Description of Major Muslim Communities in India : Behlim and Nagar

In this post, I return to the state of Uttar Pradesh (UP), and the Muslim communities that inhabit it. In particular, I will look at the Behlim and Nagar Muslims, both of whom fall within the category of Shaikh. Briefly, the word sheikh is an honorific in the Arabic language that literally means “elder.” It is commonly used to designate an elder of a tribe, a revered wise man, or an Islamic scholar. In the South asian context, Shaikh is a title used by the descendants of Arab and other Muslim immigrants who were said to have arrived from the Middle East or Central Asia, although it was also extended to converts from Hinduism, generally those who came from the Brahman or Vaishya category. What I want to make clear about the term Shaikh, it does not denote a single identity, but contains within a multiple and complex groupings. In some parts such as Bihar and West Bengal/ Bangladesh, the term Shaikh refers to Muslim who practices farming, while in UP Shaikh is invariably an urban group. The two groups I am looking at in this post, namely the Behlim and Nagar display this diversity of origin, with former claiming a Central Asian origin, while the Nagars claiming to be a Muslim branch of the Nagar Brahman caste.

Behlim

I will start off by looking at the Behlim, who are actually two distinct communities. We have infact two distinct communities of Behlim, those of UP and those of Gujarat. I shall start of by looking at the UP Behlims.

According to tribal tradition, the Behlim trace their descent the Sufi Salar Masud Ghaz (1015 –1032 AD), and the word is said to be a corruption of the word ba-ilm, meaning those who are knowledgeable in Arabic. Masud was a Ghaznavid army general and the nephew of Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi. Masud was son of Ghazi Salar Sahu, a descendant of Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah, son of Hazrat Ali, and Sitr-i-Mu’alla, who was sister of Ghaznavi. Salar Masud came along with his uncle Salar Saifudin and teacher Syed Ibrahim Mashadi Bara Hazari (Salar-i-Azam of Ghaznavi) in early 11th century to the South Asia for propagation of Islam. According Sufi traditions associated with Salar Masud, he was killed in battle fighting local Hindu forces in what is now the Awadh region of UP. As Ghazna dynasty were of Central Asian Turk origin, this would make the Behlim to be partly of Turkish origin. In another origin story, the Behlim claim to be descended from Central Asian Turkish troopers, having arrived in India during the time Iltutmish (reigned: 1211–36). This would mean there arrival was a good two centuries after the Salar Masud. What does seem to be certain is that Behlim have been in UP for fairly long time, and are likely to of Central Asian Turkish origin.

The Behlim families of the city of Bulandshahr played an important role in the history of that city. Other Behlim are found mainly in the neighbouring districts of Meerut and Muzaffarnagar. In addition of the Behlim of the Doab, there are two other settlements in Gonda District and Basti District in eastern Uttar Pradesh. These Behlim have little or no connection with those of western Uttar Pradesh. Both the Behlim communities speak Urdu, and as a largely urban community very rarely speak any of the local dialects of Hindi. They are largely Sunni, although there is a small Shia minority.

Separate from the UP Behlims, are those of Gujarat, who are found mainly in Mehsana and Banaskantha districts. These Behlim are an agrarian community, found mostly in north Gujarat. According to some traditions, they were once Rajputs, and their customs are similar to other Muslim Rajput communities, such as the Maliks. The Behlim intermarry with other Gujarati Muslim communities of similar status such as Pathan, Shaikh and Molesalam Rajputs. Unlike other Gujarati Muslims, they have no caste association, and generally are allied to other Rajput landholding classes. They speak Gujarati and are Sunni Muslims.


Nagar

I now look at the Nagar, who are now found entirely in Bulandshahr District, who particular in and around the town of Ahar.

The Nagar are Muslim converts from the larger Nagar Brahmin community who were said to have ruled the Ahar pargana of Bulandshahr District, prior to the Muslim conquest of the region in the 11th Century. These Nagar are widespread Brahmin sub-caste, who have always been connected with the Doab, the region in which Bulandshahr District is situated. The town of Ahar lies along the banks of the Ganges river, a site which also considered sacred to Hindus.

Before the Muslim invasion this part of the country was known as the Chaurasi of the Nagar Brahmans, who still hold a few villages. According to local folklore, the name Ahar is locally derived from’ ahi’ and ‘har,’ the killing of the serpent, and the present town is said to be the place where Janamejaiya performed the great snake sacrifice, and rewarded the Nagar Brahmans who assisted him with. Janamejaiya, in Hindu mythology, was a Kuru king who reigned during the Middle Vedic period (12th or 11th century BCE). Along with his predecessor Parikshit, he played a decisive role in the consolidation of the Kuru state, the arrangement of Vedic hymns into collections, and the development of the orthodox srauta ritual, transforming the Kuru realm into the dominant political and cultural center of northern /Iron_Age_India. From these legends and myths, we can ascertain that the Nagar have long been established in this region, were the effective local rulers.

The Nagars were said to have converted during the period of rule of the Mughal Emperor Aurangzeb (reign 1658-1707). Aurangzeb is said to have begun a campaign in the hinterland of Delhi to suppress all the minor principalities that had maintained their autonomy. When he decided to end the Nagar control of Ahar, one of his advisors convinced him that it was inexpedient to allow all of the members of the Chaudhri’s family of that town to exercise the functions of their hereditary office. Aurangzeb is said to have agreed but on the condition that only two of them should be recognised as Chaudhri He them chose two members of the clan that had just been converted to Islam to the Chaudhri’s position. The principality of Ahar thus passed into the control of the Muslim Nagars, and town itself also converted, with the Muslims presently making 70% of the population.

As Mughal authority declined, the Nagar Muslim became important power in the Doab region, in particular in Bulandhshar District. With the arrival of the British in beginning of the 19th Century, the Nagar Muslims were confirmed their estates. In 1857, during the War of Independence, the Nagars were led by their Chaudri Sohrab Khan, who set himself up as the independent ruler, taking advantage of the collapse of British authority. However when British authority was re-established, the Nagars lost all their estates

The Nagar are Sunni Muslims, and largely Barelvi. Their customs are similar to other Shaikh communities in the Doab region. The Nagar generally speak standard Urdu. Most Nagar stil;l reside in Ahar and four villages nearby.

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