Goddess ritual with a Muslim twist

What do we make of a Hindu ritual in which lead singer is Muslim - and sings the Hindu devotees into possession? Kathinka Frøystad reports.

It could have been a textbook case: A local politician organizes an all-night wake, a  jāgraṇ, in the honour of the goddess. He does so to ensure divine protection for his neighbor­hood, entertain his subjects and reinforce the bonds of loyalty he hopes will translate into votes. By recruiting a Brahmin priest to officiate the main ritual, he also confirms the dual authority of the politician/king/Kshatriya and the Brahmin/priest, a theme harking back to the long-standing debate within historical anthropology on which of them that is the ultimate sovereign.

Jagran poster – name of politician and location has been removed (Photo by author).

And yet the wake that unfolds in front of my eyes is nothing like these textbook cases. As the night grows darker, I realize that the scene I am witnessing is far more complex in terms of religion than what my academic predecessors have led me to think.

One thing is the location: To maximize attendance, the temporary goddess tableaus that are used for such occasions must be placed in a public place that enables people to gather around it. In this neighbourhood, one of the few suitable places is a small, open space that faces the politician’s home on one side, a Kali temple on the second side, and a Sikh temple (gurudwārā) on the third side. To enable the participants to worship the tableau-goddess without turning their backs to the temple-goddess (which would have been disrespectful), the tableau is positioned with its back to the Sikh temple. Consequently, wake participants who lift their gaze ever so slightly from the tableau-goddess end up looking right at the Sikh temple, as if offering respects to the goddess and the Sikh temple in one go. Though this is not entirely how the locals conceive it, I have often seen turban-clad Sikhs entering the temple and Hindu women attending gurudwārā sermons or taking part in food preparation in the Sikh temple. This nightly wake both confirms and negates the porousness between the Kali temple and the Sikh temple.


Priest officiating the main ritual in front of a tableau with images of the goddess and other deities (Photo by author).

But what really takes me aback is the female singer. To attract as many participants as possible, the politician usually hires a professional band. It is one of the female singers who catches my attention. As soon as she appears on stage, the crowd cheers loudly, as if it is her they have been waiting for all along.  When she begins to sing her hymns to the goddess, the crowd falls silent, concentrated. Songs like these draw the goddess near, they say. Gradually the air becomes so saturated with the goddess that two of the listeners – both of whom I know quite well by now – breathe her in and enter a state of possession.

As soon as the commotion with the possessions is over, the singer suddenly notices me standing at the back. I probably light up, being the only white face in the crowd. To my surprise, she greets me right in the middle of a devotional song. And to my even greater surprise, she does so with a respectful ādāb, a greeting associated with South Asian Muslims that involves a movement of the right hand from the forehead and outwards. Could the singer be Muslim? I ask around, and indeed she is. As everyone closely associated to the temple knows, Israt Jahan, as she is called, hails from a Muslim family of professional singers and musicians, and she and her band is a favorite choice when this politician arranges promotional all-night religious events. “This is her profession”, they tell me while shrugging their shoulders, “what is so strange about that”?

Professional Muslim singer Israt Jahan performing Hindu devotional songs (Photo by author).

For me, however, the multi-religious character of this event begins to feel quite dizzying. Not only does Israt Jahan know all the devotional songs required for an all-night ritual. She also defies the Islamic principle of idolatery (shirk) in singing them, especially when doing so in a way that induces possession, however much she may privately dismiss it as drama (naṭak). To her listeners, the religious background of the singers is clearly irrelevant as long as they perform well. Even the politician seems to find it irrelevant despite representing the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

I am of course aware that central Uttar Pradesh, where this event takes place, has long been a locus for the mode of Indo-Islamic composite culture that goes under the name of Ganga-Jamuni tehzῑb.  Yet I was not prepared to find this compositeness so alive and well after the past decades’ many polarizing events and discourses. But fortunately the realities that unfold in front of a fieldworker are different than those that manifest themselves to news readers and scholars working with ideological texts, speeches and statements.

The question ahead is what role the Ganga-Jamuni tehzῑb that remains has in facilitating interreligious cohabitation in religiously mixed neighbourhoods such as the one in which this goddess wake takes place. An even more challenging question is to ascertain what religious difference actually means in places like this. What seems clear is that religious difference means something entirely different than it does in contemporary Europe.

By Kathinka Frøystad
Published Sep. 6, 2017 7:06 PM - Last modified Apr. 23, 2019 4:22 PM