Whose shrine is it, anyway?

In Marathwada, the practice of people of all faiths worshipping at dargahs is symbolic of the syncretic culture of the region, one that is now being targeted by religious fundamentalists

Visitors at Hazrat Sayyed Alwi’s dargah in Moha, Osmanabad (Photo: Medha Kale)
Visitors at Hazrat Sayyed Alwi’s dargah in Moha, Osmanabad (Photo: Medha Kale)

Medha Kale

It’s a hot and humid afternoon in May, but the Hazrat Sayyed Alwi dargah at Moha is teeming with people. Forty families, more Hindus than Muslims, are busy with their annual worship and feast, called kanduri. The Dhobale family is one of them, and my family and I are their guests at this 200-year-old dargah in Kalamb block of Osmanabad district.

In the summer months when farming families have some free time, dargahs of pirs (holy men) in Osmanabad, Latur and six other districts—Beed, Jalna, Nanded, Aurangabad, Parbhani and Hingoli—in the Marathwada region, are usually bustling with activity. On Thursdays and Sundays, families arrive in large numbers. They sacrifice a male goat, offer a nivad (offering) of the cooked meat, seek blessings, eat together and feed others.

“We have done this (kanduri) for many generations,” says Bhagirathi Kadam, 60, our relative from Yedshi (also spelt as Yedsi) in Osmanabad. The region of Marathwada had had Muslim rulers since the 13th century (including the 224-year rule of the Nizam of Hyderabad). Belief and worship at these Islamic shrines are ingrained in people’s faith and rituals—representing a syncretic way of life... [with] the centuries-old custom of villages being assigned specific dargahs for worship.

Here at the Hazrat Sayyed dargah in Moha, under every tree and shelter of tin roofs or tarpaulin sheets, people have set up chulhas (makeshift stoves) and food is being cooked to be offered during the rituals at the dargah. Men and women are chatting while children play to their heart’s content.

The air is hot but clouds gathering on the western skies bring in some shade, as does the canopy of old tamarind trees that line the entrance and provide respite from the heat. The water body in the dargah—a 90-feet-deep, old stone well, called a baarav, is dry; but a devotee informs us it will “fill with water during [the] monsoons”.

A man in his late 60s enters the dargah, carrying his aged mother on his back. In her late 80s, the lady is wearing a faded light green 9-yard irkal saree, worn by both Hindu and Muslim women in this region. As her son climbs the five steps of the mazaar, his mother’s eyes turn moist and she joins her hands and humbly prays. Other devotees follow.

A visibly sick and disturbed woman in her 40s enters with her mother. The mazaar is located almost 500 metres from the main entrance and both take very slow steps to reach it. They offer coconut and some flowers, and light incense at the mazaar.

The mujawar (caretaker) gives back the open coconut and a thread to tie on the wrist of the sick woman. The mother rubs a pinch of the ash of the burned incense on her daughter’s forehead. Both sit under a tamarind tree for some time and then leave.

Women sit near the steps as nivad is offered (Photo: Medha Kale)
Women sit near the steps as nivad is offered (Photo: Medha Kale)

A metal fence behind the mazaar is crowded with glass bangles in shades of neon and light green. Women of all faiths place these, hoping for a suitable match for their daughters. In a corner on one side, a large wooden horse is stationed, with a few clay horse figurines in front. “These are offered in memory of the revered Muslim saints who rode horses in their lifetime,” Bhagirathi, fondly known as Bhaga maushi, fills me in.

I recall the two horses worshipped daily at my mother-in-law’s home. They suddenly mean something. One belongs to Bhairoba, a Hindu deity, and one to the pir, a revered Muslim faqeer (ascetic).

Many women have been up since midnight preparing for the annual kanduri feast, which includes meat curry and bhakri (a flatbread). But some of them won’t be eating the mutton because Thursdays are no-meat days in their calendar. “Eating is not so important,” one of the ladies tells me. “He devacha kaam ahe, maay [We do it for the deity, my dear].”

