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Beheaded by Aurangzeb: The madness of a naked fakir, Sarmad, who loved a Hindu boy

His love is telling of how religion and heterosexuality could be in the fluid zone in the day-to-day affairs of medieval society.

 |  11-minute read |   27-06-2018
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Caesar: The ides of March are come.

Soothsayer: Ay, But not gone.

— William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, Act 3, Scene 1

Will Dara dead turn out to be more powerful than Dara alive? That is a question that haunts Aurangzeb. To kill or not to kill is not the dilemma. Kill he must, whoever it may be, for he wills to be the undisputed monarch.

It is 1661. Dara is dead, and it’s Sarmad’s turn.

The naked fakir, friend and mentor of Dara, had prophesied during the succession battle that raged between Shah Jahan’s sons that Dara would become king. Aurangzeb knows that someone as popular as Sarmad cannot be beheaded just like that – a charge of heresy, apostasy must be proved. Aurangzeb also knows that once Sarmad is brought to trial, the rest would be a cakewalk – the fakir would go into an auto-destruct mode.

naked-saint-aurangze_062718044615.jpgDara Shikoh found comfort in the madness of Sarmad. Photo: Screengrab

The fakir is brought to a trial, and Aurangzeb asks him about his prophecy of Dara’s victory:

“You said so and so, and the opposite has happened. What have you to say?”

“I did not say he would be king of this transitory world; I meant the world to come, and that is his portion.”

That is enough to sever the head of this naked mendicant and savour the flavour of victory. But it is not enough to do this in public view. It needs heresy. Like Joan of Arc was accused of having consorted with the devil, and having heard heeded him – in her battle against England. Sarmad is asked to recite the kalma, the declaration of faith – la ilaha il’allah Muhammad ur rasul’allah: “There is no God, except Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.”

The fakir utters “la ilaha” – “There is no god,” and goes silent.

“There is no Allah, your renowned fakir says. Look how he is the shaitan (devil) himself,” thunders the Qazi. Sarmad is dragged through the streets to the gallows and beheaded in full public view.

Legend has it that Sarmad’s body took the severed head in its hand, and started dancing, and then his mouth uttered the full kalma. In leaving his final earthly attachment, he had found his Allah. Just as he was about to enter the Jama Masjid, a voice called out to him from Hare Bhare Shah’s grave. Shah entreated him – Sarmad now having had found his God, should relent, and come and rest near him. He walked down, head in his hand, to Shah’s grave; there he fell and lies buried.

The legend of Sarmad dancing with his own head, and uttering the kalma is an appropriation from a later time – for it is difficult for the faithful to reconcile that their saint either uttered half the kalma, or that he perhaps made a statement of atheism/agnosticism. The complete kalma has to be a part of the legend, so that Sarmad can be brought into the modern Islamicate fold.

Interestingly, this imagery still draws upon its syncretic roots – that of Kali dancing with dead heads.

There were two other charges that the courtiers of Aurangzeb had hoped to pin down Sarmad with. One was that he roamed around naked.

Francois Bernier, the royal physician in the court of Shah Jahan, and later in the court of Aurangzeb, is often quoted as saying, with regard to Sarmad’s nudity: “I was for a long time disgusted with a celebrated Fakir, named Sarmet; who walked in the streets of Delhi as naked as he came to the world. He despised equally the threats and persuasions of Aurangzebe, and underwent at length the punishment of decapitation for his obstinate refusal to put on his wearing apparel.”

From Bernier’s own account, we understand that the phenomenon of naked fakirs at this time was fairly common, and that they constantly were around royalty, and that this charge could not really have been held against Sarmad. He writes:

I have often met in the field, especially upon the lands of the Rajas, whole squadrons of these faquires, naked, dreadful to behold. Some held their arms lifted up in the posture mention’d ; others had their terrible hair hanging about them, or else they had wreathed them about their head , some had a kind of Hercules's club in their hand, others had dry and stiff tiger-skins over their shoulders. I saw them pass thus quite naked, without any shame, through the midst of a great burrough, I admired how men, women, and children could look upon them so indifferently, without being moved on more than if we should see pass some Eremite through our streets; and how the women brought them alms with much devotion, taking them for very holy men, much wiser and better than others.

sarmad-sa-690_062718045129.jpg

s-s-690_062718045208.jpgAt Sarmad's tomb. Photo: Joydeep Hazarika

Legend has it that one Friday, Sarmad was lying naked on the stairs of Jama Masjid, and Aurangzeb came there and chastised him for not following the shar’ia, the Islamic law. Sarmad replied, “To those with sins to hide, God gave clothes to wear. And upon the pure He bestowed the robe of nakedness.”

