1. The Faqir and Majzub
2. Locating Information
3. The Amir of Kabul
4. Burial Alive
5. Pathans, Devotees, and the Ulama
6. Zoroastrian Visitors
7. British Raj Reactions
8. The Shrine at Char Bawdi
1. The Faqir and Majzub
Having recently written the longest book on the subject, (1) I will here investigate some related issues for an internet readership. The title Hazrat Babajan, a Pathan Sufi of Poona (2014) clearly states the ethnic background. That book is a different treatment to my earlier work A Sufi Matriarch (1986), and employs additional materials. (2)
The Muslim subject lived in Poona (Pune) for the last two and a half decades or so of her life. In this article, I will retain the place name specified in the sources. The British Raj, and also the English-speaking Indians of that bygone era, generally used the designation of Poona. Babajan's earlier years were set against the backdrop of North India, more specifically the Punjab and adjoining areas. Those early years can now only be discerned in a fragmentary form.
Although Hazrat Babajan (d. 1931) can be described as a Sufi, she was not in the conventional category of that religious identity. She did not belong to any of the Sufi orders, and did not apply any of the standard procedures or exercises favoured by those organisations. Moreover, insofar as is known, she did not describe herself as a Sufi. Babajan was definitely not a Sufi shaykh (instructor). She was not interested in converting anyone to a doctrine. A recent investigator has informed that "her shrine was appropriated by representatives of the Chishtiyya order soon after her death, or perhaps even as her death was seen to be imminent." (3)
A basic issue relating to Hazrat Babajan is the nature of her impact upon the local population. She was known as a faqir, an Arabic word of some vintage found in early Islamic usage. The word generally denoted an ascetic. However, there were different types of Muslim ascetic. Babajan did not wear any distinctive regalia. In her case, there were no religious accoutrements whatever. Faqirs varied from snake charmers to contemplative entities of a retiring disposition.
Babajan favoured the term faqir. That was how she described herself. She seems to have often used the word faqiri, meaning the mode of faqir living. This decodes to asceticism and self-denial, but she was not emaciated. Babajan ate small amounts of simple food and drank liberal quantities of tea. Her hardy outdoor life serves to distinguish her from ashram existence and Sufi centres.
Babajan often gave the impression of being abstracted from her surroundings, but at the same time, she was very vital in many of her responses occurring with devotees. Her increasingly municipal situation was in full view of public passers-by at her neem tree in Char Bawdi (Bavadi). For some ten years or so at that site, she sat on the bare ground, before accepting a simple wooden seat (or bed) in view of her advanced age. Her lifestyle is not easily understood by those disposed to luxury. According to Meher Baba, she would never accept money, and could strongly resist any gift of that nature. "If anyone gave it [money] to her, she would chase him away" (Kalchuri, Lord Meher Vol. 13, 1998, p. 4811).
Some commentators have an evident difficulty in assessing this figure. Babajan was not a senile mystic who sat under a tree all the time. She was fit and energetic for her age; she was lean, and could still walk fast. Until her last years, she was frequently an active walker in the streets of Poona, and was by no means stationary in that respect. She gained a repute for being markedly resistant to illnesses, having a quick recovery rate.
In Poona she gained many followers. Babajan was multi-faceted in her numerous interchanges with visitors. She was sometimes calm and still, speaking very little; at other times, she was liable to express a strong and heated resistance to visitors with inadequate approaches, or who breached the protocol she preferred. In contrast, she could also be humorous.
She made no reference to a Sufi pedigree or chain of transmission (silsila), a common feature of conventional Sufi projection, and which excluded women. Members of Sufi orders customarily charted their patriarchal lineage back over the generations via numerous official Sufis, and ultimately to the Prophet Muhammad. The accuracy of silsila attribution was a vexed subject amongst Islamic scholars and traditionists, who sometimes repudiated the claimed link with Muhammad. In the case of Babajan, no such problem arises.
This female faqir had no doctrine, no dogma; she did not give initiation, which is a widespread practice in popular Sufism (and also Hinduism). There were similarities, in such respects, with the liberal faqir known as Shirdi Sai Baba (d.1918). Initiatory systems were applied in medieval Sufism, and extending to investiture with a garment. Ceremonial does not necessarily achieve spirituality.
Babajan has been called a majzub. Muslim ascetics non-affiliated to Sufi orders were often called (in the singular) a majzub (Arabic: majdhub). This term is differently translated. The related state is majzubiyat (divine absorption). In India, a wide range of entities were designated by these words, which are generally interpreted to mean an ecstatic or nonconformist mystic. (4) The common usage of those words is not specific enough to satisfy a close analyst of lifestyles in the "unorthodox Sufi" milieux.
The "unattached" majzub vocation has posed dilemmas of description for contemporary academic disciplines. Dr. Newell has warned against the conservative assumption that such independent saints were mentally unbalanced persons who were popularly idealised. (5) My own conclusion is that majzub is a conflatory term at both popular level and in academic textbooks. Of course, the same consideration applies to the term Sufi.
There is no due reason to view Babajan as being mentally unbalanced. She shows sufficient cognisance of her environment and devotees for the analyst to select another context. The fact that, in this instance, the majzub was a woman, provides an additional dimension to the social significance. Babajan asserted herself to be a man, meaning that she would not accept the inferior role customarily allocated to women in Islamic society (and Hindu society also). Her relationship with the ulama (Islamic divines) does not always seem to have been one of benign acceptance on their part. She is not for that reason to be considered mentally unbalanced.
I could have entitled my book Hazrat Babajan, a Pathan Faqir. Yet the word faqir has been associated with such doctrinaire figures as the jihad preacher Saidullah, who was involved in the Pathan Revolt of 1897. Babajan was not a preacher or religious zealot.
2. Locating Information
My own researches on the subject date back to the mid-1960s. At that time, there was still a possibility of locating new and formerly unpublished information. I knew Charles Purdom (1883-1965) at the very end of his life; he was one of the key writers on both Babajan and Meher Baba. He had not himself encountered Hazrat Babajan, but was dependent upon Indian devotee sources for his report of her, an influential cameo found in the biography of another figure. (6) Purdom is nevertheless a landmark in this field of study as a whole.
A more intimate source was an Irani Zoroastrian whose family were closely associated with Babajan. In this direction, some details had been lost in general circulation. Adi S. Irani (d. 1988) was the charismatic brother of Meher Baba (1894-1969), and had been resident in London for ten years. He was able to supply missing links in the chain of biographical information. (7) His father Sheriar Mundegar Irani (1853-1932) had been in contact with Babajan from an early date in Poona, (8) but this was not known at large amongst devotees of Meher Baba.
Adi S. Irani had himself encountered Babajan at his native Poona. His family lived in the same cantonment or "camp" area, on the fringe of Poona, that was inhabited by Babajan. They were only a few streets away from her site at the neem tree in Char Bawdi (Char Bavadi). Many Zoroastrians (both Parsis and Iranis) had settled in this cantonment zone. In that milieu, the young Merwan Irani (Meher Baba) first encountered Babajan in 1913. His brother Adi was only a small boy at that time, and still in his twenties when Babajan died nearly two decades later.
