Jaffna Street: Tales of Life, Death, Betrayal and Survival in Kashmir

Excerpt from “The Saint of Shalimar”

photo credit: Akeel Rashid

With these armies comprising Pathans, Poonchis and Mirpuris knocking at his gates, the story—making the rounds of Srinagar street—goes that the Dogra monarch sought an audience with Meerak Shah so as to seek some divine intervention to ward off the looming cataclysmic scenario awaiting his rule and dynasty.

On being informed of the king’s request, the famed saint of Shalimar declined. The monarch, hard-pressed by the prospect of his imminent doom, wasn’t ready to accept a refusal and put his royal ark on to the waters of the Dal Lake and set sail for the saint’s residence to seek an audience. The saint, duly informed of the king’s departure, lost his cool at what he considered to be insolence on the part of the latter. In a fit of rage, it is said, the sage overturned his cup of tea. Consequently, as the story goes, the king’s ferry moved across the Dal Lake, a violent vortex of wind arising from the Harmukh Mountain hit the lake. The storm attained such ferocity that Hari Singh thought it better to return to his palace. This aversive gesture of the saint, who had probably sensed the times to come, must have surely apprised the king that he was staring at the prospect of his oblivion.

To quote my late maternal grandfather, who served as an officer in the monarch’s police force, ‘The invasion was a reality check for Hari Singh, waking him up from the slumber of a delusional worldview of himself. Who was Hari Singh anyway but a degenerate monarch propped up by the British crown? A glorified coolie arranging duck-shooting parties for the goras, deluded to act like a latter-day Darius the Great riding triumphantly through Persepolis.’


Within Safa Kadal itself, apart from the shrines, two names always come to my mind when someone utters the word Sufi or mystic. One is Ghulam Muhammad Andrabi of the Aminiya Owaisi order, a somewhat reclusive and ruminative individual. His scholastic bent of mind had been acquired through his autodidactic forays into medieval Islamic mystical philosophy and his mastery over it would have better served a university philosophy class. When the time came for his initiation, he sought preceptors not from the many prevalent streams but from the rare Owaisi order, which was on the verge of becoming extinct in the Vale, after its doyen was murdered a couple of centuries ago in the Ali Kadal area of downtown by local xenophobic satraps. It was at the turn of the century that a north Kashmir highlander, Amin Saheb Kashirah, returned from his long sojourn in Sind and Punjab to revive the order in Kashmir, among those who followed him, was a British Christian convert to Islam, Sakhi Wilayat Khan, who ultimately made Ganderbal Village, north of Srinagar, his monastic retreat.

The other person, the late Ghulam Ahmad Zargar, aka Ama Saheb, aka Masterji to his acquaintances, was much older and a known grandmaster of the Kubrawiya Sufi order. He had started out as a student of the legendary Sufi Bayhaqi Saheb of the downtown Nawab Bazar area. Ama Saheb downplayed his own stature and displayed no airs in response to the veneration showered on him by all and sundry. The first time I came across Masterji was as a little boy when I accompanied my father and sibling to his home for the kehwa parties that he invited people to twice or thrice a year. His affection for my father sprang more from the latter’s affability and deference to elders than from his being the son of Ama Saheb’s childhood playmate.

A perfect host, the gaunt and tall Masterji was affable and would make it a point to serve guests himself. He, along with his aged maternal uncle, the white-turbaned and garrulous Mahda Saheb, would regale everyone with anecdotes from their childhood and youth. Many a time Ama Saheb’s talk would veer from anecdotes about eschatology and spiritual ventures, to the half-human half-feline form beings who unbeknownst to unconditioned human eyes were the actual guardians of the mystic shrines from untoward intrusions. He would talk of various encounters with these occult fourth dimension entities and the fatal accidents that many of his known people had incurred after having accidentally trodden where they shouldn’t have and their difficult recoveries from mysterious illnesses afterwards. He would then delve into earthly matters, smoothly to politics and the political mobilization, in the days of the Dogra rule, the misery of the masses, and share vignettes to illustrate as to how people endured repression and still managed to smile and laugh at their problems.

