Rambles and recollections of an Indian official!
Major-General Sir W. H. Sleeman, K.C.B.

The Station of Meerut—'Atālīs' who Dance and Sing gratuitously for the Benefit of the Poor

On the 30th,[1] we went on twelve miles to Meerut, and encamped close to the Sūraj Kund, so called after Sūraj-mal, the Jāt chief of Dīg, whose tomb I have described at Govardhan.[2]


He built here a very large tank, at the recommendation of the spirit of a Hindoo saint, Manohar Nāth, whose remains had been burned here more than two hundred years before, and whose spirit appeared to the Jāt chief in a dream, as he was encamped here with his army during one of his kingdom-taking expeditions. This is a noble work, with a fine sheet of water, and flights of steps of 'pakkā' masonry from the top to its edge all round. The whole is kept in repair by our Government.[3]


About half a mile to the north-west of the tank stands the tomb of Shāh Pīr, a Muhammadan saint, who is said to have descended from the mountains with the Hindoo, and to have been his bosom friend up to the day of his death. Both are said to have worked many wonderful miracles among the people of the surrounding country, who used to see them, according to popular belief, quietly taking their morning ride together upon the backs of two enormous tigers who came every morning at the appointed hour from the distant jungle.


The Hindoo is said to have been very fond of music; and though he has been now dead some three centuries, a crowd of amateurs (atālīs) assemble every Sunday afternoon at his shrine, on the bank of the tank, and sing gratis, and in a very pleasing style, to an immense concourse of people, who assemble to hear them, and to solicit the spirit of the old saint, softened by their melodies.


At the tomb of the Muhammadan saint a number of professional dancers and singers assemble every Thursday afternoon, and dance, sing, and play gratis to a large concourse of people, who make offerings of food to the poor, and implore the intercession of the old man with the Deity in return.


The Muhammadan's tomb is large and handsome, and built of red sandstone, inlaid with marble, but without any cupola, that there may be no curtain between him and heaven when he gets out of his 'last long sleep' at the resurrection.[4]


Not far from his tomb is another, over the bones of a pilgrim they call Ganj-i-fann, or the granary of science. Professional singers and dancers attend it every Friday afternoon, and display their talents gratis to a large concourse, who bestow what they can in charity to the poor, who assemble on all these occasions to take what they can get.


Another much frequented tomb lies over a Muhammadan saint, who has not been dead more than three years, named Gohar Sāh. He owes his canonization to a few circumstances of recent occurrence, which are, however, universally believed. Mr. Smith, an enterprising merchant of Meerut, who had raised a large windmill for grinding corn in the Sadr Bāzār, is said to have abused the old man as he was one day passing by, and looked with some contempt on his method of grinding, which was to take the bread from the mouths of so many old widows.


'My child,' said the old saint, 'amuse thyself with this toy of thine, for it has but a few days to run.'


In four days from that time the machine stopped. Poor Mr. Smith could not afford to set it going again, and it went to ruin. The whole native population of Meerut considered this a miracle of Gohar Sāh. Just before his death the country round Meerut was under water, and a great many houses fell from incessant rain.


The old man took up his residence during this time in a large sarāi in the town, but finding his end approach, he desired those who had taken shelter with him to have him taken to the jungle where he now reposes. They did so, and the instant they left the building it fell to the ground. Many who saw it told me they had no doubt that the virtues of the old man had sustained it while he was there, and prevented its crushing all who were in it.


The tomb was built over his remains by a Hindoo officer of the court, who had been long out of employment and in great affliction. He had no sooner completed the tomb, and implored the aid of the old man, than he got into excellent service, and has been ever since a happy man. He makes regular offerings to his shrine, as a grateful return for the saint's kindness to him in his hour of need. Professional singers and dancers display their talents here gratis, as at the other tombs, every Wednesday afternoon.


The ground all round these tombs is becoming crowded with the graves of people, who in their last moments request to be buried (zēr-sāya) under the shadow of these saints, who in their lifetime are all said to have despised the pomps and vanities of this life, and to have taken nothing from their disciples and worshippers but what was indispensably necessary to support existence—food being the only thing offered and accepted, and that taken only when they happened to be very hungry.


