Hazrat Babajan at the neem tree in Char Bawdi, Poona


1.     The  Faqir  and  Majzub

2.     Locating  Information

3.     The  Amir  of  Kabul

4.     Burial  Alive

5.     Pathans,  Devotees,  and  the  Ulama

6.     Nile  Green: "A  Mother  for  the  Sepoys"

7.     Pathan  Soldiers  and  the  Indian  Army

8.     Zoroastrian  Visitors

9.     British  Raj  Reactions

10.   The  Shrine  at  Char  Bawdi

11.   The  Nature  of  Sources

        Notes and Bibliography

1. The  Faqir  and  Majzub

Having written the longest book on the subject, (1) I will here investigate some related issues for an internet readership. The title Hazrat Babajan, a Pathan Sufi of Poona (2014) clearly states the ethnic background. That book is a different treatment to my earlier work A Sufi Matriarch (1986), employing additional materials. (2)

The Muslim subject lived in Poona (Pune) for the last two and a half decades or so of her life. In this article, I will retain the place name specified in the sources. The British Raj, and also the English-speaking Indians of that bygone era, generally used the designation of Poona. Babajan's earlier years were set against the backdrop of North India, more specifically the Punjab and adjoining areas. Those early years can now only be discerned in a fragmentary form.

Although Hazrat Babajan (d.1931) can be described as a Sufi, she was not in the conventional category of that religious identity. She did not belong to any of the Sufi Orders, and did not apply any of the standard procedures or exercises favoured by those organisations. Moreover, insofar as is known, she did not describe herself as a Sufi. Babajan was definitely not a Sufi shaykh (instructor). She was not interested in converting anyone to a doctrine. "Her shrine was appropriated by representatives of the Chishtiyya order soon after her death, or perhaps even as her death was seen to be imminent." (3)

A basic issue relating to Hazrat Babajan is the nature of her impact upon the local population. She was known as a faqir, an Arabic word of some vintage found in early Islamic usage. The word generally denoted an ascetic. However, there were different types of Muslim ascetic. Babajan did not wear any distinctive regalia. In her case, there were no religious accoutrements whatever. Faqirs varied from snake charmers to contemplative entities of a retiring disposition.

Babajan favoured the term faqir. That was how she described herself. She seems to have often used the word faqiri, meaning the mode of faqir living. This decodes to asceticism and self-denial. However, she was not emaciated. Babajan ate small amounts of simple food and drank liberal quantities of tea. Her hardy outdoor life serves to distinguish her from ashram existence and Sufi centres.

Babajan often gave the impression of being abstracted from her surroundings. At the same time, she was very vital in many of her responses to devotees. Her increasingly municipal situation was in full view of public passers-by at her neem tree in Char Bawdi (Bavadi). For some ten years or so at that site, she sat on the bare ground, before accepting a simple wooden seat (or bed) in view of her advanced age. Her lifestyle is not easily understood by those disposed to luxury. According to Meher Baba, she would never accept money, and could strongly resist any gift of that nature. "If anyone gave it [money] to her, she would chase him away" (Kalchuri et al, Lord Meher Vol. 13, 1998, p. 4811).

Some commentators have an evident difficulty in assessing this figure. Babajan was not a senile mystic who sat under a tree all the time. She was fit and energetic for her age; lean in physique, she could still walk fast. Until her last years, she was frequently an active walker in the streets of Poona. She gained a repute for being markedly resistant to illnesses, having a quick recovery rate.

In Poona she gained many followers. Babajan was multi-faceted in her numerous interchanges with visitors. She was sometimes calm and still, speaking very little; at other times, she was liable to express a strong and heated resistance to visitors with inadequate approaches, or who breached the protocol she preferred. In contrast, she could also be humorous.

She made no reference to a Sufi pedigree or chain of transmission (silsila), a common feature of conventional Sufi projection. The silsila excluded women. Members of Sufi orders customarily charted their patriarchal lineage back over the generations via numerous official Sufis, ultimately to the Prophet Muhammad. The accuracy of silsila attribution was a vexed subject amongst Islamic scholars and traditionists, who sometimes repudiated the claimed link with Muhammad. In the case of Babajan, no such problem arises.

This female faqir had no doctrine, no dogma; she did not give initiation, a widespread practice in popular Sufism (and also Hinduism). There were similarities, in such respects, with the liberal faqir known as Shirdi Sai Baba (d.1918). Initiatory systems were applied in medieval Sufism, extending to investiture with a garment. Ceremonial does not necessarily achieve spirituality.

Babajan has been called a majzub. Muslim ascetics, non-affiliated to Sufi Orders, were often called (in the singular) a majzub (Arabic: majdhub). This term is differently translated. The related spiritual state is majzubiyat (divine absorption). In India, a wide range of entities were designated by these words, which are generally interpreted to mean an ecstatic or nonconformist mystic. (4) The common usage of those words is not specific enough to satisfy a close analyst of lifestyles in the "unorthodox Sufi" milieux.

The "unattached" majzub vocation has posed dilemmas of description for contemporary academic disciplines. Dr. Newell has warned against the conservative assumption that such independent saints were mentally unbalanced persons who became popularly idealised. (5) My own conclusion is that majzub is a conflatory term at both popular level and in academic textbooks. Of course, the same consideration applies to the term Sufi.

There is no due reason to view Babajan as being mentally unbalanced. She demonstrated sufficient cognisance of her environment, and devotees, for the analyst to select another context. The fact that, in this instance, the majzub was a woman, provides an additional dimension to the social significance. Babajan asserted herself to be a man, meaning that she would not accept the inferior role customarily allocated to women in Islamic society (and Hindu society also). Her relationship with the ulama (Islamic divines) does not always seem to have been one of benign acceptance on their part. She is not for that reason to be considered mentally unbalanced.

I could have entitled my book Hazrat Babajan, a Pathan Faqir. Yet the word faqir has been associated with such doctrinaire figures as the jihad preacher Saidullah, an entity involved in the Pathan Revolt of 1897. Babajan was not a preacher or religious zealot.

2.  Locating  Information

My own researches on the subject date back to the mid-1960s. At that time, there was still a possibility of locating new and formerly unpublished information. I knew Charles Purdom (1883-1965) at the very end of his life; he was one of the key writers on both Babajan and Meher Baba. He had not himself encountered Hazrat Babajan, being dependent upon Indian devotee sources for his report of her, an influential cameo found in the biography of another figure. (6) Purdom is nevertheless a landmark in this field of study as a whole.

East Challacombe, Devon, 1932, l to r: F. H. Dadachanji, Beheram Irani, Dr. Abdul Ghani (biographer of Babajan), Adi S. Irani (brother of Meher Baba), Adi K. Irani, Ardeshir (Kaka) Baria (devotee of Babajan). These men were amongst the mandali of Meher Baba. Photo bequeathed to me by Ann Powell.

A more intimate source was an Irani Zoroastrian whose family were closely associated with Babajan. In this direction, some details had been lost in general circulation. Adi S. Irani (d.1988) was the charismatic brother of Meher Baba (1894-1969). He had been resident in London for ten years. He was able to supply missing links in the chain of biographical information. (7) His father Sheriar Mundegar Irani (1853-1932) had been in contact with Babajan from an early date in Poona. (8) This connection was not known at large amongst devotees of Meher Baba.

Adi S. Irani had himself encountered Babajan at his native Poona. His family lived in the same cantonment or "camp" area, on the fringe of Poona, that was inhabited by Babajan. They were only a few streets away from her site at the neem tree in Char Bawdi (Char Bavadi). Many Zoroastrians (both Parsis and Iranis) had settled in this cantonment zone. In that milieu, the young Merwan Irani (Meher Baba) first encountered Babajan in 1913. His brother Adi was only a small boy at that time (Adi's date of birth is now in dispute).

Adi later became a follower of his famous brother; he also deferred to Babajan as a great saint or "master." He associated her "seat" at the neem tree with a strong Muslim presence, which at times could be overwhelming. However, Zoroastrians and Hindus were also visitors to that site. Adi was likewise familiar with Babajan's "second seat," a location in the Bund Gardens, which she liked to visit. This was often the scene of complex interactions with devotees, often Muslims, but also a number of Zoroastrians.

Adi S. Irani never referred to miracle lore. He had no interest in "miracles," and only related facts (or interpretations of facts as he saw them). This was evidently due to the influence of Meher Baba, who discouraged reliance upon miracle lore.

The earliest years of Babajan's life in Poona were undated in the oral transmission of the 1960s. For the most part, the period from 1903-1913 still lacks dates, though many events were remembered. The precise date of her arrival in Poona has been differently presented. The Indian Muslim biographer Dr. Abdul Ghani dates this arrival to "about the year 1903." (9) However, the British commentator Charles Purdom writes that she stayed in Poona "for twenty-four years before her death," (10) which means that 1907 is implied as the date of arrival.

The account by the Hindu biographer Bhau Kalchuri (d.2013) provided data not found in the earlier reports of Ghani and Purdom. This can be explained by the familiarity of Kalchuri with oral details preserved amongst the Irani and Parsi mandali (ashram staff) of Meher Baba. Some of these persons had met Babajan; all of them were familiar with Meher Baba's intermittent remarks about his inspirer. Kalchuri was himself a member of the mandali in the later period. He wrote in Hindi. (11)

The locality of the neem tree in Char Bawdi underwent considerable urbanising development during the period of Babajan's residence. The changes were substantially a result of her impact upon the scene. Her living space, or "seat" (a colloquial term) under the neem tree, was originally in an "isolated area," but eventually "in the middle of a busy intersection." (12) She did not remain stationary at the tree, instead frequently moving about in the streets, sometimes for hours. During the daytime, Char Bawdi was initially "desolate and deserted" (Kalchuri, Lord Meher Vol. 1, p. 14); nocturnal activities of drunkards and thieves were early offset by the resisting presence of Babajan devotees, who included soldiers in off duty hours.

Yet before Char Bawdi, there was another key site at Rasta Peth, where Babajan gained a number of Muslim devotees. This phase was obscured and forgotten in some reports, including that of Ghani. At some uncertain date, Pathans (Pashtuns) became strong supporters of the saint, including soldiers (sepoys) from the cantonment barracks. (13) They recognised her as one of their own people; Babajan was a Pathan (Pashtun) and spoke Pashtu, the language of Pathans. She also spoke other languages, especially Persian and Urdu.

3.  The  Amir  of  Kabul

This brings my overview to the question of origins. Kalchuri opted for the version that Hazrat Babajan came from Baluchistan; Purdom reported this version, but also supplied another account. The present writer has tended to question the Baluchistan attribution in view of the strong Afghan connections implied. (14) An origin in Baluchistan would certainly not negate the Afghan heredity (many Pathans had settled in the Punjab over generations). However, the geography has misled some readers who seem to be unaware of ethnic complexities.

An early report informs that Babajan was a daughter of the wazir or prime minister "to the Amir of Kabul." (15) Kalchuri merely stated "born to a Muslim royal family of Baluchistan." (16) This led Meher Baba devotees on Wikipedia to insist for years (until 2014) that Babajan was "a Baloch Muslim saint." This description, possessing distinct disadvantages, has nevertheless been duplicated by numerous internet copyists of Wikipedia. Babajan was not a Baluch (Baloch), but a Pathan. The web grapevine is not reliable (as a consequence of my complaint on this score, the Wikipedia description was altered in February 2014).

l to r: Charles B. Purdom; Meher Baba and Feramroz H. Dadachanji in 1937

Charles Purdom has a close variant of the same report relating to the Amir of Kabul. Purdom identifies the father of Babajan as "one of the chief ministers of the Amir of Afghanistan." (17) Again, the Afghan origin is strongly asserted. The same account (shared by Purdom and Dadachanji) makes no mention of Baluchistan. The source in both variants was none other than Meher Baba, who was here discoursing at a Hindu household in Ahmednagar on April 3rd, 1927. His references to Babajan cannot be ignored, in view of his close association with her.

