Bengaluru: A throng undulated in unison as crackers burst beneath saffron flags atop a hill in Chikkamagaluru on the day of the god Dattatreya’s birth. The Sangh Parivar was out in force Saturday to assert an exclusive claim to a shrine in Karnataka that’s revered by both Hindus and Muslims.
Leaders from organisations including the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) and the Bajrang Dal shared videos of a shobha yatra at the cave-shrine.
“Datta Peeta will come to the custody of Hindus”, tweeted BJP national general secretary and MLA from Chikkamagalur C.T. Ravi Saturday.
Glimpses of today's Shobha Yatra during Datta Jayanti celebrations in Chikkamagaluru.
Datta Peeta will come to the custody of Hindus. pic.twitter.com/zkpGCYBWKu
— C T Ravi 🇮🇳 ಸಿ ಟಿ ರವಿ (@CTRavi_BJP) December 18, 2021
“Bhagawan Dattatreya’s Petha is, was & will always be of Hindus!” tweeted Union Minister of State for Agriculture Shobha Karandlaje Sunday. Karandlaje is an MP from the Udupi-Chikkamagaluru Lok Sabha constituency.
Bhagawan Dattatreya's Petha is, was & will always be of Hindus!
Here is a glimpse from yesterday's Shobha Yatra of #DattaJayanti celebrations from Namma Chikkamagaluru.
Jai Guru Deva Datta! pic.twitter.com/pOYSmz4CXl
— Shobha Karandlaje (@ShobhaBJP) December 19, 2021
‘Shri Guru Dattatreya Swamy Baba Budan Dargah’: the cave-shrine’s name makes no secret of its syncretic identity. Guru Dattatreya, a Hindu deity believed to be an incarnation of the Trimurti — Shiva, Vishnu, and Brahma as one being — is revered here alongside both Baba Budan, a 16th-century Sufi saint who is believed to have introduced the coffee plant to India, and Dada Hayat, an 11th-century Sufi saint.
A symbol of Hindu-Muslim amity for centuries, the shrine was deemed the “Ayodhya of the South” by Right-wing organisations led by the VHP in the 1980s as the Ram Janmabhoomi movement gained momentum across the country. Twice a year — during Dattatreya Jayanti and an annual Urs — communally-charged debates flare up over the cave-shrine.
Right-wing organisations have held shobha yatras — as they did in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement — as part of their agitation to ‘liberate’ Datta Peetha since 2000, although Supreme Court orders in 2008 and in 2015 permitted only those syncretic events, ceremonies, celebrations that were in practice prior to 1975.
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History of syncretic practice
Multiple government records, archaeological and historical documents dating back centuries reveal the nature of the shrine — which is on a hill called Bababudangiri or Datta Peetha, depending on who you ask — where Muslim and Hindu devotees have long paid obeisance to ‘Dattatreya Bababudan Swamy’ with syncretic rituals.
A history of the shrine was published in the Mysore Gazette in 1930. According to history, for centuries, a Muslim sajjada nasheen (hereditary administrator) has been the head of the shrine of ‘Dada Hayat Khalender Dattatreya Swamy’. Dada Hayat, an 11-century Sufi saint, is said to have made the cave his abode and appointed the first sajjada.
The sajjada appoints a mujawar (priest) to perform daily rituals, distribute holy water to Hindu and Muslim devotees, take ascetics from Hindu mutts inside the cave to light a nanda deepa, and make offerings to paduka believed to be those of Dattatreya.
The shrine was deemed a “major Muzarai temple” — under the (Hindu) religious and charitable endowments department — under the Mysore Religious and Charitable Institutions Act, 1927.
The legal fight for ‘custody’
The legal fight to claim the shrine dates to 1978, after the Waqf board took over its administration from the Muzarai department in 1973. A district court asked the endowment commissioner to submit a report on practices prevalent before 1975.
The report filed in 1989 codified the existing syncretic practices. The district court quashed the report, but the Supreme Court in 2008 upheld it in an interim order.
The Karnataka High Court in September this year deemed that permitting “only a Muslim priest” to perform rituals at a shrine where Hindu rituals were also practiced was a violation of the right to religion of both Muslims and Hindus.