My father had some interesting experiences with Masterji. In the early days of my father’s youth Masterji still taught at a school in Nowshahr, and he would always commute to and from the school on foot. Every time my father insisted on dropping Ama Saheb to school, his Enfield bike would suffer a tyre puncture or mechanical trouble and Ama Saheb would be on his way on foot, like he wanted. His dress has remained the same since those days, a loose white kurta and a churidaar, black shoes and a coat.

In mid-1984, with my term exams approaching, my father, thoroughly disgusted with my slow progress in imbibing important algebraic and geometrical concepts, put me under the tutelage of Ama Saheb. There I was, in the old wooden study room of a grandfatherly figure, who aghast at my lack of interest and insight, gave me a gentle dressing down before donning his Gandhi-style oval spectacles and proceeding to tutor me.

In the 1990s, in between his sojourns to various khatam and maehfil, the octogenarian Masterji, increasingly amnesic because of his age, could be seen in Syed Saheb’s shrine fifty odd metres away from his Safa Kadal home or in the shop of a local barber whom I would visit regularly for a shave and haircut.

The barber, a complicated character, and a decade older than me, was inquisitively well informed on a variety of topics and consequently full of superfluous conversation. He had been picked up for interrogation by the security agencies instead of his younger brother, who was a known insurgent. In captivity, under duress of pain inflicted of the alleged severe torture perpetrated on him, his fellow captives swore that he not only confessed to his role in the Russo–Afghan War but also in the Vietnam War and the French–Algerian conflict and his complicity in Kennedy’s assassination.

Out of jail in nine months, he found spiritual succour in Ama Saheb’s persona and became his pupil. Ama Saheb, though, was afflicted with progressive dementia by then. Sipping tea he would talk about the old times. It was during one of my visits for a shave that he asked me about my background and I took the name of my grandfather instinctively. A smile crossed Ama Saheb’s face. ‘Your grandpa taught me Farsi,’ was his first remark. ‘We grew up in these streets, played together. He was slightly elder to me. He joined excise and customs, and I became a teacher. A very hard-edged and hard-headed man he was, someone who loved wearing breeches and had the propensity to literally kill anyone who crossed his path. I was the cooler guy in the friendship.’ I smiled back.

‘But most of all, very very brave,’ Ama Saheb insisted on it, ‘I will never forget how he sheltered my younger brother in his home at grave personal risk before he made his way to Pakistan in 1948.’ Ama Saheb then resumed dunking his bagel in his tea. I shook his hand and left, wondering at this piece of family history, which I was frankly unaware of.

I brought this up with my father as soon as he returned from work that same day. In a relaxed manner, my father dwelt on the past. ‘A lot of things happened back then. I was a child. It was 1947, after the tribal invasion. It was a time of Haderi Tsadri politics. Ama Saheb’s family were hardcore bakras, followers of the Mirwaiz khandaan and especially Maulvi Yusuf Shah, who for the ruling party, was public enemy number one. The bakras were victims of institutionalized persecution in Srinagar along with the educated urban class, and non-koshur-speaking Mirpuri and Jammuite Muslims. Deemed fifth columnists, many among them sought exile from their hearths. The Mirwaiz Yusuf Shah, acting on his better judgement, stealthily migrated to Pakistan. To cover his tracks, a body double, Wahab Makayee of Nawa Kadal, donned the Mirwaiz’s apparel and made public appearances, mimicking the Mirwaiz’s public poses and mannerisms till Maulvi Shah made it across safely.