Adi was a follower of his famous brother; he also deferred to Babajan as a great saint or "master." He associated her "seat" at the neem tree with a strong Muslim presence, which at times could be overwhelming. Adi was also familiar with Babajan's "second seat" at a site in the Bund Gardens, which she liked to visit. This was often the scene of complex interactions with devotees, usually Muslims, but also some Zoroastrians.
Adi S. Irani never referred to miracle lore. He had no interest in "miracles," and only related facts (or interpretations of facts as he saw them). This was evidently due to the influence of Meher Baba, who discouraged reliance upon miracle lore.
The earliest years of Babajan's life in Poona were undated in the oral transmission of the 1960s. For the most part, the period from 1903-1913 still lacks dates, though many events were remembered. The precise date of her arrival in Poona has been differently presented. The Indian Muslim biographer Dr. Abdul Ghani dates this arrival to "about the year 1903." (9) Yet the British commentator Charles Purdom writes that she stayed in Poona "for twenty-four years before her death," (10) which means that 1907 is implied as the date of arrival.
The account of the Hindu biographer Bhau Kalchuri (d. 2013) provided data not found in the earlier reports of Ghani and Purdom. This can be explained by the familiarity of Kalchuri with oral details preserved amongst the Irani and Parsi mandali (ashram staff) of Meher Baba. Some of these persons had met Babajan; all of them were familiar with Meher Baba's intermittent remarks about his inspirer. Kalchuri was himself a member of the mandali in the later period. He wrote in Hindi. (11)
The locality of the neem tree in Char Bawdi underwent considerable urbanising development during the period of Babajan's residence, and substantially as a result of her impact upon the scene. Her living space, or "seat" (a colloquial term) under the tree, was originally in an "isolated area," but eventually "in the middle of a busy intersection." (12) She did not remain stationary at the tree, but frequently moved about in the streets, sometimes for hours. During the daytime, Char Bawdi was initially "desolate and deserted" (Kalchuri, Lord Meher Vol. 1, p. 14); nocturnal activities of drunkards and thieves were offset by the resisting presence of Babajan devotees, who included soldiers in off duty hours.
Yet before Char Bawdi, there was another key site in Rasta Peth, where Babajan gained a number of Muslim devotees. This phase was obscured and forgotten in some reports, even that of Ghani. At some uncertain date, Pathans became strong supporters of the saint, including soldiers (sepoys) from the cantonment barracks. (13) They recognised her as one of their own people; Babajan was a Pathan and spoke Pashtu, the language of Pathans. She also spoke other languages, especially Persian and Urdu.
3. The Amir of Kabul
This brings my overview to the question of origins. Kalchuri opted for the version that Hazrat Babajan came from Baluchistan; Purdom reported this version, but also supplied another account. The present writer has tended to question the Baluchistan attribution in view of the strong Afghan connections implied. (14) An origin in Baluchistan would certainly not negate the Afghan heredity. However, the geography has misled some readers who seem to be unaware of ethnic complexities. An early report informs that Babajan was a daughter of the wazir or prime minister "to the Amir of Kabul." (15) Kalchuri merely stated "born to a Muslim royal family of Baluchistan." (16) This led Meher Baba devotees on Wikipedia to insist for years (until 2014) that Babajan was "a Baloch Muslim saint." This description has distinct disadvantages, but has nevertheless been duplicated by numerous internet copyists of Wikipedia. Babajan was not a Baluch (Baloch), but a Pathan. The web grapevine is not reliable (as a consequence of my complaint on this score, the Wikipedia description was altered in February 2014).
Charles Purdom has a closely related variant of the same report relating to the Amir of Kabul. Purdom identifies the father of Babajan as "one of the chief ministers of the Amir of Afghanistan." (17) Again, the Afghan origin is strongly asserted. The same account (shared by Purdom and Dadachanji) makes no mention of Baluchistan. The source in both variants was none other than Meher Baba, who was here discoursing at a Hindu household in Ahmednagar on April 3rd, 1927. His references to Babajan cannot be ignored, in view of his close association with her.
The Pathan daughter of a courtier escaped from unwelcome matrimony to become an ascetic faqir. Where Baluchistan comes into the picture is not clear at all. Eventually, and many years later, the subject became esteemed in the Punjab as a saint. (18) None of Babajan's early life has any definite chronology, although attempts have been made to schedule dates that remain unconfirmed.
4. Burial Alive
"It is said that Hazrat Babajan was actually buried alive by the excited and fanatic Muhamadans (sic) of the Punjab." (19) The writer was here a Parsi Zoroastrian, namely Feramroz H. Dadachanji (d. 1943). His extant English diary of 1927 relays a discourse of Meher Baba. (20) The burial alive has been the subject of dispute. (21) The episode of burial is undated, and different locations surfaced in the oral transmission of subsequent decades. (22) The fact that Quetta appears as an alternative location to a Punjabi background may provide a clue to the emergence of Baluchistan in the biography (or hagiography, as some scholars seem to insist upon calling this). (23)
The versions of Purdom and Dadachanji are convergent, but differ in some respects. Such matters require a degree of elucidation (I cannot apologise for providing an alternative to the Babajan ephemera visible on the internet). The precise origin of Purdom's variant is uncertain, but may have been transmitted through Dadachanji in the 1930s. (24)
Both accounts allocate the episode of burial alive to the Punjab, without providing a specific place name. Purdom briefly says that people began to respect Babajan as a saint "and even to worship her." Then he adds that "Mahommedans" were also upset by her gnostic statements of identity with the divine. This trait was a tendency amongst some Sufis over the centuries. Purdom also specifically refers to "Baluchis of a local regiment" as being involved in the premature burial of the heretic.
Turning to Dadachanji's diary, we find no reference to the gnostic statements, and much more emphasis on the obeisance of devotees in bowing down to Babajan. The people "threw their heads at her sacred feet, which they kissed in all reverence." This obeisance ran counter to Islamic customs. "Bowing down to anyone except to Allah was against the preachings of Islam and considered an act of sin." Although the diarist does not say so, this act of veneration was closely associated with Hindu darshan prostrations, deemed by strict Muslims to be a display of the infidel (kafir).
Purdom does not mention the sequel, and merely comments that the victim emerged from the living grave and journeyed towards Bombay. Dadachanji has much more to say. He does not explicitly refer to Baluchi soldiers, but to "the Punjabi Regiment, whose soldiers were mainly Muhamadans [Muslims] and who had taken part in actually burying down Hazarat Babajan in [the] Punjab." After several years, he adds, this regiment was transferred to Poona. There they found the same old woman under the neem tree "near Char Bawdi." (25) She was "worshipped here again by a number of people, which always appeared assembled in a crowd."
