South Asia’s Islamic Shrines and Transcultural Visuality:
An Introduction

Yousuf Saeed and Christiane Brosius


This edited volume seeks to explore the relationship of place, religious practice and the emplacement as well as traffic of people, images and other media technologies across time and space by applying transculturality and translocality (Freitag/von Oppen 2010) as heuristic lenses. The local, key focus of all the papers assembled here, is studied with the intention to develop a methodological sensorium that allows us to reach beyond the ‘local’ and yet not render it marginal. Both transculturality and translocality seem to offer such potential to conceptualise connections beyond the inflationary binary opposition of global and local. The volume proposes that cross-cultural entanglements are part and parcel of Sufi sites and practices, even though often not ‘obvious’ and/or acknowledged. The shrines, though physically immobile, are connected by agents, images, media, and practices, and thus shape a certain kind of spatial fluidity, always keeping everyday worlds and concerns at the forefront of enquiries about translocal connectivity, a connectivity that is by no means free of conflicts and tensions. 

Entrance to the shrine of Nizamuddin Aulia, New Delhi. Photo by Yousuf Saeed

Islamic shrines of saints in South Asia and other Islamic regions are a unique phenomenon. Also known as dargah, aastana, takia, mazaar or maqbara, they are institutions of religious pilgrimage centred on the grave or mausoleum of an important Sufi saint or Shia imam. Such shrines are visited not only by Muslims but also by people from different faiths, who come here to seek blessings and spiritual salvation. Unlike mosques which are used primarily for the five-times-a-day prayers, shrines play a much wider and complex role in the everyday lives and ritual cycles of the people who visit them. While one is not allowed many social, informal activities and rituals in a mosque, a Sufi shrine provides more space for social interaction, expression of piety or meeting with a living spiritual master for an emotional catharsis or climax. Besides Sufi tombs and mosques, another institution that plays a similar role is a Shia Imambada or Imambargah, shrines of Imams used mostly for mourning the death of martyrs. In the recent years, many of the shrines looked at in this volume have undergone transformation due to increasing influx from international or regional pilgrims and tourists and a rising interest to incorporate them into heritage politics of a city or state, impacting discourses on citizenship or ethnicity. Likewise, they might have been pushed to the periphery by diminished flows of people and access over time (e.g., Partition in 1947), and yet find much acclamation in media narratives. Media technologies are important constituents of localities and spatial presences and hierarchies. The volume seeks to differentiate spatial regimes of Sufi shrines by placing emphasis on the role of visual and audio-visual media.     

One example: Occult practices and amulets available at these Islamic shrines are much sought after in South Asia, Middle East, South Africa and UK! However, such shrines are also prone to commercial exploitation of pilgrims by the shrine-keepers or mujavirs who claim to be the intercessors between the devotees and the buried Saint or God, and provide potions and talisman to the gullible visitors, at a price! On the occasion of a Saint’s Urs, many posters and banners with images and decorative borders that publicise the occasion and schedule of events start mushrooming. Besides creating a vibrant visual culture, they by themselves become a medium of devotion and popular piety. Some even carry images of other shrines like that in Ajmer, Lucknow, Karnataka or even Pakistan, thereby signifying the cultural flow amongst far away regions. However, these shrines and surrounding areas cannot be visualized merely in a traditional, idealistic and romantic way – there is a lot that makes the flow and continuity of this visual culture highly asymmetrical in terms of a variety of tensions and conflicts that are played out visibly or subtly hidden. Social and economic changes impact on this as well as visual and print culture is undergoing, and reflecting, major transformations. Reasons may also tem from ideological shifts (Wahhabi/Salafi tendencies that tend to undermine the more liberal and rustic traditions of a Sufi shrine) and demographic developments with respect to urban and transnational migrations of social agents.

In light of the above scenario, some scholars have nevertheless tried to study such aspects in South Asia and other regions. This eclectic series of essays has resulted out of two initiatives, both of which were part of the Cluster of Excellence project: (1) An international workshop on “Changing Popular Visual Cultures of Muslim Shrines: Transcultural Flows and Urban Spaces” held in Heidelberg in June 2010, and (2) Five short-term fellowships awarded in 2010 to researchers in India and Pakistan on the theme “The Circulation of Popular Images and Media in Muslim Religious Spheres”. While all the above papers open new vistas of study of the popular culture of Islam, they also create opportunity for us to see Islamic shrines and mediated networks through their inter-connections. It is hoped that such a volume/group of papers will lead to a further debate and discussion in the understanding of a transcultural approach towards the constitution and contestation of place, religious and media practices.

