BiographyYogesh Snehi teaches history at the School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi, India. Previously, he was a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), Shimla (2013–2015). His major teaching and research interests focus on greater Punjab and the debates on popular religion and its practice. Through a Tasveer Ghar fellowship, he has created a digital repository of images for the ‘heidICON’ image and multimedia database of Heidelberg University which is in circulation at Sufi shrines in contemporary Punjab. He has co-edited the book Modernity and Changing Social Fabric of Punjab and Haryana (2018) and also edited the Winter 2017 issue of Summerhill: IIAS Review, Shimla.
Areas of Research / Professional Expertise
Yogesh Snehi’s major teaching and research interests focus on popular culture. He tends to comprehend the social formation of Punjab through an understanding of Popular Sufi Shrines and investigate the long-term processes of region formation, debates on identities and growth of communalism. He problematizes the prevalent communal reductionism of historiography in contemporary Punjab and offers a critical insight into local and regional processes of social formation. His research provides a methodology to theorize the ‘popular’ which is people-oriented and appreciates the organic relationship between various identities. He was recently a Fellow at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla (December 2013- December 2015) and worked on a monograph on the popular Sufi shrines in contemporary Punjab.
Review of 'Spatializing Popular Sufi Shrines in Punjab: Dreams, Memories, Territoriality' by Ishtiaq Ahmed
By: Yogesh Snehi
Spatializing Popular Sufi Shrines in Punjab: Dreams, Memories, Territoriality
This is a timely and important contribution of historian Yogesh Snehi who teaches at the School of Liberal Studies, Ambedkar University Delhi. Synthesis and syncretism predate the advent of Islam and the Sufis in the Indian subcontinent. This is a very distinctive if not unique feature of the plural cultural and civilization ethos of this region. Hinduism, notwithstanding its divisions of varnas and castes, accepted plurality of deities. Buddhism and Jainism were in the ancient period two major challenges to the status quo. After the arrival of Islam and especially Sufism a new cultural system was established, which too adapted to the proto-plural format of the subcontinent.
The teachings of Sufis, Gorakhnathi Yogis, the Bhakhti Sants and the Sikh Gurus converged on the idea of one Creator or Spirit permeating all forms of life, notwithstanding monist or pantheist manifestations. In Sufi parlance it was expressed as, Wahdat-ul-Wajud, which inevitably resulted in learning from one another, synthesis and syncretism. Nowhere else was such interaction more deeply rooted among the people than in the Punjab.
The author’s point of departure is to widen and deepen the scope of the role of Sufi shrines in the cultural heritage of the Punjab. He goes beyond conventional study of formal texts, architecture (of shrines), annual pilgrimages and the hagiography of saints. His directs his focus on the linkages and interconnectivity which the Sufi Shrines represent spatially. By spatiality he means the networks which the shrines generated. His notion of spatiality includes both time and space and takes cognition of networks of trade, migration, demography, rural settings, existing religious settings and other such factors which together constitute a greater social and cultural world than a study merely of the texts, rituals and practices. To the notion of spatiality are added dreams, memories and dissent
Such an approach is most fruitful because no other region apart from Bengal on the other end in the north-east of the subcontinent has undergone cumulative change and transformation since at least the nineteenth century when the Mughal Empire went into irreversible decline and instead in the Punjab the Kingdom of Lahore was founded by Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The 90 years of British rule wrought vast changes in not only the methods and procedures of government and administration, but also economy and class structure as well as topography and demography. For example, during British rule much of western Punjab, which was desert and semi-desert was transformed through the biggest irrigation system of the world at that time consisting of canals and water barrages. It was accompanied by the transfer of population from several overpopulated districts of eastern Punjab into the canal colonies in western Punjab.
However, such drastic transformation received severe jolts with the bloody rupture of the Punjab at the time of Partition in 1947 between India and Pakistan. Nearly 800,000 Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs were killed. Of the 34 million population of the undivided Punjab, which included both the British-administered 29 districts as well as the princely states, at least 10 million crossed the border in search of safe havens and none could return to their hearths and homes afterwards.