‘Ama Saheb himself was and still remains very fanatically pro- Pakistani at heart.’ My father continued, ‘Given the continuous debates in the United Nations and the calls for a plebiscite, a UN official came to the Valley for an assessment. This official’s presence at SP College spurred Ama Saheb’s younger brother, Ghulam Muhammad Zargar, aka Shameem, a perspicacious student and a budding poet, to not only shout Pro-Pakistan slogans but also present a memorandum calling for a plebiscite. At that time, Sheikh Abdullah was a known Pakistan lobby baiter and his administration never took kindly to anything that stood in contrast to their peddled narratives and stand. By the same evening, Ama Saheb’s brother became the target of a massive manhunt conducted by the police downtown, but he was safely ensconced in our home.

‘We had done our bit in the anti-monarchy agitations, we were known and connected and had guns and one of the uncles was an important member of the emergency administration at that time. So our home had next to nil chances of being subjected to a police raid. So we easily put up Ama Saheb’s sibling there and hid him till arrangements for his journey across the LoC could be finalized. His fate mirrored that of my own cousin, but whose travails were tougher at a physical level. Ama Saheb’s mum especially suffered great turmoil after her younger son’s exile. For many years after, she would come knocking at our door looking for him. The corrosive political pogroms afflicting the place proved to be the undoing for many happy families back then.’

As I repeated the words that Ama Saheb had uttered about his growing up with grandfather, my father smiled, ‘They were a contrast as friends. Ama Saheb was very esoteric, unlike your grandpa who was a proud contrarian. I have seen Ama Saheb in his younger days; as a handsome widower, he could have married again, anyone he wanted, but instead he chose to seek fulfillment in rearing his two young children. Totally devoting his life to the rigorous discipline that mysticism demands perhaps assuaged the grieving he felt inside, but he abhorred letting either melancholy or untamed hope corrode his inner self. The discipline probably led him to where he is today. Only men with such defined equanimity are chosen to carrying within the burden of deep mystical perceptions and gnostic traditions. It is this task of carrying forward and disseminating of such esoteric knowledge that many before him and many after had or would continue without any remuneration.’

My baffled look made my father smile and then he told me that Ama Saheb belonged to a dwindling breed, the last of the Kubrawiya order mystics who since the days of yore had been ordained to interact with and pass on their mystical practices to non-Muslims, especially Buddhists and Kashmiri Pandits.

Rumi mentions it in his masnawi, and since I was privy to many things that Ama Saheb said, there is a probability that in medieval times these crossover practices existed. The crux of dad’s conversation was that non-Muslims underwent an advertent or inadvertent mystical conversion to Islam as they explored the processes of what they perceived as convergent axiomatic beliefs; outwardly, however, they would continue adherence to their own creed. These layered though self-fashioned trends became an inherent part of the culture through the considerable recommendations of these exploratory practitioners in this part of the world and especially Kashmir.


The Kubrawiya order was prevalent in Iran and Khorasan. In its nascent stage, these mystics lived in cheek-by-jowl propinquity with Buddhists and Zoroastrians, who still inhabited the eastern borders of the Il-khanid empire —modern-day Afghanistan—and consequently became more accommodating of the ‘other’. In his autobiographical treatise, Chihil Majlis, Simnani shows exceptional acknowledgement to the spiritual status of Bakshi Parinda, a non-Muslim Buddhist monk at that, and an Arghun Khan, who himself was a Buddhist court regular who was instrumental in turning the Mongol prince from polytheism towards quasi Islamic beliefs in monotheism, day of judgement and the afterlife. Simnani*[1] used a ruse to enlist the monk’s help to guide one of his own disciples. While being antipathic towards much of Buddhist monastic community whose failures in the spiritual domains he traced to their pursuit of goals based on personal opinions rather than teachings of a Prophet, except Parinda, whose views he had found being consonant with Islamic ones. Semnani’s work finds itself interpreting Buddhist mystical concepts in Islamic terminology. Other mystic-scholars like Rashid-al-Din, whose own works were heavily influenced by Buddhist Hinyana texts considered Buddha to be a Prophet, but this view didn’t gain currency within Muslims. Although it was without doubt that Buddhists from Khorasan and Muslim mystics had indulged in collaboration and crossovers in the times of yore.

