Shared duties at Yamanur

Officiants from different traditions

We have already seen that many shrines in South Asia are visited by people of varying religious backgrounds, drawn by the power of the pir, guru or deity presiding there.  We have seen how people sing songs and tell the founding stories of Yamanur with different inflections and different vocabulary, depending on their religious background.  We may surmise that the way they have told the stories has varied over time.  This may have something to do with quite an unusual feature at Yamanur:  both Muslim and Hindu officiants are involved.

If you look back over Walking through the shrine at Yamanur and Raising Questions at Yamanur, you will discover a wide variety of officiants from different backgrounds who perform different tasks.  See if you can identify what the following do:

  • the pirzade families, spiritual descendants of the pir (Rajabag Savar) – and biological descendants from Ksetroji, the founder (or father of the founder) of the shrine; they have hereditary rights to the shrine;  two main families, living in nearby Navalgund, provide the officiants on a daily basis.
  • the mullahs who live in Yamanur and may recite Quranic verses as part of the worship as well as their other duties.
  • the Hindu pujaris, who come from the Burge family to whom the temple belongs; they claim to be Marathas (high-caste ruling Hindus, whose customs are said to be closest to Muslim customs); 55 of them perform their duties on rotation, leading the morning and night worship (8am and 8pm).
  • the Helavas, a Kannada Hindu caste, who practise at the shrine

At different points in the shrine’s history, it is likely that the balance of power between these different groups will have shifted.  What is noticeable however is that the way particular rituals are conducted by the relevant officiants (including the sacrificial slaughter of sheep and cocks) reflects accommodations to the practices of other groups giving service at the shrine.  In 1982, renovation work needed at the shrine was financed jointly by generous donations from G. Mehaboob Khan, a Muslim, and a Hindu, M. Poojari (Assayag 2004: 156).

It may be that things are changing in this respect at Yamanur.  Assayag’s fieldwork was done about twenty years ago.  When Rajat Kumar visited the site in 2010, he reported that a rapid process of Hinduisation had taken place (Kumar 2010), with new photo frames outside the entrance showing Changadev riding his tiger and holding his snake, but also wearing rudraksh beads, identifying him as a Hindu sadhu or holy man.  The head priest was reluctant to discuss the history of the shrine and the chairman of the trust denied that Shri Changadev had any Muslim connections.

Nonetheless, it was clear that Muslims were still worshipping at the shrine.  One to whom Kumar spoke said: ‘Initially it was administered by trustees of both the community (sic) , but later Hindu trustees took it over  and thereafter converted it to a temple.  No one stops us to enter and nothing has changed since then for the common worshipper.  So it doesn’t matter whether it is a temple or a dargah’ (Kumar 2010).

This is borne out by another casual visitor to the shrine in January 2012.  He used to meet a man whose name was Yamanappa who regularly walked to the shrine each Thursday. (Mondays and Thursdays in Vaishnava traditions are considered auspicious days for worshipping here.)  As part of a promise to Yamanappa, Vishy undertook a 62km cycle-ride to the Yamanur shrine (Vishy 2012).  As Vishy entered the temple, he met a Muslim gentleman who, he says, directed him to take darshan (a term for ‘seeing’ and ‘being seen’ by a Hindu deity).  As well as the image of the deity, Vishy noted a ‘green slab’ (characteristic of Muslim tomb-shrines) and recorded that the priest patted him in blessing with peacock feathers, just as Assayag had noted twenty years before.  It appears that a local pattern of accommodation survives, notwithstanding the more rigidly drawn allegiances of those currently in charge.

An interesting area of research would be to see if you can discover other examples of places of worship where duties are still shared today. For an example from the past, where Syrian Christians once performed service at a Nayar Hindu shrine and festival in Kerala, south India, before colonial power in the nineteenth century disrupted such shared relations, see Susan Bayly 1984.

See References and Further Reading