Meo Muslims belonging to Mewat near Alwar in Rajasthan consider themselves as the descendants of kshatriyas coming in the lineage of Arjuna of Mahabharata. A proof of this claim lies in the story of Pandavas known as Pandun ka kada in their dialect that is recited by them even today. This story consists of 800 verses of ‘dohas’ and last for more than three hours when they musically present it. This composition specifically deals with the last year of the exile of the Pandavas when they remained incognito. What makes this composition a subject of interest is that it ends with praises for the writer of this composition, one Sadullah Khan of the 18th century, as the descendant of Arjuna!
Mewat's Meo Muslims recite the Mahabharata as a folk narration at the Pushkar Mela in Pushkar, Rajasthan on Thursday, October 29, 2009.
(Picture courtesy:- http://www.gettyimages.in/detail/news-photo/mewats-meo-muslims-recite-the-mahabharata-as-a-folk-news-photo/92746340 )
The Meos have retained many traits of Hinduism including the names, the worship of Hindu Gods and Gotra identities, but were known to have been converted into Islam by Sufi saints in the 11th century. Today rabid Islamisation is making them shun and forget their ancient roots. It is said that only a few remember the Pandun ka kada and recognise their ancient roots linked to Mahabharata times.
That this connection is an honest expression by their forefathers and therefore authentic is made out from the fact that their connection to Pandavas was not a general or a casual statement but something connected to only the 13th year of exile of the Pandavas in the kingdom of Virata. It is interesting to note that many places of Alwar where Meos are found have connection to incidents of the 13th year exile of the Pandavas.
The Sariska wildlife sanctuary in Alwar has all the trappings of a dense and unpopulated region where the Pandavas could have spent their time in exile. Pandupol in the hills in the centre of this place is believed to be the place where the Pandavas lived during exile.
It is in Pandupol that Bhima was said to have cut open the hillside with his mace and made way for the water to gush through. (Pic below)
(ASI monument number N-RJ-144.
This is also believed to be the place where Bhima met Hanuman who refused to give way to Bhima. There is a famous temple of Hanuman in reclining posture here.
This place has another connection to Pandavas of the exile period. There is a village called ‘Taal vrikskha’ in Alwar where Arjuna was supposed to have hidden his weapons before entering Virata’s court as Brihannala. Bairath, near Alwar is believed to be Virat nagar and as the name suggests Virat changed to Bairath. All these regions deserve an extensive exploration to bring out an indisputable proof of Mahabharata.
The Meo Muslims stand as a cultural proof of their roots to the Mahabharata period. They could as well have been sons of the soil of Virata kingdom and had kinship with someone in the lineage of Arjuna. The specific narration of the one year exile period of Pandavas in the place where Meos have lived from time immemorial goes to show that their claim is not a figment of imagination.
There had been similar claims by Velir tribes as having come in the lineage of Krishna. They had relocated from Dwaraka (Byt Dwaraka) about 3500 years ago and settled in today’s Tamilnadu, Kerala and South Karnataka. (This is mistaken as displaced Dravidians from the Indus civilisation). Today they are lost in the crowd but their claims remain as strong proof of history in Tamil Sangam literature.
Yet another claim from Ithihasa period is the continued lineage from Vaali of Ramayana fame. An inscription by King Vikramadhitya VI talks about one Dadiga (Dadimukha?) coming from the clan of Vaali of Kisukad (Kishkindha). There is in existence another inscription on one Durlabha devi, wife of Pulikeshi-I who it was mentioned as coming in the lineage of Vaali. (Read here for details).
Seen in this backdrop, the prospects of Meo Muslims coming in the lineage of Arjuna requires serious research. That they have become Muslims is a serious aberration of heritage brought out by lack of awareness and pride about their roots.
Signs of Muslim youth joining Indian mainstream – its time Muslims know their historical and genetic past.
Meet the Muslims who consider themselves descendants of Arjuna
Like other capital cities of the world, Delhi is a city obsessed with itself. The capital’s influential and always-expanding tribe of intellectuals often pontificate on and plan the state of the nation without stepping outside the city limits. And in the last decade, perhaps no subject has received as much attention as the Muslim community.
Reams have been written on the Muslim “psyche”; on the community’s response to the emergence of the Hindu Right; on the orthodoxy’s hold on the community; on terrorists being bred and the flip side of the “fear psychosis” gripping it. And come election time, every publication devotes precious newsprint to speculating on that mythical thing called the “Muslim vote”. Every reputable columnist in the city has, at some time or the other, expressed an opinion on the Muslim community.
But all these opinion-makers – whether belonging to the liberal Left or the Right – tend to describe the Muslim society in absolute terms. Hindu society is plural but Muslims are believed to constitute a huge monolithic mass. The facts belie this view.