There was a blanket lying nearby, and Sarmad ask the king to drape him with it. The moment Aurangzeb lifted the blanket; he could see the bloody heads of all the people he had slain underneath it. He was horror-struck and left.

Another charge on Sarmad was that he denied the event called Miraj, which is the physical ascent of Muhammad to heaven. His contention was that Miraj is allegorical and not to be taken literally. His verse regarding the matter reads thus:

  • “The Mullahs says Ahmad went to heaven
  • Sarmad says that heaven came down to Ahmad”

This esoteric verse was also not enough to nail him down. After the utterance of “la ilaha” and the pronouncement of the death sentence, it is believed that he started uttering quatrains “extempore” and recited 24 of them. He refused that his head be covered during his execution, and recited to the executioner: 

  • “The friend with the naked sword has arrived
  • In whatever guise thou mayst come
  • I recognise thee...”

A lot of these legends are from folklore and oral traditions, which have been later penned down by writers. Oral histories and legends cannot be said to have factual accuracy, but it gives a fair idea about the importance of Sarmad, as well as the philosophical and spiritual traditions around him. The most authoritative essay about Sarmad is by Maulana Abul Kalam Azad, who wrote it on the insistence of Khwaja Hasan Nizami, a friend, in 1910. Azad contends that Aurangzeb deliberately suppressed any literature about Sarmad during his time, which is why there is barely any contemporary account:

“Events recorded by ancient historians are so sketchy that their cumulative summary cannot fill the space on a postcard.”

Azad looked for Sarmad in contemporary histories by Mirza Mohd Kazim and Nawab Inayat Ullah, but found Sarmad carefully “expunged”. Finally, Azad found two works: Miratul Khayal by Sherkhan Lodi, and Riaz-ul-Shuara by Ali Quli Valeh Dagistani, who lived during the reign of Mohammad Shah.

dara-shikoh-690_062718050134.jpg'Dara Shikoh preferred the company of mendicants, madmen and lovers.' Photo: Screengrab

Azad’s account is long, but in brief, Sarmad was from Armenia, and a Jew, from Kashan in Iran. Iran had a substantial Armenian, Christian and Jewish population and they were all blended into the social fabric. There is little known about his family name or education. He came to India as a trader, to the port of Thatta in Sind. There he fell in love with a Hindu boy, Abhai Chand.

Azad does not state the circumstances of Sarmad becoming a nude fakir, but legend has it that he started living with Abhai, and this was resisted. The boy was torn away from him, and they both spent their days pining for each other. Sarmad went to Abhai’s father and removed all his clothes, and said that he did not care for any worldly possessions any longer; there was nothing in his life but his beloved. Abhai’s father relented, and the two became wandering minstrels.

Maulana Azad skips that legend, or it is not there in his sources, and says that “Sarmad was in a state of ecstasy. In this state he lost all his wealth and worldly possessions. The only shackles left were his garments, which he threw away and became totally free from worldly bindings. Attachment to things is maddening for those who aspire to achieve ultimate detachment.” Azad quotes a rubai by Sarmad:

    • “There is no fault
    • With a mad man
    • The fault lies in you –
    • Love hasn’t maddened you yet.”

This relationship between Sarmad and Abhai – same-sex relationship between a Hindu and a Muslim is a perhaps a little too extreme for our day. For the conservatives, it is a legend worth never being remembered or retold; for the progressives, it would be rallying symbol for queer rights. However, in seventeenth century, it does not seem to be much of an oddity – Abhai’s father gives in seeing Sarmad’s love; and it is not a situation where they are ostracised, but rather celebrated. Sufic lore is full of such examples, including that of Mahmud of Ghazni and his servant.