Happy indeed was the man whose dish was put forward when the saint's appetite happened to be sharp. The death of the poor old Bēgam has, it is said, just canonized another saint, Shākir Shāh, who lies buried at Sardhana, but is claimed by the people of Meerut, among whom he lived till about five years ago, when he desired to be taken to Sardhana, where he found the old lady very dangerously ill and not expected to live.


He was himself very old and ill when he set out from Meerut; and the journey is said to have shaken him so much that he found his end approaching, and sent a messenger to the princess in these words:


'Ayā torē, chale ham'; that is, 'Death came for thee, but I go in thy place'; and he told those around him that she had precisely five years more to live. She is said to have caused a tomb to be built over him, and is believed by the people to have died that day five years.


All these things I learned as I wandered among the tombs of the old saints the first few evenings after my arrival at Meerut. I was interested in their history from the circumstance that amateur singers and professional dancers and musicians should display their talents at their shrines gratis, for the sake of getting alms for the poor of the place, given in their name—a thing I had never before heard of—though the custom prevails no doubt in other places; and that Musalmāns and Hindoos should join promiscuously in their devotions and charities at all these shrines.


Manohar Nāth's shrine, though he was a Hindoo, is attended by as many Musalmān as Hindoo pilgrims. He is said to have 'taken the samādh', that is, to have buried himself alive in this place as an offering to the Deity. Men who are afflicted with leprosy or any other incurable disease in India often take the samādh, that is, bury or drown themselves with due ceremonies, by which they are considered as acceptable sacrifices to the Deity.


I once knew a Hindoo gentleman of great wealth and respectability, and of high rank under the Government of Nāgpur, who came to the river Nerbudda, two hundred miles, attended by a large retinue, to take the samādh in due form, from a painful disease which the doctors pronounced incurable.


After taking an affectionate leave of all his family and friends, he embarked on board the boat, which took him into the deepest part of the river. He then loaded himself with sand, as a sportsman who is required to carry weights in a race loads himself with shot, and stepping into the water disappeared. The funeral ceremonies were then performed, and his family, friends, and followers returned to Nāgpur, conscious that they had all done what they had been taught to consider their duty.


Many poor men do the same every year when afflicted by any painful disease that they consider incurable.[5] The only way to prevent this is to carry out the plan now in progress of giving to India in an accessible shape the medical science of Europe—a plan first adopted under Lord W. Bentinck, prosecuted by Lord Auckland, and superintended by two able and excellent men, Doctors Goodeve and O'Shaughnessy.


It will be one of the greatest blessings that India has ever received from England.[6]


Notes:


1. January, 1836. The date is misprinted 20th in the original edition.


2. Ante, chapter 56 [13].


3. 'Amongst the remains of former times in and around Meerut may be noticed the Sūraj kund, commonly called by Europeans 'the monkey tank'. It was constructed by Jawāhir Mal, a wealthy merchant of Lāwār, in 1714. It was intended to keep it full of water from the Abū Nāla but at present the tank is nearly dry in May and June. There are numerous small temples, 'dharmsālās' [i.e. rest-houses], and 'satī' pillars on its banks, but none of any note. The largest of the temples is dedicated to Manohar Nāth, and is said to have been built in the reign of Shāh Jahān.


Lāwār, a large village . . . is distant twelve miles north of the civil station. . . . There is a fine house here called Mahal Sarāi, built about A.D. 1700 by Jawāhir Singh, Mahājan, who constructed the Sūraj kund near Meerut' (N.W.P. Gazetteer, 1st ed., vol. iii, pp. 406,400). This information, supplied by the local officials, is more to be depended on than the author's statement.


4. 'The "dargāh" [i.e. shrine] of Shāh Pīr is a fine structure of red sandstone, erected about A.D. 1620 by Nūr Jahān, the wife of the Emperor Jahāngīr, in memory of a pious fakīr named Shāh Pīr. An "urs", or religions assembly, is held here every year in the month of Ramazān.


The "dargāh" is supported from the proceeds of the revenue-free village of Bhagwānpur' (ibid., vol. iii, p. 406). The text of the original edition gives the pilgrim's name as 'Gungishun', which has no meaning.


5. An interesting collection of modern cases of a similar kind is given in Balfour, Cyclopaedia, 3rd ed., s.v. 'Samadhi'.


6. See ante, chapter 15, note l4. Dr. W. B. O'Shaughnessy contributed many scientific papers to the J.A.S.B. (vols. viii, ix, x, xii, and xvi).