Yousuf Saeed, Christiane Brosius


1. Nizamuddin’s Heritage Buildings and Delhi’s Urban Face-lift

        (Yousuf Saeed, Tasveer Ghar, India)

Sufi shrines of South Asia are pilgrimage centres but also centuries-old heritage buildings that are threatened by constant encroachment and disrepair. This paper explores how the popular devotion of visiting pilgrims to the shrine of Delhi’s Saint Nizamuddin Aulia and its exploitation by local priests and residents is at odds with the efforts of Delhi government and private agencies to restore the ‘lost glory’ of ancient buildings. This comes at a time when Delhi is projected as a world-class city with sanitised heritage sites, and with mega-events such as the Commonwealth Games held in October 2010. In this tug of contestation between popular faith and heritage, the larger question to explore is: how do the two sides engage with each other’s definitions of preservable heritage and venerable sacred sites and archetypes? And what new meanings do concepts like “endangered” and “preservable heritage” versus relics and “venerable sites” acquire today when heritage restorers and government officials, in their effort to save the crumbling buildings, confront the local heirs or “owners” of the shrine complex, who consider any effort of restoration a threat to the survival of their devotional enterprise. In one of the ways to study this confrontation, this project documents images and popular visuality produced around the shrine, besides looking at the very recent developments in the neighbourhood through local sources of news and media.

2. Sufi Shrines and Built Environments in Visual Culture

         (Sandria B. Freitag, North Carolina State University, USA)

Sufi shrines provide a unique entry point for exploring the implications of changes over time in popular visual-culture, artefacts and in believers’ practices while interacting with these artefacts.  The inclusiveness that is a trademark of South Asian Sufism in general, and saints’ shrines in particular, opens up a popular space inviting in a wide range of participants engaging in action (“performative” productivity, as Christopher Pinney coins it) to shape meanings. Synchronicity in these interactions of performative productivity, in turn, keeps genealogical knowledge current and relevant, while also enabling ambiguity and negotiation to cope with change and challenge. Consequently, the shrines allow us to look through and beyond the immediate spaces occupied by these specific built environments and their popular visual-culture representations, to their broader, meaning-laden place in South Asian everyday life. The resonances of long-standing practices around the shrine spaces and their visual representations enable us to examine the interplay between past expectations or experiences and contemporary developments.

In this essay, a larger and more inclusive analytical frame is applied to the shrines and their visual representations. It builds out from a "genealogical idiom" (as first explored by C.A. Bayly and then Will Glover) to understand both the links from generation to generation and the kinds of power as well as efficacy into which viewers can reach through their interactions, whether spatial, visual, and/or material. 

3. Chasing the original image: An exploration of devotional visual culture at the shrine of Sailani Baba

         (Shirley Abraham, Amit Madhesia, Independent scholars, India)

The image essay travels to the shrine of Sailani Baba in Maharashtra, exploring the rich and prolific visual paraphernalia in circulation on the site of the Sufi saint. It examines religious posters as repositories of diverse and portable forms of popular iconography, how they fortify an anthropomorphic imagination of legends, and consolidate the miracle narratives of the Saint. Further, it interests itself in how icons of varied religious representation launch Sailani Baba into the repertoire of international iconography, thus, making him accessible across borders of faith and geography. It argues that such syncretism is not merely a player in the prolific production of pluralistic images, but is also actively generated and sustained through image making practices. This underscores the potential of popular art to support religious variety. In charting the journey of this image, its spatial and social mobility, and translation into its most visible avatar as a colourful, embellished image, the essay locates the myriad networks of circulation and imagination, and transmission of images through technology, myth, folklore and popular belief.

Further, the essay considers the ways in which mechanical exigencies and technological innovations encourage this topography of the transcultural imagination, which in turn, generates an element of performance through the collages. The hybrid images and posters become backdrops in travelling photo studios in the annual Urs organized around the shrine, where pilgrims get themselves photographed, the images marking a validation and memory of pilgrimage. These images generate a steady flow of representations and gestures of piety which are consumed from popular religious iconography, thus, triggering an easy traffic where image making practices further consolidate popular faith.  The essay locates its quest around these evolving layers of geography, collective devotion, fluidity of religious symbols, ritual and performance – which find form in the imaginative and potent visual culture around the shrine of Sailani Baba.