The Parsi report says that the soldiers (sepoys) made enquiries and discovered how Babajan "had been here in Poona, for so many years, sitting under the same tree, unmindful of the seasons, unaffected by heat or cold, exposed to showers of rain during the rainy season, to the horrible heat rays of the sun in summers, and to terribly piercing cold during cold season." Dadachanji's tendency to verbal adornment may be detected in such words as "horrible," and without doubting the heat of the Indian sun. He adds that the Muslims who had hated Babajan now honoured her, and he calls this sequel "a great miracle." (26)
The sepoy incident at Poona has been dated to 1914. (27) The diary reference to the matriarch having been at the tree for "so many years" should be treated as a metaphor. The status of a miracle event may be questioned. It seems clear enough that the Baluchi soldiers did regard the escape from live burial as a miracle. The popular casting of this episode has evoked from some scholars an accusation of hagiology. Charles Purdom was not in favour of miracle lore, but did accept a basic truth in the episode under discussion. Orthodox Muslims certainly could react strongly to "Hindu worship" and nonconformist ecstasy. It is by no means impossible that the local ulama (religious orthodoxy) and compliant soldiery did sentence this woman to a premature grave; she might have escaped if supporters had been able to assist her. One should not expect a survivor to be favourably impressed by fundamentalist attitudes.
There remains another point emerging from this episode. Dadachanji seems to imply that "Hindu worship" continued at the neem tree in Char Bawdi (Bavadi). If so, there is indication that the public veneration of Babajan was restricted by the saint herself. She gained an unknown number of Hindu devotees, though the majority were Muslims (with some Zoroastrians). The Muslim majority are liable to have reacted to customs viewed as a trespass of Islam. Babajan is reported in a 1920s episode to have strongly chastised a visiting Hindu and Zoroastrian for their inclination to bow down to her. (28) She actually went through the motions of driving these visitors away, causing them to reassess their approach. It is probable that this kind of rebuff occurred many times, especially when Muslims were present in numbers.
5. Pathans, Devotees, and the Ulama
Prominent amongst the Muslim devotees were Babajan's own people, the Pathans. This hardy race were frequent emigrants from the Afghan domains. Their Afghan milieu was basically that of farmer tribesmen; they had frequently been exploited by monarchs and tribal khans. Captain Richard F. Burton found that Pathans in India could adapt to a more urban lifestyle, demonstrating a linguistic ability in several languages. Babajan herself reflected this trait, and gained familiarity with Gujarati (perhaps because of her affinity with Zoroastrians).
The British Raj discovered that Pathans made excellent soldiers (sepoys). A large number of these were in evidence at the Poona cantonment. Pathan sepoys were amongst the frequent visitors to Babajan's neem tree. Pathans had a reputation for strength and fighting spirit. In the old days, they had attacked enemies with swords and khyber knives; now they were crack shots with rifles.
In the Pathan Revolt of 1897, occurring on the North-West Frontier, Pathan tribal warriors had gained an extremist reputation amongst the British. In the spirit of jihad (holy war), tribal leaders goaded their supporters to ferocious attacks and the torture of captive soldiers. Nearly two decades later, and in reversed roles, Pathan sepoys were amongst the many Indian soldiers who volunteered to fight for Britain in the First World War. The total number who fought overseas is estimated at a million; this phenomenon is frequently overlooked. In Europe, the Indian army found that trench warfare against the Germans was a grim experience. Thousands of the Indian wounded, recovered from the Western Front, were treated in Brighton hospitals during 1914-15; some found themselves recuperating at the picturesque Royal Pavilion, at that time a hospital on the south coast of England.
Meanwhile, Hazrat Babajan gained an increasing number of civilian followers. She lived a spartan existence, refusing to accumulate possessions. She exercised a magnetic attraction for devotees of different religious backgrounds, but would not always do what they expected. Her interactions with devotees and visitors could be unpredictable. Her contacts included faqirs, merchants, soldiers, and tradesmen.
With soldiers, Babajan sometimes responded heatedly in dramatic situations of encounter. Here was the female majzub versus the warriors of Islam. The sepoys learned that she would not give way on a point she had decided upon. There were occasions when she flared up at difficult persons, and in some volatile episodes, a group of Pathan (and Baluchi) soldiers would flee the anger of this indomitable faqir. (29) The context of friction has been lost.
A possible explanation for this confrontation is the reserved attitude of the Pathan soldiers towards non-Muslim infidels (kafirs). The sepoys were obliged to observe the army rules of decorum when amongst civilians, but resentment could easily have been sparked by the presence of Hindus and Zoroastrians at the neem tree. Many local Zoroastrians were scared of the Pathan sepoys, and avoided them. Yet the Pathans seem to have been more tolerant of Zoroastrians than Hindus; the Zoroastrians were early regarded in Islam as "people of a sacred book," a theme found in the Quran.
Defying the orthodox code of female subjugation, Babajan would exclaim: "I am a man, not a woman!" This situation perhaps really boiled down to Babajan versus the ulama (religious leaders). The fact of being a woman implied an inferior religious status in Islam. Not only the ulama, but also the Sufi orders in India, were very patriarchal; all the prestigious Sufi pedigrees were male. Women had no profile in the Sufi orders (except in Turkey via the Bektashiyya).
Babajan never wore a veil. She allowed Hindus and Zoroastrians to join her congregation at the neem tree. One of the Hindus was Babu Rao Genuba Ubale, a young man who owned a bicycle shop. The general impression conveyed is that Babajan did not permit Hindus to perform obeisance. (30) In her early years at Poona, some orthodox Muslims encouraged their children to throw stones at her, saying she was a heretic. Zoroastrian children copied this bad habit. Eventually, that problem was overcome, when the sheer number of her devotees meant that the miscreants no longer dared to insult.
By 1920, there were hundreds of Babajan devotees in Poona. The soldiers were by now a distinct minority amongst them. The civilian ambience was increasingly middle class, with three or more religions being represented. The Zoroastrians were basically a middle class factor, but some Muslim devotees were affluent. In the 1920s, women were included in the gatherings at the neem tree; there were separate areas for the men and women to sit. Frequent sessions of qawwali music added a more "Sufi" complexion to the assemblies.
Pathans continued to figure strongly, although no statistics are available. Only some of the Pathans were soldiers; the division became more pronounced in the later years, when so many civilians were in evidence. The Pathans are reported to have visited Babajan in the mornings and evenings. In the 1920s, a young Pathan from Peshawar found that assertiveness left him when he came into the presence of Babajan. "When he saw Babajan, he became speechless, he could not talk." (31)
A counterpart occurred in the instance of a Parsi who was likewise a regular visitor to Babajan during the 1920s. Ardeshir S. Baria came all the way from Bombay, but would never say a word in the presence of Babajan. Eventually she asked him why he was so silent. He replied: "You are the Ocean, and I am but a traveller who has come to drink from the Ocean." (32)
Babajan's basic perspective appears to have been that visitors rarely knew what to ask her. Their approach to her was conditioned by their religious beliefs, their occupations, and social experiences. Some people asked for mundane benefits, and Babajan could be enigmatic in her response.
6. Zoroastrian Visitors
In 1921, the Irani Zoroastrian woman Freiny Masi (Driver) became a devotee. She was the sister of Daulat(mai) Irani, who was the mother of Mehera J. Irani (1907-1989); the latter two women also became involved with Babajan, but to a lesser extent. Freiny Masi had the repute of being "one of Poona's beauties," though images of her are elusive. Her marriage to a Parsi (Nauroj Driver) was not successful. She separated from her husband and chose to live alone in a small room opposite Babajan's "seat" under the neem tree in Char Bawdi. She would go back home for meals, "but otherwise spent the whole day with Babajan, or resting in her room" (Fenster 2003, p. 59). She could actually see Babajan from her window.
