16. Jungle Pirbaba

Dargah of Jungle Pirbaba Baniban,Howrah district, converted overnight from a shiv templeA holy man once asked a boatman to ferry him across the river Rajpoa in what is now the Howrah district of West Bengal. Since the holy man did not have any money, he promised to pay for the voyage by giving one of his goats, of which he had many. On reaching his destination, the holy man handed over a goat to the boatman who, instead of saying thanks, ran away as if to save his life. The goat had turned into a tiger. Evidently, the holy man had supernatural powers. Local legend has it that officials of the Maharajah of Burdwan, while on an inspection tour, found the holy man living in a temple. They wondered why a Muslim saint should occupy a Hindu mandir. He treated the question as a challenge and asked for a personal interview with the Maharajah. On meeting the holy man in his palace, the prince certainly did not run away but was greatly awed by the sight of goats turning into tigers. He also acceeded readily to the man’s request for being granted some land.
Whether the grant was around the present tomb of the holy man or not is not recorded anywhere. Athough, Shri Hemendra Bandyopadhyay in his history Howrah, called in Bengali Howrah Zellar Itihas, describes these episodes. The man came from Arabia. The current caretaker of the tomb, Shaikh Maqbool very proudly told the author that the Pirbaba came from Arabia to preach Islam. His guess was that this happened some 250 years ago. Until his coming, there were no Muslims in the area. Today more than half the population of the village Baniban, which the author visited in July, 2001, is Muslim. Howrah district also has a large Muslim presence some of whom must be due to the proselytizing of this Pirba whose name was Abbas-uddin Shah, although, he was popularly known as Jungle Pir Saheb, presumably because the area was then a dense forest.

Baba’s miracles were repeatedly mentioned by the people of the mazaar. Super stition, as it were, was the theme song of the shrine. The author was told by those present at Baniban, that every year on 14th January, over a lac (100,000) of people gather at a fair. It is known as the Junglee Bilash Pirer Mela. Many Hindus also come. Almost all Hindus of the village rever the Baba but are not allowed into the mazaar premises. Several boys, including a Banerjee, whispered to the author’s two
companions, their utter surprise that we had gained easy. entry. A former member of the Wakf, who had also come along on seeing us, said that the mazaar was build by no one. Caretaker Shaikh Maqbool confimned and added that the edifice required no repairs at all. Only it was painted every year before the 14th January fair.
On the day of the Mela, quite a few women take a dip in the pond near the mazaar and then offer flowers while bathing. If the petals glide back to the offerer, she would go to the caretakers, collect a betel leaf or pann from them and consume it along with the petals. The hope would be, to be able to have a baby. On the other hand, men offer flowers in the hope that the petals would glide across the pond. If they cross the water, any wish of the offerer would be fulfilled. Such is the magnet of faith or superstition! Or the charisma of the Pirbaba. One of the elders who had also joined us, pointed to a tree close to the mazaar. Its leaves were dark green and nearly round or oval. The fruit was black. According to the elder, nowhere else in Bengal was there such a species of tree. It had been planted by the babe and was still going strong!

To satisfy the author’s curiosity, several of the folk present recounted the greatness of Pirbaba. It was little wonder they said, that on the night after he had ascended to heaven, all of a sudden the mazaar emerged miraculously. Obviously, it was a divine signal for his followers to bury him inside the edifice. Incidentally, the only room in the edifice is a relatively small one, and is not much bigger than say twice the area of the tombstone which is covered with a bright green and red chador. There is just about sufficient space to go around the tombstone. The height of the room is also low and proportionate to the smallness of the floor. There are no windows and hardly any embellishments. Three of the walls have approximately 20cm x 30cm depressions for holding wick lamps. The fourth wall has the only door to the room.

There is no hint of a dome which one normally looks forward to seeing in Muslim architecture. The roof is not quite flat. It is sloped on all four sides. The slopes are gradual and slightly curving. In Bengal this kind of work is called autchalah which is known to be a typically Hindu temple design. Bandyopadhyay ends chapter on Baniban in his book with a gentle remark about the Hindu similarity.

Let us see what the Howrah District Gazetteer compiled by Amiya Kumar Banerji IAS and published in Novermber, 1972 has to say. The previous gazetteer, written by L.S.S. O’Malley and M. Chakravarti and published in1909. Much of the older material has been taken while writing the 1972 edition:

The neighbouring village of Jangalbilas is a place of Mohammedan pilgrimage centring round the mosque of Pir Saheb, a Muslim saint. Popular legends connect the Pir with an unnamed Raja of Burdwan, who after witnessing a miracle performed by thePir, made free gift of the village to the latter.

The mosque is a charchala brick structure, unusual for a mosque, with a height of about 20 feet. Two stone door-jambs flanking the closed entrance on the south display geometrical designs and lotus motifs which, on stylistic grounds, appear to belong to the 11th-13th centuries although the mosque itsef could not have been built before the16th century. The annualfestival of the saint commences on the last day of the Bengali month of Poush (mid-January) and lasts for seven consecutive days. On the first two days, Hindus and Muslims alike gather on the bank of the adjacent tank and offer flowers and simi into the tank in the name of the Pir.

Apart from the look and the architecture of the mazaar, the people the author met at Baniban appeared a little uneasy although friendly. The unsolicited state ment by the caretaker soon after the author’s arrival that the edifice needs no repairs seemed hasty, although the author took no note of it immediately. When the former member of the Wakf board volunteered to say that no one built the mazaar, but it had suddenly emerged overnight, the author wondered why was this assertion made inspite of the author not asking about its origin. Then on the way back, the author’s companions told him that Hindus were not allowed inside the mazaar. This was surprising, as Muslims welcome everyone to most of their holy places, certainly to mazaars and dargahs. Why was Baniban an exception? Was the mazaar a Shiv or Shankar mandir before Pirbaba’s death? The author cannot but suspect so, since that July morning.