4. Replicating Memory, Creating Images: Pirs and Dargahs in popular art and media of contemporary East Punjab

           (Yogesh Snehi, Ambedkar University Delhi, India)

After the partition of province in 1947, major shrines of Punjabi Sufi mystics became inaccessible to Hindus and Sikhs of Indian Punjab. It is pertinent to note that both in India and Pakistan violent attempts have been made to discourage and dissuade people from venerating shrines of major Sufi mystics as well as popular saints. These attempts were crucial projects for the legitimization of religious fundamentalists among Sikhs and Hindus in India and Muslims in Pakistan, and provided the basis for the continued thrust towards the construction of religious boundaries. The political scenario was such that the state attempted to either take control of such shrines through wakf boards or evacuee trusts or create a milieu where there shrines were perceived as threat. In the recent times, the most significant and the earliest Sufi shrines of South Asian mystics like Shaikh Al-Hujwiri (popularly known as Data Ganj Baksh who died in 1073 CE) at Lahore have been bombed by Islamic radicals. During the disturbing phase of Sikh militancy, popular Sufi shrines were similarly targeted in Indian Punjab.

This paper seeks to contextualize popular Sufi shrines in contemporary (Indian) Punjab and document the continued relevance of these shrines in the social landscape of Punjabis. It will be intriguing to study the ways in which piety and ideas of devotion reshaped in the translocated spaces. This paper attempts to explain this phenomenon through the medium of images and media in the popular Punjabi religious sphere where the images and older art work of Pirs/Sufi saints and their shrines/khanqahs are reproduced, especially through digital print and electronic media.

5. ‘You Have to Grant Your Vision’: Ideas and Practices of Visuality in Popular Muslim Art in Tamil Nadu

          (Torsten Tschacher, Georg-August-Universität Göttingen)

‘Seeing’ and ‘visualizing’ a saint is an essential part of devotional Tamil Muslim texts. They repeatedly present devotees as longing for a vision of the saint or of searching for the saint at his tomb-shrine, again with catching a glimpse of the saint as the desired outcome of visiting the shrine. Even more strikingly, the vocabulary utilized by these texts recall practices of seeing current at Hindu shrines in the region, where a vision or darshan of the deity is a central part of the devotees visit to the deity’s temple. In contrast, however, this vocabulary of taking darshan at the shrine of a Muslim saint does not translate into a visual culture where images of the saint are widely available. In marked contrast to many other regions of the Muslim world, depictions of the saint are clearly avoided, and only deemed proper when they are based on photographic images. What takes over the role of the saint in visual depictions is his tomb, images of which are reproduced and distributed widely.

The paper asks the question what relationship, if any, exists between ideas concerning devotional visualities expressed in Muslim discourse on the one hand and the actual practices of seeing and the related images that can be observed at Muslim shrines on the other. To explore these issues, the paper takes a closer look at the visual culture and attendant discourses in the Tamil-speaking regions of South India, Sri Lanka, and Southeast Asia.

6. Posters Advertising Pilgrimage Ceremonies at North Indian Sufi Shrine

         (Yousuf Saeed, Tasveer Ghar, India)

The walls in and around a Sufi shrine such as that of Nizamuddin Aulia in Delhi are covered with colourful notices and posters (ishtehars) about Sufi ceremonies and Urs celebrations held not only in that particular shrine, but also in faraway dargahs and Sufi centres. While one poster may talk about an event in Siddhartha Nagar (UP), another invites the bholder to a local gathering in Mehrauli (Delhi). There are regional posters from other states such as Bareilly (UP), Seelampuri (east Delhi) and even the southern state of Karnataka (in Chittagoppa, Bidar). But the most fascinating is an information sticker from Karachi, Pakistan, inviting Indian pilgrims to a conference on Sufism! Even if no one travelled from Delhi to Karachi after watching the announcement, the posters and stickers at least make cross-cultural connection between regions and countries, or creating a sense of the ummah (or Muslim community), which is not based on a puritanical or sanitized notion of Arabicized Islam, but a diverse and colourful network of Sufi-related events. Of course, one can also find here notices about events related to other ideologies such as the Wahhabis and Salafis, who are a bit antagonistic to the Sufi shrine culture. One such event advertised was a congregation or Ijtema of the Dawat-e Islami taking place in Okhla (south east Delhi). Interestingly, this diversity of events could be found within a period of a few months. The author looks at the geographical connections being made by these announcement posters in order to create new pilgrimage maps or itineraries, not only to cater to the popular piety but also in the consolidation of the larger identity of South Asian ummah or Muslim community.