Freiny Masi became an intimate of the faqir until the latter's death. She would render personal service to Babajan in such matters as tea-drinking. She was present when Babajan decided one day to visit the Bund Gardens, some distance away on the other side of the city. Instead of taking a tonga or horse cab for this purpose, the elderly faqir walked. Freiny Masi and others tried to persuade her that a tonga would be advisable, but Babajan expressed annoyance at this prospect. Despite her age, Babajan walked so fast that her companions found it difficult to keep pace. Freiny Masi complained that her own feet would hurt over the distance involved, and urged that she and Babajan should take a tonga. The faqir only agreed because her intimate devotee was making the request. This appears to have been one of Babajan's early visits to the Bund Gardens, which she afterwards frequented.
Mehera initially encountered Babajan in 1918, when she was eleven. That day the faqir made a very unusual visit to the Convent School of Jesus and Mary, where Mehera was a pupil. Babajan sat behind the church under a tree, as if waiting for her. The site was some distance from Char Bawdi. The conversation occurred in Urdu, which Mehera partially understood. Although many Zoroastrians were still hostile to Babajan at this time, word had percolated to some of them that she was able to grant requests and confer blessings. Influenced by this rather mundane suggestion, Mehera asked for a horse (Fenster 2003, pp. 41-3). This event became celebrated in the Meher Baba movement.
Confusion about Babajan was marked within the Zoroastrian community at that time. Mehera's older sister Piroja was amongst the Zoroastrian children who threw stones at the matriarch in these early years, while she sat at Char Bawdi. No harm appears to have been done. The offensive habit apparently originated in conservative Muslim ranks. Zoroastrians tended to regard Babajan as an alien, until they grasped that she was benevolent towards non-Muslims, and also respected by an increasing number of Muslims in Poona.
For some months in 1924, Mehera accompanied her mother Daulat, by tonga, every evening to see Babajan in Char Bawdi. Babajan would permit a well known qawwali singer (a woman) to perform for hours, evocative of Sufi poetry. According to Mehera: "Babajan looked very beautiful, and so confident and regal, like a monarch" (ibid., p. 89). Mehera was shy and mute during these encounters, and later regretted that she never said anything to Babajan. However, we know that Babajan did not always consider talkative people to be the best participants.
The daytime visitors were usually men. Some women would attend in the evenings, after their domestic chores were finished. The women were always segregated from the men, observing a traditional custom. Both Freiny Masi and Daulat risked orthodox Zoroastrian disapproval by visiting the faqir during the daytime, when they were more conspicuous. They grasped the extent to which Babajan had struggled against a world ruled by men, and how she was utterly fearless in her dealings with men, even confronting tough Pathan soldiers if the need arose.
A young Zoroastrian visitor (Mani S. Irani) later reminisced that "one man who looked after her [Babajan] was huge, with a big black beard; but he was like a lamb before her, coaxing and pleading with her to do something" (ibid., p. 90). This man is believed to have been a Pathan; he was probably one of the attendants mentioned briefly in the account by Ghani. Some Pathans were very sturdy in physique.
A fruit and vegetable market was nearby. Daulat and Mehera would sometimes make brief visits to Babajan during the daytime, offering her fruit after doing their shopping. The faqir would distribute this gift amongst the assembly. She would not allow the visitors to take darshan (i.e., perform obeisance by touching her feet), but she would accept food for redistribution. Mehera's account says that Babajan sometimes allowed visitors to kiss her hand in greeting, but only if she extended her hand; if not, then the greeting had to be more reserved.
Some devotees routinely brought her tea and buns, along with fruit. Reports differ in stating that Babajan "ate regular meals" (Fenster) and "ate very sparingly at long intervals" (Ghani). Mehera relates that Daulat learned how to cook small cucumbers after Babajan told her to do so; the result was a liquid food "like squash," which the faqir consented to eat (Fenster 2003, p. 90). This was the sort of food she liked.
Another visitor was Daulat's mother Shireen, who likewise resisted the local adverse gossip. Babajan "seemed to enjoy her visits," and would encourage Shireen to reminisce about Iran. A very expansive side of Babajan is here revealed, a sympathy with oppressed Zoroastrian workers in the fields and orchards of Shi'ite Iran. Someone would commence a Persian song, and then Babajan and Shireen "would answer in refrain, back and forth." Moreover, Babajan would encourage Zoroastrian visitors to tell "amusing tales or stories from the life of Zoroaster" (ibid., p. 89). The sense of humour and religious tolerance is unmistakeable in such interchanges.
In 1923, the family of Khaikhushru Masa Beheram Irani arrived at Poona. His wife Soonamasi and daughter Khorshed feature in some accounts. Meher Baba sent them to visit Babajan, who "took particular interest in Soonamasi." The faqir's greeting was very direct in this instance: "Babajan embraced her [Soonamasi] tightly and, holding her [Soonamasi's] face in her hands, kissed her and said, 'Oh, my daughter. How long have I waited for you?" (ibid., p. 96).
Mani S. Irani (1918-1996) encountered Babajan during the late 1920s, when the visitor was a girl. She was the sister of Meher Baba. Mani relayed a penetrating description: "Babajan was humorous. She was also very powerful; you could feel that authority in her. She was also stubborn. If she wanted something, no amount of persuading could budge her. She was charming, and on occasion, also abusive, if she were bothered. She would swear if someone called her Mai [Mother]" (ibid., p. 90).
The personal magnetism of Babajan was evidently pronounced; her preferred "man" role could be formidable. The domineering British found that she would not move from her "seat" under the neem tree. The Pathans found that a due decorum was necessary. The opposing Zoroastrians and orthodox Muslims eventually had to give in; the faqir won in her struggle for legitimation.
Mani Irani also informed: "There was a radiance that emanated from Babajan. That radiance, you didn't want to leave it" (ibid., p. 91). This may be a reason why so many visitors kept returning. Of course, such factors are difficult to define. There is nevertheless an obligation to report what the visitors found. (33)
7. British Raj Reactions
Some British onlookers could not fathom the nature of events. (34) The Raj at Poona customarily lived in an insular world where all natives were servants and soldiers. Equality was impossible. Comprehension of native religions was similarly a blank register. Only Christianity could lead to salvation, as the missionaries tirelessly proclaimed.
Babajan did not merely stand against the ulama and orthodox Zoroastrians, but also held her ground against the British authorities. (35) The Raj officials wanted her to move from the increasingly busy street that she occupied. The gatherings of her devotees at Char Bawdi (Char Bavadi) could block the traffic in what had become an urbanised locale. When she had first settled at this spot, the traffic largely consisted of bicycles, bullock carts, and horse-drawn carriages. The new British status symbol, the motor car, made the roads far more noisy and congested.
Public opinion was on the side of the faqir. The Cantonment Board (in 1924) reluctantly consented to build Babajan a shelter that attached to the neem tree. She herself had to be persuaded by devotees to accept this shelter. The rugged nature of her outdoor existence is remarkable. She was reputedly a centenarian by this time.