The Pathan daughter of a courtier escaped from unwelcome matrimony to become an ascetic faqir. Where Baluchistan comes into the picture is not clear at all. Eventually, and many years later, the subject became esteemed in the Punjab as a saint. (18) None of Babajan's early life has any definite chronology, although attempts have been made to schedule dates that remain unconfirmed.

4.   Burial  Alive

"It is said that Hazrat Babajan was actually buried alive by the excited and fanatic Muhamadans (sic) of the Punjab." (19) The writer was here a Parsi Zoroastrian, namely Feramroz H. Dadachanji (d.1943). His extant English diary of 1927 relays a discourse of Meher Baba. (20) The burial alive has been the subject of dispute. (21) The episode of burial is undated. Different locations surfaced in the oral transmission of subsequent decades. (22) The fact that Quetta appears as an alternative location to a Punjabi background may provide a clue to the emergence of Baluchistan in the biography (or hagiography, as some scholars seem to insist upon calling this). (23)

The versions of Purdom and Dadachanji are convergent, while differing in some respects. Such matters require a degree of elucidation (I cannot apologise for providing an alternative to the Babajan ephemera visible on the internet). The precise origin of Purdom's variant is uncertain, but may have been transmitted through Dadachanji in the 1930s. (24)

Both accounts allocate the episode of burial alive to the Punjab, without providing a specific place name. Purdom briefly says that people began to respect Babajan as a saint "and even to worship her." Then he adds that "Mahommedans" were upset by her gnostic statements of identity with the divine. This verbal trait was a tendency amongst some Sufis over the centuries. Purdom also specifically refers to "Baluchis of a local regiment" as being involved in the premature burial of the heretic.

Turning to Dadachanji's diary, we find no reference to the gnostic statements, and much more emphasis on the obeisance of devotees in bowing down to Babajan. The people "threw their heads at her sacred feet, which they kissed in all reverence." This obeisance ran counter to Islamic customs. "Bowing down to anyone except to Allah was against the preachings of Islam and considered an act of sin." Although the diarist does not say so, this act of veneration was closely associated with Hindu darshan prostrations, deemed by strict Muslims to be a display of the infidel (kafir).

Purdom does not mention the sequel, merely commenting that the victim emerged from the living grave and journeyed towards Bombay. Dadachanji has much more to say. He does not explicitly refer to Baluchi soldiers, but to "the Punjabi Regiment, whose soldiers were mainly Muhamadans [Muslims] and who had taken part in actually burying down Hazarat Babajan in [the] Punjab." After several years, he adds, this regiment was transferred to Poona. There they found the same old woman under the neem tree "near Char Bawdi." (25) She was "worshipped here again by a number of people, which always appeared assembled in a crowd."

The Parsi report says that the soldiers (sepoys) made enquiries and discovered how Babajan "had been here in Poona, for so many years, sitting under the same tree, unmindful of the seasons, unaffected by heat or cold, exposed to showers of rain during the rainy season, to the horrible heat rays of the sun in summers, and to terribly piercing cold during cold season." Dadachanji's tendency to verbal adornment may be detected in such words as "horrible," without doubting the heat of the Indian sun. He adds that the Muslim soldiers who had hated Babajan now honoured her; Dadachanji calls this sequel "a great miracle." (26)

The sepoy incident at Poona has been dated to 1914. (27) The diary reference to the matriarch having been at the tree for "so many years" should be treated as a metaphor. The Punjabi soldiers probably did regard the escape from live burial as a miracle; we do not know exactly what they believed. The popular casting of this episode has evoked from some scholars an accusation of hagiology. Charles Purdom was not in favour of miracle lore; however, he did accept a basic truth in the episode under discussion. Orthodox Muslims certainly could react strongly to "Hindu worship" and nonconformist ecstasy. It is by no means impossible that the local ulama (religious orthodoxy), and compliant soldiery, did sentence this woman to a premature grave; she might have escaped if supporters had been able to assist her. One should not expect a survivor to be favourably impressed by fundamentalist attitudes.

There remains another point emerging from this episode. Dadachanji seems to imply that "Hindu worship" continued at the neem tree in Char Bawdi (Bavadi). If so, there is indication that the public veneration of Babajan was restricted by the saint herself. She gained an unknown number of Hindu devotees. The majority of supporters were believed to be Muslims. A Zoroastrian complement also existed, the number here likewise escaping record. The Muslim majority are liable to have reacted to customs viewed as a trespass of Islam. Babajan is reported, in a 1920s episode, to have strongly chastised a visiting Hindu and Zoroastrian for their inclination to bow down to her. (28) She actually went through the motions of driving these visitors away, causing them to reassess their approach. This kind of rebuff may have occurred many times, especially when Muslims were present in numbers.

5.   Pathans, Devotees, and  the  Ulama

Prominent amongst the Muslim devotees were Babajan's own people, the Pathans (Pashtuns). This hardy race were frequent emigrants from the Afghan domains. Their Afghan milieu was basically that of farmer tribesmen; they had frequently been exploited by monarchs and tribal khans. Captain Richard F. Burton found that Pathans in India could adapt to a more urban lifestyle, demonstrating a linguistic ability in several languages. Babajan herself reflected this trait; a multi-linguist, she gained familiarity with Gujarati (perhaps because of her affinity with Zoroastrians).

Pathan soldiers in 1915 at the Royal Pavilion (Brighton), convalescing during the Great War. Image courtesy Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton and Hove.

The British Raj discovered that Pathans made excellent soldiers (sepoys). A "large number" of these (no precise statistic afforded) were in evidence at the Poona cantonment prior to the First World War. Pathan (and Baluchi) sepoys were amongst the frequent visitors to Babajan's neem tree in the early years of her sojourn at Char Bawdi. Pathans had a reputation for strength and fighting spirit. In the old days, they had attacked enemies with swords and khyber knives; now they were crack shots with rifles.

In the Pathan Revolt of 1897, occurring on the North-West Frontier, Pathan tribal warriors had gained an extremist reputation amongst the British. In the spirit of jihad (holy war), tribal leaders goaded their supporters to ferocious attacks and the torture of captive soldiers. Nearly two decades later, and in reversed roles, Pathan sepoys were amongst the many Indian soldiers who volunteered to fight for Britain in the First World War. The total number of Indians who fought overseas was over a million. This phenomenon is frequently overlooked and marginalised. In Europe, the Indian army found that trench warfare against the Germans was a grim experience. Indian losses on the Western Front were heavy. Thousands of the Indian wounded, recovered from the Western Front, were treated in Brighton hospitals during 1914-15; some found themselves recuperating at the picturesque Royal Pavilion, at that time a hospital on the south coast of England.

Meanwhile, Hazrat Babajan gained an increasing number of civilian followers. She lived a spartan existence, refusing to accumulate possessions. While exercising a magnetic attraction for devotees of different religious backgrounds, she would not always do what they expected. Her interactions with devotees and visitors could be unpredictable. Her contacts included faqirs, merchants, and tradesmen. Her contact with soldiers dates to the very early years at Char Bawdi, until 1914, when the Great War started, a development resulting in many sepoys at Poona being drafted overseas.

With soldiers, Babajan sometimes responded heatedly in dramatic situations of encounter. Here was the female majzub versus the warriors of Islam. The sepoys learned that she would not give way on a point she had decided upon. There were occasions when she flared up at difficult persons. In some volatile episodes, a group of Pathan (and Baluchi) soldiers would flee the anger of this indomitable faqir. (29) The context of friction has been lost.

A possible explanation for this confrontation is the reserved attitude of Pathan soldiers towards non-Muslim infidels (kafirs). The sepoys were obliged to observe the army rules of decorum when amongst civilians. However, resentment could easily have been sparked by the presence of Hindus and Zoroastrians at the neem tree. Many local Zoroastrians and Hindus were scared of the Pathan sepoys, avoiding them accordingly. However, the Pathans seem to have been more tolerant of Zoroastrians than Hindus; the Zoroastrians were early regarded in Islam as "people of a sacred book," a theme found in the Quran.

Babajan never wore a veil. Defying the orthodox code of female subjugation, Babajan would exclaim: "I am a man, not a woman!" This situation perhaps really boiled down to Babajan versus the ulama (religious leaders). The fact of being a woman implied an inferior religious status in Islam. Not only the ulama, but also the Sufi Orders in India, were very patriarchal; all the prestigious Sufi pedigrees were male. Women had no profile in the Sufi Orders (except in Turkey via the Bektashiyya).

She allowed Hindus and Zoroastrians to join her congregation at the neem tree. One of the Hindus was Babu Rao Genuba Ubale, a young man who owned a bicycle shop. The general impression conveyed is that Babajan did not permit Hindus to perform obeisance. (30) In her early years at Poona, some orthodox Muslims encouraged their children to throw stones at her, saying she was a heretic. Zoroastrian children copied this bad habit. Eventually, that problem was overcome, when the sheer number of her devotees meant that the miscreants no longer dared to insult.

By 1920, there were hundreds of Babajan devotees in Poona. The soldiers were by now a memory. The civilian ambience was increasingly middle class, with three or more religions being represented. The Parsi Zoroastrians were basically a middle class factor; some Irani Zoroastrians were effectively working class. Some Muslim devotees were affluent. During the 1920s (and probably before), women were included in the gatherings at the neem tree; there were separate areas for the men and women to sit. Frequent sessions of qawwali music added a more "Sufi" complexion to the assemblies.

Amongst those who regularly visited her were "important Poona citizens." These people are reported to have requested intercession, apparently in the typical manner of request for saintly benefits so often desired in India. While out walking, Babajan sometimes entered affluent homes, apparently without invitation (Kerkhove 2002:114). She was nevertheless welcome. She would be given food and drink. In more general terms, she gained free rides in a tonga around the city, and "invited whoever she pleased to ride with her" (ibid).

Pathan civilians continued to figure strongly, although no statistics are available. The Pathans are reported to have visited Babajan in the mornings and evenings. In the 1920s, a young Pathan from Peshawar found that assertiveness left him when he came into the presence of Babajan. "When he saw Babajan, he became speechless, he could not talk." (31)

A counterpart occurred in the instance of a Parsi, likewise a regular visitor to Babajan during the 1920s. Ardeshir S. Baria came all the way from Bombay, but would never say a word in the presence of Babajan. Eventually she asked him why he was so silent. He replied: "You are the Ocean, and I am but a traveller who has come to drink from the Ocean." (32)

Babajan's basic perspective appears to have been that visitors rarely knew what to ask her. Their approach to her was conditioned by their religious beliefs, their occupations, and their social experiences. Some people asked for mundane benefits; Babajan could be enigmatic in her response.

6.  Nile  Green: "A  Mother  for  the  Sepoys"

Pathan sepoys are closely associated with the Baluchi (or Punjabi) soldiers who appeared at Poona shortly before the Great War. Pathan soldiers can be difficult to trace in terms of a regimental background. They were found amongst different regiments. Only one regiment of the Indian Army was solely composed of Pathans, a development occurring during the 1890s. This was an infantry sector becoming known as the 40th Pathan Regiment. In 1901, other Indian soldiers were added to that unusual regiment, thus diluting the ethnic componency. The Pathan sepoys at Poona are not easy to identify. Their names escaped record in the sources about Babajan.

One legend is that "an entire Pathan regiment became her devotees" (Kerkhove 2002:114). This would be sensational if true. The acute exaggeration is derived from attributions of a later period. However, the belief that the soldiers "guarded her day and night" (ibid) may well be correct, though now impossible to prove.

The sepoys in Poona who followed Babajan were no longer prey to ulama schemes of censure. Their unofficial role as a bodyguard deterred local thieves and drunkards, and also orthodox Muslims who goaded their children to throw stones at the majzub faqir. This unveiled woman did not acknowledge ulama superiority. Women generally had no chance of an independent role in the male-dominant society of that era. Hazrat Babajan gained such a role; the soldiers are significant in that they supported her distinctive tangent.