7. Reconciling Misunderstandings: Sufism at the Urs of Inayat Khan

         (Jan Scholz, Max Stille, Heidelberg University, Germany)

Because of the universal nature of Sufism and global travel opportunities that are available now, people from different backgrounds are able to participate on the occasion of Urs of Niẓām ad-Dīn and Inayat Khan. There are various aspects of this process throughout the ceremony at these shrines.This article deals with the Urs ceremony of Inayat Khan which was held in February 2010 in Nizamuddin, Delhi, with a focus on the ceremony’s reception by its participants. Referring to literary scholar Wolfgang Iser who treated the question of indeterminacy in literary texts, it proposes that the transcultural interactions taking place during this ceremony are based on the ceremony’s high levels of semantic indeterminacy. Different parts of the ceremony and the participants’ reactions towards them will be depicted with the aid of videos recorded by the article’s authors as well as by members of Universal Sufism who participated in the ceremony. The authors argue that in a process resembling the act of reading, this indeterminacy is ‘normalised’ by the ceremony’s participants each of whom ‘pins down’ the ceremony’s ‘meaning’ according to his or her own horizon of expectation.

8. Mediating Belief and Senses: Dawat-e-Islami's Emerging Madina of Visuality

        (Noman Baig, University of Texas, USA)

Dawat-e-Islami (DI), an organization to promote Islam in Pakistan was historically known for being averse to modern technology and blamed photographs and video as being a prime source of moral and spiritual degradation. However, in recent years, despite its historical aversion to technology, DI has emerged as an organization embracing all forms of modern technology, making themselves and their services available to a global audience. Through an ethnographic study of the organization in Karachi, the research analyses Dawat-e-Islami’s visual media; pamphlets, stickers, and emerging audio-visual materials. The organization has shifted its focus towards media technology to advance organization’s values, and has opened up new ways of interaction between religious belief and visual media in Pakistan.

The project focuses primarily on the visuality of a Sunni Barelvi organization, the Dawat-e-Islami (Invitation to Islam) formed in the 1990s to propagate spiritual purification by ‘mimicking’ the Prophet Mohammad’s lifestyle. The essay explores emerging visual culture and the ways it shapes the religious sensibility in Pakistan. It focuses on new techniques and practices used to circulate visual imagery of Islam among the population. I argue that the popular medium of booklets and stickers are slowly receding giving way to emerging ephemeral and visceral forms of communication such as mobile SMS and videos. Despite the surge in the use of multimedia technology to disperse religious values, little effort has been made to understand this growing relationship in Pakistan. Thus Dawat-e-Islami is an apt entry point for understanding the emerging visual imagery situated within the interpretative framework of Islam and globalization.

9. Maijbhandari Songs on VCD: Translating a Traditional Genre of Devotional Sufi Songs from Bangladesh into Video Clips

         (Hans Harder, Heidelberg University, Germany)

The migration of traditional literary genres to new media usually brings with it considerable reframings and reshufflings of contents. Traditions are particularly likely to undergo such engineerings at the hands of later-day cultural politics if they are aligned with any process of identity formation, which is frequently the case.

This article studies the introduction of commercial video recordings to a popular tradition of Sufi songs in Bangladesh. It looks at the specific representation of Sufi devotion in the video mode. The case this article focuses on is Maijbhandari songs, a very popular genre of devotional and esoteric music in contemporary Bangladesh. These songs are devoted to the saints of Maijbhandar in rural Chittagong, and their production has been closely linked with the Sufi movement initiated around those saints in the 1870s. Motifs used in many classical Maijbhandari songs include the constellation of female lover and male beloved, which is historically and culturally linked with Krishna devotion and the love relationship between Radha and Krishna in Hindu mythology.

Since about 2000, these songs, formerly mostly available orally, in print or on audio cassettes, have started to be recorded in VCD format. How, this article asks, are the songs and singers visually represented in this format? To what extent are traditional performance situations translated into a new medium? Does this medium generate any novel space that adds new layers of meaning to this traditional mode of expressing devotion?

10. Shia devotional art and material culture: Visual narratives of trans-culturation, social memory and community identity

          (Fiza Ishaq, Ph.D. candidate, Heidelberg University, Germany)

Contemporary iconography in South Asia and the Middle East region is a continuation of the past, which is evident in the use of traditional motifs in contemporary art. In addition, religious art work which was created and used for religious purposes in Iran has gradually over a period of years spread to South Asia.