Wealthy British residents of Poona noticed with puzzlement the crowds forming around Babajan's tree in Char Bawdi. An incredulous colonial wrote a letter to The Times of India in September 1926. He wanted to know the identity of the native at the neem tree, who "lies on a couch in a specially constructed house from early morning till a late hour at night, surrounded almost all the time by an eager and devout crowd of people of all castes and creeds anxious to pay their respects to her." (36)
This report was really favourable, but the British colonial bias could not credit that such inter-religious and egalitarian activity was useful. The newspaper stated: "Our correspondent narrates the dumb show that goes on between the old woman and her devotees and asks who the old woman is and why she is so venerable a personage."
Even Mahatma Gandhi was a dumb show to the aggregate Raj mentality of the 1920s. The aloof correspondent could easily have asked the local Cantonment Board about Babajan, but whether that body would have understood everything is much in question. Certainly enough however, the Board had legally installed the faqir in the new "house." Babajan was quite entitled to receive visitors. An explanatory article in the same newspaper followed a few days later, the new correspondent identifying Babajan and providing a version of her background, including the 1903 voyage to Mecca. This report even claimed that Babajan knew English. (37)
Even in her advanced old age, Babajan did not remain stationary at her new shelter under the neem tree. She apparently had less incentive to walk about the streets, and instead frequently resorted to a tonga, meaning the simple horse-drawn conveyance common in India. In the mornings she liked to visit the Bund Gardens; this new rendezvous must have eased the traffic congestion at Char Bawdi. She would also be chauffeured in a motor car, and in 1928 innovated a long journey to Ahmednagar, the first time she had left Poona since her arrival. (38)
Meanwhile, the British Raj lifestyle at Poona featured church on Sundays, daily tea at four, and the evening constitutional. There were military parades to watch, exciting horse races to enjoy, and elite clubs to attend. What could compare with such cultural perfection? Can we imagine some refrains in wealthy colonial households? "Oh, and butler, don't forget the extra crates of wine needed for the guests at dinner. Also, tell all the servants to keep away the natives at our splendid front gates. The natives are forever begging money from us."
When Hazrat Babajan was given money, she was reputedly resistant. She either refused or passed on such gifts, often to beggars who could be seen in the vicinity. She kept no money for herself. A basic point to grasp about Babajan is that she customarily redistributed all gifts she received from devotees. She died a poor faqir with no possessions apart from an austere wooden bed (and even that furnishing had to be pressed upon her). She was the polar opposite of wealthy gurus and elite colonialists.
Her funeral, in September 1931, confirmed the extent of her popularity in Poona amongst the native population, both Hindus and Muslims. Thousands of people attended. The strong turn-out for the procession was "never accorded to any dignitary or royalty in the annals of Poona." (39) Again she had refused to move, insisting that her tomb be situated at her "seat." The Cantonment Board at first resisted, but the issue was successfully pressed by a Trust committee comprised of Muslim devotees. (40)
8. The Shrine at Char Bawdi
The setting at Char Bawdi no longer resembles the scene in 1931. The pace of urbanisation has entailed dense traffic and other developments. Moreover, the shrine (dargah) itself has changed appearance. The original structure incorporated the neem tree. This was an exceptionally ecological shrine, but the building could not withstand the need for repairs. During the 1990s, a wealthy devotee provided the money to build a new and more resplendent marble dargah. The substitute was equipped with doors of carved teak. A major innovation was that the roof now covered the entire area of the shrine, measuring approximately 30 feet by 8 feet. (41) To facilitate this adjustment, the neem tree was chopped down, leaving a dead five foot stump still visible near the tomb inside the dargah. Some Babajan devotees were apparently not in agreement with the transition. Some Meher Baba devotees were also perturbed. (42)
Subsequently, further events occurred, including a dome constructed on the roof. The shrine is an attractive Islamic building, and increasingly popular (some photographs show the shrine without the recent dome, a fact which has caused confusion). The assimilation of Babajan by the Chishti order, many years after her death, has been considered anomalous. (43) However, the observation was made that Chishti Sufis were honouring a life and influence which they consider to be significant. An annual Islamic 'urs festival is now held at the shrine, a three day celebration signifying the death anniversary of a saint, in this instance Babajan. (44)
Kevin R. D. Shepherd
January 2014 (last modified December 2015)
(1) Shepherd, Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Private Ltd, 2014). ISBN 9788120786981.
(2) Shepherd, A Sufi Matriarch: Hazrat Babajan (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1986). Reference to this book was included in Tahera Aftab, Inscribing South Asian Muslim Women: An Annotated Bibliography and Research Guide (Leiden: Brill, 2008), p. 112, entry 525.
(3) James Richard Newell, Experiencing Qawwali: Sound as Spiritual Power in Sufi India, Ph.D dissertation 2007 (online PDF, etd.library.vanderbilt.edu), p. 80. Dr. Newell includes material on the shrine of Babajan and related details of the Islamic 'urs ceremony. He makes a number of comments relating to the biography of the subject, which is my chief concern here.
(4) Shepherd, Pathan Sufi of Poona, pp. 76-7, and commenting that "such ascriptions are generally loose."
(5) Newell, Experiencing Qawwali, pp. 71ff., and observing that Babajan's impact did not arise from veneration of pedigree, but as a result of her personal magnetism, her faqir lifestyle, and her state of mind, understood by devotees as a state of divine absorption (p. 80). The present writer made comments on the definition of majzub in my Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (2005), pp. 47ff., and urging that "the majazib [plural term] were a diffuse phenomenon operating at many levels in eighteenth century Deccani counterculture."
(6) Charles B. Purdom was a very intellectual type, and quite distinctive in the "London group" of Meher Baba devotees. He was not really a devotee at all, but a type of intellectually committed supporter. He distrusted some devotional reports of Meher Baba, and could be formidably analytical. Also, he had little patience with the rather insular devotional tendency to elevate Meher Baba at the total expense of other saints and "masters." Purdom was one of the earliest Western followers of Meher Baba, his contact in this respect dating back to 1931. He spoke in immaculate English of the old school. His accomplishments included that of drama critic and a pioneering role in the garden city movement (chiefly associated with Welwyn Garden City). See further Purdom, The Perfect Master (London: Williams & Norgate, 1937); Purdom, The God-Man: The life, journeys and work of Meher Baba (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1964).
(7) Adi S. Irani (Adi Junior) was surprised at my persistence in tracing details and biographies. Adi himself never wrote anything, although his recitals could be very graphic (see also the note at Meher Baba Movement). I did at that time identify myself with the devotional movement attaching to Meher Baba (my tendencies were probably not typical). I was also known to some American devotees for my continual enquiries, and at one time was in correspondence with Kitty Davy, a prominent English devotee at Myrtle Beach. I was also in correspondence with Adi K. Irani (Adi Senior) and Eruch B. Jessawala, two of the mandali in India, though mainly the former, who was the secretary of Meher Baba living at Ahmednagar. By the age of sixteen, I had acquired a substantial number of early periodicals, some of which were rare even at that period. Such materials formed the basis for a subsequent lengthy manuscript which I started to write in 1967. This was The Life of Meher Baba, a four volume work, composed for my own investigative satisfaction. It was never offered to any publisher. The first volume included a biography of Hazrat Babajan, and some additional references to that figure. My book A Sufi Matriarch (1986) was adapted from the earlier account, and tended to emphasise Sufi associations, leaving out the data relating to Meher Baba, which was not so welcome in general. This partial focus was later redressed. Meher Baba is an integral part of the Babajan biography (Pathan Sufi of Poona, 2014, pp. 51-4, 89-90, 94).
