MEHRU JAFFER | 23 SEPTEMBER, 2016
The Mingling Of Cultures in Lucknow
Then the Gomti became still as sleep, her breathing so transparent that the sulphuric depths of her basin was laid bare before the world to see.
This is how I imagine the Gomti River must have first revealed itself thousands of years ago to Ram, ruler from the Suryavansh dynasty of Sun gods at Ayodhya. This is how the river must have looked with its emerald green gait flanked by sapphire blue shores.
Ram is worshipped to this day for his magnanimity of having shared his majesty with all his subjects, including the local potter, weaver, the sweeper and the boatman.
It is Ram who chose Lucknow's hillock on the southern side of the gorgeous Gomti River as a dwelling for his beloved younger brother, Lakshman. Soon after the settlement here became known as Lakshmanpur.
Lakshman must have spent his days on the same hillock, carpeted at that time with flowers and grass good enough to eat. He must have lived in the company of snake worshippers and only 300 kilometres west to the kingdom of Ayodhya where Ram, seventh incarnation of Lord Vishnu preserver of the world, was king.
If Ram is Vishnu then the devoted Lakshman is revered as incarnation of the cobra who curled into a cosmos couch so that his god brother could rest his turquoise blue eyes in between the task of keeping order in the world.
The magic of the lofty landscape continued to attract tribes and races from different corners of the world, tempting thieves to steal from here and others to further enrich the lush green surroundings with their presence.
One such presence was that of Shah Mina who chose to live here in the midst of snake worshippers. Having made a little luggage of all the kindness that he had practiced in life and after having traveled widely, the sage settled down in the vicinity of the Lakshman Tila. He spent his days matching Islam of the book to daily practices like generosity towards all. Shah Mina impressed ordinary people much more than all the grand tales of loot and plunder by marauders.
Shah Mina followed the tradition of mystics like Khwaja Moinuddin Chisti who came to India from Persia in 1191 and was made to feel at home in the desert town of Ajmer in Rajasthan simply because the local people were enchanted by the liberality of his lovable spirit. He continues to be revered today as Garib Nawaz, friend of the poor.
Shah Mina came to Lucknow in 1450, a stranger who believed in one creator of the world although he had delighted in the endless diversity of human beings and life on this earth. Shah Mina was loved for his capacity to see an entire world in the face of each human being. It is said that people flocked around the sage because he could point out the joy of life in the heart of a flower.
His hands were said to be always empty but infinity was seen mirrored on the tip of each of his finger.
He was able to enchant crowds that woke up to the joy of being alive in the presence of Shah Mina. Those who went to him became aware of the significance of each thud of the heart and people rarely returned home without feeling that all human beings are one after all.
Shah Mina continued to live in Lucknow till his death in 1465, leaving a legacy of ideas that were already popular here in the verses of mystics like Bharatrhari, the 7th century poet writing in Sanskrit:
“When I was ignorant in the dark night of passion,
I thought the world completely made of women,
But now my eyes are cleansed with the salve of wisdom,
And my clear vision sees only God in everything.”
Or those of Kabir who died in 1448:
“Bring your face nearer to his ear,
And speak of the deepest longings of your heart.
Says Kabir, Listen to me Oh brother!
Picture with the eyes,
The vision of the beloved in the heart.”
While the prince rules by decree, poets make people surrender to the words they wield. The most popular poets are those who speak in a language similar to the simplicity of the language understood by a majority of people. Poets realise that verse is manna for the masses that knows not to read or to write. Recitations in the people's language help unpuzzle the world for ordinary citizens.
Shah Mina was a poet in the tradition of mystics. Amongst Islamic mystics the practice is to bury the sage where he had lived and meditated, allowing devotees from far and near to pilgrimage to the earthly domain of a beloved human being in the hope of experiencing something of the sage and breathing the same air and touching the same earth as the good human being. It is believed that a visit to the place where the pious perish is to increase one’s spiritual focus.
The shrine of a sage is perhaps the only place where all of humanity is able to unburden itself of social loads like man and woman, low born and high born and to experience the collective strength of mere mortals.
For the same reason the tomb of Shah Mina is alive with much celebration to this day especially at the time of urs, or death anniversary of the sage. In death mystics believe a human returns to the blissful and wholesome state enjoyed by beings before birth and before they are wrenched away in pain as an essential part of the creator of life. The urs is a moment for devotees to feel closest to the memory of a favourite sage and to the life of near perfection led by the mystic on earth.
This magnetic history of the Lakshman Tila attracted many others including Shah Pir Mohammed, another sage who made a home here in the 17th century. He remains buried close to the Aurangzeb Mosque on the Lakshman Tila that stands tall to this day as a glowing example of Lucknow's Ganga-Jamuni way of life where citizens try to teach the self not to fight, but to be inspired by the way of life of the other.
(This is an excerpt from Mehru Jaffer’s forthcoming book on Lucknow)