University News

Lecturer discusses role of therapeutic healing shrines

Staff Writer
Friday, November 2, 2012


Carla Bellamy, assistant professor of anthropology and South Asian religion at Baruch College at the City University of New York, discussed the therapeutic role of dargahs, healing shrines frequented by Muslims, Christians and Hindus, in a talk Thursday night sponsored by the Cogut Center for the Humanities. Bellamy’s lecture revolved around her first book, “The Powerful Ephemeral: Everyday Healing in an Ambiguously Islamic Place,” which explores the dargahs’ role in shaping religious identity in India.

Bellamy presented a slideshow of pictures taken at Hussain Tekri, a shrine located in Madhya Pradesh, India, where she said she experienced firsthand the healing power of dargahs. Dargahs were historically built on the graves of esteemed religious figures in Islamic history. In modern times, dargahs are built not only on saints’ graves, but also on places saints visited. Now, a person may build a dargah anywhere he or she has had a religious experience.

The oft-contested nature of dargahs has contributed to their success in connecting people of different religions, Bellamy said. The Muslims and Hindus who frequent dargahs often self-select into certain routines of worship, each religion dominating the dargah on different days of the week. Bellamy believes this potential conflict is an important part of why dargahs function as healing places.

“While dargahs have really deep South Asian Mughal court heritage, the independence movement and partition changed the way everyone viewed religion. It became either-or. It became Hindu versus,” Bellamy said. “The friendships that formed between pilgrims at these sites were often tinged in subtle ways by ‘we’re being closer than we actually are.'”

Bellamy included multimedia footage taken of Indian citizens worshipping at the dagrahs, notably of a woman in a bright orange sari writhing on the ground in her practice of hazri, one of the healing rituals commonly practiced at these shrines. Bellamy described hazri as the experience of a spirit entering a person, with the only method of expulsion being confession. 

The religious rituals performed at dargahs proved difficult to document for Bellamy at Husain Tekri, as their impermanent nature was not conducive to being archived in a local culture’s history. For this reason, Bellamy found a dearth of records concerning dargahs from earlier than 200 years ago.

“The rituals at dargahs are so completely unstructured, and there is no permanence to anything that happens at them,” Bellamy said. “The communities that form dissipate, and there is no monument, no trace when anything happens except arguably in the body of those who become healers.”

Yet Bellamy said the transience of dargahs largely contributes to their ability to heal people of all religious beliefs. “These practices can’t be commodified, in the way that many other religious practices can. That ephemerality is powerful because it cannot be captured,” she said.

Everyone in the small audience seemed to have prior knowledge of dargahs, and many took notes during Bellamy’s presentation. Audience questions for Bellamy dealt with topics including the status of marginalized Indians and the difficulty of obtaining a written record for a religious practice as intangible as the dargah.

Bellamy stressed the communal, transgressive and ephemeral features of the dargah as the driving forces behind its success in healing communities without the hindrance of religious boundaries. Of dargahs, an audience member said, “You’re damned if you go and visit, and you’re damned if you don’t because you are on your own.”

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