(8) Shepherd, From Oppression to Freedom: A Study of the Kaivani Gnostics (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988), pp. 71ff.
(9) Abdul Ghani (Munsiff), "Hazrat Babajan of Poona," The Meher Baba Journal (Feb. 1939), p. 33. This article was reproduced in M. R. Khantak, ed., Hazrat Babajan: The Emperor of Spiritual Realm of her Time (Poona, 1981). Dr. Newell lists this work as being authored by K. K. Ramakrishnan, and does not identify the very strong Ghani component in that compilation, instead tending to give the impression of a separate biography. In fact, Ramakrishnan was the publisher, and he did acknowledge Dr. Kantak as the editor, i.e., "editing the compilation and giving valuable suggestion" (p. 6). Dr. Kantak taught at the Deccan College. I therefore duly credited the editorship to Kantak in Pathan Sufi of Poona, 2014, p. 166. A serious confusion occurred in the case of the late Dr. Marianne Warren, who misinterpreted some contents of Emperor. Ghani's early account Miracles of Babajan was misconceived by Warren as being jointly authored by Meher Baba. See Pathan Sufi, p. 124 note 1; Shepherd, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement, 2005, p. 55. There was a more widespread failure to grasp that Ghani was referring to himself in one of the anecdotes, which is quite factual, like certain other components of the "miracles" document (Shepherd, Pathan Sufi of Poona, pp. 71-2). The title of the Kantak-Ramakrishnan publication has puzzled some bibliographic assessors, but derives from Meher Baba's description of Babajan as "Emperor." This term of respect was intended to emphasise the masculine quality that she preferred in her argument about gender.
(10) Purdom, The Perfect Master (1937), pp. 19-20. Purdom bases this chronology on the fact that "it is not known when she returned to India." He does have a valid point there. Yet Purdom's account lacks the detail for the earlier Poona years that appears in other versions, mainly Kalchuri and Shepherd. Purdom repeats his dating in The God-Man, p. 19. Newell says that "by 1905 she had established her seat under a neem tree, on the Malcolm Tank Road, in the area called Char Bawdi" (Experiencing Qawwali, p. 80). This ascription is very early for that particular site; there were other sites at a preceding time which Newell does not mention. He adds that "it is thought she began her stay in Poona around 1900" (p. 85). According to the notes in Kalchuri, Babajan "arrived in Poona during 1905" (Lord Meher Vol. 1, 1986, editorial note to page 12). Cf. Shepherd, Pathan Sufi of Poona, p. 23, stating "Babajan settled in Poona by 1905." In my earlier account, I deferred more to Purdom's version in stating: "she reappeared in the Deccan sometime during the period 1903-7" (Sufi Matriarch, p. 45). In the last quoted work, I also wrote that "it was possibly by 1910" when Babajan settled at the neem tree in Char Bawdi (ibid., p. 47). There is no firm data rendering an earlier date imperative. The late Dr. Marianne Warren stated that "from 1903 until her death in 1931, she [Babajan] lived under a neem tree at the Char Bavadi [Char Bawdi]." The quote comes from Warren, Unravelling the Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism (New Delhi: Sterling, 1999), p. 200. This deduction is not accurate, and omits the intervening events.
(11) Kalchuri's version of Babajan comprises a brief chapter in a lengthy biography of Meher Baba, composed after the death of the latter. The Kalchuri manuscript Meher Prabhu was written during 1971-72, and subsequently translated into English with extensive additions (Reiter edn, 20 vols, 1986-2001). This account is relevant, although frequently couched in a devotional idiom that some readers find offputting. Ongoing revisions were made by the American devotee David Fenster (living in India), who has substantially expanded the original text. An online edition is available. Kalchuri did not provide sources, although he had access to many of these. See also the annotations on Kalchuri at Wikipedia Anomalies Sequel and Meher Baba Movement [and see Update]. See also Shepherd, Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (2005), pp. 267-8. Some other details about Babajan can be found in Fenster, Mehera-Meher (3 vols, 2003), the biography of a female disciple of Meher Baba, and drawing upon tape-recordings dating to 1974-82. See also note 33 below.
(12) Newell, Experiencing Qawwali, pp. 85-6. One or two other accounts mention a crossroads, but it is not clear to what extent this was in evidence when Babajan first came to Char Bawdi. On matters relating to the complex process of urbanisation in this cantonment area, see Shepherd, Pathan Sufi of Poona, pp. 33ff.
(13) Shepherd, Pathan Sufi of Poona (2014), pp. 55ff. Pathan sepoys were major participants in the early Char Bawdi phase, and perhaps even earlier at Rasta Peth. They are likely to have gained greater numbers at the time when Baluchi sepoys recognised Babajan from a former North Indian environment. That date decodes to 1914 (Shepherd, A Sufi Matriarch, pp. 49-50; Pathan Sufi of Poona, p. 132 note 26).
(14) Shepherd, Pathan Sufi of Poona, pp. 1, 3, 125 note 4.
(15) F. H. Dadachanji diary, April 1927. Dadachanji (Chanji) came from Bombay, and joined Meher Baba at Meherabad in the mid-1920s. He was not a devotee of Babajan. He had probably seen her in Poona, but without necessarily gaining a personal encounter. See note 19 below.
(16) Kalchuri, Lord Meher Vol. 1 (1986), p. 7, who does, however, describe Babajan as a Pathan. The online version of Lord Meher carries the addition that Babajan's father "was a minister in Kabul for the Amir" (page 3, accessed January 2014). This detail was evidently derived in editorial retrospect from the Dadachanji diary.
(17) Purdom, The Perfect Master (1937), p. 115.
(18) Dadachanji confirms this detail, and also refers to the obscure antecedent, i.e., that Babajan was God-realised at the "age of about 65." Purdom's account hardens this to "the age of sixty-five." Dadachanji also says that "she spent about 50 years of her life in wandering from place to place in search of Truth." The approximation should be emphasised.
(19) Dadachanji diary, April 1927. The diarist was a cultured and amiable Parsi who became the secretary of Meher Baba. His familiarity with Islam and Muslims tended to be generalising, but he had no religious bias, having accepted the ecumenical outlook and policy of his Irani inspirer. Meher Baba's early following consisted of Zoroastrians, Muslims, and Hindus.
