Derasar and Dargah coexist in Gandhi’s Gujarat

By Rupa Abdi,

To the uninitiated, no two religions could be as far apart as Jainism and Islam. The former, carries the principals of non-violence to the extreme, wherein even the lowest life forms such as insects are not to be harmed; while in the latter consumption of certain birds and animals for food is a part of everyday life.

But life style and diet do not make up a religion. Nor do rites and rituals. These are mere symbols to remind us of a higher Reality and tools to make us more receptive to this Reality. One has to rise above them in order to discern the common threads that run through all religions.

Perhaps Akbar knew this when he granted the sacred Shetrunjaya Hill, in Palitana Gujarat, to the Jain muni Hiravijaya Suri to begin the construction of what was to become one of the largest complex of Jain temples (Derasar); and so did Angar Pir, a sufi saint who protected these Derasars from the attack of Allauddin Khilji.

Temple complex at the summit of Shetrunjaya

Today, the entire summit of majestic mount Shatrunjaya is crowned with about 900 temples and shrines. The peak is a little over 3 km climb of about 3500 steps from the base. The Jains put all their devotional passion and considerable wealth into the creation of the most ornate marble temples; with exquisitely detailed relief carvings covering every inch of this temple complex. The entire complex was built and rebuilt over a span of 900 years. The act of ascending a path to reach a place of pilgrimage is a part of the Hindu and Jain consciousness, this is the reason why many of their holiest temples are located along hills and mountain ranges.

The Jains have five separate hill locations for their holiest clusters of temples and Shatrunjaya Hill in Palitana is considered the most important among them. Every devout Jain aspires to climb atop Shetrunjaya at least once in a lifetime, akin to the Haj of the Muslims, and as he makes this pilgrim bare footed, the Jain devout with a white coloured seamless cotton cloth wrapped around his body could be easily mistaken for a Haj pilgrim in an ihram!!

Jain pilgrims who could be mistaken for Hajis !!

Next to the Derasars, lies the Dargah of sufi saint Angaar Pir. Lured by the great wealth of the temple complex, Allauddin Khilji attacked these temples around 14th century and according to legend, Angaar Pir rose to the protection of these temples, and with the power of his prayer he hurled heavenly fire on Khilji’s army. Today, childless women visit the Pir’s Dargah to be blessed with a child. They offer miniature cradles to the Pir.

Dargah is to the left and the temple complex to the right

It is noteworthy that both Islam and certain sects among the Jains are against idol worship. The Jains are divided into two major sects, the Svetambar and the Digambar. Some sub sects among the Svetambar are apposed to idol worship and believe in internalization of the faith. Shri Mahavir, who was the twenty fourth and last Tirthankara (one who has attained enlightenment and shows the way to others) of the Jains, was himself against idol worship.

Both Jainism and Islam came in close contact with each other during historic times and influenced each others architecture and painting. This is apparent in a number of Masjids in Gujarat such as the Jami Masjid in Champaner.

During Akbar’s reign many Jain munis were invited to his court. Apart from Padmasundar, who is believed to be the first Jain monk to meet Akbar, we have a continuous flow of distinguished Jain saints to the court of Akbar and his successor Jahangir. The most famous Jain visitor to Akbar was Hiravijaya Suri who met him in 1582 C E.

Akbar was so impressed by Hiravijaya Suri that he conferred upon him the title of “Jagad Guru” or “the preceptor of the world.” The faith of the Jain community in Akbar and the Mughal polity was strengthened when the ruler issued orders prohibiting the killing of animals on certain days sacred to the Jains. When Hiravijaya Suri left the court, he asked Bhanuchandra and his disciple Siddhichandra to stay back. They lived under the patronage of the royal court even after Akbar’s death, and Siddhichandra who had also learnt Persian, wrote “Bhanuchandra Gani Charit” a biography of his master.

There is yet another instance in Indian history when these two faiths came even closer. The Navayath community of coastal Karnataka are believed to be the descendents of Arab men and Jain women. Visiting Arab traders would marry the daughters of local Jain traders. Many of the Arabs would then continue on with their maritime trade travels living the women and children behind. As a result, the children grew up under a strong Jain influence of the mother, and the community today has retained many Jain customs like eating before sunset, dominance of vegetarian food and the dress and jewellery of the women of this community are similar to the Hindu-Jain traditions. This community has a unique language called Navayathi which is basically Konkani with a preponderance of Sanskrit, Persian, Arabic, and Marathi words and the script used is Persian. The Navayaths claim that their Arab ancestors were followers of Shaafi school and traders like the Jains, and were peace loving, diplomatic and friendly. According to some scholars the abundance of Persian words in Navayathi indicates that some of their ancestors may be from Iran while some historians trace their origin to South Yemen.

The rest of Gujarat and India could learn a lesson or two from the Jains, for when flames of hatred were unleashed in Gujarat after the Godhra carnage, the Angar Pir Dargah at Palitana remained untouched and the credit for this goes to the Jain community of Gujarat.

[Photo by Razi Abdi]