This essay is a preliminary study of the beginnings of Shia religious iconography and its consequent development and use by contemporary Shia communities located in the Indian subcontinent, through a concise iconographic analysis of Islamic miniature paintings of Central and South Asia, Coffeehouse paintings which became popular in Iran during the Qajar era and chromolithographs known as ‘Muslim’ posters produced in early twentieth century South Asia. The occurrence of these flows of imagery and their continuation is all the more evident today, as shown through analysis of popular posters and banners created by artists within the community in Hyderabad and Bangalore.

Furthermore, the essay is an analysis of the display, purpose and agency of popular iconography in the shrine and the street during Muharram rituals of mourning performed to commemorate the martyrs of Karbala. The ethnographic study of Shia communities in both cities offers insights into the polemics, both religious and political, that the display of certain imagery gives rise to and the consequent iconoclasm in various forms, not necessarily violent, which consumers of religious iconography are almost always conscious of.  This sentiment also hounds the display of pictures of Middle Eastern religious leaders in shrines, which results from religious debates about the practice of what is conceived of as ‘traditional’ and ‘authentic’ Shia Islam. 

11. Culture of Islam in the Western Himalayas

            (Abeer Gupta, Independent scholar, India)

Ladakh, commonly perceived as a remote Buddhist monoculture has in fact, been a contact zone of various streams of Islamic activities related by trade and pilgrimage. Historically, the region has been a gateway between central and south Asia, on a route frequented by merchants and missionaries, thus becoming a melting pot of various philosophies, such as Buddhism, Sufism, and Islam. By the 15th and 16th centuries, merchants from Kashmir, Yarkand, Lhasa, and Northern India consolidated it into a prominent trading post. These interactions had a profound influence on the local visual and material culture which resulted in the development of a unique identity around forms, beliefs and customs. In the mid-20th Century, Ladakh became a part of India. Baltistan, the predominantly Shia part of Ladakh went under Pakistan’s administration and activities at the borders with Central Asia, China and Tibet gradually decreased. Today, only mass-produced consumer goods imported from India and cheaper Chinese alternatives flood the various retail outlets.

The focus of this essay is on the evolution of movement and consumption of objects of popular visual and material culture by the Islamic communities especially with reference to the markets and religious spaces of the districts of Leh and Kargil. While the printed/framed objects such as calendars and posters provide a contemporary engagement with visual content and styles; the textile-based objects such as carpets, prayer mats, and wall hangings, display a much wider historical progression of forms. Such developments also point towards the evolution of a unique local Islamic aesthetic. At the same time, with increasing affluence, exposure to the outside world, and technological advancements, there is a vigorous exchange of visual expressions of Islamic culture with the centres of the Islamic world. We try and explore the negotiations that take place within the visual culture of a regional cultural entity and a global discourse.

12. The flow of images to, from, and between Shia shrines

         (Ingvild Flaskerud, University of Bergen, Norway)

In the sacred geography of Islam, the Kaaba in Mecca is given a sanctified status as the site where the devotee may stand before God, Wuquf. However, an analysis of the pilgrimage to Shia shrines suggests the Islamic sacred topography to be more complex, especially if transnational movements and placements are considered, as in the case of this chapter. Saintly grace may well move beyond the sacred site. The ability of artefacts to transmit grace and protection in locations distant to the shrines, suggest that the mapping out of pilgrimage routes and sites extends the notion of ‘shrine scapes’ to include the notion of ‘barakat scapes’.

A juxtaposition of Shia devotional behaviour in Iraq, Iran, and Norway suggests that material practices and devotional behaviour at the shrines are reproduced at private homes; creating a familiar devotional behaviour that entangles places, communities, and cultures. Attention to the devotees’ home location demonstrates that despite the benefit attributed to a visitation to a shrine, one may perform a visitation to a pan-Shia pilgrimage site from a distance by visiting a proxy tomb. The practice draws on the Twelver Shia idea of performing a pilgrimage from a distance, the power of votive gifts to work as sites for presenting invocations, and the capacity of visual and material culture to represent people, places and events from the past, as well as geographically distant places.

The theoretical contribution to the discussion of pilgrimage in the present paper is the use of artefacts in transmitting and circulating saintly blessing. The analysis follows the flow of artefacts to and from pan Shia shrines visited by Shias from all over the world, but with particular attention to the use of the artefacts in the devotees’ dwelling units - homes. Whereas, the movement of people is essential to pilgrimage, this study shows that material objects also travel, and with them ideas, iconography and, from the perspective of the devotees, the divine benediction conveyed at the shrines. The flow of images and artefacts creates real, symbolic, spiritual and social connections between Shia environments transnationally to create a shared topography conveyed through aesthetic expressions.