In the fourteenth century Simnani’s nephew Mir Sayed Ali Hamadani’s arrival in Kashmir changed both the cultural and mystical topography of the Vale. Given his affiliation to the Kubrawwiya order it was but natural that in years to come it became one of the most pre-eminent mystical orders to take root in Kashmir and with it the cosmopolitan mores that had seen Khorasan and Transoxania’s intellectual domains bloom.

With the advent of Safavid rule over Iran and their forced conversion of its population into the Shiite fold, the tradition and practices of Simnani and his cohort, irrelevant in the newer confessional mores morphed into a palimpsest fit for academic research. It would be in Kashmir or what many termed the ‘little Iran’ that these traditions would continue in one way or the other.

Ama Saheb represented the latter-day chain link of Kubrawiya mystics steeped in this esoteric crossover tradition. Going through the old writings what I had heard one way or the other on Srinagar streets now found itself getting moored in the past.

As Ama Saheb had divulged, in the Vale even the Kashmiri Pandits indulged in Sufi prayers inwardly. It wasn’t classical school Sufism, but it came to exist and it wasn’t limited to the Vale.

Perhaps these mystically inclined people approached each other in those surreal domains as nude souls bereft of the arrogance bestowed by robes, signifying the cosmopolitanism of previous social eras. These relationships had withered away and convergences had fractured over a period of time. And in a way, one needed to suspend belief to believe that these fractures would wholly mend themselves, especially when the purveyors of these crossings like Ama Saheb were dying slowly. On the flip side there were these stories mentioned repeatedly especially in older gatherings which I heard through secondary sources that mentioned the heterodox notions of many Kashmiri Sufis who indulging in their forty-day meditations in Harmukh mountain were bewildered to find Buddha traversing around the ranges in their visions that led them to harbour beliefs that the verses pertaining to the olive tree in the Holy Quran actually allude to the Bodhi tree. Many others were heard deriding the spiritual stature of Dalai Lama, who many a time I heard was dismissed as a kid trying to make it somewhere in the mystical domains.

Let me confess that I did start to see mystical traditions and mysticism in a new light. Walking the lanes around the shrines evoked inquisitiveness about the past, the people, and the convergences. My inquiries into the metaphysical started to encompass the alternate versions beyond the works of Kant and the poetry of Jim Morrison. I have never felt comfortable in the shrill din of many shrines, neither with the local poetics eulogizing the mystagogues or their conventicles. But that late afternoon, I ventured out of a friend’s place in Zaina Kadal and in an effort to avoid the ubiquitous sandbagged bunkers, where one always ran the risk of being stopped by the soldiers for no rhyme or reason, as I walked the entire length of this inner Zaina Kadal lane, my gaze wandered to a mosque on my right and within its sanctum, the shrine of Yaqoob Sarfi. Although I had no knowledge of his antecedents or of his work corpus, the visible absence of crowds fuelled my inquisitiveness.

As I put many of the questions pertaining to mystical crossovers to Andrabi Saheb a couple of days later in his prayer room, which was sparsely furnished but bedecked beautifully, he first kept silent and then remarked adroitly, with an ebullient expression, ‘One could dismiss all this talk of mystical convergences as some redundant pedagogic theorems. But I have always surmised that there are endless possibilities of engagement within the sinuous trails crocheted within the esoteric realms. Sometimes it is our preferences to dwell beyond our chosen paths. As for non-Muslims, sometimes-luckier sorts among them attain transformation of their spiritual signature by trying to restage what we do. Wherever these crossover inclinations manifest, it was often dependent on the munificent nature of both the preceptors and their pupils. Those ordained for these specific roles, especially interacting with other social-confessional groups through the mystical language, whether as students or teachers are required to remain strict to a conservative line and maintain zipped lips.

