelled to the remotest areas of Bengal, leaving initiated bands of disciples (khalifa), who made sufi silsilah an everyday practice and religious realization a reality for the Muslim masses in Bengal. With the beginning of transaction with Yoga and Tantra as local philosophical knowledge systems, Northern Sufism got localized but it is in the beginning of eighteenth century that the pir-cult could become a popular and everyday form of religious culture and practice. The charismatic pirs, not very much aligned with the shariyati tradition of Islam, and held responsible for ‘incomplete Islamization’ in Asia, became only the soul intermediary between Allah and the profane beings, with his barkat.

Late nineteenth century Islamic reform attempted to purge the non-Islamic elements from the way Islam was being practiced by the masses. To eliminate shirk (polytheism) and bid’at(innovation) from the body of Islam, the pir-cult, based on the connection with the miraculous, was severely attacked. A new form of Sufism – reformed and scripturally oriented – bashra – was configured by demarcating its other – beshra – the lived and popular form. Between these two poles emerged several Sufi pirs and several Sufi institutions were started around their graves, which was neither purely non-scriptural nor do their respective silsilahs have a proper theoretical grounding. There is no archive encompassing and storing the life and activities of the lesser pirs with the culture of their ‘lesser shrines’ other than folklores, myths, local ballads. Sometimes those counter-archives, too, are very difficult to retrieve.

Hazrat Baba Maula Ali Shah Mazar
Maulali, Sealdah

Hazrat Baba Maula Ali Shah Mazar at Maulali
Hazrat Baba Maula Ali Shah Mazar at Maulali


Screech. Honk. Naked urchin crossing the road, screaming. Shrieking mother chasing them and beating them back. Beggars sitting on the pavement. The flower-seller sprinkling water on the wilted flowers which would be bought as offerings. Green, red, yellow chadors are shown and folded at an amount of 250 rupees. It’s the roja month, hence the crowd is less. But people, mostly Hindu women, were flocking in with children to sit in front of the three Khadems to get blessings and sugar-drops with the blessings of Pir Baba. The inner room, where Baba’s grave has been kept, has the exclusive entry for men who sit in silence to pray for minutes, hours.  Once inside, I forgot that it was surrounded by Senco Gold jewelry showroom, Calcutta Municipal Corporation building, NRS Medical Hospital and the State Youth Centre. It took me to another world where the miraculous power of Baba was the only truth.

As it was the 255th death anniversary of Baba that was commemorated last year, we will have to imagine a pir-cult being practiced in the early eighteenth century and a mazar being venerated since 1761 near Sealdah. They claim their lineage in the Chishtiya silsilah. Mujibur, who works at the tiny shop outside that sells sacred relics and talismans and books of chanting, showed the replica of the rowza to declare that they are all brought from Ajmer, from the dargah of Kwaja Mainuddin Chishti. The sticker says, ‘Made in Mumbai’. So, we know the channel of sacred circulation now. “36 jaats come here, there is no bar,” the chador seller declared with pride.



Muhammad Zehangir, one Khadem of Maula Ali Shah Mazar, gave me the names of the two other mazars that I should visit. When I asked about the other Chishtiya mazar – Lattu Shah Baba Mazar – at the Anwar Shah junction, he seemed clueless. I was quite amazed. Such localized and sovereign is the devotional landscape of the mazars here! Or is it really so self-enclosed? How do they arrive at identity in this limited ‘sacred geography’[1] as the practitioners of a particular silsilah? How do they belong to Islam? Is it the presence of a mosque at the dargah that creates the pan-Islamic connections and validation of identity, no matter how enclosed the shrine is and how autonomous the play of miracle. ‘How do you identify your religion in forms, etc., Muslim, then Sunni’? He seemed to ignore my question and started attending another woman and a child. The woman was from Bangladesh, I heard her saying. She was here with her husband, who had already entered the inner chamber where Baba’s grave was kept while she sat in front of Zehangir. They came for their son’s treatment in Kolkata. While he was admitted in the NRS Medical College & Hospital, the parents came to pray at Baba’s shrine.

Dada Pir Saheb Mazar
Prince Gholam Muhammad Shah Road

It was a tranquil Saturday mid-noon. The guy who was selling flowers invited me inside, where the khadem was taking a bath at the left corner tap and the mazar hall at the right was cool, empty, somber and fragrant, lit with some tube lights. When I was strolling around inside, men and women were entering, praying their regular prayer in silence and leaving. Some women stayed back for Baba Saheb to solve graver emergencies. There was a painting which was framed with an instruction to cover the head inside the mazar. In that painting, Hindus and Muslims neatly sit together in front of the candle and the incense sticks with their separate gestures of devotion.


A woman came with her toothless mother-in-law. Her red bordered feet and liberal marks of vermilion on the forehead not only declared her Hindu status, but it could be deduced that they came to pray for the woman’s husband’s health. A young woman brought the flower-seller in, who now entered with his head covered with a cap taking a certificate from the woman to get it touched by the grave for the blessings of the pir. The girl sat, lit the candles, took the rays inside her palms and transferred the blessings touching her closed eyes. She repeated the act, now; removing the kurta a little bit, she transferred the blessings to her belly, too. Baba must have blessed her with a child at that moment.


The Khadem took at least 35 minutes to finish his bath. Not really a Khadem, in his late eighties, Nripendra Narayan Niyogi, heads the Hindu majority managing committee of the mazar since 1997. He explained all the photos hanging over our heads in his room, which became his home since he had been selected to be the head of the committee. It is the lineage of Bara Pir Baba, Abdur Qadir Jilani Saheb, who Dada Pir Saheb followed, whose grave was started to be venerated by his khalifa Pir Baba Haji Mumtaz Hussain Saheb in 1947. He explained all the photos, of Imam Ali, Khwaja Mainuddin Chishti, and Mumtaz Husain on his walls.


‘I was blind with orthodoxy, too. My family had to leave the ancestral home in Mymensingh during the Partition and went through atrocities. But when I came in contact with Dadu, Baba Mumtaz Hussain, I realized that only love for the humanity can sustain us. I could forgive then. Next day, I will explain to you all the photos kept inside the hall.’ He assured me. I was quite amazed with his vocabulary. If I listened to him with my eyes closed, it would be very difficult to differentiate his speech from the speech of a devout Muslim, who has a certain specific vocabulary. ‘No I have not learnt Arbi or Urdu. My speech has become such as my mind has absorbed them.’

With much effort, he rose from his cot, brought out a notebook and requested me to write down my phone number. ‘I will remind you before the next ceremony. There will be monajatdarud reading and qawwali. See if you can make yourself free, come back.’

So, here begins another journey.­­

[1] Scott Kugle, Sufis and Saints’ Bodies: Mysticism, Corporeality, and Sacred Power in Islam(University of North Carolina Press, 2007)

Epsita Halder is Assistant Professor at the Department of Comparative Literature, Jadavpur University in Kolkata, India. In her doctoral thesis, she has explored the different formulations of the battle of Karbala to understand the search for identity of the Bengal Muslims (late nineteenth -early twentieth century). She has been working on the Muharram traditions in West Bengal, a part of which has been done with the Art Research and Documentation Grant of India Foundation for the Arts, Bangalore (2011-13). She is a recipient of the Charles Wallace Trust Short Term Fellowship (2011) and Sarai-CSDS Social Media Fellowship (2016). She is specifically interested in the interface between Muslim popular piety, visual culture, and new media in South Asia.

The article originally appeared at Cafe Dissensus.

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