Songs and Stories at Yamanur

Singing to the pir

As you queue up for worship, you will have been tapped on the head with a peacock feather whisk at the entrance to the shrine by one of the two main pirzade, the spiritual descendants of the pir, Rajabag Savar.  You will have made a small donation to them.  It is from this they gain their income.  If the shrine is busy, you may need to queue, men on the left, women on the right, amid the crowd singing songs to the deity-pir.  Here are some of the words you might hear (in Latika Sahgal’s English translation of Assayag):

Come pray to the pir and sing in the dargah [Muslim version]
Come and pray to the deva and sing in the gudi [Hindu version]
A saint was born in Sundarapur,
His name is Rajabag/Changadev,
He came to Yamanur,
He is wise, he is famous,
He is a Siddha,
He practises yoga,
He flies in the air,
He controls the wind,
He enters the bodies of those who worship him,
Come pray to the pir/deva and sing in the dargah/gudi

Come swing the holy lamp before Rajabag/Changadev,
The god/saint born in Sundarapur came to Yamanur,
Riding on a tiger,
With a snake for a whip,
And scorpions for a bit,
He is a miracle-worker,
His life is endless,
He is a god/saint among gods/saints,
For such a man, come swing the lamp before Rajabag/Changadev…

Different devotees may indeed use the language that comes most naturally to them (pir, Rajabag, dargah – a word often indicating the shrine of a Muslim pir; or dev (god), Changadev, gudi – a term frequently used for a Hindu place of worship in south India).  But they share the same songs and the same references to the myths which surround the saint.  In this song, the term ‘Siddha’ (‘accomplished one’) recalls the powers of the ascetics and tantric practitioners who build up their ability through meditation and and other practices.  These powers include the ability to transcend time and place, to fly through air (as Rajabag Savar/Changadev does on his tiger) and to overcome the elements.  Through these too, they demonstrate their ability to heal and help, if they use their powers constructively, as worship here encourages Rajabag Savar/Changadev to do.  Interestingly, the Burge pirzade family who run the Yamanur shrine trace their descent back not only through Changadev and the Varkari saints (who worship Vithoba with Vaishnava alliance) but through some of the most famous Nath Yogis too (famous tantric practitioners or Siddhas with a broadly Shaiva affiliation).

In the picture below (not from Yamanur), where Changadev is firmly integrated into the (Hindu Vaishnava) Varkari tradition as the (humbled) nephew of Jnanadev, the motif of riding the tiger, and the competition with the saint with the superior power who can even make the wall he is riding move, is retained from Sufi Islamic stories, where this is a recurring theme (Digby 1994).  Motifs from different, pan-regional but then relatively localised, religious traditions are woven together in a way which reflects the plurality of these interacting traditions and the people who had and have to live alongside each other.  This interweaving and co-existence may make us question our assumptions that people always belong to, or identify with, discrete  ‘-isms’, often projected as in conflict with one another.

Jnanadev & siblings ride the wall                      Changadev on his tiger

     Changadev, humbled, touches Jnanadev’s feet


Telling his stories

Yet the myths that may be told do also vary, showing that those who worship at the shrine view the saint/deity and the founding of this place rather differently, and use the myths to negotiate their different positions.

Here are three different narrations that Assayag heard while he was doing his fieldwork from 1990 to 1993.

  • How do the different narrations reflect different priorities and claims about the saint and the shrine?
  • Do you think they are strictly ‘versions’, that is, having a single original, or do you think they might better be describe as ‘tellings’ (Richman 2008: 8-18) which dip into a kind of ‘cultural reservoire’ of common motifs, yet relate them to present a particular view or agenda?

Narrative 1

Told by a Muslim pilgrim from Navalgund, a town in Dharwar district some 45 km from Yamanur

The saint Shah Mirza Abdul Raja Kadiri (of Gulbarga) [a famous Sufi saint] performed endless miracles.  Riding his tiger – which gave him his nickname Rajabag Savar – he decided to visit Khwaja Bandanamaz [d. 1422], who lived in Bijapur [the capital of the Bahmani court and kingdom with which the Chishti Sufis were strongly connected].  Just as he was about to reach the town, the latter’s seven-year-old great-grandson, Nadim Allah, wanting to prove the superiority of his great-grandfather’s miraculous powers, climbed on top of an old wall and made it move like a horse to welcome the visiting saint astride the tiger.

Disquieted by the power of a small child, which announced the thousand times superior power of the great-grandfather, Kadiri preferred to turn back.  But so great was his humiliation that he died of sorrow  soon after.

On learning of the cause of the saint’s death, Khwaja Bandanamaz cursed the child, who died immediately [or made him mortally ill]. After that, the reputation of Rajabag Savar as a master of justice spread far and wide, and he was greatly respected (Assayag 2004: 159-160).

Narrative 2

Told by a member of the pirzade Burge family

Kshetroji, the head of the village [whose tomb, we saw, is in the Yamanur complex – number 2 on sketch], was a faithful follower of Shah Mirza Abdul Raja Kadiri, hailing from Gulbarga and a disciple of the great Chishti saint Khwaja Gesudaraz Bandanamaz (d. 1422).  But ‘this spiritual king’ [raja] was popularly known as Rajabag Savar, because he moved about [savar] on the back of a tiger [bag] with a cobra as his whip, while he controlled his mount with a bit made of scorpions.

One day, Rajabag Savar appeared in Ksetroji’s dreams and asked him what he most wanted in the world.  He replied that his dearest wish was to keep him by his side for ever.  Thereupon, the saint granted his wish by giving him a ‘hand’ (panjah) that stood for him.  He asked him to take it to Yamanur and worship it regularly.  When Kshetroji woke up, he found the panjah under his head and also two wooden batons and a silver tiger.  He carried all these things to Yamanur.  A little later, around 1720, his son Ranoji financed the construction of a dargah in the village (Assayag 2004: 162).

Narrative 3

Told by the Hindu pujaris (priests)

In the course of his travels in Maharashtra, Changadev stopped one day in the village of Koregaon.  There he received hospitality from Kshetroji, who became his disciple.  Before leaving south India for the north, where he was to meet his master Jnanadev [b. 1275], Changadev asked Kshetroji to hide an idol of Narasimha [the man-lion descent of Lord Vishnu] in his house and worship it regularly.  Ksetroji did so.  But it was his son, Ranoji, who migrated to Karnataka in the eighteenth century and built the temple in Yamanur dedicated to Narasimha (Assayag 2004: 162-163).

  • To what extent do these three narratives support Assayag’s view that Hindus and Muslims tell the story differently, and conscious of their respective Hindu or Muslim identities, even while worshipping at the same shrine?

At Yamanur, however, it is not just songs and stories that are shared although sung and told with different inflections.  Hindu and Muslim officiants share different tasks in the daily and festival routines of the shrine.  You may like to find out about these next.