In the tomb of the great Sufi Saint Shams-i-Tabrizi if there’s no high-strung celebration of faith, there’s no restriction either. This place surely is one of the holiest Sufi pilgrimages in the world, yet anyone, at anytime can come, spend a quiet moment and leave. Anyone indeed. As an Indian I find that phenomenal. India is a land of shrines. I am not privy to the wishes of the deities that these shrines celebrate, but I do know the managers of these holy shrines have made it a point to keep them beyond the reach of a vast number of people. Does god discriminate? I do not know. But god’s vices for sure do, and in India they do it with vengeance. In a vast number of our Hindu temples, not only non-Hindus, but also lower caste Hindus could be lynched to death if found trespassing. I have had to bear the personal shame of having to tell my American friends that they won’t be allowed inside many of the mesmerizing temples of Odisha, because they were Christians. At least from some of the temples, women, irrespective of religion or caste, are also strictly barred.
Muslim mosques in India do not discriminate. Irrespective of caste, religion and gender all can visit. Women, however, are not allowed inside the grave-chamber, the sanctum sanctorum, if you will, of Delhi’s most popular Sufi shrine, the Dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya. Women come to pray here in millions every year, but can go only up to a certain point and not beyond. Every time I visit Nizamuddin and watch this restriction on women I am reminded of that couplet, which the saint’s great disciple and friend and an immortal icon of this subcontinent’s culture, Amir Khusrau is said to have written on learning about his guru’s passing away:
Gori soye sej par, mukh par dare kes
Chal Khusrau ghar apne, rain bhaee chahu des
(The radiant lady now sleeps on the wreath, with tresses covering her face
O Khusrau! To our abode let’s return, the night’s arriving apace.)
But I was really shocked to see the ugly notice stuck right at the entrance of the tomb of the great Sufi saint Hazrat Baktiar Kaki, in Delhi again. Is masjid men pishab aur pakhana ke liye auraton ka ana mana hay, read the notice in Hindi: In this mosque women are not allowed to come for relieving themselves. Would the great saint himself endorse such a notice? I don’t know. I have no knowledge of Islamic theology. But my heart has only one word for this: abominable. I asked one of my closest friends Abu, a devout Muslim with much knowledge in Islamic theology, about it. There was a long uncomfortable pause. Finally with a deep sigh he said, “To the best of my knowledge this notice has nothing to do with Islam.”
And it turned from abominable to heart rending when, during another visit to the same tomb, I saw a lady crying profusely literally lying at the doorstep of the shrine for hours, and in front of her was shining yet another notice that said, in three languages, “Females and girls are not allowed to enter in Astana”. It was the most poignant moment that I have ever caught on camera.
Interestingly, only a few kilometers away from both of these two shrines, the Dargah of another great Sufi saint Hazrat Abu Bakr Tusi, popularly known as the Matka Peer Baba, welcomes all with open arms. I have also seen there is absolutely no restriction on women or anyone in saint Salim Chisti’s tomb in Fatehpur Sikri, near Agra, that mesmerizing existence which many many years ago had caused the first chink in the watertight armours of rationality of four fire-brand Marxist youths. Of the four, I am no longer in touch with one, but the other two continue to be close friends, and in our ripe age we have often tried to place our index finger on what exactly happened on that forlorn sweltering summer afternoon. So far we have not been able to. But that is completely another yarn, to be woven some other time.