Women’s labour is the backbone of such feasts. Many won’t partake of the food but say they are happy eating upvaas food cooked for a few vegetarians and those who are fasting. The fact that meat will be cooked on the same chulha, eaten in the same plates, does not disturb them—no hurt feelings; no outraged sentiments.

Lakshmi Kadam lives in Pune and has come for the feast, and is tired now, making hundreds of bhakri, grinding masalas for the curry, washing and cleaning throughout. “I envy ‘their’ [Muslim] women,” she says tiredly. “One big pot of biryani and they are done! Ha asla rada nako na kahi nako [They do not have to do as much work as we have to].”

The cooking of the meat is a task done exclusively by men during these feasts.


Mouth-watering and aromatic biryani is being served by the Muslim devotees. Five bhakris, a pot full of gravy, and select portions of meat and a sweet malida, made of crushed wheat chapatis, ghee and sugar or jaggery, are offered as nivad to the mujawar. The men go near the mazaar and offer the nivad.

Women sit outside, near the steps, watching and seeking blessings, their heads covered with the ends of their sarees as though in a temple. Once the prayers are over and gifts exchanged, the feast begins. Women and men eat in separate rows. Those on fast eat upvaas food. The feast is formally over only when food has been served to five mendicant and five women working in the dargah.

A few weeks later, my 75-year-old mother-in-law Gayabai Kale organises a feast at a dargah close to home in Shera, a small village in Renapur block of Maharashtra’s Latur district. She has been planning one for a while now, and this year she is joined by her younger daughter Zumbar.

This dargah, Dawal Malik, is smaller than the one at Moha. We meet 15 Hindu families belonging to different castes. A group of women sit in front of the mazaar and sing a few bhajans, devotional songs revering Hindu gods; some are speaking to an elderly Muslim faqeer, seeking advice on domestic matters. A band of boys, mostly Dalit, who are still not welcome in many temples, play halgi (drums) when people offer nivad.

Gayabai’s elder son Balasaheb Kale oversees the cooking. A small farmer from Borgaon in Latur, he helps her with the slaughtering of the goats. He also makes a spicy, delicious curry. The mother–daughter duo offers nivad and the family eats while sharing food with others present at the dargah.

For the women I meet at the two dargahs, this ritual of offering prayers and a feast is like a promise that must be kept: “This is not a choice. Vajha asata, utarava lagata (It is a burden, one needs to offload).” They fear something terrible will happen if that promise is not kept.

Through the visit, the cooking, the feasting, and the sharing, they retain their Hindu identity, and see these shrines as also their own revered places of worship.

Balasaheb Kale is in charge of cooking the meat at dargah Dawal Malik in Latur (Photo: Medha Kale)
Balasaheb Kale is in charge of cooking the meat at dargah Dawal Malik in Latur (Photo: Medha Kale)

“This [pir] is my deity, and I will keep worshipping it. My grandfather did it, my father did it and I will continue to do it,” Gayabai says, with conviction and unwavering faith.

The very month (May 2023) that Gayabai, Bhaga maushi and others were sealing their promises and visiting dargahs, some 500 km away, Salim Sayyad, a resident of Tryambakeshwar, went to offer sandal-dhoop at the entrance of the Tryambakeshwar temple in Nashik district. In his 60s, he was joined by others who went along with him, following a practice that is more than a 100 years old.

They have unwavering faith in their own ‘Tryambak Raja’ and hence the annual urs to offer a chadar.

But Sayyad and the others were rudely stopped at the entrance and accused of forceful entry into the temple. A fanatic Hindu leader told the Muslim men to “restrict their worship to their own shrines”. They were further charged with hurting the religious sentiments of Hindus who worshipped there. A special investigation team (SIT) was formed to look into the ‘act of terrorism’.

A shocked Sayyad tendered a public apology. He promised to stop this centuries-old practice to maintain social harmony, an irony that went unremarked.

(This article was first published by People’s Archive of Rural India [PARI])

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