Amid all that upheaval the physical remains of the Sufi saints and their shrines remained put, but not their devotees. As is well-known the Sufi shrines have historically been objects of pilgrimage for not only Muslims but also Hindus and Sikhs. After the partition the possibility to visit the shrine became increasingly difficult depending on which side of the border their devotees were placed. Memories and dreams as well as well as dissent and innovation became the vehicle through which the trauma of partition and separation was sublimed among devotees of the saints.
Ajay Bhardwaj had in his celebrated documentary Kite Mil We Maahi, already shed light on the continuity and change in the role of the Sufi shrines in the overwhelmingly Hindu and Sikh environment of East Punjab. He focused on the Punjabi Dalits who have turned to Sufism as a means to create an alternative narrative from the one represented by the upper castes subscribing to Hindu and Sikh orthodoxy. The Qadri and Chishti orders especially have remained popular in the Indian Punjab and their Hindu and Sikh devotees have remain in touch with their Muslim peers and gaddinashins (incumbents or successors of the Sufi founders of the network)
Yogesh Snehi shows that that the Sufi shrines and their devotees are to be found at all levels of society including Jats and Rajputs. In that sense, the role and hold of Sufi shrines in the day-to-day life of the people of East Punjab is far greater the marginalized phenomenon of Dalit urge for social elevation and higher self-esteem. He notes that the right-wing Sikh religious establishment discouraged the Sikhs, Jats and Mazhabis, from taking part in Sufi activism and networks but such pressure has not been successful.
Several case studies are included. Among them the legend of Sakhi Sarwar, a 13th century Sufi buried in Dera Ghazi Khan in southern Punjab on the border of the Balochistan hills attracted my attention especially. During my research on the partition of the Punjab I met an elderly Hindu gentleman Amrik Chand Ahluwalia who told me that as a child he remembered going with his father to faraway Balochistan to the urs (annual festival) of Sakhi Sarwar. What amused and touched me was that he said that although he was a Hindu, he ate only halal meat which he could buy in Patiala. His story is in my book and many others which testify to the existence of at least two societies or three societies or social orders in the Punjab.
The upper- caste, upper class, the ordinary urban and small-town middle class and the vast segment of rural society. We learn from Snehi that the urs of Sakhi Sarwar is celebrated in several places in the Indian Punjab and in the adjoining states. Shrines purported to represent Sakhi Sarwar have been built and the incumbents to the status of guardian Sufi is occupied by Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs. This is true of several other case studies included in the study. The book includes many pictures, sculptors and drawings – all representing popular or peoples’ art. I wonder if a comparable study has been undertaken in the Pakistani Punjab.
The contrast between the high culture of Sufi shrines represented by states and governments and the little or peoples’ culture is striking. The former is text-bound and focuses on formal rituals while the latter represents what is broadly known as the’ ways of life’ or ordinary people. In politics the former invariably prevails but the latter continues to survive one way or another.
The writer is Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University; Visiting Professor Government College University; and, Honorary Senior Fellow, Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He has written a number of books and won many awards, he can be reached on firstname.lastname@example.org
By: Yogesh Snehi
Subjects: History, Philosophy and Religion, Religion
21 Jul 2019 Chandigarh NIRUPAMA DUTT
WHY SUFI SHRINES STILL SHINE ON
SUFI SHRINES ARE A WAY OF LIFE IN PUNJAB AND AREAS AROUND THE CITY OF CHANDIGARH HAVE THEIR SHARE OF THESE SACRED PLACES
Accidents often lead to discovery and understanding. So it was with Yogesh Snehi, a young teacher of history on his first assignment in Abohar. His post-graduate students asked him to take them to a local shrine of Panj Pirs situated on one of the two sand dunes on the outskirts of the city. This was his first visit to a popular Sufi shrine in 2005. Yogesh recounts, “Although I grew up in Abohar and had visited the dunes I had never ventured into Panj Pir because of the local Hindu prejudices as it was patronised by the Sukhera community of the Rajput Muslims not liked by the Rajput Hindus.”
