AGRA — The inner courtyard of Shaukat Ali's house, circled by five other huts, looks like any other village household near Agra. Six brothers sit under a leafy fig tree smoking a hookah. A pleasant breeze wafts the grey smoke away.
Nothing seems out of tune in this bucolic atmosphere until a muezzin's azaan call breaks the afternoon lull.
As though in unison, four of the brothers hurriedly retreat to their homes to lay out their prayer mats. The other two join their families in chanting Vedic mantras in front of a lush holy basil plant growing in the courtyard.
The Alis have cast their religious differences aside and set a precedent for harmonious coexistence. They exemplify a reality in Sadhan village, 31 km south of Agra, where its 20,000-odd residents espouse different faiths without fear of being ostracized. When ghettoisation based on faith is being rampantly imposed across India, Sadhan stands out as an anomaly.
Its residents believe it is possible to be born a Hindu but practice Islam, and it's possible to be Muslim but keep a Hindu name. "This may seem bizarre in a polarized country like India today, but we take pride in our shared brotherhood," says Ali.
In this Hindu-majority village with about 6,000 Muslim residents, the belief in a common ancestry tethers people to a tapestry of faith.
History of the village
Oral tradition has it that a Rajput chieftain — Singh Pal — gained control over the area around 1200 A.D. But during Aurangzeb's rule in the 17th century, large-scale conversion to Islam took place. Then in 1923, a resident from Sadhan named Lakhmi Singh was reconverted to Hinduism, through an elaborate ritualistic ceremony. That sparked a wave of reconversions across the village, which continues even today.
But even though conversions have become a divisive force in Indian communities, Sadhan doesn't see them as an unnatural phenomenon. Hindu residents can turn to Islam, Sikhism or Jainism if they so choose. Osman Khan, a former priest, received support from his brethren for practicing Christianity openly: "This narrative of conversion and reconversion through centuries hasn't taken away our belief that we are part of the same family. If it hasn't destroyed our cohesion over epochs, it won't now," says Jameel Jadon, the village pradhan.
Jadon adds that Jugal Kishore, a Birla scion, gave thrust to the reconversion efforts in the 1920s by setting up a temple in the village. He also made generous donations to Hindu trusts such as the Hindu Mahasabha and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
"Look, this is the central nervous system of the village, which was set up by Jugal Kishore," says Jadon, pointing to a dilapidated mustard-colored temple with a green shikhara spire.
An open society
At the temple, devotees gather to offer their prayers during Hindu festivals. Even weddings are solemnized without discrimination based on caste or religion. "Ours is an open society. If my son wants to marry a Hindu girl, there's no problem. There are so many families where inter-religious marriages have taken place without fear of persecution," says Asrar Jadon, a paddy farmer.
Thus, during wedding ceremonies, Sadhan villagers include both Hindu and Islamic rituals on their calendar to ensure no one feels left out. Hindu grooms wear traditional Muslim headdresses, while Muslims host engagement ceremonies reminiscent of Hindu customs.
Jugal Kishore Birla's temple in Sadhan — Photo: Priyadarshini Sen
"It's not only weddings, we also respect each other's food habits and eat from the same plate. There are no rules about what to eat and what to leave out," says Balbir Singh, a tea stall owner. "During Eid, families cook mutton curry in their homes, while sweetmeats are prepared in every rural household during Holi."
Even day-to-day activities allow for communal kinship in a village where most residents depend on farming and construction activities for their livelihood. During local meetings, Muslims — both Sunni and Ahmadiyya — Hindus and Dalits gather at the same table to discuss ways to improve their living conditions.
"It seems unbelievable to others that such a mix of people could come together in a peaceful setting. There hasn't been a single riot or communal uprising in Sadhan despite unrest in surrounding areas," says Jameel Jadon.
Indeed, when communal riots broke out in neighboring Fatehpur Sikri, Agra and Achhnera town in the early 2000s, Sadhan remained an oasis of peace. "Infighting would cause families to split up because of the multiplicity of faiths within each unit. We had to remind everyone that brotherhood trumps caste, identity and religion," recalls Bhagat Singh, a 70-year-old Muslim furniture maker.
While weaving a mesh of ropes around a metal bed frame, Singh remembers how Hindu fundamentalists called for a boycott of Muslims from the village in 1989.
Even the political shifts sweeping Uttar Pradesh over the past decades haven't destroyed the communal harmony that binds Sadhan's residents. Here, candidates from the Bharatiya Janata Party, Congress, Bahujan Samaj Party and Samajwadi Party have tested the waters of local governance only to be met with resistance from the locals.
"The incumbent MP for the Fatehpur Sikri constituency is BJP's Babulal Chaudhary — while I'm a BSP supporter, so there's bound to be ideological differences. But the brotherhood here is an indestructible force. It cannot be elbowed out by external factors," says Jameel Jadon.
Some residents claim local leaders spearhead conversion campaigns promising economic gains. In reality, their intent is to divide the community. "We fell for that," says Meena Jadon, a 45-year-old homemaker who's now an observant Hindu.
Hoping for upward social and economic mobility, Meena's family converted to Hinduism 25 years ago. "It hasn't led to any tangible benefits. Fortunately, our extended family hasn't alienated us, nor has our village," she says.
People can move fluidly between Hinduism and Islam.
Meena recites mantras from the Rig Veda every morning, while her sister's family reads from the Koran. "There's no animosity even if prayer habits are vastly different within a family. Idol worship is not condemned, nor are Islamic rituals," says Shiraz Khan, Meena's nephew, who's a devout Muslim.
In many rural households, Muslims recite the Gayatri Mantra as fluently as Hindus recall verses from the Koran. The desire to preserve Sadhan's secular ethos is prevalent not only among its residents but also among priests and gurus.
Ganesh, a 45-year-old priest has turned his modest ashram into a secular abode — including under its umbrella a Muslim saint's mausoleum and a sacred space for the worship of Hindu goddesses. A sign outside reads: "Religion is no ground for discrimination. Faith unites all."
Inside, devotees are seen genuflecting before the altars until they seek the priest's blessings. "This is a formal representation of what the village stands for. People can move fluidly between Hinduism and Islam just as I do," says Ganesh, now a Hindu sadhu chanting Kali mantras in a pink robe.
Within a few minutes, Ganesh changes his avatar as Muslim devotees line up before the mausoleum. When the faithful leave Ganesh's ashram after praying, they say it's time to get on with their day. "This melding of cultures and religions over generations may seem surprising to others. For us it's inconsequential because we live as one family," says Shaukat Ali nonchalantly.
See more from Culture / Society here