(20) Meher Baba was then observing silence and using an alphabet board for purposes of communication. The linguistic situation is potentially more complex than might at first appear. The alphabet board showed English letters, but translation of the words often occurred in another language, usually Marathi or Gujarati, depending on the audience. Dadachanji himself spoke Gujarati and English, and favoured the latter tongue in his diaries commencing in 1926. He appears to have been present when the discourse under discussion was delivered, and so was probably reporting from memory. The discourse was entitled "Duties of Women." The occasion was that of the Hindu New Year Day. Although some Zoroastrians were present, the audience were mainly Hindus (including a number of upper class women). Dadachanji says that the discourse was addressed to the women present (who had assembled from various parts of the city, and may therefore have included Zoroastrians). No translation is mentioned. Kalchuri reports that the gathering occurred at the home of Hindu host Vyankatesh Chinchorkar, and adds that "the women of the house were called and they sat before Baba" (which appears to be a contraction of the overall event). Some of these details might help to explain the rather pronounced emphasis upon "Hindu worship" in the account of Babajan. The occasion was also notable for an interaction revealing Meher Baba's very distinctive sympathy for harijans (untouchables), an unstated number of whom were present (Kalchuri, Lord Meher Vol. 3, 1988, p. 924). Any presence of harijans in the assemblies of Hazrat Babajan is not documented.
(21) Shepherd, Pathan Sufi of Poona (2014), pp. 21, 121.
(22) Shepherd, op. cit., p. 131 note 25.
(23) E.g., Newell, Experiencing Qawwali, p. 85, says that "the main sources of information on the life of Hazrat Babajan are hagiographic." He here lists only three sources, namely Ghani, Ramakrishnan, and Kalchuri. Purdom is not mentioned, and nor is Shepherd (the British contingent were bypassed in this American assessment, but did actually exist). Ramakrishnan (with editor Kantak) is not actually a separate source to Ghani, but merely of convenience to those who could not access the original Ghani articles (plural) appearing over seventy years ago. A minor consideration is that one of those articles (the biography) is abridged in Ramakrishnan. As stated above (note 9), the misunderstandings adhering to the Ramakrishnan publication (reprinted in 1998) are substantial. I should add that Dr. Newell is clement in his judgment of the "hagiographic" sources, and does commendably indicate that factual information can be found in them. Kalchuri applies a strong poetic gloss to some accounts he mediated. I have myself complained elsewhere of embellishing tendencies in Kalchuri's work, but this does not annul the factual content that is discernible. My form of analysis may be compared with the Wikipedia statement from an American devotee of Meher Baba, which declared that Kalchuri represented "historical recorded facts," whereas my own book on Meher Baba merely represented "personal opinions." The accuser had apparently not read the book he dismissed. The doctrinaire attitude on Wikipedia can be stifling.
(24) In the preface to his early book, Purdom acknowledges diverse sources, for the most part giving no names (The Perfect Master, 1937). However, he does mention that "my special thanks are due to F. H. Dadachanji."
(25) Dadachanji here refers to Babajan as "the same Hazrat Saheb." This designation may represent an abbreviation of Amma Saheb, a name by which she was known. The Muslim name appears more authentic here in view of Dadachanji's own Parsi tendency to a Hinduising gloss via the appellation of "Shree Hazrat Babajan," which he applies to the matriarch at the commencement of his diary entry. This sort of gloss does not appear in Meher Baba's recorded references.
(26) The extent to which the diary notes of Dadachanji reflect the actual wordings of Meher Baba is in doubt. He was certainly reporting a core statement from that Irani celebrity, but the Parsi secretary had a strong tendency to embellish dictations, particularly when the wording was sparse - as it so often was from the alphabet board medium. This is known from matters relating to correspondence. See further Shepherd, Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (1988), p. 287.
(27) Shepherd, A Sufi Matriarch (1986), pp. 49-50; Shepherd, Pathan Sufi of Poona (2014), p. 21.
(28) Shepherd, Pathan Sufi of Poona, p. 66. The account of Dhake Phalkar, a Hindu, states that Babajan "did not allow anybody to bow down to her" (ibid., p. 65).
(29) Shepherd, A Sufi Matriarch, p. 65; Pathan Sufi of Poona, p. 56. An unresolved matter is how many of these soldiers continued the habit of visiting Babajan. According to a Zoroastrian source, namely Behli (Baily) J. Irani, the Baluchi soldiers were killed in Turkey during World War One. This detail appears in the online version of Lord Meher. A basic confusion arose in two different descriptions of the Baluchi soldiers, i.e., in terms of the "Baluchi Regiment" (Ghani) and the "Punjabi Regiment" (Dadachanji). The first description does not fit the situation of World War One combatants in the Dardanelles, but the second description could make sense in this respect. The present writer has discounted the first description accordingly (Pathan Sufi of Poona, p. 132 note 26). I was never able to confirm a Baluchi presence at the neem tree after the Great War. Further, there is no certainty that any substantial number of Pathan soldiers were in evidence at Char Bawdi after World War One.
(30) The account of Dadachanji (note 15 above) might suggest that in the early days at Poona, Babajan was less resistant to "Hindu worship" than she later became. This remains conjecture; Dadachanji may have been in error. Kalchuri informs: "It was rare for Babajan to allow anyone to touch her person - even to bow at her feet or kiss her hand" (Lord Meher Vol. 1, p. 224). According to Mehera Irani, Babajan "never allowed anyone to touch her," an exception being Meher Baba (Fenster, Mehera-Meher Vol. 3, second edn 2013, p. 191). Babu Rao was nicknamed Cyclewala, and afterwards became a devotee of Meher Baba.
(31) Newell, Experiencing Qawwali (online PDF), p. 72. This man was the grandfather of Akbar Anwar Khan, who was interviewed in 2005. The forbear was a trustee of the local Muslim committee which prepared for the shrine (dargah) of Babajan while she was still alive. See also note 40 below. The grandfather lived to the age of ninety-four, which confirms that Pathans can gain longevity.
(32) Shepherd, Pathan Sufi of Poona (2014), p. 53. Ardeshir Baria (alias Kaka) could be quite voluble in some moods. He eventually became a devotee of Meher Baba and one of the latter's mandali.
(33) David Fenster, Mehera-Meher: A Divine Romance Vol. 1 (Ahmednagar: Meher Nazar, 2003), chapters 4, 6, and 9. The reminiscences of Mani S. Irani relate that she was eight or nine years old when Babajan "called me near her," meaning circa 1926-7. This report includes the detail that Babajan kept a framed picture of Meher Baba hanging from a nail on the tree trunk. Freiny Masi (Mehera's aunt) was usually present near Babajan, and would advise young Mani what to do. Freiny Masi kept herbal medicines in a deep pocket of her skirt; that habit probably reflected the disposition of Babajan to natural remedies as distinct from European medicines and medicaments, which she disliked. Mani describes "a brass-railing enclosure" which protected Babajan's shelter from the road. "She never lay down but was always three-fourths reclining" (quotes from pp. 90-1). According to Fenster, Babajan lost two fingers when these became infected; other versions mention only one. Mani refers to Babajan's "pink complexion," which tallies with other references to a fair skin.
