A gaggle of older men in djellabas were sitting outside of the main entrance into the zaouia of Moulay Abdel Hussein, the grandfather of Moulay Brahim who’s tomb and zaouia resides a little further south in the foothills of the Atlas mountains. Both grandfather and grandson and their zaouias, play significant roles in a ritual which forms part of the living history of the Sidna Bilal Gnaoua brotherhood; a history which is primarily contained in the very music and rituals it performs.
“You will fly over the ocean,” he continued, “by the power of baraka, the blessing of Sidi Moulay Brahim, tair lajbal, indicating the spirit bird that flies over the Atlas Mountains”
Memoir of a Berber by Hassan Ouakrim
Sidi Kaouki is a small town on the windswept Atlantic coast of west Morocco. Some 25 miles south of Essaouira, its long golden sands and dashing surf make it a favourite for surfers and windsurfers. There is a collection of stylish hotels, surfing and windsurfing schools, and lines of drying wetsuits around its environs, which attest to this interest.
Standing at the top of the beach, close to the coterie of cafes and shops, is a marabout shrine. Here the white building rises from the sandy beach as the largest structure close to the shoreline. This particular type of building is known as a Koubba, or Koubbeh, which is Arabic for dome or cupola. It specifically refers to a monument erected on the grave of a revered figure, or in a place where he ( or she ) stayed or lived.
These monuments occur mainly in North Africa and consist of a spherical dome built on a square, cubist building which forms a room, often decorated, which houses the tomb of a saint. They are normally quite small buildings, their size rarely exceeding 4 meters square.
‘Saints’ in Morocco have a very different interpretation than those in Europe. In Morocco saints can be ordinary people who had a lifetime of ‘doing good’. Saints can be either rich or poor, educated or uneducated, employed or unemployed, living within a home or homeless. They are considered to have ‘ lights of guidance because of the blessings that Allah showered upon them’.
The whole notion of wandering saints in Morocco fascinated me when I first visited Morocco. A vision of marabouts walking the countryside, giving solace to the poor and medicinal aid to the unwell, and then eventually dying and having a tomb built over their resting place was intriguing. Further reading, predominantly Realm of the Saint : Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism by Vincent J Cornell has replaced that idea with a more accurate picture of what the evidence suggests; Moroccan ‘saints’ had a spiritual role, that of “substitute of the prophets” (known as walaya), though not entirely representative of traditional Islamic interpretation . Their other role comprised that of political and local ‘fixers’ (wilaya), settling disputes and often representing the poor against rapacious Shas and tribal chiefs, treading a delicate line between influencing powerful landowners and doing what was possible for the disadvantaged.
Many were fortunate enough to travel and enjoy a good education, spending time either in el Andalus or the wider Islamic community, before returning and living a life of relative isolation, though often within a Sufi social and spiritual framework of a specific community. Rarely did they ‘wander’ across Morocco. (more…)
Richard Lannoy, author, photographer and mystic, who spent many years living in Varanasi, provided an article for the Times of India in 2012 explaining the relationship between pilgrimage and tirthas in Hindu faith. Understanding this relationship is fundamental to understanding the nature, value and power of pilgrimage not just in India but to any sacred site around the world.
‘Pilgrimages are intentionally difficult journeys of devotion. By making a long journey to these powerful places, pilgrims achieve a degree of personal growth. The act of pilgrimage serves as a bridge between the known realm of earth, nature, society, and the unknown world of divine beings, from the ephemeral and illusory to reality and eternity.
A place of pilgrimage is known as a ‘tirtha sthana’ – ‘which is associated with or inhabited by sages deserving reverence, who are without desire, egoism or delusion and who have been purified by a performance of penance’ says the Garuda Purana. A tirtha refers to ‘crossing the ford’ – to cross is to be transformed. Among the holiest Hindu tirthas are sacred rivers, especially the Ganges. Its entire length is sacred, yet at some points it is believed that its sanctity comes to a focus. One such point is Kashi. A tirtha is directly experienced as an intensification of the sacred or supernatural power in time and space. It is there – to be seen, to be felt, to enter, rather as the hearth is the centre of the home, to which all who enter naturally gravitate. And this, despite the fact that home and tirtha are essentially opposites…
The pilgrim makes a transformative journey to a tirtha in order to see, to have darshan – which means ‘seeing’: Kashi darshan, Vishwanath darshan, Himalaya darshan. All nature is capable of revealing itself as cosmic sacrality. An integral religious society like India’s, searches for identity in the cosmos. The cosmos in its entirety can become a hierophany – a ‘divine showing’. The struggle to overcome difficulties of journey opens up to pilgrims deeper realities and resources of their own being and of the surrounding world. Pilgrimage brings together inner and outer worlds, the physical landscape serving as a mirror for the inner one. The pilgrim is cast from the relatively closed home world onto the vastness of nature…Indian pilgrimages…reflects a belief that there is something close to the essence, to beauty and truth in the landscape through which the seeker journeys. Pilgrimage is metaphysical sightseeing…
Eliade points out, man does not ‘choose’ these places: they are merely ‘discovered’ by him. Such tirthas, to which the faithful have made pilgrimage since time immemorial, usually possess palpably ‘magical’ atmos-phere and physical beauty…The sheer size of the subcontinent has traditionally provided little stimulus to venture abroad. But the need of the landlocked to break out, to get up and go, abandon stale routine for a while and be free spirits, has fostered the urge to undertake pilgrimage on an unprecedented scale.
To attract large numbers, the tirtha sthana must both be an accessible crossway and yet distant enough to be reached from afar by an arduous journey – like Mecca, Jerusalem, Delos Compostella, Benaras, located at a territorial midpoint, at the intersection of transcontinental trade routes… The essence of pilgrimage is movement outwards and away from the home base. Even those who are permanently resident in places of pilgrimage have the same urge to take off on a journey to some distant tirtha.
Pilgrimage is a universal feature in the religious life of man – and even those who profess no religion still feel the urge to make an arduous journey to some distant and elevating goal that transcends the normal parameters of their lives. To benefit from the spiritual and moral qualities of a holy place both pilgrims and secular-intentional seekers must approach their goal in the right frame of mind. Pilgrim’s India, Penguin Ananda.’
The article is taken from Pilgrim’s India, an anthology of narratives and poems, edited by the poet and author Arundhathi Subramaniam. The photograph is of the Kumbh Mela ground by the Sangam, tirtha, and confluence of the Ganges, Jamuna and mythical Saraswati rivers at Allahabad.