In contrast, a Western author clearly expresses his aversion to Babajan; his commentary reads like a Far Right exercise in disdain. Babajan is here described as being “prone to caprice and eccentricity, revelling in her filthy degradation of the flesh” (Green 2009:131). The same author also applies the word “revelling” to the sepoys who visited Babajan; the presumed revellers are implied as ganja smokers.  (33) The contested portrayal appears in a chapter entitled “Allah’s naked rebels.” Hazrat Babajan was always fully clothed.

The critic is here trying to implicate Babajan as a deranged drug addict via his objectionable scheme of associations and sweeping judgments. "Each of the accounts of her [Babajan] describes her as no less deranged than Bane Miyan" (Green 2009:130). No proof of any kind is supplied for this assertion, which is contradicted by the actual reports available. The preferential judgment is obsessed with the profile of Bane Miyan (of Aurangabad), as interpreted by the same critic.

The menacing conflation, in terms of derangement, is supposedly an outcome of "the egalitarian conception of mankind that underlay the Enlightenment origins of professional history" (ibid:138). The European Enlightenment is here contrasted with "the Islamic notion of 'sainthood' (wilayat)" (ibid:138). The superiority of the former is clearly taken for granted, providing an excuse for depreciating the latter. The convenient idea of Enlightenment was used by the British Raj to justify their colonial rule. The ideological bias of Nile Green is not a reliable guide to the Indian Muslim saints he interprets as madmen.

The reductionist “reveller” theme of Professor Nile Green (University of California, Los Angeles) is based upon his interpretation of events at distant Hyderabad, associated with a military body known as the Hyderabad Contingent. The majzub Bane Miyan (d.1921) is central to this argument. Attempting a Poona extension of his disputed theory about “Muslim holy men and their military followers,” Green contributed a few pages on Babajan that are clearly designed to convey defamatory suggestions. The sceptic included a more covert reflection aimed at the “Parsi faqir” Meher Baba, “who claimed that Baba Jan enlightened him as a youth” (Green 2009:128, 186 n.148). Meher Baba was neither a Parsi nor a faqir. The insinuation of Green is that Babajan was not capable of enlightening anyone. The European Enlightenment, via UCLA, is evidently considered far superior.

The critic utilised my preliminary (and incomplete) book on Babajan, published in 1986. He caricatured the materials in a negative manner. Notable is the attempt of Green to present a Pathan (Pashtun) woman in a very depreciatory light. The context is diminished by an assumption that Babajan was of no positive significance, merely "raving and muttering" as "a kind of anti-memsahib" (Green 2009:131). Babajan is not known to have criticised British or European women; the literary nuance is here misleading. Her activity deserves an uprating from the contemptuous phrase: "outdoor tea parties in the shade of a tree" (ibid:131). "European Enlightenment" history can prove superficial, or even a fiction.

The presentation by Nile Green saliently describes Babajan as “a mother for the sepoys.” This innovative theme achieves a disproportionate elevation of sepoys above many other devotees. The Poona sepoys visiting Char Bawdi are here tagged as revellers, a surmisal for which there is not the slightest proof. Green states: “Baba Jan is said to have addressed the sepoys as her bache, her boys, and this nomenclature perhaps suggests that she served as a surrogate yet miraculous mother to the sepoys” (Green 2009:131).

Such improvisation ignores the recorded fact that Babajan described all her devotees and other visitors as bacha, a word meaning child (Shepherd 1986:55). The designation was not reserved for soldiers. Both women and men were addressed in this manner (Green does not mention the female visitors in his men only version). Furthermore, Babajan was not attempting to present herself as a miraculous mother by means of the word in question. Unwary readers have not perceived the reduced context interpolated by the Western critic. Confusions about Babajan are now widespread, created by a university press in England.

Sepoys comprised only a fraction of Babajan’s following, during a short period of time just prior to the Great War. Green elevates the transitory fraction to the status of a virtual long term majority. This error does nothing to prove his contentions about sepoys and Muslim holy men.

The sole concession made to the more extensive following of Babajan is found in the deceptive phrase: “When her clientele expanded beyond the ranks of the cantonment sepoys, a party of followers from the city’s middle class began to take her by motor car to the city’s Bund Gardens” (Green 2009:131; cf. Shepherd 1986:68-9). A pronounced reductionist assumption is here in evidence, and not merely because the motor journeys commenced about a decade or more after the sepoy phase. Urban middle class followers were already in existence prior to the short-lived sepoy phase, during that phase, and for long after.

Numerous other events went far beyond the obscurely anonymous “party of followers” preferred by Green. Many Zoroastrian devotee and visitor identities are on record outside the constraining pages of Cambridge University Press.  Different religious backgrounds are significant in more detailed analysis. Furthermore, none of the followers should be described in terms of clientele, a word generally conveying the meaning of financial gain; the aspersive suggestion is contradicted by Babajan’s known aversion to money and her spartan code of living. She specialised in the redistribution of gifts, not in self-aggrandisement.

Like Ghani, Charles Purdom did not mention the Pathan sepoys of an early phase at Char Bawdi.  Purdom’s compact 1930s account is by no means comprehensive; the portrayal has one or two errors resulting from beliefs of his informants. One of these influential beliefs maintained that Babajan did not wash for twenty years; this assumption may be contradicted (Shepherd 2014:133-4 note 34). Green capped Purdom’s doubtful statement with the more extensive mistake of asserting: “In the decades after she arrived in Poona she never once washed” (Green 2009:131). This oversight ignored a formerly published detail, not to mention a contrasting analysis which the sceptic also omitted. Green employed his diminution of references to imply that Babajan was guilty of a “filthy degradation of the flesh.” The crime may lie with an accusing party who degrades the subject.

The derogatory version also reads: "She [Babajan] would have fitted in well in Char Bavadi with the tramps who dropped out there and the revelling soldiers who dropped in for the pleasures of a pipe or a cup of tea" (Green 2009:130). Dropping out and dropping in appears to be a Californian idea dating from the 1960s hippy drug scene in America. The reference to imagined tramps does underline the contempt of Green for his subject; Babajan was a faqir, not a tramp. An implicit assumption of the critic is that Babajan must have been a deranged drug addict, because this would fit his misconceptions about other parties.

Faqirs are still uncomprehended by affluent Western commentators, whose basic criteria of wealth and prestige are not so far removed from the mentality featuring in the British Raj precedent. Tramps and pipes are UCLA myths. Green invented the ganja (cannabis) pipe as a component of the situation. Pleasures of tea and ganja are a disputed Enlightenment criterion for Char Bawdi. The frivolous postcolonial commentary, of UCLA elitism, denies Babajan any profundity or intrinsic value.

During the early phase at Char Bawdi prior to the Great War, there were no tea shops in that desolate locale. No visitor could have "dropped in" for a cup of tea in the casual manner suggested. This was not an amenities zone like Los Angeles. The spectre of poverty ruled many Indian situations in Poona, the native inhabitants being marginalised by the increasing wealth of the British cantonment elite. The superficial UCLA idea, that Babajan existed for the catering industry, is erroneous. Unlike the later situation in California, there were no tea-dispensing machines for consumers at Char Bawdi.

The so-called "tramps" were low caste Hindus who lived in the cantonment zone. There were no big American dollars for them, nor British silver rupees. Instead paltry farthings and serious diseases of the kind that can disfigure. Their lives of squalor and hard work had reduced them to the condition of drunkards and drug addicts, daring only to appear at night in Char Bawdi, further along the road in slums that subsequently disappeared. The benevolent and inter-religious Babajan did not discriminate against them, despite a tactic of theft on their part. In contrast, her devotees did react strongly to the pickpocket intruders (Shepherd 2014:33-35). This situation is further misrepresented as a drugs den by the insatiably distorting UCLA Enlightenment, which spreads international confusion about Char Bawdi via Cambridge University Press.

Green pushes his simplistic rationale much too far. In relation to sepoys, he asserts the "quotidian pleasures of tea-drinking and ganja-smoking that gathered round Baba Jan" (Green 2009:139). Despite the entire absence of proof, the very tenuous contention is stated as fact. Green adds by way of sparse explanation: "In such ways, barracks Islam formed the social and cultural nexus by which the sepoy could legitimately seek his R'n'R" (ibid). R'n'R can mean the American Army theme of Rest and Relaxation, and also Rock and Roll. The American Army abbreviation dates back to World War Two, not quite early enough for pre-World War One events at Poona.

The unwelcome fact here is that the sepoys visiting Babajan, during 1913-14, were not seeking what many subsequent American soldiers (and music enthusiasts) were desiring as relaxation. Their own outlook, like that of Babajan, is an alien mystery to a Western commentator preferring a substitute theory, blithely imposed as fact upon Indian subjects, and sold as history to a susceptible audience influenced by prestige press. The sepoys did not visit Babajan to smoke pipes or drink tea; they revered her as a holy person, a factor not understood by UCLA commentary. The truth is subverted by a prestige tactic of presenting Babajan as a deranged person of no consequence.

The zealous critic also refers to "the low company she kept" (Green 2009:130), a very misleading allusion to a supposed drugs den. Green specifically describes a peripheral local grouping of the early Char Bawdi phase as "her den" (ibid:130). This extreme confusion was misextrapolated from a passage in my own book on the Pathan faqir. In reality, Babajan's circle comprised Muslim, Zoroastrian, and Hindu followers who were in close contact with her; these people were not the nocturnal thieves and drug addicts who soon evaporated at Char Bawdi, displaced by new urban developments (including a fruit and vegetable market). The changes were caused by the presence of Babajan (some of whose law-abiding devotees were successful shop proprietors favouring this locality). She was an upgrading influence, not the degenerate preferred by UCLA downgrading tactic.

The critic opts for another mistaken allegation: "She [Babajan] had become a kind of mad hostess for the cantonment's low-life's [sic] soirees" (Green 2009:130). Again the pronounced misdescription of events; the flippant mockery does no justice to what really happened. Green furthermore conflates misconceived events, occurring in different decades, within the same brief passage of seven lines (ibid:130, lines 11-17). The "low company she kept" is here associated with the 1920s phase of traffic congestion at Char Bawdi. The muddled chronology is seriously deficient for the "low company." This strained format accompanies the claim of Green about "the links we have established between faqirs, sepoys and a barracks culture of native drugs" (ibid:130). His eccentric imposition of such links on the Char Bawdi situation is lacking any proof. Cf. Shepherd 2014:120-122.

The insulting interpretation of Green ignores most of the relevant detail about Babajan; the history is elsewhere. For instance, there is no evidence that Pathan and Baluchi sepoys assembled in Char Bawdi after 1914. The so-called revellers soon died overseas (at Gallipoli) in the lethal global conflict created by European folly. The death toll in the Great War was high; the large numbers of wounded were another consequence of German Empire mismanagement (poison gas being one of the afflictions devised by Western science for trench warfare). Many noble and patriotic Indian soldiers (including Pathans) died miserably in trenches and other grim arenas of war, while rescuing the British Empire war effort. Cynical Indian analysts describe numerous victims as gun fodder. Diverse military historians have recently recovered relevant features of the Great War that passed into obscurity for a century. The British forgot much of the support that saved their nation, while being careful to preserve a colonial identity in India.

7.  Pathan  Soldiers  and  the  Indian  Army

The Pathan (and Baluchi or Punjabi) sepoys at Char Bawdi subsequently participated in the Great War of 1914-18. They are reported to have died during one of the most fraught battles occurring in British military history. Like Babajan herself, the Great War has been attended by misleading description and information blanks, a drawback requiring remedy from overlooked and ignored sources.

Many Westerners have experienced difficulty in understanding the Pathans (Pashtuns) and Muslim faqirs. The liberal category of Muslim faqir included a famous "Hinduised" figure whose shrine in Maharashtra has gained national prominence (Shepherd, Sai Baba of Shirdi: A Biographical Investigation, 2015; Shepherd, Sai Baba: Faqir of Shirdi, 2017). Pathans were amongst the visitors to Shirdi Sai Baba (d.1918).