However, this trip with his students led Snehi to begin a decade-long exploration of the Sufi shrines of Punjab. Embarking on this journey, he wondered how these places of worship had thrived. The question was pertinent because the three mainstream religious streams of undivided Punjab— the Muslim, the Hindu and later the Sikh-remained opposed to these ‘popular’ shrines, which were a combination of different systems of philosophical or religious beliefs and practices.
The scholastic harvest of this search comes to us in a book titled Spatializing Popular Sufi Shrines in Punjab: Dreams, Memories, Territoriality. There were many surprises for the author as he probed the space they occupied in Punjab here as well as the Punjab in Pakistan, leading him to describe these everyday people’s places of pilgrimage as ‘popular’. So, areas around the modern city of Chandigarh have a number of such popular spots offering alternate space to people who are marginalised by mainstream religion, especially the Dalits.
Snehi, who teaches history at the School of Liberal Studies,
Ambedkar University, Delhi, and was also Fellow at the Indian
Institute of Advanced Study (IIAS), Shimla, consciously probes the
line of the second generation of historians of Punjab. The effort
is to bring attention to the traditions that took root in medieval
Punjab in a spontaneous coming together of
different cultures and faiths that went into the making of what is called Punjabiat. He goes back to the inclusive Nath Yogi, Sufi and Bhakti mileu from 11th to 15th Century which shaped Sikh thought and the philosophy of Guru Nanak in negating caste. Historians record the discussions and discourses of Guru Nanak with the Nath Siddhas in his journeys. Snehi
questions in his narrative the divisive colonial historian JD Cunnigham’s view that limits the history of the region from the birth of Guru Nanak in 1469 to the fall of Ranjit Singh’s kingdom in 1839.
Interestingly, the Sufi shrines which dot the Punjab countryside
have their own stream of in-style art for the devotees and Snehi
explores this at length in the book that devotes a chapter to
Popular Art, dealing with the visualisation of the space they
occupy in the Land of the Five Rivers and also in the hearts of the
pilgrims.The range of Popular Art is wide and
varied and includes photographs, paintings, posters, collages, videos and internet presentations. There are posters of singer Gurdas Maan contemplating on Baba Ladi Shah, Hans Raj Hans seeking the blessings of Data Lal Badshah or late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan singing the love legend of Sohni in the Hindi album Sohni Da Gharha (Sohni’s pitcher). Yes, the same pitcher with which she would swim across the turbulent Chenab River to meet Mahiwal.
The author says: “It is vital to extend the studies of religion to spaces outside of the structures and explore its everyday spaces and rituals, bazaars, along the roads to the shrines, which abound in images, posters and audio visual material. The Urs (annual congregation) and ziyarat (pilgrimage) are occasions when boundaries of participants and observers are blurred. The blurring and overlapping is the everyday corrective to the linear historical discourses with popular memory crossing the barbed wire to be with their saints.”
Among the various case studies of the popular shrines is the story of Dargah Hyder Shaikh in Malerkotla which does not have as many devotees among the Muslim population as among the Hindus and Sikhs who visit for wish fulfilment. Malerkotla is very special to the Sikhs because its nawab, Sher Mohammad Khan, had protested when the two younger sahibzadas (sons) of the tenth Sikh Guru, Guru Gobind Singh, were to be bricked alive on the orders of the Governor of Sirhind. The gesture of the nawab was appreciated by the Guru, who said, “His roots will ever remain green.”
Snehi writes: “The Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims always remembered this act of benevolence and that it was made possible by the blessings of Haider Shaikh, the patron mystic Sufi of Malerkotla. It is this narrative that epitomises the mass veneration of the Shaikh.”
Published: Nov 30, 2019
Published: Nov 30, 2019
‘Urs in Qawwali, Qawwali in Urs’ presentation at The Royal Opera House, Mumbai.
Published: Apr 21, 2020
In the Memory of a Pir - A Talk by Yogesh Snehi, Ambedkar University Delhi at Lamakaan (Hyderabad), India This presentation attempts to foreground the process of recovery of a Sufi shrine Manakpur Sharif that was left desolate for almost a year after the Partition of Punjab in 1947.