In Iran I haven’t seen women being barred from any mosque, not even in the country’s one of the holiest cities Mashhad, in eastern Iran. But there are additional dress codes for women entering mosques for sure. A taste of this I get in the beautiful Naser-ol-Molk mosque in Shiraz. This Qajar era 19th century mosque is particularly renowned for its coloured glass doors and windows. Sunlight filtering through them creates a psychedelic ambience that is difficult to describe. As we, I, Somayeh, her husband, and two of their East European guests, approach the gate of the mosque, Somayeh stops, “You go ahead. I shall wait here.” “But why?” “They make too much fuss with the dress code.” I insist. Her husband asks her to keep the Musafir’s request. She agrees. She approaches another gate meant for women. When she reappears on the courtyard of the mosque, it takes me a while to recognize her. The enforcers at the gate have made sure that every inch of her bare skin is covered, barring the little bright face, which is now overcast. “Look what they have done to my lips! It’s still hurting.” she points out. They have forced her to rub off with her fingers the last speck of cherry lipstick that she was wearing. No wonder she was so keen to avoid this assault on her personal space. In a moment Somyeh returns to her smiling chirping self. I deeply regret my pressing her to come along. I simply didn’t have the right to make her gulp the insult. I do believe in dress codes. Willy nilly we do follow dress codes almost at every step in our lives, unless of course one is living in a nudist colony. It has evolved over thousands of years of human civilization. And there is no reason for shrines, of which ever religion, to have their own dress codes. However, I also feel dress codes should not be discriminatory and over-obtrusive. In Iran I did come across a shocking notice, akin to the one at Delhi’s Dargah of Baktiar Kaki.
Chak Chak: one of the world’s holiest pilgrimages for Zoroastrians. Also known as Chahak-e-Ardakan, it is a tiny fire temple hidden deep inside one of the fiercest landscapes I have ever seen in my life, some 100 Km from Yazd city. My friend and host in Yazd Shahram doesn’t drive. So we hire a car and start off early in the morning. Pretty soon we are driving through a vast, dirty sulfur colored dreary land that merges in to ruthless rocks in the horizon. As far as the eye can see there’s not a brush of green. It’s not a sand desert.
But simply dry dead land. Small patches of grass here and there have been burnt yellow. I am reminded of a similar landscape that I flew over once during trip from Chicago to San Diego. That’s what the Americans call ‘death valley’. This is an Iranian version of the same.
On the way we cross a strange forlorn village: Kharanaq. It’s an abandoned mud-brick village. We alight and spend some time. Shahram tells me it’s at least 1000 years old. Internet research suggests it could actually be older. Not the standing small chocolate coloured houses of course. It’s a bizarre feeling walking the streets, impeccably clean with strange looking black lampposts. There’s a mosque and even a closed caravanserai. Must have been on the silk-route to Yazd. I imagine the bustle of those years. Not a sole around today. The tyranny of Time. Couple people on a dilapidated motorbike cross us as we head for the car.
We proceed. After sometime the road enters into the cleavages of the naked rocks and gains a little height. We park the car on a flat bed precariously close to the edge of the cliff. We climb some 100 stairs. A few yellow buildings, completely deserted. Some large trees. Out of place. Clearly planted. One juts out of the roof of the main temple building. These houses were built during the religiously tolerant Pehlavi regime. A large wooden door. Beside it one the wall in a glass frame is a notice in English: “Ladies and gentlemen, before entering the shrine please remove your shoes, cover your hair. Ladies should avoid entering during menstruation. Thank you.” We enter the temple. It’s actually a cave. The eternal flame is burning in a tray on a stand underneath the holy tree. Close by water is dripping from the roof of the cave. That’s what Chak-chak means: the sound of dripping water.
I am told, even on that fateful day exactly at this place, and only in this place, in this vast deathly valley, water was dripping. The Arab soldiers had not yet galloped into Iran. Or, perhaps I should say, they had just started arriving. 640 CE. After a reign of 400 years the Sasanid Empire was panting to death. The dynasty’s last emperor Yazdegerde was fleeing from one place to another chased by the marauding Arabian hordes. The state religion was still Zaroastrianism. In order to avoid being captured by the Arabs, Nikbano, the second daughter of Yazdegerde, was asked to flee with a small team of highly trusted soldiers. She too was given hot chase, which finally brought her to this death-valley. In front of her were the hills, impossible to negotiate, behind were the fast closing-in Arab soldiers. Nikbano supplicated in deep faith before Lord Ahura Mazda. The hills parted and sheltered Nikbano and the lady was saved from extreme danger to her life and honour, it is believed, at this holy place, giving her safety and water, which now in a huge insult to all ladies, declares: Ladies should avoid entering during menstruation!