‘But my insight and I have heard that the states they acquire after mystical conversion to Islam can be heady and mesmerizing for them. Even things we find and take as given. But many a times why would they even venture this far, and why shouldn’t they try their hand at it or a walk in, but I always end up with the same answer, we don’t hold a franchise over God. We don’t, nobody does.’

‘Really?’ I remarked, noting the differentiation of us and them.

‘Yes, our franchise starts and culminates with the Holy Prophet! But I am surprised that someone with an enthusiastic interest in Western philosophy would put this question to me.’ According to him these mystical crossovers were few and far between in the rest of the subcontinent. As I asked him as to the reason why, it was here that he mentioned the name of Ala Al-dawla Simnani and the influence of the Kubrawiya order within the Vale environs. Kashmiri Sufis were according to Andrabi Saheb welded to the Iranian tradition, whereas most of the Indian subcontinent adheres to the Turkic tradition. And as is wont the Iranians are by nature a more mellow accommodating race than the stern Turkic tribes. The nature of people seeps in to their attitudes too.’ I saw a wide smile cross his face as Andrabi Saheb mentioned the last line.

I digressed from the subject of crossovers and brought up the name of Yaqoob Sarfi.

‘A known theologian of his times and a mystic who spent most of his life teaching at a school of theology in Agra. Sarfi was marginalized and hounded from his home by a cabal of windbags comprising mostly immigrants from Central Asia who dominated the sacerdotal class.’

‘He left Srinagar for good?’ I asked.

‘Yes he did. Though he did sum up his travails by penning a Farsi quatrain, which translates as, “This place is so wretched that your best skills turn to handicaps.” He did return, nearing his own end, to find a resting place.’
Andrabi Saheb stood up for the afternoon prayers, even as my mind raced to picture an individual left unredeemed by fate. As I stood up to leave, Andrabi Saheb spoke again as if anticipating my silent observation. ‘He wasn’t left unredeemed, though. He had the last laugh. One of his many students was a Pathan boy named Ahmed from Sirhind.’

The name rang a bell.

‘Yaqoob Sarfi taught the theological corpus to this boy who later was bestowed with the sobriquet of Mujaddid Alif Sahi; whenever people talk of him they mention Sarfi in the same breath!’ Andrabi Saheb said as he rolled up his shirtsleeves in preparation for his ablutions.

The import of his words struck me like a revelation. I had come across Sirhindi’s name, a mystic philosopher par excellence, without doubt the best and the most eloquent, whose intellectual ardour and philosophical sweep has remained beyond reach or replication for others even after four hundred years. Known all round the world, Sirhindi’s life and work has engendered reams of books and discussions from the subcontinent to the Levant back then, and from Israel to North America in modern times.

‘In worldly realms many a times students reflect the greatness of their teachers with unjust fates,’ he added. ‘And by the way, Sarfi himself belonged to the Kubrawiya Sufi order.’

I smiled and took his leave, thinking about the irony of it all, that Sirhindi’s teacher remains unknown in his own place of origin, but the redemption proffered by providence through a brilliant student surely mitigated the travails of the past.

Some weeks later I made it a point to visit Sarfi’s Zaina Kadal shrine. After offering fateha in the solitude space bereft of anyone else around, I sat down wondering that the mould in which nature creates teachers whose pupils attain great height had ceased production on its factory line in the Vale long back.

[1] Jamal J. Elias, The Throne Carrier of God: The Life and Thought of ‘Ala’ ad- Dawla as Simnani, New York: State University of New York Press,1995. Johan Elverskog, Buddhism and Islam on the Silk Road, Pennslyvania: Pennpress, 2010.

Dr. Mir Khalid is a Kashmiri author. He presently lives with his wife in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, where is employed as a general surgeon.

Order the book here: http://www.amazon.in/Jaffna-Street-Betrayal-Survival-Kashmir/dp/8129145324

Leave a Comment