Looking for Shah Jalal

A Sufi in Ecstasy in a Landscape. Iran, Isfahan (c. 1650-1660)

We were already driving out of Sylhet City when Moin bhai suggested we go and visit Shah Jalal’s mazaar. There were the four of us in the car: myself, Moin bhai, Mushfique (two guys I work with) and Mojid bhai, our office driver, and we all agreed that we ought to go. I agreed even though I did not know anything about Shah Jalal, other than his name, and that it was considered bad faith to come to Sylhet and not visit his mazaar

We were in Sylhet as a part of what my then-boss called an office retreat. On that particular afternoon, we were coming back from a visit to the University of Sylhet (where my then-boss had to meet with a Professor over something work related). The rest of the office staff had already gone ahead and were back at the resort. The four of us had decided to drag behind and get some things from the city markets.

 “I definitely want some Satkara achaar,” said Mushfique. “My mom and sister asked for it. My uncle used to bring us some jars when he was posted in Sylhet some years ago. They’re delicious!”

We decided to look for a store that might carry the achaar. It would have been easy if we had not thought of a store as an Agora- or PQS-style supermarket. When we decided on a regular food store—having given up on finding a brand name supermarket after the first ten minutes of looking—and stopped the car across the street. I became rather confused when I tried to cross: the traffic on the road was keeping to organized and disciplined lines; I had wait for the signal to change before I was able to cross.

By the time I crossed over, Mushfique had already found his Satkara, proudly exclaiming: “This is the good sh**!” What he said must have made an impression because both Moin bhai and I also decided to get a couple of jars—only later did I find out that the achaars were available in any Agora- or PQS-like supermarket in Dhaka. 

It was after this, when we were on our way back, that Moin bhai suggested we go ziyarat Shah Jalal’s mazaar.

“It seems that it might be interesting. What do you guys think?” he said.

 “I hear that there are those fishes that he turned Muslim,” said Mushfique. “It would be good to see them.”

“I’m in,” I said.

 “What do you sayMojid bhai?” Moin bhai asked our driver in the tone of canvassing opinions. “Do you want to drive over there? Do you think we might be able to find it?”

 “Oh it would be fine thing. It would be a great moment in my life if I were able to offer some prayers at the mazaar,” Mojid bhai said in his too-talkative way. He looked earnestly excited, his eyes had started to sparkle and swelled with expectancy. “Of course we can find it. Don’t you worry. I believe the peer will guide us there.”

“And this is Sylhet,” I interjected. “I’m sure anyone can point us to the general direction.”

 “Good we can ask that policeman for directions,” Moin bhai said to a sergeant busily talking to someone on his walkie-talkie. “Pull up next to him Mojid bhai and I’ll ask him.”

“Excuse me, bhai…” Moin bhai said trying to get the sergeant attention.

 “The mazaar is three kilos straight that way. Go straight down to the roundabout  and take a right;  another two kilos down from there. There are signs all along the way.”  

 “Thank you,” replied Moin bhai. He was taken aback that the sergeant knew we were going to ask about Shah Jalal even before being asked. He laughed about it a little, but I felt that it must have been obvious to everyone that we were tourists.

The Majar is several hundred years old. It is always busy, even with the ever stringent orthodoxy of Islam taking root in the country.

It was easy to find Shah Jalal’s mazaar; there were signs showing the way every couple of blocks just as the sergeant had said. However, Mojid bhai did have trouble driving through Sylhet traffic; true to his Dhaka habit, he kept trying to break out of the line of cars and swerve ahead. But the roads were too narrow and whenever he drove out-of-line he faced up against the oncoming traffic and created clogging jams.

The avenue leading up to the mazaar was much wider than any other road I had yet seen in Sylhet. Cars were parked in a row along the middle of it as apposed to the side: it used a system of parking completely different than what I was used to. Stalls stood on both sides of the avenue, which gave the place the look of being more a peddler trap than the ascetic shrine the word mazaar conjured up in my mind.

Mojid bhai rushed off as soon as he had parked; he could not even wait for us to fix a time by when he had to be back. All he said was: “If I hurry I can make Asr. Oh what a dream. What a dream.”

 “Wait,” Moin bhai tried to catch his attention. But he was too late and Mojid was too quick. And even if Moin bhai had said anything I do not think Mojid bhai would have heard a word of it. He was in rapture.

 “How muchdo you guys know about the mazaar?” I queried trying to get some information about the place.

 “Nothing really,” replied Moin bhai.

 “Me either,” said Mushfique. “All I know is that there are those fishes that come when they are called. They’re supposed to be Muslim; converted by Shah Jalal.”

The mazaar compound was large. The floor was white tile, number of date trees stood tall here and there, the pond holding the fishes Mushfique talked about was in the south corner. And in the center everything was a brand new building, which housed the mosque, placed up against the cut hill that was the huge burial mound.

The steps of the building ran up steeply, following the natural acclivity of the mound. The mosque was on the first terrace, in part cut into the hill with pillars buttressing as support; the entire facade was painted a soft pastel pink. As we passed I thought that I saw Mojid bhai in the front left-corner; he must have missed the jamaat because he was praying by himself: the others around him were sitting about listening to the Imam speak.     

The graves were another level up. Shah Jalal’s grave was in a separate mausoleum, completely made out of marble: the grave was topped with a solid slab and covered with a pall with some sort of religious inscription on it. Lined up by the side of Shah Jalal’s were the four graves of his closest followers. There were clusters of people lamenting loudly in the room and Mushfique and I both hurried out; we did not know what sort of prayer we were supposed to offer—it made us a little uncomfortable. But Moin bhai stayed and prayed with the rest of the crowd.

 “You know,” said Mushfique, in a way that was complete matter of fact “they say that the peer left for home before he died. That this isn’t even his grave; it’s just empty.”

The other graves, those of Sylhet’s famous Khadems lay in the northern face of the hill, each marked by a marble border and a headstone with etching in Arabic. Mushfique and I walked through the cemetery and waited for Moin bhai to come out. The open-ground was full of children running around, excited at the idea of being upon a sliding hill.

After Moin bhai came out we all went down and over to the stalls. We marked that the stalls sold all sorts of trinkets, plaques, decoration, souvenirs and cheap plastic toys. They did not have anything at all to do with the mazaar other than being set in the same place.

 “I think this place might as well be New-Market,” I said.

 “I know,” replied Moin bhai. “This place is pretty cheap. Even though I prayed up there, I didn’t really feel spiritual at all. It was too packaged.”

 “It’s all just a tourist trap,” agreed Mushfique. “It’s good business though. I bet most of the people that come here aren’t even Sylhetis. Look they have Satkara here too.

 “You probably should have waited to buy it from here,” I said. “It’s probably blessed and holy.”

 “It’s the same jar as we got,” smirked Mushfique. “They’re probably all holy.”

 “Oh look there comes Mojid bhai.”

I saw Mojid bhai coming out of the gate and all the thoughts about the mazaar being cheap and crass left my mind. The man was positively beaming, looked as if he had been touched by the supernatural. I had to wonder what place meant to him; it must have been religious to him in a way it could not ever be to us. To him, this place was a life’s hope and what he had seen had been beyond us.

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