THE NAGORE SHRINE AND MEMORIES OF SUFI MUSIC IN KAMPONG GELAM
A visit to Nagore Dargah, a shrine built over the tomb of the Muslim Sufi saint Syed Shahul Hameed, was one of the highlights of my recent trip to Tamil Nadu, India. I have wanted to visit it for the longest time, because of its multiple connections with Singapore, and my boyhood growing up in Kampung Gelam.
Together with its “sibling” in Penang, the handsome and identically named Nagore Dargah on Telok Ayer Street (recently converted into the Indian Muslim Heritage Centre) is an “offspring” of the main shrine in Nagore. This is a lovely town on the windswept Coromandel Coast, 321 km south of Chennai.
Syed Shahul Hameed was a 13th generation descendent of the renowned Sufi saint, Abd al-Qadir al-Jalani. He is commemorated for having performed many miracles and cured the physical affliction of King Achutappa Nayak, a 16th-century Hindu ruler of Thanjavur. His shrine is visited not just by Muslims but also many Hindus. The land that it was built on was donated by King Achutappa, and the tallest of its five minarets was built by his 18th century Hindu successor, Pratap Singh, after his prayer for a son, at the shrine, was answered. The Dargah is thus a symbol of the peaceful coexistence of Hinduism and Islam in South India.
As I stood in front of the simple but elegant shrine with its five stately minarets, I remember each year on the 9th day of Jumada al-awal on the Islamic lunar calendar, the death anniversary of the saint, and the start of the 458 year old Kanduri festival.
I remember Hamid and his curry rice stall on the five foot way along Kandahar Street, at the rear of Gedung Kuning, my childhood home. Hamid was the chief organiser of the Kanduri festival. When you see him raising the mast and hoisting the emblematic green flag, you know the festival was imminent. You will see colourful banners and flags anchored to the multi-ethnic shophouses all along Kandahar Street, the epicentre of the festival. I remember fondly the free food that was given out, something my friend Ah Chong ( son of the owner of the Hainanese coffee shop where ‘Pariaman Nasi Padang’ started ) and I regarded as one of the highlights of the festival!
Hamid organised the collecting of funds for the festival from his stall on Kandahar Street. He would fundraise from the various Indian Muslims ethnic groups in Kampung Gelam : Gujeratis, Malabaris, Punjabis, Bengalis, Tamils, etc. Contributions came from Hindus and Chinese as well, such as the owners of the Chinese laundrette which today has become the ‘Rumah Minang’ restaurant. These funds helped bring musicians from India to perform for three nights, singing the praises of God, His Messenger and the Sufi saint. Worshippers were absorbed in the rhythmic repetition of the name of God or His attributes, as per Sufic tradition. The audience would be entranced by the beautiful instruments, such as the nadaswaram, a wind instrument, or thavil, the percussion drum, accompanying the singers performing the Carnatic vocal style that is so much the emblem of southern India. Contributing to the intimate, festive atmosphere, Kandahar Street would be closed to vehicular traffic during the three nights of performance. simple homecoming dresses
Ah…. as the nadaswaram fades, the tranquil hum of a harmonium fills the entire street. It is followed a few moments later by the qawwali-ish vocals. Here in Kampung Gelam, nadaswaram meets qawwali. It is an uplifting emotion, and the devotee intuits the transcendence beyond dogma, and the Sufic approach to the Divine.
It was this memory of growing up with such a rich spiritual experience that was one of the principal reasons I wanted to make the trip to Tamil Nadu. I walked through the shrine, mingling among the multitude of humble followers who come to pay respect and seek the saint’s blessings. I may not be Indian, but there are so many strands of the Tamil experience woven into the braid of Kampung Gelam, that I felt a homecoming of sorts. This was brought home as I walked into a wedding solemnisation at the shrine. The couple looked Indian but they were dressed in the all too familiar Malay baju kurong, strangely transposed to its new surroundings across the Bay of Bengal. India once came to the Straits, and the Straits now comes to India, taking its form in this Singapore Indian Peranakan couple, present with their parents and relatives. Like my journey, a circle’s end has made its way back to its beginning.