Varanasi's weavers disown poet-saint Kabir, as his legacy stands threatened over communal tension
Kabir, the 15th century Bhakti poet-saint, is now facing a crisis in his legacy and ownership. Believed to have belonged to a community of weavers, the man who preached secularism, has been banished by his own people, the weavers' community comprising a large section of Muslims, who refuse to even visit his Math in Varanasi.
Kabir generously used metaphors of weaving to unsparingly criticise organised religions.
His words found resonance among the common folk, who, across ages, believed in peaceful co-existence.
The community of julahas, or weavers, once known for their zeal for reform and change, now prefers to distance itself from the radical views of Kabir.
As the ‘sacred’ grows in the socio-political realm of Varanasi, Kabir’s scathing comments on puja, tirth, haj, namaz and other religious rituals seem to lose currency. The steady ebbing of the Hindi metaphor of taana-baana (warp and weft), which was used liberally by Banarasiyas for over six centuries — to express a sense of harmony in day-to-day life — goes unnoticed. A few kilometres away from Kabir Math — the place where the 15th century Bhakti poet-saint is said to have spent 119 of his 120 years of life — is the Dashashwamedh ghat, where the ostentatious evening aarti attracts thousands from as far off places as one can imagine.
How the city of Hindu pilgrimage became more Hindu, and the Muslims came to be known as kattar (staunchly orthodox), affecting the delicate taana-baana of the city's Ganga-Yamuni tehzeeb (composite culture), seems to unsettle no one. Growing pilgrimage business is weaving new lines of control in the fabric of Kashi, the ancient city of the wise and learned. Ironically, Kabir Math now attracts more people than ever before, many of them being foreigners, increasingly turning it into a tourist spot. The poet-saint’s contemporary relevance is undeniable, but so is the prominence of the communal thread in his taana-baana.
“Kahe ke taana, kahe ki bharni, kaun tar se beeni chadariya."
Obscuring the rebel
Kabir generously used metaphors of weaving to unsparingly criticise organised religions. His words found resonance among the common folk, who, across ages, believed in peaceful co-existence. “Kabir believed that every idea must be tested on ground reality, on the concrete necessities of life. He showed direction to transform ideas from the realm of esoteric in to practical reality. His approach shook the very foundations of the religious ideas of his times among the masses, as he began to lay the foundations of a new humanist philosophy of life,” says Ram Krishna, a Lucknow based political activist.
If people like Ram Krishna are worried about the essence of Kabir’s teachings being lost under the veneer of idolising him, they have justifiable reasons to do so. A complete absence of the working class, especially the julaha or the weaver community, from Kabir Math, coupled with frequent legal tussles over who will occupy the gaddi of the chief priest or Mahant, signal a complete takeover of the common man’s poet by what Krishna calls “the ruling class.” In his lifetime, Kabir had a great following among the working classes, while the Pandits and Maulvis stood against him and his devotees as adversaries.
Ironically, the place of birth of the man, who demanded temples and mosques to be relinquished in the quest for 'truth', is turned into a cluster of impressive temples, where rituals are followed, and prayers, money, and valuables are offered to idols that are worshipped.
"Pather puje hari mile to main pujun pahad, tante te chakki bhali/ pis khaye sansar," says Kabir, mocking the idol worshippers, while for the mullah, he says, "Kankar pathar jod ke masjid lai banai/ ta chadhi mullah baag de ka bahira hua khudai."
At the Kabir Math, it's only upon insisting that a visitor can catch a glimpse of the common man and weaver in the saint, through the day-to-day objects he left behind. A piece of handloom textile woven by him, his charkha, loom and takli (spindle), a pitcher that he used 600 years ago, his wooden sandals, and a sandalwood rosary (which was stolen in 2013 from the Math, and made it to national headlines), are all nothing but remnants of his taana-baana, which are now guarded by heavy security for the fear of theft, making it difficult for the common man to access his existing memorabilia.
The Math's 'sacredness' comprises an elaborate hierarchy of Mahants, and is filled with the music of bhajans being performed on its premise. The Kabir Chaura, which is where the Kabir Math is located, is occupied by musicians from the Banaras gharana. Close to the Bijak mandir, where Kabir used to preach his followers, are the tombs of Neeru and Nima (the Muslim weaver couple who brought him up) that are revered by visitors. But the julaha community, made up mostly of Ansari Muslims, who were once ardent followers of Kabir, don't claim the poet-saint as their own anymore. They don't visit the Math either.
Scholar versus weaver
The Mahants at Kabir Math talk of the miracles associated with his life — more legends than facts. The absence of the working class, says Mahant Mahesh Kumar, is due to the Acharya tradition started after Kabir’s demise by his follower, Pandit Sarvananda, christened Shruti Gopal by Kabir. He had come from south India to defeat the poet-saint in shastrartha or theological debate. “A scholar won’t weave — his pursuit would be scholastic. The successors of Pandit Sarvananda were Acharyas. The tradition of weaving, deceased after Kabir here,” says Mahesh Kumar, who was a Naxal before adopting a religious way of life. He refers to a legend that supports the scholastic tradition.
