“You ask for the moon, Haji Waris Ali Shah will not disappoint you.” Perhaps a tall claim to make, but then such is the unerring faith in the dargah of the 19th century Sufi saint that his devotees believe he has the power to grant them anything. Even celestial objects, as Wamiq Rafiq Warsi, one of the key trustees of the shrine, has just finished promising on his behalf in this conversation.
Four years from now, Dewa Sharif, as the shrine is called, would have completed a 100 years of existence. Back in 1917, the first secretary of the trust, a Hindu by the name of Babu Kanhaiya Lal Srivastava, had laid the foundation of the shrine. Ever since, this quiet corner of Barabanki district in Uttar Pradesh has thronged with lakhs of devotees, Hindu and Muslim alike, peaking during the annual Urs at Dewa, birthplace of the saint, from which the shrine derives its name.
Amidst the more chequered communal history of the region, the dargah remains a secular oasis, an enduring symbol of its creed. “Holi and Diwali are celebrated here with as much fervour as Id, and no beef is allowed as a mark of respect towards Hindu sentiments,” says Warsi. While the shrine sees a rush on all days of the week, the crowds swell on Thursdays. It’s during the three annual Urs, however, that people converge here from different parts of the state—and way beyond.
Even on December 6, 1992, while the Babri Masjid was being demolished 90 minutes away, Dewa was a secular oasis.
“Our family has been in love with this place for three generations,” says 55-year-old Faiyaz Ahmad, who has come all the way from Srinagar, together with his father, sons and even grandchildren. “My grandfather was fascinated by the life of Haji Waris Ali Shah and made it a point to bring us here through the decades. Now it is an annual ritual for us.” Over the 35 years since his family has been coming here, he adds, there has not been a single instance when their wish has not been fulfilled. And no logic or reason can dislodge Fayaz’s unshakeable belief. “The real test came when my wife was detected with a serious heart ailment for which she was advised surgery. We rushed to the durbar of Haji Waris Ali Shah and prayed at his dargah, and believe it or not, my wife became all right without having to undergo any surgery; she is absolutely fine today,” he says.
Dewa Sharif could well be dava sharif for its believers, so firm is their faith in its curative powers. Sixty-year-old Mewa Lal Chauhan, an ayurvedic doctor, turned a Dewa devotee 14 years ago when his wife Saryu Devi suffered a stroke following brain haemorrhage. The doctors had practically written her off saying the stroke she had suffered was irreversible. “That’s when I rushed her to Dewa, and prayed for her speedy recovery. And today she is in perfect health without having to undergo any surgery,” says Chauhan.
As you meander through the crowded passages around the dargah, you find many saints clad in yellow robes and long beards, not unlike sadhus in a Hindu shrine. These faqirs had come to the dargah a long time ago and decided never to leave, to devote their lives to the memory of Haji Waris Ali Shah. “I do not know what it was, but there was something special and overwhelming about this place that completely bowled me over,” says Baba Kareem Shar who came to the dargah about 50 years ago as a teenager. “The peace and tranquility I experienced were unparalleled.”
Many have come here seeking that peace and tranquility, including vips. Warsi needs very little prodding to reel off names. “Former prime ministers Atal Behari Vajpayee, V.P. Singh, Chandra Shekhar; former UP governor Moti Lal Vora, former president Zail Singh among many others were ardent believers of this shrine.” He also recalls a visit by actor-turned-politician Sunil Dutt, shortly after his son Sanjay Dutt was charged under TADA. Cricketer Suresh Raina apparently makes it a point to visit Dewa before a big match.
Interestingly, the shrine has no ‘sajjada nashin’ or hereditary administrator, as is the practice at most dargahs; neither is there any practice of dynastic succession. The shrine is run by a trust, usually headed by someone eminent. The current head of the trust is former bureaucrat and India’s first chief information commissioner Wajahat Habibullah. Assisting him in this task is a team comprising members of the citizenry, academicians and bureaucrats. It is this trust which maintains the building, and also takes care of its security.
Despite the overflowing rush of people—even during Thursday nights when qawwali sessions draw huge crowds—the pristine calm of the shrine remains incredibly undisturbed. Why, even on December 6, 1992, when the Babri Masjid was being demolished just 90 minutes away from here, Dewa remained calm and true to its secular spirit.