Of Faith and Myth: History at a Shrine at the Border

in Overview
Published on: 26 April 2018

Simple Rajrah

Simple Rajrah is currently working as a Research Consultant with the Center for Equity Studies, New Delhi. She has recently finished her post-graduation in Politics with specialization in International Relations from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.

There is an enormous amount of silence that surrounds the border, moving swiftly through the vast yellow mustard fields, dipping its feet in the green rice marshes and finally settling unwillingly over the thin but prickly concertina wires that divide two nations. This silence sounds very familiar; it is the vacuum of overwhelming emotions after the witnessing of horrors, the shaken conscience that screamed for sanity in genocide, the injustice that dominated a Partition and the callousness with which the sacred was tossed away for survival. Contrary to the highly technocratic myths that media galore coax one to believe about the hyper-nationalistic live wires at the border itching for a masculine display of war, the border zone we entered seemed much more silent and peaceful than the urban chaos. Albeit it is a privilege accorded to researchers, the choice of speeding the car in the reverse direction, and leaving after observing the border space, that makes one notice the ‘normalcy’ of these contested zones. Farmers working in the paddy fields and herding animals, and children enjoying a bath under the bambi (Dogri term for the motor that pumps water into the fields), may pictorially represent a routine life in the heartland of the nation, yet the difference does not go unnoticed, not in their minds. Unlike in the mainland nation, there are timings for sowing and reaping in the fields lining the border, and rules for the livestock to graze.Sometimes, snakes and goats that can cross the wires at the border critique the hyper-nationalism of the two nations and wander to whichever site they chose for the day.


As one takes a turn from the board 'Welcome to Baba Chamliyal,', at the end of the road, one is greeted by a beautiful white tiled arch reading 'Jai Baba Chamliyal', while right adjacent to it stands the Border Security Force’s gate with the words 'Welcome to 1st line of Defence.'. The Mazhaar (Urdu for mausoleum), which is the actual place of worship, is placed in a huge square room with windows that have grills instead of panes. Right behind the Dargah on which multiple chaadars have been placed, are two small taaqs, within which are the photos of Hindu gods and goddesses like Shiva and Ganesha. An akhandjyot, or a perpetual diya is kept burning for all hours of the day. After paying obeisance to the Baba’s mazhaar, and presenting the shrine with a new chaadar, devotees usually light the diyas kept in the taaq. People also believe that Baba’s shakti has now attained a transcendental level to enter the oil in the diya and hence, some people also use the leftover oil on their skin. After news spread that an infant girl was cured of vitiligo simply by applying the oil from the diya, villagers thronged from the area to witness the miracle and pay regards. A prashaad, locally called kadhaah, is served inside the Dargah and langar is served outside, in front of the separate sarai (restrooms) for men and women visiting from outside.


The Dargah, a blue and red building, is covered by a canopy of trees, and as soon as one enters the lush green lawns near the Dargah, one is overcome by an inexplicable calmness. While science has a logic affirmed by empiricism, local systems of thought produce an alternate reality that requires the use of a separate language. This differential use of language to conclude separate realities should not necessarily be labelled as primitive or illogical; a dissonance between the two terms is obviously notable. Devotees of the Dargah and some whose faith came to be transformed later when it moved their own mountains, believe that the shakkar and sharbat (shakkar is the holy mud dug out from the Dargah land, and sharbat is the holy water dug out from Dargah well) have been blessed by Baba Chamliyal and can cure skin diseases—especially vitiligo. In this condition, the skin pigment cells or melanocytes are destroyed in some parts of the body leading to the appearance of white spots on the skin. A set of rules and conditions, locally called parhez is put up on a board near the Shakkar well and reads that before taking out the water for personal use, one must be ready to follow these conditions, lest it be redundant or even counter-productive. Dietary constraints include abstaining from the intake of non-vegetarian food and alcohol or related products. It extends to refraining from curd, tomato, and other sour vegetables. Adequate distance from both leather and wood are to be maintained and so it is advised that the person sleeps on the floor and bathes without the use of oil and soap. The exercise of this moderation for a period of 21 days apart from the regular use of the Shakkar and Sharbat mix is called chaliya. Most people, especially those who travel from across the country for a cure of vitiligo, stay in the dormitories built near the Dargah. Free langar and water is provided at all times of the day, everyday, from the heap of the harvest gifts that villagers pay at the shrine.


Located at a distance of about 40 kilometers from National Highway 44, the Dargah of Baba Chamliyal is a site of reverence for many a reason. Since ages now, the BSF and the Dargah have been providing security and warmth to each other. Many myths surround theDargah and the life of Baba Chamliyal. Some mention his actual name to be one Baba Dileep Singh Manhas, a man of piety who was visited by many in times of grief and sickness due to his healing qualities and pious nature. Slowly, Baba came to be extremely loved and respected by the locals which did not appeal to some people who were jealous of his rising stature. In a carefully calibrated plan to put a permanent end to this, some of those who did not believe in his holiness called him to the neighbouring village of Seydan Wali, currently in Pakistan, and killed him. Because Baba Dileep Singh Manhas was riding a horse at the moment, his head fell in SeydanWali, but the loyal animal carried his body back to his native village Chamliyal and dropped it at the present location of the Dargah. That night, one of his followers, suffering from a chronic skin ailment, dreamt that Baba had advised him to dig up the soil (Shakkar) near his Mazaar, mix it with the water (Sharbat) from the well and apply it on his body. Within days, he was completely cured of the disease chambal, and as the news spread, devotees flocked in huge numbers to his Mazhaar to collect Shakkar and Sharbat for their skin diseases, especially Chambal. This is why the Baba is revered as Baba Chamliyal, the curer of Chambal. One of the inevitable debates in history is to confirm the relation between myth and history, while simultaneously keeping in consideration the historian’s craft (to use Marc Bloch’s term).


