The saints belong to everyone : liminality, belief and practices in rural north India

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Mewat is a cultural region in north India with a predominantly Meo Muslim population. Historically, the interaction of Hindu, Muslim and other religious groups has given the sharing of the region’s many shrines of Bhakti and Sufi saints a pluralistic character. From the 16th to the 19th centuries, these shared shrines and their saints reflected the world of middle-caste/class Meo Muslim peasants upon whom various service castes were dependent under the jajmāni (patron–client system). The Meos’ devotion to these saints was in line with the Bhakti and Sufi ideas that advocated the transcendence of caste and religious identities in favour of peasant values and devotional requirements. However, the rise of nationalist and reform politics at the national level in the 20th century and its extension to Mewat led people to identify themselves as more Hindu or Muslim. In this thesis I explore the malleable nature of these religious boundaries and identities by tracing the history of two shared shrines of the 16th century Bhakti and Sufi saints, Laldas and Shah Chokha. I used ethnographic fieldwork and interviews with Hindu and Muslim individuals, as well as Meo oral folktales and folksongs performed by the Jogi and Mirasi bards and archival methods to explore the pre and post-religious reform eras. Based on this data I argue that the Hindu and Islamic reform movements, the Arya Samaj and the Tablighi Jamaat respectively, came to define religious identity and practices in Mewat from the beginning of the 20th century. The Tablighi Jamaat movement led Meos to see themselves as a Sunni Muslim group, a change that unsettled traditionally shared religious sites and practices and created both visible and unvisible threats for Muslim individuals and groups who were still engaged in what most Meos considered as un-Islamic practices. In response, the more powerless social groups such as Meo and other Muslim women and the bards and minstrels of Jogi and Mirasi caste backgrounds responded with passive resistance. In this study, I demonstrate that the contestation of previously shared religious sites is deeply rooted in the changing forms of the religious cultures among social-religious groups. The significance of this study is to show how, in the wake of religious reform, separatism and disputes, symbolic aspects of shared shrines undergo religious transformations, while marginalised groups employ strategies of passive resistance to maintain the expression of their shared faiths and beliefs.
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