(34) The British journalist Paul Brunton was a less conservative, but still very misleading, assessor. His account of Hazrat Babajan and Meher Baba appeared in the popular book A Search in Secret India (1934). I early learned from Purdom that Brunton was not reliable. Subsequently, I discovered the extent of deficiency in Brunton's descriptions, despite his concession to Babajan. See further Shepherd, Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (1988), pp. 146-176; idem, Pathan Sufi of Poona, pp. 91-3, 94. See also Meher Baba and Paul Brunton. The British occultist neglected to mention that his visit to Babajan in 1930 occurred at the instruction of Meher Baba; he was accompanied by Jal Irani (Meher Baba's brother) and the Western Buddhist Frederick Fletcher. It is on record elsewhere that Abdulla Jaffer, a Muslim devotee of Meher Baba, took this trio to Babajan's neem tree. Jaffer could have been the interpreter mentioned so anonymously by Brunton; the language of communication is not specified. Jal spoke Persian, and so may have conversed directly with Babajan.
(35) Hazrat Babajan did not adopt any militant stance against the British, but did resist official plans. Newell comments: "By simply establishing her seat under a tree in a field some distance from the main business area of the British cantonment, and insisting on remaining there, Hazrat Babajan had a tremendous impact on the local community" (Experiencing Qawwali, p. 121). The reference to "a tree in a field" is of additional interest. The neem tree at Char Bawdi was at the side of a simple dirt road (plagued with mosquitoes), one that later became a heavy traffic road. This does not contradict the reference to a field. There were some dilapidated buildings further along the road, and associated with the nocturnal presence of drunkards and thieves. This nocturnal factor has caused confusion in one academic account. The habits of the drunkards and drug addicts were soon disrupted, basically through the influence of Babajan, an x factor assisted by Pathan soldier devotees (Shepherd, Pathan Sufi of Poona, pp. 33ff.).
(36) Newell, Experiencing Qawwali (2007), p. 87. The "couch" that is mentioned in the newspaper report was a gift from Meher Baba several years earlier (Shepherd, Pathan Sufi of Poona, p. 60). This furnishing was a simple wooden bed.
(37) Newell, op. cit., p. 87; Shepherd, Pathan Sufi of Poona, p. 74, and citing Nile Green, Islam and the Army in Colonial India (CUP, 2009), who first drew attention to the 1926 newspaper features. The possibility that Babajan knew English is an interesting addition to her linguistic range. However, Professor Green offers an interpretation of Babajan that is in dispute. See Shepherd, Pathan Sufi of Poona, pp. 120ff. See also Religious Factors in the Indian Mutiny.
(38) The extent and frequency of Babajan's motor journeys are uncertain. These were still in occurrence during 1931. The tonga rides appear to have been much more frequent, at least initially. The major local destination was the Bund Gardens. According to Kalchuri, in 1926 the faqir was "frequently making herself conspicuous by riding about the city in a horse tonga" (Lord Meher Vol. 3, 1988, p. 889). The interpretation is given that Babajan "had become very active and welcomed the crowds" (ibid.). This version says that the crowds "usually gathered around her under a giant tree in Bund Gardens" (ibid.). Cf. Shepherd, A Pathan Sufi of Poona (2014), pp. 53, 88-9. The early reference of Purdom (The Perfect Master, 1937, p. 107) is rather abbreviated, and has been interpreted in terms of motor drives in addition to the tonga transport. The date of Babajan's first motor journey is elusive.
(39) Ghani, "Hazrat Babajan of Poona" (Meher Baba Journal, 1939), p. 38.
(40) Ibid., p. 39, and identifying this committee as Anjuman-e Khuddam-e-Ahle-Sunnatul Jamat. The members were Muslims, and eventually assisted by a donation of 4,000 rupees supplied by Meher Baba, who was then widely recognised as having a close connection with Babajan. Ghani refers to a "shrine in marble stone." Ghani made the donation, on behalf of Meher Baba, at the time of Babajan's death (Kalchuri, Lord Meher Vol. 4, 1989, p. 1426).
(41) Newell, Experiencing Qawwali (PDF), p. 89.
(42) Some devotees of Meher Baba have complained that a picture of their figurehead was removed from the shrine. Renovation of the dargah involved changes. Meher Baba was closely involved in the original foundation of the Babajan shrine, as Ghani reports; the former's correspondence of the 1920s further confirms this development. A local plan to situate the tomb of Babajan in the Poona Pensioners’ Mosque was mentioned by the Indian press in 1926; this proposal was resisted by some Muslim devotees as being unfavourable to the performance of qawwali on the saint’s death anniversary. Dr. Abdul Ghani was in close contact with Babajan devotees, and mediated the generous financial contribution of Meher Baba, who favoured an independent location (the neem tree) for the dargah, as did Babajan herself.
(43) Tajuddin Baba of Nagpur (d. 1925) was also assimilated to a Chishti silsila (chain of transmission). Dr. Newell describes a disparity in the case of Babajan, meaning an attempt "to integrate the anomalous status of a female majdhub into the male dominated Chishti hierarchy" (Experiencing Qawwali, p. 122). The gap between Babajan and the Chishti order was quite substantial. "The formal mahfil [assembly] could not be conducted at her 2005 'urs unless a proper institutional link in the chain [silsila) of lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad was represented at the mahfil-i-sama" (ibid.). The same writer observes that "in an effort to honour Babajan by linking her with the prestigious lineage of Bandanavaz, she is simultaneously further marginalised at her own mahfil" (ibid.). Bandanavaz was a name given to the Sufi leader Muhammad al-Husayni Gisu Daraz (d. 1422), a medieval Chishti shaykh of the Deccan. Gisu Daraz was a rather orthodox figure, very different to Babajan. I did not mention this assimilation in the book Pathan Sufi of Poona, as it occurred after the subject's death. This later development was intimately related to Chishti sama practices. Babajan did favour qawwali music, but in a manner quite independent from the Chishti order (Pathan Sufi, pp. 83-4). On the Chishtis, see Carl W. Ernst and Bruce B. Lawrence, Sufi Martyrs of Love: The Chishti Order in South Asia and Beyond (New York, 2003).
(44) Although the Islamic focus on Babajan does not represent a separate "doctrinal or organisational vehicle" (Shepherd, Pathan Sufi of Poona, pp. 122-3), there is evidently an underlying Chishti Sufi affiliation via the ceremonial activity at her shrine. The Hazrat Babajan Trust, attached to the shrine in Poona, now promotes a version of the biography associated with the oral traditions revolving around Peshawar. This version states that Babajan was born at Peshawar in 1803. Her father is here named Muhammad Mustafa Anwar, who is described as a merchant in dried fruits. At the age of ten, she commenced to study fiqh (religious law), and spent her time in namaz (prayer) and reading the Quran. When she was 24 years old, her mother died, and the domestic responsibility for the household devolved upon her. To escape social distractions, she left her home for the forest, eating fruits. The date of 1841 is given for her move south, where she early stayed in Bombay and Ahmedabad. In this version, of Chishti associations, an early visit to Ajmer (site of a major Chishti shrine) is emphasised. Babajan is said to have stayed in Surat for seven years and returned to Bombay at the age of 65, visiting many shrines in that city. This version (appearing on the web) was not in evidence prior to 2014.
BIBLIOGRAPHY RELATING TO HAZRAT BABAJAN
Copyright © 2015 Kevin R. D. Shepherd. All Rights Reserved. Uploaded January 2014, last modified December 2015.