Elsewhere, warlike Pathan tribesmen of the North-West Frontier regions settled in the Punjab; numerous Pathans were assimilated into the Indian Army at the end of the nineteenth century. Their ability as fighters became intensified by the exacting code of British military discipline. Like the Sikhs, Pathans were formidable in hand to hand combat. Many other Indian Muslim sepoys were villagers from the Punjab, recruited into infantry service for low pay, frequently at the mercy of racial discrimination. The same can be said for Rajputs and other Hindu soldiers. The cultural and ethnic background is often a riddle for contemporary ideation remote from British Empire conditions and constraints.

Pathan Irregular Cavalry Officer, Lucknow 1858

Some Pathan warriors were already cooperating with the British long before the 1890s. The bearded man in the image above appears in several photographs of the Indian Mutiny period. We do not know his name. A veteran armed with a sword and pistols, he was on the British side during the fraught civil war. Some online parties have associated him with the Punjab Irregular Cavalry created at Peshawar in 1849.  However, he appears in photographs of Hodson’s Horse, an irregular cavalry regiment raised in 1857 to counter the Mutiny (or Sepoy Rebellion). Hodson’s Horse Regiment featured hundreds of horsemen, many of them Sikhs. Pathans and Sikhs were here fighting as colleagues, in contrast to later situations on the frontier that have become more celebrated.

By 1900, the Pathan military costume was changing. The turban underwent a variation, and the kafni (robe) went out of fashion, army tunics instead becoming the vogue. The rifle and bayonet were now standard for infantry. Rigorous inspection by British officers was the rule. The 40th Pathan Regiment received a positive assessment from Major General E. S. May in a report for 1913-14. This inspecting officer stated that the discipline of the Pathan Regiment was “excellent,” their conduct also being “excellent.” High praise indeed from a prestige sector. Major General May approvingly remarked: “The Indian Officers seem quite up to the standard and are intelligent and keen.”

Sepoy of the 40th Pathans, watercolour by Major A. C. Lovett, 1910

A famous Pathan sepoy image was painted by Major Lovett. This was only a few years before sepoy regiments in India were despatched for overseas service during World War One (the Great War). These drafted men included the sepoys formerly frequenting Char Bawdi. The Poona soldiers did not return; they are all reported to have been killed in action at Gallipoli during 1915. The Indian Army comprised a relief measure for the stressed British soldiers having to cope with trench warfare. The Germans and Ottoman Turks were not easy opponents to overcome.

The battle of Gallipoli (or Dardanelles campaign) in 1915 was a disaster for Britain, whose officers lost nearly half of their men, dead and wounded.  The campaign was devised by Winston Churchill, who gravely underestimated the Turkish strength, assisted by heavily fortified gunpoints on high ground. British soldiers and their Indian allies had to endure heat, extensive rotting corpses, lack of water, and dysentery. 

Some other relevant details have only recently become known. For a hundred years, the number of Indian soldiers involved at Gallipoli was officially 5,000. In contrast, an Australian military historian has discovered the number to be 16,000 in more realistic terms. Professor Peter Stanley found the evidence at the National Archives of India, located in Delhi. The Indian dead and wounded at Gallipoli apparently numbered 5,000 (or more). A large number of dead and wounded men went missing in the official British files. The majority of Indian soldiers were illiterate (native education not being a priority of the British Raj). This factor did not facilitate memoirs, instead assisting the subsequent oblivion of Indian military activities for nearly a century.

Professor Stanley’s significant book, entitled Die in Battle, Do Not Despair (2015), reconstructs events concerning some of the Indian participants at Gallipoli. His conclusion is that the Indian achievement was seriously under-rated by the colonial country enlisting allied participants. Even the Indian Mule Corps was distinctive, heroically supplying food and water to Australian soldiers at considerable danger to themselves. Over 200 Indian mule drivers and 800 mules died in these fraught operations. The non-combatant Indian “camp followers” are virtually non-existent in official British reports.

The Indian force at Gallipoli comprised Sikhs, Hindus, Gurkhas, and “Punjabi Musulmans” (a common British description). The 29th Indian Infantry Brigade is here under discussion, formed in 1914. That Brigade included the 14th Ferozepore Sikhs, 1/6th Gurkha Rifles, the 69th Punjabi Regiment, and the 89th Punjabis. The Punjabis were nearly all Muslims. The discipline and fighting edge of the Indians was admired by the Anzacs (volunteer Australian and New Zealand Army Corps). The Indians and Anzacs developed a strong mutual friendship. Many Australian officers commented, in their diaries, that Indian soldiers were role models.

Indian Soldiers at Gallipoli. Courtesy National Army Museum, London

Despite appalling conditions, imposed by faulty decisions of key British officers, the Indians fought very capably. The Sikhs at Gallipoli were tragically decimated, losing nearly 400 of their 500 men. Sustaining heavy losses from machine gun and rifle fire, they launched a desperate and heroic bayonet charge on the Turkish trenches, killing defenders in close combat.

The Punjabi Muslims also contracted heavy casualties, fighting valiantly. Yet they were unfairly withdrawn from the conflict, on grounds of their possible qualms about fighting Muslim troops of the Ottoman Empire. The influential General Sir Ian Hamilton favoured a Gurkha force in the difficult hill terrain of Gallipoli; he replaced the Punjabi regiments with two extra Gurkha equivalents. According to Professor Stanley, this preference for Gurkhas was the real reason why the Muslim soldiers were withdrawn. In contrast, superficial commentators on the media have interpreted Gallipoli events as a reason to question the loyalty of Muslims in the Indian Army.

Gurkhas were indeed formidable in hill terrain. The Turks at Gallipoli had the advantage of a high bluff from which their machine guns caused lethal damage. An almost vertical slope 300 feet high seemed impossible to negotiate. The Marines and Dublin Fusiliers failed to ascend that dangerous gradient. The Gurkhas afterwards succeeded with relative ease. The deadly Gurkha kukris could decapitate opponents in hand to hand combat. Capturing the high ground, the 1/6th Gurkhas started to pursue the fleeing Turks. They had to retreat when the Royal Navy shelled them by mistake, thinking that Gurkhas were Turks. The battle was now lost because of British error. According to Stanley, if the Indian soldiers had been employed earlier in the Gallipoli campaign, the result could have been very different.

Left: 40th Pathans attacking German Army near Ypres, illustration by A.C. Michael, 1915. Right: Pathan mujahideen in Afghanistan facing the Soviet invasion, 1980.

Elsewhere, the 40th Pathans were the first Indian regiment to attack the German Army in Belgium and France. They suffered heavy casualties during the Second Battle of Ypres. Sadly, the various Indian achievements and losses were generally forgotten, overshadowed by colonial preferences and other developments appearing in Western newspapers and history books. Two generations later, the Afghan Pathans (Pashtuns) became widely recognised as exceptional guerilla fighters resisting the Soviet invasion of their country. The Russians retreated after a decade of intensive conflict.

During the Great War In Europe, Indian soldiers were used as a buffer to withstand many German offensives. The Near East and Africa were further milieux for assistance from Indian troops. Over half a million Indians (including "camp followers"), many of them Muslims, fought in Iraq against the Ottoman Empire Turks (powerful  allies of Germany). Elsewhere, the Egypt and Palestine campaign was another grim war zone, climaxing in the Battle of Megiddo, dating to 1918. Many Indian soldiers featured in this sector, including the evocative Hodson's Horse Regiment.

Unfortunately, the sepoys were continually subject over a wide area to racial discrimination from British officers. They received less pay than the white soldiers. They were segregated in military camps, on trains, and on board ships. They were debarred from positions of leadership. They were denied home leave by the relentless British authority, represented by the Winston Churchill imperialist mentality. They were subject to flogging and other severe forms of punishment. They were also subject, for many decades after, to British and American stereotyped assumptions about their conduct and low fighting calibre. These questionable ideological impositions were eventually revealed as serious error by means of copious documentation, including letters and interviews. See further George Morton-Jack, The Indian Empire at War (2018), now widely considered to be the most important work on the subject. See also Amarinder Singh, Honour and Fidelity: Indian Military Contribution to the Great War (2014). See also Santanu Das, The Indian Sepoy in the First World War.

British discrepancies have not passed unobserved. A well known BBC television serial on the Great War, over twenty hours in length, gave less than a minute to the Indian contribution (Singh, Honour and Fidelity, 2014). The acute deficiency is a grave indicator of cultural preferences that delete history. The fact emerges that Britain could never have been victorious without the ballast gained from overseas soldiers, so notably including the obscured Indian contingent.

The Great War was a phenomenon in which "oppressed peoples were mobilised to defend the empires of their oppressors," meaning British, French, and German empires (Talat Ahmed, The British Empire and the First World War, 2016). Concerning the British Empire, this article states: "Black and Indian troops were seen as suited to menial tasks." Indian regiments were all commanded by a white officer class. The Indian soldier very rarely rose above the rank of a subedar. All correspondence of Indian soldiers was strongly censored by the British.

Wounded Indian Army soldiers at Brighton Pavilion during World War One. Courtesy Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton and Hove.

There were over two million Indian soldiers at the start of World War One. Varying estimates of 1.3 to 1.5 million apply to soldiers (and "followers") who served in the Great War. About half a million came from the Punjab. The Punjabi Muslims substantially outnumbered both the Hindus and Sikhs from that territory. Official figures report 74,000 dead from the Indian Army (which some say is a conservative estimate). The statistic of 67,000 wounded Indian soldiers is misleading in one respect; many of these victims never recovered. Most Indian corpses were lost or cremated; there were no graves for very numerous men.

India was subject to high taxation by the British to support the war effort. Only after the Great War did the British offer commissioned ranks to Indians. Many Indians of this period complained that the British were not generous when the war ended, despite the military patriotism demonstrated on their behalf. The British proved inflexible on sensitive issues. Instead of granting self-government to India, the British Raj imposed the Rowlatt Act in 1919. The Viceroy and his government were thus empowered to quell sedition against the Empire. This meant censorship of the press, plus internment without trial of objectors to British rule. National discontent in India became very tangible, never to be assuaged until Independence was achieved in 1947.

A relevant additional detail is the new discovery that an estimated 2.5 million Muslims travelled to Europe to join the British and their allies in the Great War. These included African and Russian Muslims. The extensive complement served as both soldiers and labourers. They passed largely into obscurity. History is so often diminished by negligence or bias. See Forgotten Muslim Heroes.

8.  Zoroastrian  Visitors

The Pathans (Pashtuns) are an East Iranian ethnic grouping whose origins are debated. Some Pathan historians emphasise that their ancestors were originally Zoroastrians many centuries ago, before the rise of Islam. This is not difficult to believe in view of the pervasive presence of Zoroastrianism in ancient Central Asian territories. Zoroastrian affinities appear to be rare in Islamic Pathan history, Hazrat Babajan being a notable exception that has caused much surprise.

Mehera J. Irani

In 1921, the Irani Zoroastrian woman Freiny Masi (Driver) became a devotee of Babajan. She was the sister of Daulat(mai) Irani, the mother of Mehera J. Irani (1907-1989); the latter two women also became involved with Babajan, but to a lesser extent. Freiny Masi had the repute of being "one of Poona's beauties." Her marriage to a Parsi (Nauroj Driver) was not successful. She separated from her husband and chose to live alone in a small room opposite Babajan's "seat" under the neem tree in Char Bawdi. Freiny Masi would go back home for meals, "but otherwise spent the whole day with Babajan, or resting in her room" (Fenster 2003:59). She could actually see Babajan from her window.

Freiny Masi became an intimate of the faqir until the latter's death. She would render personal service to Babajan in such matters as tea-drinking. She was present when Babajan decided one day to visit the Bund Gardens, some distance away on the other side of the city. Instead of taking a tonga or horse cab for this purpose, the elderly faqir walked. Freiny Masi and others tried to persuade her that a tonga would be advisable; Babajan expressed annoyance at this prospect. Despite her age, Babajan walked so fast that her companions found difficulty in keeping pace. Freiny Masi complained that her own feet would hurt over the distance involved. The sufferer then urged that she and Babajan should take a tonga. The faqir only agreed because her intimate devotee was making the request. This appears to have been one of Babajan's early visits to the Bund Gardens, which she afterwards frequented.