The logic of a myth is premised on its function in society, and sometimes it has the power to calibrate itself as a function of the contemporary, although its adherence to reality is a matter of faith, and not truth. Truth resides in a myth but as a corollary of what one’s version of reality is, or how it is experienced. In another version of Baba Chamliyal’s history, Baba appeared in someone’s dream on a white horse wearing white clothes and referred to the miraculous nature of the soil where his body was buried. Another book, a collection of tales about regional deities, describes Baba Chamliyal as an ayurvedic doctor who visited Seydan Wali to treat an ailing person around midnight and was killed on his way back by some fool. This story does not interpret Baba’s murder as a well-planned conspiracy. K.N. Pannikar, in his book History as a Site of Struggle: Essays on History, Culture, and Politics mentions that 'although elements which constitute myth are not verifiable as historical facts, they do represent reality even if symbolically and metaphorically. Myths are essentially illusory representations of the phenomena and as such do not help discover the historicity of events and by the very nature of representation they tend to mask the reality.' It is pertinent here that of late a new rumour has also been circulated, one in which the criminals, or those who murdered Baba were Muslims. While the legitimacy of such myths cannot be affirmed, it is essential to comprehend that the communal interpretation of history at this moment could prove to be extremely dangerous and may have already begun its vitriolic task. While Baba Dileep Singh Manhas was a devout Hindu, as has been the popular belief, nobody knows why there is a Mazaar in his name whereas the generic Hindu belief is to burn the body post-death and not to bury it. Possibilities of Baba’s conversion to Islam before his death, or his command to have his body buried and not burnt by presenting himself in someone’s dream are matters of historical inquiry, albeit a complicated one because of the villager’s discomfort in addressing this topic or answering this question, due to the possibility of religious disharmony erupting from the findings.


While myths may not entirely represent reality, their ability to transform it is much comprehensible, especially because of the dynamism with which they operate—all additions and aberrations to the original myth are equally powerful. What one chooses to remember and forget, or suddenly recall is the core matter that transforms history into a tool of communalism and therefore, methods of oral history must be carefully analysed and its processes understood. In a sensitive area that is still suffering the costs of a Partition that tore apart houses and ancestral lineages, and is now traumatized by the chest-beating nationalism which, at best, mocks their lives—such recollections as to the religion of the murderers of the beloved Baba, could wreck social harmony, for once and for all. Smaller yet influential acts at the Dargah such as the recent overwhelming presence of the Hindu red flags with Om printed on the fabric and the subtle removal of the green flags symbolizing Islam, must not go unnoticed and be checked for the sly penetration of communal politics. The presence of a pandit, instead of a khadim, the traditional caretaker of a Dargah, is yet another syncretic utopia, one in which members celebrate the coming together of different religions—although no one says that utopias are apolitical. The processes that lead to syncretism could be checked for a dominance disguised as coexistence.


Newer myths keep emerging and in a case with many myths, their origin is often untraceable. The site of the Dargah which originally had only the Mazaar to which people worshipped, is now host to various other deities. At the entrance of the Dargah, one finds a statue of Shiva next to the shivalinga, on which milk (kacchi lassi) is poured daily. Many people also observed that about a hundred meters from the shivalinga, two snakes occasionally mated and were visible only to the extremely pious and devout hearts and thus at that place, there stands another shrine made as per the Hindu tradition that considers mating snakes auspicious and commands that they be covered with a white cloth. A steel figure of two snakes lies on two white stones and a diya is lit next to it. A section of the Dargah extends into a round footpath adjoining the fields from where the no man’s land is a stone’s throw. Right in the middle of this circle which is also used by devotees on the day of the mela for seeing the border, stands a small shrine dedicated to a local deity, covered in red flags with a diya that burns 24/7.


The village where Baba was murdered is now predominantly inhabited by Muslims who revere Baba, and also hosts a mela on the same day it is held on the Indian side—the fourth Thursday of June each year. In the wee hours of the morning, delegations of both the Pakistani Rangers and Border Security Force exchange cordialities and meet over tea and snacks. They then pay their obeisance to the holy shrine by suspending all hostilities between them for the period of the mela. Prior to 1971, devotees from Pakistan were allowed to visit the Dargah on foot but this practice was discontinued after the 1971 war. Protests on either side on the day of the mela led to a certain compromise where the militaries of both nations agreed to respect local faith. While the Border Security Force delivers a truck full of Shakkar and Sharbat for the believers on the other side of the border, the Pakistani Rangers reciprocate the generosity by presenting a chaadar for Baba’s Mazaar. Animosities are withdrawn for a day, ceasefire is respected on both sides, and the powerful faith of those in sickness and grief temporarily overpowers collective enmity. Even though the Ramgarh sector in Jammu and Kashmir has lost many a life to the heavy crossfire between the two nations, with villagers being killed due to shelling while they were working in the fields or sleeping on their terraces, the Dargah has never been targeted. Villagers believe that it is primarily due to the ancient faith of people on either side of the border in Baba’s holiness—that the Dargah and people staying inside, have been saved from the terror of ceasefire violations which otherwise haunt the village.