Acharya Sarvananda believed he had defeated all scholars of Kashi, but was reminded by his mother that Kabir was still left. And so, he returned to defeat Kabir. But instead, he ended up becoming his disciple. Soon after, he compiled all the sakhis, shabad, dohe, bhajan and ulatbasiyan by Kabir into the 'Bijak'. “We, at Kabir Math, believe the Bijak alone to be authentic, because we have the manuscript of the Bijak,” he says.
A text of the rival Dharmadasi branch of Kabir followers does not mention Sarvananda assuming the name Shruti Gopal, the location of his home, or even acknowledge him as the founder of Kabirpanth. They insist that Dharma Das and his son Churamani, and not Shruti Gopal, were its founders.
Few Kabirpanthis believe he was an incarnation of god.
“The working class had to distance itself once the culture of 'offerings' took over at Kabir Math, then property disputes followed, and so did the tussle for gaddi. Kabir wasn't talking of national integration, he lay the foundation for cultural integration of the masses. The strength of cultural integration came across as a formidable force in 1857, the British tried to destroy it. After them, nothing was done to restore it the way Kabir envisaged it,” says Krishna, who insists the issue relates to chasms between the working and ruling class, and has nothing to do with religious identity.
Others say, Kabir has become a fad with the Sufi tag.
The Muslim factor
Shabnam Virmani captured various cults that have grown around the poet-saint in her series of documentary — Kabira Khada Bazaar Mein, Had Anhaad, Chalo Hamara Des, and Koi Sunta Hai. She elaborates on the missing julahas in her film Had Anhad - Journeys with Ram and Kabir, where an owner of a shop named after the poet, Kabir Sarees, in Varanasi, disowns the saint. “Our community doesn't say he is our ancestor.”
Another one offers an explanation, “Namaz, roza, kuchh nahin manta tha (he would not read Namaz or follow roza). He was famous but he wanted to take everyone along, even Hindus. Others say, he was a Brahmin widow’s abandoned child, so what if he was raised by a Muslim couple!”
The same community of julahas, once known for their zeal for reform and change, now prefers to distance itself from the radical views of Kabir. Several British accounts speak of the community's role during the ‘Benaras Riots’ of 1809-11, which were, in fact, an expression of rage against the rising house tax that was unanimously resisted by everyone. However, this was glossed over by those who documented the events of that period, and made it appear like a communal riot.
“Their leading role in the ‘mutiny’ of 1857 earned much ire of the British and from leaders of the Muslim community too, including Sir Saiyyad Ahmad Khan (1817-1898), who referred to them in rather pejorative terms,” writes Vasanthi Raman, in The Warp and Weft: Community and Gender Identity Among the Weavers of Banaras.
Muslims form around one-fourth of Varanasi's population – a high figure in contrast to national demographics. The community of skilled weavers in the city mostly comprise Momin Ansaris, along with a few lower-caste Hindus, while the main traders are Hindu Banias.
In the 1970s and 1990s, major communal riots broke out in the city. The inroads made into trading by a section of Momin Ansaris was not looked upon favourably by other communities. Tensions grew as the mode of production changed too. But, like the British, this agitation was viewed on communal lines, conveniently ignoring changing industry trends and a shift in economic hegemony .
Dr Purushottam Agarwal, scholar and historian, attributes the absence of julaha community from the Math to the changing face of Islam. “The weaver community distanced from Kabir, because if they wanted to be known as Muslim, they couldn't show any association with someone who denounced the Quran. Such a thing is not acceptable in present day Islam.”
His words are echoed by the artisans interviewed in the weaver’s colony.
Banished from his basti
If the cultural integration of masses is missing at the Math, a few kilometres away at Laad Bhairon Saraiya, or the weavers’ colony, the issue of survival blends with arbitrary, inexplicable reasons. Belal, a weaver, says his only claim to Kabir is that he is among the very few who have stuck to handloom, while more than 80 per cent weavers have graduated to the powerloom.
“About 20-30 years back, there used to be a few Hindus, mostly low caste — sometimes they used to sing Kabir. But they moved to farming or NREGA and other such schemes — we are stuck because we don't possess any other skill," he says.
Kabir’s simple philosophy of life had woven the taana of this ancient city of weavers and textile, now famous for its signature Banarasi sarees. But the baana seems to be strained. His syncretic legacy, the rhyme and rhythm of weaving, the lyrical movement of the shuttle, has been lost to his fellowmen forever.
“Do you sometimes sing Kabir bhajans to the rhythm of loom?” I ask.
“Kya faltu bakwas kar rahin hain aap (what nonsense are you saying),” blurts Shahabuddin, a weaver, as he slams the door.
Kabir is banished from this basti of julahas, but enshrined as god elsewhere. Somewhere in between, his couplets fill the air. “Kabira khada bazaar mein mange sabki khair, na kahu se dosti na kahu se bair.”
His memorabilia and the entire paraphernalia related to his weaving has been preserved and authenticated by the Archaeological Survey of India through carbon dating, says Mahant Mahesh. However, the weaver’s community of Varanasi refuses to claim him in his temples, even though one can barely deny that he indeed was one of them.
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