Mehera J. Irani initially encountered Babajan in 1918, when she was eleven. That day the faqir made a very unusual visit to the Convent School of Jesus and Mary, where Mehera was a pupil. Babajan sat behind the church under a tree, as if waiting for her. The site was some distance from Char Bawdi. The conversation occurred in Urdu, which Mehera partially understood. Although many Zoroastrians were still hostile to Babajan at this time, word had percolated to some of them that she was able to grant requests and confer blessings. Influenced by this rather mundane suggestion, Mehera asked for a horse (Fenster 2003:41-3). This event became celebrated in the Meher Baba movement.

Confusion about Babajan was marked within the Zoroastrian community at that period. Mehera's older sister Piroja was amongst the Zoroastrian children who threw stones at the matriarch in these early years, while she sat at Char Bawdi. No harm appears to have been done. The offensive habit apparently originated in conservative Muslim ranks. Zoroastrians tended to regard Babajan as an alien, until they grasped that she was benevolent towards non-Muslims, and also respected by an increasing number of Muslims in Poona.

For some months in 1924, Mehera accompanied her mother Daulat, by tonga, every evening to see Babajan in Char Bawdi. Babajan would permit a well known qawwali singer (a woman) to perform for hours, evocative of Sufi poetry. According to Mehera: "Babajan looked very beautiful, and so confident and regal, like a monarch" (Fenster 2003:89). Mehera was shy and mute during these encounters, later regretting that she never said anything to Babajan. However, we know that Babajan did not always consider talkative people to be the best participants.

Daulat Irani

The daytime visitors were usually men. Women would attend in the evenings, after their domestic chores were finished. The women were always segregated from the men, observing a traditional custom. Both Freiny Masi and her sister Daulat risked orthodox Zoroastrian disapproval by visiting the faqir during the daytime, when they were more conspicuous. They grasped the extent to which Babajan had struggled against a world ruled by men, and how she was utterly fearless in her encounters with men.

A young Zoroastrian visitor (Mani S. Irani) later reminisced: "One man who looked after her [Babajan] was huge, with a big black beard; but he was like a lamb before her, coaxing and pleading with her to do something" (ibid:90). This man is believed to have been a Pathan; he was probably one of the attendants mentioned briefly in the account by Ghani. Some Pathans were very sturdy in physique.

A fruit and vegetable market was nearby. Daulat and Mehera would sometimes make brief visits to Babajan during the daytime, offering her fruit after doing their shopping. The faqir would distribute this gift amongst the assembly. Babajan would not allow the visitors to take darshan (i.e., perform obeisance by touching her feet). However, she would accept food for redistribution. Mehera's account says that Babajan sometimes allowed visitors to kiss her hand in greeting, but only if she extended her hand; if not, then the greeting had to be more reserved.

Some devotees routinely brought her tea and buns, along with fruit. Reports differ in stating that Babajan "ate regular meals" (Fenster) and "ate very sparingly at long intervals" (Ghani). Mehera relates that Daulat learned how to cook small cucumbers after Babajan told her to do so; the result was a liquid food "like squash," which the faqir consented to eat (Fenster 2003:90). This was the sort of food she liked.

Another visitor was Daulat's mother Shireen, who likewise resisted the local adverse gossip. Babajan "seemed to enjoy her visits," encouraging Shireen to reminisce about Iran. A very expansive side of Babajan is here revealed, a sympathy with oppressed Zoroastrian workers in the fields and orchards of Shi'ite Iran. Someone would commence a Persian song, at which Babajan and Shireen "would answer in refrain, back and forth." Moreover, Babajan would encourage Zoroastrian visitors to tell "amusing tales or stories from the life of Zoroaster" (ibid:89). The sense of humour and religious tolerance is unmistakeable in such interchanges.

In 1923, the family of Khaikhushru Masa Beheram Irani arrived at Poona. His wife Soonamasi and daughter Khorshed feature in some accounts. Meher Baba sent them to visit Babajan, who "took particular interest in Soonamasi." The greeting of the faqir was very direct in this instance: "Babajan embraced her [Soonamasi] tightly and, holding her [Soonamasi's] face in her hands, kissed her and said, 'Oh, my daughter. How long have I waited for you!' " (ibid:96).

Feroze Taleyarkhan

A similar greeting occurred in the instance of a Parsi actress. This was Ma Feroze Taleyarkhan (born 1898), who came from a wealthy family (she was also later known as Madame). In the mid or late 1920s, she visited Babajan's shelter at the neem tree, being greeted with the words: "Oh, so you have come!" According to her own report, Taleyarkhan then broke into "a flood of tears." Babajan consoled her. The saint herself wept. For two or three days, the visitor was not her usual self, being distracted from her surroundings. Babajan subsequently predicted a change for the visitor. After the matriarch's death, Taleyarkhan became a devotee of Ramana Maharshi during the 1930s (Kerkhove 2002:116-117). This woman later authored the book Sages, Saints and Arunachala Ramana (1970).

Mani S. Irani (1918-1996) encountered Babajan during the late 1920s, when the visitor was a girl. She was the sister of Meher Baba. Mani relayed a penetrating description: "Babajan was humorous. She was also very powerful; you could feel that authority in her. She was also stubborn. If she wanted something, no amount of persuading could budge her. She was charming, and on occasion, also abusive, if she were bothered. She would swear if someone called her Mai [Mother]" (Fenster 2003:90).

The personal magnetism of Babajan was evidently pronounced; her preferred "man" role could be formidable. The domineering British colonialists found that she would not move from her "seat" under the neem tree. The Pathans found that a due decorum was necessary with this unusual woman. The opposing Zoroastrians and orthodox Muslims eventually had to give in; the faqir won in her struggle for legitimation.

Mani Irani also informed: "There was a radiance that emanated from Babajan. That radiance, you didn't want to leave it" (ibid:91). This may be a reason why so many visitors kept returning. Of course, such factors are difficult to define. There is nevertheless an obligation to report what the visitors found. (34)

9.   British  Raj  Reactions

Some British onlookers could not fathom the nature of events. (35) The Raj at Poona customarily lived in an insular world where all natives were servants and soldiers. Equality was impossible. Comprehension of native religions was similarly a blank register. Only Christianity could lead to salvation, as the missionaries tirelessly proclaimed.

Babajan did not merely stand against the ulama and orthodox Zoroastrians, but also held her ground against the British authorities. (36) The Raj officials wanted her to move from the increasingly busy street that she occupied. The gatherings of her devotees at Char Bawdi (Char Bavadi) could block the traffic in what had become an urbanised locale. When she had first settled at this spot, the traffic largely consisted of bicycles, bullock carts, and horse-drawn carriages. The new British status symbol, the motor car, made the roads far more noisy and congested.

Public opinion was on the side of the faqir. The Cantonment Board (in 1924) reluctantly consented to build Babajan a shelter that attached to the neem tree. She herself had to be persuaded by devotees to accept this shelter. The rugged nature of her outdoor existence is remarkable. She was reputedly a centenarian by this time.

Wealthy British residents of Poona noticed with puzzlement the crowds forming around Babajan's tree in Char Bawdi. An incredulous colonial wrote a letter to The Times of India in September 1926. He wanted to know the identity of the native at the neem tree, who "lies on a couch in a specially constructed house from early morning till a late hour at night, surrounded almost all the time by an eager and devout crowd of people of all castes and creeds anxious to pay their respects to her." (37)

This report was intrinsically favourable. However, the British colonial bias could not credit that such inter-religious and egalitarian activity was useful. The newspaper stated: "Our correspondent narrates the dumb show that goes on between the old woman and her devotees and asks who the old woman is and why she is so venerable a personage."

Even Mahatma Gandhi was a dumb show to the aggregate Raj mentality of the 1920s. The aloof correspondent could easily have asked the local Cantonment Board about Babajan; whether that body would have understood everything is much in question. Certainly enough however, the Board had legally installed the faqir in the new "house." Babajan was quite entitled to receive visitors. An explanatory article in the same newspaper followed a few days later, the new correspondent identifying Babajan and providing a version of her background, including the 1903 voyage to Mecca. This report even claimed that Babajan knew English. (38)

Even in her advanced old age, during the late 1920s, Babajan did not remain stationary at her new shelter under the neem tree. She apparently had less incentive now to walk about the streets, instead frequently resorting to a tonga, meaning the simple horse-drawn conveyance common in India. In the mornings she liked to visit the Bund Gardens; this new rendezvous must have eased the traffic congestion at Char Bawdi. She would also be chauffeured in a motor car; in 1928, she innovated a long journey by car to Ahmednagar, the first time she had left Poona since her arrival. (39)

Meanwhile, the British Raj lifestyle at Poona featured church on Sundays, daily tea at four, and the evening constitutional. There were military parades to watch, exciting horse races to enjoy, and elite clubs to attend. What could compare with such cultural perfection? Can we imagine some refrains in wealthy colonial households? "Oh, and butler, don't forget the extra crates of wine needed for the guests at dinner. Also, tell all the servants to keep away the natives at our splendid front gates. The natives are forever begging money from us."

When Hazrat Babajan was given money, she was reputedly resistant. She either refused or passed on such gifts, often to beggars who could be seen in the vicinity. She kept no money for herself. A basic point to grasp about Babajan is that she customarily redistributed all gifts she received from devotees. She died a poor faqir with no possessions except an austere wooden bed (and even that furnishing had to be pressed upon her). She was the polar opposite of wealthy gurus and elite colonialists.

Her funeral, in September 1931, confirmed the extent of her popularity in Poona amongst the native population, both Hindus and Muslims. Thousands of people attended. The strong turn-out for the procession was "never accorded to any dignitary or royalty in the annals of Poona." (40) 

Again Babajan had refused to move, insisting that her tomb be situated at her "seat." The Cantonment Board at first resisted this prospect. In the face of official reservations, the preference for a tomb at Char Bawdi was successfully pressed and resolved by a Trust committee comprised of Muslim devotees. (41)

10.  The  Shrine  at  Char  Bawdi

Dargah (shrine) of Hazrat Babajan

The setting at Char Bawdi no longer resembles the scene in 1931. The pace of urbanisation has entailed dense traffic and other developments. Moreover, the shrine (dargah) itself has changed appearance. The original structure incorporated the neem tree. This was an exceptionally ecological shrine. However, the building could not withstand the need for repairs. During the 1990s, a wealthy devotee provided the money to build a new and more resplendent marble dargah. The substitute was equipped with doors of carved teak. A major innovation was the roof, now covering the entire area of the shrine, measuring approximately 30 feet by 8 feet (Newell 2007: 89). To facilitate this adjustment, the neem tree was chopped down, leaving a dead stump, five feet high, still visible near the tomb inside the dargah. Some Babajan devotees were apparently not in agreement with the transition. Some Meher Baba devotees were also perturbed. (42)

Subsequently, further developments occurred, including a dome constructed on the roof. The shrine is an attractive Islamic building, increasingly popular (some photographs show the shrine without the more recent dome, an architectural factor causing confusion). The assimilation of Babajan by the Chishti Order, many years after her death, has been considered anomalous. (43) However, the observation is made that Chishti Sufis were honouring a life and influence they consider to be significant. An annual Islamic 'urs festival is now held at the shrine, a three day celebration signifying the death anniversary of a saint, in this instance Babajan. (44)

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

January 2014 (last modified December 2020)

11. The  Nature  of  Sources

Despite the Muslim background of Babajan, there are a substantial number of Zoroastrian testimonies commemorating her. We know more about Zoroastrian visitors to Char Bawdi than we do about the Muslim equivalents. The early Muslim source Dr. Ghani (writing in the late 1930s), is far from being comprehensive. Certain Zoroastrian informants were then cloistered women; other Zoroastrian informants likewise did not write on the subject.

Another early source mentions: “One of [Meher] Baba’s women disciples, who had the privilege of knowing Babajan well, related to me that her presence was so magnetic that no passer-by could resist turning his head for a second glance” (Adriel 1947:38). The American author did not disclose the identity of her informant, now closely associated with the mandali of Meher Baba, possibly Mehera J. Irani. Jean Adriel stayed in India during 1937, becoming familiar with two ashrams of Meher Baba. Her version of Babajan is less than six pages.