The only thing uniform about the Muslims of India is their diverse cultural zones.
Even the brand of Islam followed by Indian Muslims varies from region to region. Few seem to be aware that there are numerous Muslim communities who profess Islam but remain steeped in the local Hindu ethos.
For instance, just outside the city boundaries begins the large pocket where the Meo Muslims live. These Muslims profess Islam but follow a fascinating composite culture that accommodates many Hindu customs. They trace their origins to Hindu figures such as Rama, Krishna and Arjuna and celebrate many Hindu festivals like Diwali, Dussehra and Holi.
And the Meos are no obscure tiny sect; they are a 400,000- strong community found in the region known as Mewat, which is spread across the border areas of the three states of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Rajasthan. In Uttar Pradesh, they are found in the Chhata tehsil while in Haryana, the Meos occupy the Nuh and Ferozepur tehsils of Gurgaon district. But the area where the Meos dominate and have been able to preserve their unique culture is the Alwar district of Rajasthan, just a two-hour drive from Delhi.
The Meos are famous across the Mewat belt for their narration of folk epics and ballads. Their oral tradition is a rich source for studying and understanding the community’s history. Among the epics and ballads sung by the Meos, which are derived from Hindu lore, the most popular is thePandun ka kada, the Mewati version of the Mahabharata.
Many Meos also trace their origins through the epic which describes them as descendants of Arjuna.
The Meos have a distinct identity, separating them from both mainstream Hindu and Muslim society. Their marriages combine the Islamic nikaah ceremony with a number of Hindu rituals – like maintaining exhaustive gotras, a distinctly Hindu practice.
One fascinating tradition still preserved by Meos is the tracing of their genealogy by Hindu genealogists known as jaggas. The jaggas are an essential part of any lifecycle ceremony in the Meo community.
The Meos are believed to have gradually converted to Islam between the twelfth and the sixteenth centuries. Their Hindu origins are evident from their names, as most Meos still keep the title “Singh”, revealing the syncretic nature of the community. Ram Singh, Til Singh and Fateh Singh are typical Meo names.
I met Fateh Singh, a Meo balladeer in a village on the outskirts of Alwar. After reciting the Pandun ka kada, he spoke at length on what he believed to be the community’s origins.
Fateh Singh and his fellow villagers firmly believe that they are Kshatriyas descending from Arjuna who gradually converted to Islam under the influence of Sufi Pirs. But they told me that the Meos are gradually giving up the celebration of Hindu festivals. “If you go into villages in the interior, you will see that the Meos are just like Hindus. You will not be able to make out the difference between Meos and Hindu villagers. But near the city, more and more people are giving up Hindu customs and rituals.”
It is not difficult to trace the reason for this. The Ayodhya agitation and its aftermath succeeded in infusing the communal virus even into the peaceful Mewat belt. The Babri demolition had resulted in violence in the region. Ever since, political alignments and mobilisation has been on community lines.
In 2011-'12, there was vicious communal violence in Mewat and the Muslim community there accuses the State government of targeting them in a shooting that left over ten dead in a village.
The identity question in the Mewat belt, therefore, is being raised in a complex and changing landscape. Moreover, as one Meo villager told me when I travelled there in 2011: “Ever since the RSS and the BJP became a powerful political force in the State, more and more Meos have begun to identify themselves as Muslims.”
The orthodoxy naturally has an opportunity to show the faithful the correct path according to them. There is, therefore, a far greater self-consciousness about being a Muslim. As Chandan Singh, a schoolteacher put it: “Increasingly, the mullahs tell Meos that they are bad Muslims and that they must give up celebrating Hindu festivals if they want to be accepted by the Muslim society.”
According to him, one can see evidence of the slow Islamisation of the Meos in the number of mosques that have sprung up over the last decade. “Earlier, most Meos never went to the masjid. Now, so much money has come in for the construction of masjids from religious institutions funded by Gulf money, that the Meos are increasingly turning to the Islamic way of life.”
Earlier, all Meos traced their origins to Arjuna through the Pandun ka kada. But as a result of this deliberate Islamisation, epics such as theShamsher Pathan and Behram Badshah – which suggest that the Meos came from Arabia – are also gaining in popularity. Caught between the pincer of Hindu fundamentalism on one side and Islamic puritanism on the other, most syncretic communities in India are undergoing a gradual transformation and the Meos are no exception.
But what is remarkable is that they have still retained much of their old ways of life. One does not have to search too hard to find a Meo singing the Pandun ka kada or celebrating Dussehra. They still remain a fascinating testament to a shared history, a shared culture in the subcontinent.
Excerpted with permission from In Good Faith: A Journey In Search Of An Unknown India, Saba Naqvi, Rupa Rainlight.
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