Every year, on the day of Beej (2nd day) of the Shukla paksha of the Hindu calendar month of Bhadrapada (July – August), all major thoroughfares of Ahmedabad turn into a peoples canvas. Mostly belonging to dalit castes and pastoral communities like Rabari and Bharwad, these people take two days off from their occupations to celebrate Ramdev Pir’s jayanti (birthday). There are loudspeakers playing bhajans (prayers) in praise of the saint who lived about 600 years ago, temporary stalls selling food, fancy items and children’s toys, and not to mention temples and shrines of the Ramdev Pir that are richly decorated and lighted.
From the window of the 7th floor of the office where I work, I scan the merriment of the people, who constitute a considerable percentage of Ahmedabad’s population, yet they are mostly sidelined in the socio-religious map of the city.
There are scores of temples of Baba Ramdev Pir, to whom his believers address with love as Babari and Muslims call him Ramsah Pir. His worship is part of a synretic cult that has united people at the grassroots for hundreds of years in Gujarat and Rajasthan.
The cult of Ramdev Pir is well-known in a large part of Gujarat and Rajasthan as it deeply connects to the problems of everyday life, such as prolonged illness and women’s fertility, which the mainstream religions bypass. I still don’t know whether it really benefits and cure diseases by praying and offering obeisance to the saint, but it is the sradha (devotion) that even after 600 years have bound people with Ramdev Pir through the cult.
Legends say that Ramdev Pir was a Rajput ruler. He was blessed with possessing miraculous power and he had devoted his life for the well-being of socially suppressed people. However, Muslims trace Ramdev Pir or Ramsah Pir as one of the first Khoja missionaries who practised teachings more Hindu than Musalman in order to secure following among Hindus. He had embraced Islam on the teachings of Pir Satgur Nur and that he had been deputed to stay among lower castes.
Throughout the history of the millennium, people belonging to dalit castes had mostly been suppressed. Even today, in places prevalent with strong orthodox beliefs, dalits are barred from darshan of mainstream gods, like Krishna or Ram. To provide a fill up to the spiritual stress of low castes, I believe that Ramdev Pir was projected as an incarnation of Krishna by the marginalised communities. Through Ramdev Pir, they could meet their divinity. There goes a popular story of Ramdev Pir’s association with Lord Krishna. King Anagpal had entrusted his state’s administration to Prithivraj Chauhwan (his maternal grandson) when going for a pilgrimage. Prithiviraj refused to return the throne on his return. Anagpal and his association than went and settled near Jaiselmer. One of his disciples was a great devotee of Dwarakadesh (Lord Krishna). Because of his prayer, Dwarakadesh decided to take birth as his son. This son was no other than Ramdev Pir.
From his childhood, Ramdev Pir revealed miraculous power. As a small child he poured his hands into a vessel of very hot milk, but it did not harm him. In yet another instance, Ramdev Pir gave some cloths to a tailor to make a horse out of it. When the horse was ready, Ramdev sparked life into it and it started flying. To commemorate this event of Baba’s life, today his devotees offer thousands of horses made out of silken cloths in his shrines.
From his place of childhood near Pokran in Rajasthan, Ramdev Pir was said to have travelled extensively in Rajasthan and Gujarat. There are legends about his miraculous power that helped barren women giving birth to children. According to a legend, a dalit woman who longed for a daughter for quite long sought the blessing of Ramdev Pir. On meeting him, Ramdev Pir broke the branch of a tree (dal) and gave it to her. Within a short time, the lady gave birth to a girl child, who later acquired the name Dali Bai.
These stories have been trapped in the minds of his follower generations after generations. Even today, the same people who use smart phones and computers have a deep faith in the cult. When I reached Vayana, a village located 20 km away from Ahmedabad to meet devotees of the cult at the village Ramdev Pir temple, I witnessed the continuity through observing and chatting with people, who had gathered from nearby and far-off villages.
I met Bharti ben, a woman in her 20s who had come from a nearby village with her one year old son. Bharti ben and her family had brought their child to the temple to offer kilos of khadi shaker (crystalline sugar) and silken cloths, all, equivalent to the weight of the child. When I talked to Bharti ben, the child’s mother, she revealed that only after she was blessed by Babari, she could deliver the child. As her ‘manta’ got fulfilled, she has come with the child to pay back in kind. The khadi shaker would be crushed into tiny pieces and served as prasad to the devotees of Babari.
I met Gita ben, a woman in her 30s, who has been residing in the temple for last two months and offering daily prayer. She also serves as the priest. Once I became closer to the crowd they revealed their core belief and faith in Babari. Every year during the month of Bhadrapada, some of them go on a walking pilgrimage from Dwaraka in Saurashtra coast to Pokhran in Rajasthan, a distance of nearly 700 miles to attain divinities, a practice that has continued in parallel to the growth in 21st century technology in the land of vibrant Gujarat.