A member of the male mandali was Aspandiar Rustom Irani, alias Pendu (1903-1986). He was the 1970s source for data on Muslim shrines in Poona that Babajan frequented during her early years at that city. These locations were lost in the Ghani version. She resided at the shrines of Wakadia Bagh and Pagh Pir in Dighi, also the masjid of Bukhari Shah in the Rustur (Rasta) Peth suburb of Poona (Kerkhove 2002:107-108; Shepherd 2014:28, 31-2).

Dr. Raymond Kerkhove describes the Ghani version (in two articles) as a “rather limited perception of Babajan” (Kerkhove 2002:106-107). Ghani certainly lacked many details found elsewhere, including the intimate contact with Zoroastrian women. There are earlier sources than Ghani, including the Dadachanji diary of 1927.

Kerkhove tapped a number of later sources, circa 1970 and after, which prompt further consideration. There were some confusions, such as the belief in an entire Pathan regiment of followers during the early Poona phase; another influential mishap was the attribution of a Baluch origin for Babajan. Discrepancies easily occur with the passage of time, necessitating a critical filter. Kerkhove suggests: “If we can reconstruct the picture presented by various sources, it would seem that from 1915 to 1930, Poona virtually revolved around the activities of this saint” (Kerkhove 2002:113).

This is a strong statement. Babajan definitely did cause a stir in the cantonment area, with some wealthy people becoming involved. How far this interest extended in Poona is not clear. The same commentator refers to many people coming from all parts of India, visitors “queuing in thousands for her darshan” (ibid). An apparent source for the last statement does not provide such a number, giving less pronounced details. According to Bal Natu, “a large crowd would soon gather around her” every night. A detail generally lost is that Babajan kept a fire burning near her, a habit of faqirs. However, there is no reference to the number of visitors (Natu 1987:2-3).

According to Charles Purdom, the devotees of Babajan numbered hundreds in Poona (Purdom 1937:20). The British commentator also says: "Pilgrims by the thousand used to visit her just to kiss her hands or merely to look at her" (ibid). There is a difficulty in confirming numbers. Ghani simply stated that Char Bawdi “became a place of pilgrimage for people from all over India” (Kantak 1981:27). According to a later work: “Day after day the number of devotees increased and Babajan was worshipped and revered by thousands throughout India” (Kalchuri et al, 1986:14-15).

The funeral of Babajan is known to have involved thousands of participants. These people would not all have been devotees, such events arousing public enthusiasm. There is nevertheless likely to have been a substantial following by the time of Babajan’s death. Purdom’s consultation with F. H. Dadachanji commenced in 1933, the materials supplied for his book including a relatively brief coverage of Babajan. The secretary of Meher Baba was evidently the source for the numbers specified by Purdom.

The theory of mass darshans is contradicted by Babajan's dislike of garlands and darshan procedures, a Hindu custom. The action of kissing the hands is a Muslim custom reserved for family elders, a shaikh or teacher, or religious scholars. According to some reports, Babajan was even averse to this form of contact. In the early 1920s, Babajan preferred to sit in front of a gathering, which at times may only have comprised relatively few people. Calculating precise numbers is sheer guesswork. When the cantonment authorities provided her with a shelter, this may have increased the tendency to queues. Large numbers could occasionally have occurred.

Purdom's two reports of Babajan differed slightly. The later one states that, in January 1914, Babajan kissed Merwan Irani on his forehead (Purdom 1964:20). This action signifies a Muslim gesture of respect. The religious associations are neglected in the Meher Baba literature, even by Purdom.

Jehangir Daver was one source for Dr. Kerkhove in the 1990s. This Parsi devotee of Meher Baba was in his twenties when he came to England in the 1960s. My mother met him in 1964, when my family moved to Oxford in a domestic crisis. I remember Jehangir being very considerate towards us. He had met Meher Baba in Poona. He knew about Babajan from the Poona-Bombay reminiscences pooled in Zoroastrian circles, converging to some extent with mandali memories. I subsequently encountered Jehangir again at the Meher Baba Friends group in London during 1965-66. He was typically Parsi, being intelligent, capable of academic study, speaking good English, opting for a professional career. In Britain, Babajan was not well known in the 1960s, being overshadowed by enthusiasm for Meher Baba.

Paul Brunton, Hazrat Babajan, Charles Purdom

Paul Brunton’s brief account of Babajan, at the end of her life, is still generally regarded as authoritative. His sole meeting with the faqir occurred in November 1930. Professor Nile Green endorsed Brunton’s report as being “important for the description of her [Babajan’s] dwelling place” (Green 2009:131). An endnote more sceptically refers to “Brunton’s peculiar career, bridging as it did the highbrow occultism of the Theosophical Society with the saturnine turn of the hippy movement” (ibid:187 note 159). There is more to be said.

A number of writers have referred approvingly to Brunton’s account of his meeting at Char Bawdi in the book A Search in Secret India (1934). That encounter even features as the highlight in some commentaries, evidently influenced by the fame of Dr. Paul Brunton. The belief is that Dr. Brunton speaks the unassailable truth. In reality, Brunton’s doctoral credential has the officially fraudulent status of McKinley-Roosevelt Incorporated, possessing no more academic merit than the sepoys enjoyed in their military training.

Charles Purdom was very suspicious of the vaunted credential (acquired in 1938). He was unable to ascertain the origin, which has more recently emerged. However, Purdom knew quite enough about Brunton to doubt every book he wrote, especially the “Secret” offerings of the 1930s. Purdom personally encountered the occultist. He warned that Secret India was very unreliable, being slanted to the author’s own advantage.

In Brunton’s own estimation, he subsequently outshone both Ramana Maharshi and Meher Baba. The commercial writer emerged in folklore as the immaculate Doctor who had overtaken Ramana as a surpassing Neo-Vedantic scholar and guru. Brunton certainly attracted many susceptible devotees in America, including Jeffrey Masson. In his book My Father’s Guru (1993), the disillusioned Dr. Masson (a real academic) covered such dubious events as the levitating oak table at Portugal in 1967. The exposed deceit of Brunton confirms that he was a long term source of deception. This is exactly the sort of event that Meher Baba and Ramana Maharshi despised.

Purdom did not believe that Brunton’s report of Babajan was accurate. Brunton definitely left out contextual details that might have embarrassed his book considerably (Shepherd 2014:91-92). Brunton renders a translation of Babajan’s personal message to him in terms of: “He has been called to India and soon he will understand” (Brunton 1934:64). This wording was flattering to the British visitor, whose literary achievement in the colonial era is transparently misleading. Brunton soon afterwards wrote A Search in Secret Egypt, which even some of his admirers now reject as an exercise in distraction.

In another direction, Charles Purdom adopted a critical approach to materials. He was not always sure what to believe, and disagreed with some interpretations. Averse to hagiology, Purdom nevertheless included in his 1937 book some devotee lore sponsored by Dadachanji (such as Babajan not taking a bath for many years, a belief which may be strongly doubted). Purdom was far more critical than most British and American devotees of Meher Baba. The dapper and eloquent British gentleman, who introduced Meher Baba on a Pathe newsreel in 1932, remained aloof from devotee activity for many years (eventually becoming a leader of the London Meher Baba group). In the 1960s, Purdom described a major devotee magazine (in America) as being sentimental.

A confusing assessment describes Brunton’s visit to Babajan in terms of: “Their meeting is testament to the connection between the counter-culture of the 1960s and the colonial culture of a generation earlier” (Green 2009:187 note 159). The reference is to the American 1960s hippy movement, mentioned in the same note. Brunton is not known for any drug use. In relation to Babajan, he represents British occultism of the 1920s, which included an enthusiasm for Yoga strongly shared by the author of Secret India. Babajan did not represent the colonial culture in any way, instead existing within the British dominance at Poona as a faqir who refused to move from her chosen site. In contrast, Brunton represented the colonial culture to some extent, being a British "journalist" writing for the sector of "esoteric" interest.

American counter-culture of the 1960s exhibited only a fractional cognisance of Babajan, being far more concerned with gurus like Richard Alpert and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. History was very rarely in favour; the counter-culture participants were held in thrall by psychedelics and other drugs, alternative therapy, and loud music. The Yoga enthusiast Georg Feuerstein (1947-2012) subsequently elevated Brunton to a celebrity niche. The secret path hagiology  caused extensive confusions, strongly influenced by the spurious credential of Brunton, plus naïve readings of his commercial writings.

Feuerstein wrote that Secret India “held me spellbound for months.” He referred uncritically to Brunton’s “spiritual adventures in the Great Pyramid,” taking Secret Egypt at face value. Pyramid fantasy is a classic example of dotty British imagination from the Crowley era. The Feuerstein hagiography (in Yoga Journal, 1992) appeared a year before the Masson critique, a bombshell in the marketplace revealing significant home truths about the Yoga hero.

Kevin R. D. Shepherd

October 2019 (slightly modified December 2020)


(1) Shepherd, Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Private Ltd, 2014). ISBN 9788120786981. A second edition of this book, with additional details, is in preparation.

(2) Shepherd, A Sufi Matriarch: Hazrat Babajan (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1986). Reference to this book was included in Tahera Aftab, Inscribing South Asian Muslim Women: An Annotated Bibliography and Research Guide (Leiden: Brill, 2008), p. 112, entry 525.

(3) James Richard Newell, Experiencing Qawwali: Sound as Spiritual Power in Sufi India, Ph.D dissertation 2007 (online PDF, etd.library.vanderbilt.edu), p. 80. Dr. Newell includes material on the shrine of Babajan and related details of the Islamic 'urs ceremony. He makes a number of comments relating to the biography of the subject, which is my chief concern here.

(4) Shepherd 2014:76-7, commenting that "such ascriptions are generally loose."

(5) Newell 2007:71ff, observing that Babajan's impact did not arise from veneration of pedigree, but as a result of her personal magnetism, her faqir lifestyle, and her state of mind, understood by devotees as a state of divine absorption (p. 80). The present writer made comments on the definition of majzub in my Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (2005), pp. 47ff, while urging that "the majazib [plural term] were a diffuse phenomenon operating at many levels in eighteenth century Deccani counterculture."

(6) Charles B. Purdom was a very intellectual man, and quite distinctive in the "London group" of Meher Baba devotees. He was not really a devotee at all, but a type of intellectually committed supporter. He distrusted some devotional reports of Meher Baba, tending to be formidably analytical. Also, he had little patience with the rather insular devotional tendency to elevate Meher Baba at the total expense of other saints and "masters." Purdom was one of the earliest Western followers of Meher Baba, his contact in this respect dating back to 1931. He spoke immaculate English of the old school. His accomplishments included that of drama critic and a pioneering role in the garden city movement (chiefly associated with Welwyn Garden City). See further Purdom 1937; Purdom 1964.

(7) Adi S. Irani (Adi Junior) was surprised at my persistence in tracing details and biographies. Adi himself never wrote anything, although his recitals could be very graphic (see also Meher Baba Movement). I did at that time identify myself with the devotional movement attaching to Meher Baba (my tendencies were probably not typical). I was also known to some American devotees for my continual enquiries, and at one time was in correspondence with Kitty Davy, a prominent English devotee at Myrtle Beach. I was also in correspondence with Adi K. Irani (Adi Senior) and Eruch B. Jessawala, two of the mandali in India, though mainly the former, who was the secretary of Meher Baba living at Ahmednagar. By the age of sixteen, I had acquired a substantial number of early periodicals, some of which were rare even at that period. Such materials formed the basis for a subsequent lengthy manuscript which I started to write in 1967. This was The Life of Meher Baba, a four volume work, composed for my own investigative satisfaction. This document was never offered to any publisher. The first volume included a biography of Hazrat Babajan, plus some additional references to that figure. My book A Sufi Matriarch (1986) was adapted and abridged from the earlier account, tending to emphasise Sufi associations, while leaving out the data relating to Meher Baba, which was not so welcome in general. This partial focus was later redressed. Meher Baba is an integral part of the Babajan biography (Pathan Sufi of Poona, 2014, pp. 51-4, 89-90, 94). According to one commentator, Meher Baba (then Merwan Irani) was in the company of Babajan "often every night from dusk till dawn" during the period from 1913 to 1921 (Kerkhove 2002:106). That statement requires some qualification. Merwan was frequently absent from Poona, for shorter and longer periods. However, the long term association should not be overlooked.