Mahmud, who is otherwise a historical villain, having raided the Somnath temple seventeen times, is celebrated for his exquisite love for his beloved, as much as the legend of Laila-Majnu or Sassi-Punnu. The situation of two lovers is telling of how religion and heterosexuality could be in the fluid zone in the day-to-day affairs of medieval society.

Together the lovers travelled from Sind to Deccan, and from there to Delhi. Sarmad composed rubais, and Abhai would sing them. Together they translated five books of Moses into Persian. Finally they came to Delhi, where they found Dara Shikoh.

msa-690_062718050600.jpgA miniature shows Aurangzeb examining the severed head of his brother, Dara Shikoh. Photo: Screengrab

Sherkhan Lodi, the author of Mirat-ul-Khayal, says: “Dara Shikoh preferred the company of mendicants, madmen and lovers. He therefore took Sarmad into his circle.” Azad retorts to Lodi’s favourable stance towards Alamgir (Aurangzeb) and asserts that he knows which side of the binary he would choose in such a situation, “In any event, we prefer Dara Shikoh’s indulgence towards the insane to Alamgir’s coterie of the rational and the sane. In the latter case, the sword of vigilance had been dyed in the blood of lovers, while in the former; blood flowed freely from the severed veins of lovers’ necks. Probably Dara Shikoh was tired of the alertness of men like Alamgir. He, therefore, preferred the company of majnoons like Sarmad.”

Jewish scholars read in Sarmad a pluralistic Jew, Islamic scholars assert that Sarmad had converted to Islam, and so on. Sarmad stands vindicated – everyone wants to have a lineage from him; no one disowns him as was done by Alamgir and his coterie. Yet modern scholarship somewhere falls short of recognising that heterodoxy was acceptable, and in currency, in medieval Sufism. Dara Shikoh himself was a keen scholar of various religions. 

Sarmad’s worldview is Dara’s vision as well. Aurangzeb’s hatred for Sarmad was more personal than ideological – Sarmad was Dara himself for him. Also, he could not let the “madness” of Dara live on and create trouble for him.

Maulana Azad says that “the myriad colours of Sarmad’s blood seeped into Aurangzeb’s life, and never did he experience a single peaceful day. His dying days were spent in desolation, away from home. But historians of the era were incapable of recording these facts.” Several writers chronicling Sarmad's life have expressed a similar sentiment. Legend also has it that Aurangzeb saw blood in his food after murdering Sarmad, and was advised by a Sufi saint Reshi Pir to indulge in religious penance.

The Pir invoked Sarmad’s spirit and asked him to forgive Aurangzeb, and asked Aurangzeb to earn his daily bread through manual labour. Aurangzeb, thereafter, started copying the Quran in his spare time and bought food from the money he earned thereof. Of course these versions are in the realm of lore, and yet they go on to show the influence Sarmad wielded at the grassroots level, that has led to the perpetuation of such legends despite a determined Aurangzeb who would not have a word written about the naked fakir.

A distych from Abhai Chand tells about the identity of all three – Abhai, Sarmad and Dara:

  • “I am at once a follower of the Quran, a priest,
  • A monk, a Jewish rabbi, an infidel and a Muslim.”

Stephen Carr, writing in 1876, says of Sarmad that “his impromptus are very popular in Delhi... Sarmad was considered ‘well inspired’ and a man of sanctity; to this day offerings are made at his grave by the people of Delhi.”

A century and four decades later, his words still ring true. The twin shrines of Sarmad and Hare Bhare Shah attract a lot of following, with people of all creeds flocking there. The former is painted in red in memory of the violent death of Sarmad, and the latter in green as the name of Hare Bhare Shah suggests. The latter was the spiritual guide of the former. People tie threads, put locks, write petitions on pieces of paper with the faith that Sarmad will answer. This is one of the shrines where there are no restrictions on dress code or women’s entry. The keepers know their legacy.

In Sarmad’s own words:

  • “Blood shed for love
  • Is never wasted.”

(Thanks are due to Prof Nathan Katz of FIU, Miami, for having shared his interest and knowledge about Sarmad.) 

Also read: Why fanatics of today would not have spared Kabir

Writer

Amit Ranjan Amit Ranjan

Dr Amit Ranjan has a PhD from JNU about John Lang. His book about Lang is going to be published soon

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