The court asked the state government to appoint a Hindu priest as well. Following this, the state government in October said a cabinet sub-committee would look into the order.
The appointment of a Hindu priest is among the demands of Hindutva organisations towards “liberating” the shrine.
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‘Ayodhya of the South’
It was not until 2002, when former Union Minister Ananth Kumar declared it the “Ayodhya of the South” that communal flare ups became increasingly frequent in Bababudangiri. The Datta Peetha movement cemented the position of now senior leaders of the BJP, including national general secretary C.T. Ravi, Union Minister Shobha Karandlaje, and Karnataka Minister for Energy Sunil Kumar.
“After the demolition of the Babri Masjid, the BJP saw a political opportunity in replicating it in Karnataka,” Kannada writer K. Marulasiddappa told ThePrint. “They have no knowledge of socio-economic development but used such religious sentiments to misguide people,” he added.
“They chose two places — Idgah Maidan in Hubballi and Bababudangiri in Chikkamagalur. The Sangh Parivar began dividing people along religious lines over Bababudangiri — the same people who for centuries had been praying side by side,” he said.
Marulasiddappa, together with playwright Girish Karnad, journalist Gauri Lankesh and others, visited Bababudangiri in 2003 to stop it “becoming the Ayodhya of the South” after Sangh Parivar workers laid siege to the Dargah. Shops belonging to Muslims were set ablaze in Bababudangiri that year at the end of an RSS shobha yatra.
“I am from Chikkamagalur and have grown up seeing the communal harmony in Bababudangiri. It was not until the Ram Janmabhoomi movement that we saw division among people. The Sangh Parivar, led by BJP leaders like C.T. Ravi, destroyed a shrine of communal harmony right before my eyes,” said Marulasiddappa.
Hindutva organisations, however, insist that the shrine was originally a Hindu place of pilgrimage that has been “Islamised”, and their fight is to reclaim what is theirs.
“There are historical documents, including land grants by royals, to prove that this is a Hindu shrine. It was only during the time of Hyder Ali and Tipu Sultan that it was Islamised,” Suryanarayana, all India co-convenor of the Bajrang Dal, told ThePrint.
The endowment commissioner in his 1989 report had recorded that 1,861 acres of land was granted to “Shri Dattatreya Devaru” and 111.25 acres to “Shri Baba Budan Dharga” separately by the Maharaja of Mysore in the early 20th century.
Every year since 2000, the Bajrang Dal and other right-wing organisations have held shobha yatras and Datta Mala pilgrimages despite a Supreme Court order banning activities other than those practiced before 1975.
“Shobha yatra is part of our agitation to reclaim our land. Datta Peetha is only a Hindu shrine and we will continue to fight for it,” Suryanarayana told ThePrint.
He rejected the claim that Sufi saint Baba Budan’s resting place was inside the cave. “He was not buried here. We also oppose the burial of Shah Kadri’s family (the family of sajjada nasheens) through generations in the vicinity. All tombs must be removed and an idol of Guru Dattareya must be installed,” he added.
Over the years, there have been reports of shobha yatra participants breaking barricades and damaging tombstones, forcefully removing green shawls in the dargah and replacing them with saffron ones. “Such things don’t happen now,” Suryanarayana said.
Even as the state government, following a Supreme Court order to decide on the title claim, considers the next course of action, the shrine that once was testimony of Hindu-Muslim harmony is now the centre of a communal battle.
In an article published in Lankesh Patrike on 3 December 2003, Gauri Lankesh wrote after her return from Datta Peetha: “Dada Hayat, who had come to Chandra Drona Mountain from Arabia, won the appreciation of Shudras and Dalits, then suffering at the hands of local chieftains, by helping them. Some, impressed by the love, compassion, and tolerance shown by Dada Hayat, converted to Islam while many others became devotees of Dada Hayat without severing ties with their old religion, but by calling him an avatar of Dattatreya himself. There is a reason for this too. In Hindu mythology, Vishnu takes the avatar of Dattatreya to free people from slavery. So the Hindu devotees saw Dattatreya in Dada Hayat and gave him a Hindu name.”
(Edited by Rohan Manoj)
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