(8) Shepherd, From Oppression to Freedom: A Study of the Kaivani Gnostics (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988), pp. 71ff.

(9) Abdul Ghani (Munsiff), "Hazrat Babajan of Poona," The Meher Baba Journal (Feb. 1939), p. 33. This article was reproduced in M. R. Khantak, ed., Hazrat Babajan: The Emperor of Spiritual Realm of her Time (Poona, 1981). Dr. Newell lists this work as being authored by K. K. Ramakrishnan, and does not identify the very strong Ghani component in that compilation, instead tending to give the impression of a separate biography. In fact, Ramakrishnan was the publisher, who did acknowledge Dr. Kantak as the editor, i.e., "editing the compilation and giving valuable suggestion" (p. 6). Dr. Kantak taught at the Deccan College. I therefore duly credited the editorship to Kantak in Pathan Sufi of Poona, 2014, p. 166. A serious confusion occurred in the case of the late Dr. Marianne Warren, who misinterpreted some contents of Emperor. Ghani's early account Miracles of Babajan was misconceived by Warren as being jointly authored by Meher Baba. See Shepherd 2014:124 note 1; Shepherd 2005:55. There is a more widespread failure to grasp that Ghani was referring to himself in one of the anecdotes, which is quite factual, like certain other components of the "miracles" document (Shepherd 2014:71-2). The title of the Kantak-Ramakrishnan publication has puzzled some bibliographic assessors, deriving from Meher Baba's description of Babajan as "Emperor." This term of respect was intended to emphasise the masculine quality that she preferred in her argument about gender.

(10) Purdom 1937:19-20. Purdom bases this chronology on the fact that "it is not known when she returned to India." He does have a valid point in this respect. However, Purdom's account lacks the detail for the earlier Poona years appearing in other versions, mainly Kalchuri and Shepherd. Purdom repeats his dating in The God-Man, p. 19. According to another commentator, "by 1905 she had established her seat under a neem tree, on the Malcolm Tank Road, in the area called Char Bawdi" (Newell 2007:80). This ascription is very early for that particular site; there were other sites at a preceding time which Newell does not mention. He adds: "It is thought she began her stay in Poona around 1900" (p. 85). According to the endnotes in Kalchuri, Babajan "arrived in Poona during 1905" (Lord Meher Vol. 1, 1986, editorial note to page 12). Cf. Shepherd 2014:23, stating: "Babajan settled in Poona by 1905." In my earlier account, I deferred more to Purdom's version: "She reappeared in the Deccan sometime during the period 1903-7" (Sufi Matriarch, p. 45). In the last quoted work, I also wrote that "it was possibly by 1910" when Babajan settled at the neem tree in Char Bawdi (ibid:47). There is no firm data rendering an earlier date imperative. The late Dr. Marianne Warren stated: "From 1903 until her death in 1931, she [Babajan] lived under a neem tree at the Char Bavadi [Char Bawdi]." The quote comes from Warren, Unravelling the Enigma: Shirdi Sai Baba in the Light of Sufism (New Delhi: Sterling, 1999), p. 200. This deduction is not accurate, omitting the intervening events.

(11) Kalchuri's version of Babajan comprises a brief chapter in a lengthy biography of Meher Baba, composed after the death of the latter. The Kalchuri manuscript Meher Prabhu, written during 1971-72, was subsequently translated into English with extensive additions (Reiter edn, 20 vols, 1986-2001). This account is relevant, although frequently couched in a devotional idiom that some readers find offputting. Ongoing revisions were made by the American devotee David Fenster (living in India), who has substantially expanded the original text. An online edition is available. Kalchuri did not provide sources, although he had access to many of these. See Lord Meher Critique. See also Meher Prabhu. See also Shepherd 2005:267-8. Some other details about Babajan can be found in Fenster, Mehera-Meher (3 vols, 2003), the biography of a female disciple of Meher Baba, drawing upon tape-recordings dating to 1974-82. See also note 34 below.

(12) Newell 2007:85-6. One or two other accounts mention a crossroads. However, it is not clear to what extent that feature was in evidence when Babajan first came to Char Bawdi. On matters relating to the complex process of urbanisation in this cantonment area, see Shepherd 2014:33ff.

(13) Shepherd 2014:55ff. Pathan sepoys were salient participants in the Char Bawdi phase only until 1914. Ghani does not mention this contingent; he only refers to the Baluchi sepoys who recognised Babajan from a former North Indian environment. The date for the arrival of Baluchi soldiers was apparently 1914 (Shepherd 1986:49-50; Shepherd 2014:132 note 26). That date could easily have been 1913; the chronology is very sparse. Ghani's omission of Pathan soldiery reflects the 1920s situation, when sepoys no longer congregated at the neem tree. The sepoys were then a distant memory. A strong possibility is that Pathans were included in the "Baluchi" contingent arriving from the north; questions about regimental background remain. Adi S. Irani likewise did not mention sepoys in relation to the 1920s; he did, of course, know about the sepoy bodyguard in the early years at Char Bawdi, but was vague about chronology. I was consequently unable to define exactly how long that phase lasted. This issue now has a resolution in terms of phase termination. See note 29 below.

(14) Shepherd 2014:1, 3, 125 note 4.

(15) F. H. Dadachanji diary, April 1927. Dadachanji (Chanji) came from Bombay, and joined Meher Baba at Meherabad in the mid-1920s. He was not a devotee of Babajan. He had probably seen her in Poona, but without necessarily gaining a personal encounter. See note 19 below.

(16) Kalchuri 1986:7, who does, however, describe Babajan as a Pathan. The online version of Lord Meher carries the addition that Babajan's father "was a minister in Kabul for the Amir" (page 3, accessed January 2014). This detail was evidently derived in editorial retrospect from the Dadachanji diary.

(17) Purdom 1937:115.

(18) Dadachanji confirms this detail, and also refers to the obscure antecedent, i.e., that Babajan was God-realised at the "age of about 65." Purdom's account hardens this to "the age of sixty-five." Dadachanji also says that "she spent about 50 years of her life in wandering from place to place in search of Truth." The approximation should be emphasised.

(19) Dadachanji diary, April 1927. The diarist was a cultured and amiable Parsi who became the secretary of Meher Baba. His familiarity with Islam and Muslims tended to be generalising. However, he had no religious bias, having accepted the ecumenical outlook and policy of his Irani inspirer. Meher Baba's early following consisted of Zoroastrians, Muslims, and Hindus.

(20) Meher Baba was then observing silence and using an alphabet board for purposes of communication. The linguistic situation is potentially more complex than might at first appear. The alphabet board showed English letters, but translation of the words often occurred in another language, usually Marathi or Gujarati, depending on the audience. Dadachanji himself spoke Gujarati and English, favouring the latter tongue in his diaries commencing in 1926. He appears to have been present when the discourse under discussion was delivered, and so was probably reporting from memory. The discourse was entitled "Duties of Women." The occasion was that of the Hindu New Year Day. Although some Zoroastrians were present, the audience were mainly Hindus (including a number of upper class women). Dadachanji says that the discourse was addressed to the women present (who had assembled from various parts of the city, and may therefore have included Zoroastrians). No translation is mentioned. Kalchuri et al report that the gathering occurred at the home of Hindu host Vyankatesh Chinchorkar, adding "the women of the house were called and they sat before Baba" (which appears to be a contraction of the overall event). Some of these details might help to explain the rather pronounced emphasis upon "Hindu worship" in the account of Babajan. The occasion was also notable for an interaction revealing Meher Baba's very distinctive sympathy for harijans (untouchables), an unstated number of whom were present (Kalchuri et al, Lord Meher Vol. 3, 1988, p. 924). Any presence of harijans in the assemblies of Hazrat Babajan is not documented.

(21) Shepherd 2014:21, 121.

(22) Shepherd 2014:131 note 25.

(23) E.g., Newell 2007:85, stating: "The main sources of information on the life of Hazrat Babajan are hagiographic." He here lists only three sources, namely Ghani, Ramakrishnan, and Kalchuri. Purdom is not mentioned, and nor is Shepherd (the British contingent were bypassed in this American assessment, but did actually exist). Ramakrishnan (with editor Kantak) is not actually a separate source to Ghani, but merely of convenience to those who could not access the original Ghani articles (plural) appearing many years ago. A minor consideration is that one of those articles (the biography) is abridged in Ramakrishnan. As stated above (note 9), the misunderstandings adhering to the Ramakrishnan publication (reprinted in 1998) are substantial. I should add that Dr. Newell is clement in his judgment of the "hagiographic" sources, commendably indicating that factual information can be found in them. Kalchuri applied a strong poetic gloss to some accounts he mediated. I have elsewhere observed various drawbacks in the composite work attributed to Bhau Kalchuri. See Lord Meher Critique (2017). These drawbacks do not annul the factual content that is discernible; however, considerable knowledge of the undisclosed background sources is necessary to confirm details. My form of critical analysis may be compared with the Wikipedia statement from an American devotee of Meher Baba, who declared that Kalchuri represented "historical recorded facts," whereas my own book on Meher Baba merely represented "personal opinions." The accuser had apparently not read the book he dismissed. The doctrinaire attitude on Wikipedia can be stifling.

(24) In the preface to his early book, Purdom acknowledges diverse sources, for the most part giving no names (The Perfect Master, 1937). However, he does mention that "my special thanks are due to F. H. Dadachanji."

(25) Dadachanji here refers to Babajan as "the same Hazrat Saheb." This designation may represent an abbreviation of Amma Saheb, a name by which she was known. The Muslim name appears more authentic here in view of Dadachanji's own Parsi tendency to a Hinduising gloss, via the appellation of "Shree Hazrat Babajan," which he applies to the matriarch at the commencement of his diary entry. This sort of gloss does not appear in Meher Baba's recorded references.

(26) The extent to which the diary notes of Dadachanji reflect the actual wordings of Meher Baba is in doubt. He was certainly reporting a core statement from that Irani celebrity. However, the Parsi secretary had a strong tendency to embellish dictations, particularly when the wording was sparse - as it so often was from the alphabet board medium. This is known from matters relating to correspondence. See further Shepherd 1988a:287.

(27) Shepherd 1986: 49-50; Shepherd 2014:21. In my opinion, the date of 1914 is not definite for the Punjabi Regiment episode at Poona. The correct date could be 1913, but this now seems impossible to prove.

(28) Shepherd 2014:66. The account of Dhake Phalkar, a Hindu, states that Babajan "did not allow anybody to bow down to her" (ibid:65).

(29) Shepherd, A Sufi Matriarch, p. 65; Pathan Sufi of Poona, p. 56. An assumption found in certain works can be contradicted by the continuing analysis of sources. Sepoys were not able to continue their habit of visiting Babajan. According to a Zoroastrian source, namely Behli (Baily) J. Irani, the "Punjabi Regiment" sepoys at Poona were killed at Gallipoli during World War One (Behli was one of the literate Zoroastrians who encountered Babajan). This detail has briefly appeared in the online version of Lord Meher. A basic confusion arose in two different descriptions of the Baluchi soldiers, i.e., in terms of the "Baluchi Regiment" (Ghani) and the "Punjabi Regiment" (Dadachanji). The first description does not fit the situation of World War One combatants in the Dardanelles, whereas the second description is appropriate. I have discounted the first description (Pathan Sufi of Poona, p. 132 note 26). I was never able to confirm a Baluchi presence at the neem tree after the Great War. Further, there is no record of any Pathan soldiers at Char Bawdi after World War One. The testimony of Behli Irani means that the sepoy bodyguard vanished by 1915. Both Pathans and Baluchis were apparently members of a very loosely defined Punjabi Regiment; those drafted soldiers from Poona were killed in action, reportedly at the Dardanelles in 1915. There were two different Punjabi regiments at Gallipoli, meaning the 69th and 89th. Associations can easily arise with the 22nd Punjabi Regiment, who in 1914 included a company of Pathans (meaning about a hundred or more men). The 22nd became part of the 6th Poona Division, featuring in the Mesopotamian campaign of the Great War.

