Kaliyar couldn’t be more perfectly placed as a pilgrim town. Just 9 km north of Roorkee and a 40-minute drive from Haridwar in Uttarakhand, it rests serenely on the banks of the Ganga Canal. Every year, lakhs of devotees make their way to this nondescript village, to pay their respects to one of the most important Sufi shrines in North India – that of the 13th century Sufi saint of the Chishti order, Sayyad Ali Ahmad, known as ‘Sabir Piya’ among his followers, who founded the Sabri Chishti order of Sufism.
The saint’s legacy has echoed in qawwali music across the ages, through the famous Sabri Brothers of Pakistan, the other famous performers being the Nizami Brothers of India. The names ‘Nizami’ and ‘Sabri’ refer to adherents of two of the oldest and most prominent orders of Chishti Sufism in India – the Chishti Nizami order founded by the famous Hazrat Nizamuddin of Delhi and the Chishti Sabri order founded by Hazrat Sayyad Ali Ahmad Sabir of Kaliyar.
To understand the significance of these orders, we must go back to the origins of Sufism. Historian Anna Suvorova in her book Muslim Saints of South Asia: The Eleventh to Fifteenth Centuries (1999) writes extensively about the early history of Sufism in India.
The ‘Chishti’ order of Sufism, named after the small town of ‘Chisht’ near Herat in Afghanistan, was founded around 930 CE. It was introduced to India by the famous Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti (1142-1236 CE), whose dargah or tomb at Ajmer in Rajasthan draws millions of devotees every year.
The third in the line of spiritual successors of Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti was Baba Fariduddin Ganjshakar (1179-1266 CE), better known as ‘Baba Farid’. He is considered one of the most important Sufi saints of medieval India and a spiritual guide to many of the Sultans of Delhi.
After the Delhi Sultanate was established in the 12th century, Sufi mystics travelled to remote parts of North India, spreading the doctrine of the Sufi form of Islam. They were also mentors to various rulers of the Delhi Sultanate.
Baba Farid, whose dargah is in Pakpattan in Pakistan, was the spiritual mentor of the Tughlaq Sultans of Delhi, as mentioned by 14th century traveller Ibn Batuta. Interestingly, Baba Farid travelled to Jerusalem and stayed in a hospice or sarai, which 800 years later, is known as ‘Baba Farid’s Sarai’ today.
Among his disciples, Baba Farid’s most prominent spiritual successors were Hazrat Nizamuddin of Delhi and Hazrat Sayyad Ali Ahmad Sabir of Kaliyar, under whose guidance the Chishti Nizami and Chishti Sabri orders of Sufism were established.
We know of the life of Sayyad Ali Ahmad Sabir through the 13th century text Sirrul Abudiat written by Baba Farid himself. Sabir was born in 1196 CE at Herat in present-day Afghanistan. He was the great grand-grandson of the Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani, the noted 12th century Arabic scholar who had founded the ‘Qadiri’ order of Sufism, which still has millions of followers in Central Asia and the Middle East.
He was just five years old when his father passed away and he arrived with his mother in Pakpattan, at the residence of Baba Farid, who also happened to be his maternal uncle. Here, he excelled in Islamic studies, completing his curricula in just three years where the average student took six years to learn it.
There is an interesting story about how Sayyad Ali Ahmad got the name ‘Sabir’ or ‘the Patient One ’. According to a story cited in various Sufi accounts, Ali Ahmad’s mother returned to Herat, leaving her son with Baba Farid. On her request, Ali Ahmad was appointed as the person in charge of the langar (community kitchen) by his master. After 12 years, when his mother returned from Herat, she was dismayed to find that her son had lost so much weight that he looked like a bag of bones. She cried out in front of Baba Farid, accusing him of ignoring her son. Ahmad Ali responded “I was appointed as in-charge of the community kitchen by my master but didn’t receive any permission for consuming my meals from it. So for these 12 years, I was surviving on wild grasses and herbs of the nearby forest.” According to 13th century Chishti Sufi accounts, this is why Baba Farid named him ‘Sabir’. Across the centuries, the Sufi order of Chishtis continued by his successors was called the Chistiya Sabriya order.
In 1252, Baba Farid formally declared Sabir as his successor and bestowed upon him the title ‘Badshah Do Jahan Makhdoom Ala Uddin Ali Ahmad Sabir Sultanul Awliya’. Like other Sufi saints, he too was instructed to travel and spread the message of Sufism, and this is how Sabir arrived in Kaliyar, a small town near Haridwar.
According to Maqnatis Ul Wahadat, a 13th century Sufi chronicle, the region around Roorkee was ruled by a Hindu chieftain named Kalyan Paal, from whom the town Kaliyar derives its name. It was during the reign of Qutubuddin Aibak that the town was occupied by the armies of the Delhi Sultanate. It was a gateway to the Hindu pilgrimage town of Haridwar.
Sufi accounts list a number of miracles that Sabir performed there, which attracted a number of devotees and followers. In 1291 CE, Ali Ahmad passed away at Kaliyar and was buried at the site where he meditated daily. The present shrine is believed to have been built in the 15th and 16th centuries. Some Sufi accounts even claim that Sultan Ibrahim Khan Lodi (r. 1517-1526), the last ruler of the Delhi Sultanate who was defeated by Babur, paid for the construction of the shrine.
The main body of the tomb is enclosed by beautiful medieval jalis (latticed screens) and visitors can access the main tomb through the doors located at its eastern and northern facades. The walls and floor of the inner chamber are lined in white marble stone. The grave is surrounded by a marble enclosure. The tomb is surrounded by a roomy courtyard lined in white marble. The courtyard is bounded at the ends by open chambers, and one of the corners is connected to an old mosque.
There are four main gateways to access the courtyard. On the eastern flank in the courtyard lie two heritage trees, a cluster fig (Gular) and a 200-year-old Paakar tree, where devotees hang their handwritten request/wishes for submission to the saint. The cluster fig is believed to have evolved from a twig of a 13th century tree, where Ali Ahmad stood by, holding it for 12 years in a state of meditation.
Nothing of historical significance has been recorded about this small town during Mughal and British times, except for this shrine, which became a centre of pilgrimage. The District Gazetteer of Saharanpur 1909, cites an annual congregation held each year at the shrine of the 13th century saint, where thousands of Hindus and Muslims gather to pay homage.
Thousands of devotees continue to make an annual visit to the shrine of their beloved Hazrat Sabir Piya, a saint who gained ‘official’ recognition, when the government named the town ‘Piran Kaliyar’ in honour of him.
Rehan Asad is a history enthusiast who has been exploring and documenting the lost heritage of Uttarakhand.