(30) The account of Dadachanji (note 15 above) might suggest that, in the early days at Poona, Babajan was less resistant to "Hindu worship" than she later became. This remains conjecture; Dadachanji may have been in error. Kalchuri et al inform: "It was rare for Babajan to allow anyone to touch her person - even to bow at her feet or kiss her hand" (Lord Meher Vol. 1, p. 224). According to Mehera Irani, Babajan "never allowed anyone to touch her," an exception being Meher Baba (Fenster, Mehera-Meher Vol. 3, second edn 2013, p. 191). Babu Rao was nicknamed Cyclewala, and afterwards became a devotee of Meher Baba.

(31) Newell 2007:72. This man was the grandfather of Akbar Anwar Khan, who was interviewed in 2005. The forbear was a trustee of the local Muslim committee which prepared for the shrine (dargah) of Babajan while she was still alive. See also note 41 below. The grandfather lived to the age of ninety-four, confirming that Pathans can achieve longevity.

(32) Shepherd 2014:53. Ardeshir S. Baria (alias Kaka) could be quite voluble in some moods. He eventually became a devotee of Meher Baba and one of the latter's mandali. He was also acquainted with Upasani Maharaj.

(33) The Pathan sepoys of the 1913-14 period at Char Bawdi have been subject to misinterpretation as "revelling soldiers" (Green 2009:127-32). The same commentary states: "According to Meher Baba's recollections of Baba Jan, from at least 1913 her followers comprised large numbers of Pathan and Baluchi sepoys" (ibid:130). The key reference from Meher Baba was earlier supplied in Shepherd 1986:76 note 47. That reference does not provide any date, but is applicable to 1913-14, when Meher Baba himself was a direct witness of sepoy events at the neem tree in Char Bawdi. That retrospective reference (of the 1950s) specifies a "large number," not the "large numbers" appearing in the later hostile commentary cited. Professor Nile Green's plural numeration phrase has given the impression to some unwary readers that many hundreds of sepoys were appearing at Char Bawdi over a lengthy period. In reality, the short term number is unlikely to have exceeded forty or fifty, and was perhaps only about thirty or less. The suggestion of large numbers has served to magnify the attendant preference of the theorist to view Poona sepoys as drug users. The supposed decadence of Char Bawdi is here associated with the indulgence of smoking ganja (cannabis). Green's misleading theory does not supply any dates except "from at least 1913." The early report of Behli J. Irani informs that the sepoys died overseas in 1915. There is no information about any sepoys at Char Bawdi thereafter. The close eyewitness Adi S. Irani did not mention any soldiers at Char Bawdi during the 1920s phase, converging with Ghani and Purdom in this respect. What instead emerges in the eschewed sources are a substantial number of Zoroastrian contacts achieved by Hazrat Babajan, whom Cambridge University Press (CUP) has relegated (via Nile Green) to the status of an inferior and mentally deranged Muslim of no consequence. Fashionable academic biases are convenient for any surviving colonial idea of surpassing British racial superiority. My shocked literary agent complained to CUP about the misrepresentation, receiving a reply amounting to complete indifference. CUP public relations here reflected a professional elitism negating any onus to ascertain accuracy. The Cambridge (and Oxford) rule of thumb is that no person outside the university has any validity of viewpoint; only university statements are regarded as having any relevance to human populations. The British academic latitude for suppression of alternative data is staggering. Defying such constraint, I find the actual history of the Pathan subject more relevant and significant than CUP derision and crude assumption (which reads like colonial stigma in too many respects). I am advised (in 2019) to place details of discrepancies online in the face of suppressive attitudes. The supercilious tactic of trashing faqirs (fakirs) is an exercise of the Western superiority complex, too often found in reports dating from the eighteenth century onwards. The adverse lore created by the British Raj was pervasive (Pramod K. Nayar, The British Raj: Keywords, Routledge 2017, entry "Fakir"). Faqirs varied substantially in their characteristics, which will not be duly assessed by misrepresentation.

(34) Fenster 2003, chapters 4, 6, and 9. The reminiscences of Mani S. Irani relate that she was eight or nine years old when Babajan "called me near her," meaning circa 1926-7. This report includes the detail that Babajan kept a framed picture of Meher Baba hanging from a nail on the trunk of the neem tree. Freiny Masi (Mehera's aunt) was usually present near Babajan, and would advise young Mani what to do. Freiny Masi kept herbal medicines in a deep pocket of her skirt; that habit probably reflected the disposition of Babajan to natural remedies as distinct from European medicines and medicaments, which she disliked. Mani describes "a brass-railing enclosure" which protected Babajan's shelter from the road. "She never lay down but was always three-fourths reclining" (quotes from pp. 90-1). According to Fenster, Babajan lost two fingers when these became infected; other versions mention only one. Mani refers to Babajan's "pink complexion," a description tallying with other references to a fair skin.

(35) The British "journalist" Paul Brunton was a less conservative, but still very misleading, assessor. His account of Hazrat Babajan and Meher Baba appeared in the popular book A Search in Secret India (1934). I early learned from Charles Purdom that Brunton was not reliable. Subsequently, I discovered the extent of deficiency in Brunton's descriptions, despite his concession to Babajan. See further Shepherd, Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (1988), pp. 146-176; Shepherd 2014:91-3, 94. See also Meher Baba and Paul Brunton; another commentary is Meher Baba in "Secret India." The British occultist neglected to mention that his visit to Babajan in 1930 occurred at the instruction of Meher Baba; he was accompanied by Jal Irani (Meher Baba's brother) and the Western Buddhist Frederick Fletcher. It is on record elsewhere that Abdulla Jaffer, a Muslim devotee of Meher Baba, took this trio to Babajan's neem tree. Jaffer could have been the interpreter mentioned so anonymously by Brunton; the language of communication is not specified. Jal Irani spoke Persian, and so may have conversed directly with Babajan.

(36) Hazrat Babajan did not adopt any militant stance against the British, but did resist official plans. Newell comments: "By simply establishing her seat under a tree in a field some distance from the main business area of the British cantonment, and insisting on remaining there, Hazrat Babajan had a tremendous impact on the local community" (Newell 2007:121). The reference to "a tree in a field" is of additional interest. The neem tree at Char Bawdi was at the side of a simple dirt road (plagued with mosquitoes), one that later became a heavy traffic road. This detail does not contradict the reference to a field. There were some dilapidated buildings further along the road, associated with the nocturnal presence of drunkards and thieves. This nocturnal factor has caused confusion in another academic account (Green 2009). The habits of the drunkards and drug addicts were soon disrupted, basically through the influence of Babajan, an x factor assisted by Pathan soldier devotees (Shepherd 2014:33ff).

(37) Newell 2007:87. The "couch" that is mentioned in the newspaper report was a gift from Meher Baba several years earlier (Shepherd 2014:60). This furnishing was a simple wooden bed.

(38) Newell 2007:87; Shepherd 2014:74, citing Nile Green, Islam and the Army in Colonial India (2009). Green was the first to draw attention to the 1926 newspaper features. The possibility that Babajan knew English is an interesting addition to her linguistic range. However, Professor Green offers an interpretation of Babajan that is in strong dispute. See Shepherd 2014:120ff. See also note 33 above. See also Religious Factors in the Indian Mutiny.

(39) The extent and frequency of Babajan's motor journeys are uncertain. These were still in occurrence during 1931. The tonga rides appear to have been much more frequent, at least initially. The major local destination was the Bund Gardens. According to Kalchuri et al, in 1926 the faqir was "frequently making herself conspicuous by riding about the city in a horse tonga" (Lord Meher Vol. 3, 1988, p. 889). The interpretation is given that Babajan "had become very active and welcomed the crowds" (ibid.). This version says that the crowds "usually gathered around her under a giant tree in Bund Gardens" (ibid). Cf. Shepherd 2014:53, 88-9. The early reference of Purdom 1937:107) is rather abbreviated, having been interpreted in terms of motor journeys and also the tonga transport. The date of Babajan's first motor journey is elusive.

(40) Ghani 1939:38.

(41) Ghani 1939:39, identifying the committee as Anjuman-e Khuddam-e-Ahle-Sunnatul Jamat. The membership was exclusively Muslim. These people were eventually assisted by a donation of 4,000 rupees supplied by Meher Baba, who was then widely recognised as having a close connection with Babajan. Ghani refers to a "shrine in marble stone." Ghani made the donation, on behalf of Meher Baba, at the time of Babajan's death (Kalchuri et al, Lord Meher Vol. 4, 1989, p. 1426).

(42) Some devotees of Meher Baba have complained that a picture of their figurehead was removed from the shrine. Renovation of the dargah involved changes. Meher Baba was closely involved in the original foundation of the Babajan shrine, as Ghani reports; the Irani's correspondence of the 1920s further confirms this development. A local plan to situate the tomb of Babajan in the Poona Pensioners’ Mosque was mentioned by the Indian press in 1926; this proposal was resisted by some Muslim devotees as being unfavourable to the performance of qawwali on the saint’s death anniversary. Dr. Abdul Ghani, who was in close contact with Babajan devotees, mediated the generous financial contribution of Meher Baba, who favoured an independent location (the neem tree) for the dargah, as did Babajan herself.

(43) Tajuddin Baba of Nagpur (d.1925) was also assimilated to a Chishti silsila (meaning chain of transmission). Dr. Newell describes a disparity in the case of Babajan, meaning an attempt "to integrate the anomalous status of a female majdhub into the male dominated Chishti hierarchy" (Newell 2007:122). The gap between Babajan and the Chishti Order was quite substantial. "The formal mahfil [assembly] could not be conducted at her 2005 'urs unless a proper institutional link in the chain [silsila) of lineage back to the Prophet Muhammad was represented at the mahfil-i-sama" (ibid). The same writer observes: "In an effort to honour Babajan by linking her with the prestigious lineage of Bandanavaz, she is simultaneously further marginalised at her own mahfil" (ibid). Bandanavaz was a name given to the Sufi leader Muhammad al-Husayni Gisu Daraz (d.1422), a medieval Chishti shaykh of the Deccan. Gisu Daraz was a rather orthodox figure, very different to Babajan. I did not mention this assimilation in the book Pathan Sufi of Poona, because the innovation occurred after the subject's death. This subsequent development was intimately related to Chishti sama practices. Babajan did favour qawwali music, but in a manner quite independent from the Chishti Order (Pathan Sufi of Poona, pp. 83-4). On the Chishtis, see Carl W. Ernst and Bruce B. Lawrence, Sufi Martyrs of Love: The Chishti Order in South Asia and Beyond (New York, 2003).

(44) Although the Islamic focus on Babajan does not represent a separate "doctrinal or organisational vehicle" (Shepherd, Pathan Sufi of Poona, pp. 122-3), there is evidently an underlying Chishti Sufi affiliation via the ceremonial activity at her shrine. The Hazrat Babajan Trust, attached to the shrine in Poona, has promoted a version of the biography associated with oral traditions revolving around Peshawar. This version states that Babajan was born at Peshawar in 1803. Her father is here named Muhammad Mustafa Anwar,  described as a merchant in dried fruits. At the age of ten, she commenced to study fiqh (religious law), and spent her time in namaz (prayer) and reading the Quran. When she was 24 years old, her mother died; domestic responsibility for the household then devolved upon her. To escape social distractions, she left her home for the forest, eating fruits. The date of 1841 is given for her move south, where she early stayed in Bombay and Ahmedabad.  In this version, of Chishti associations, an early visit to Ajmer (site of a major Chishti shrine) is emphasised. Babajan is said to have stayed in Surat for seven years and returned to Bombay at the age of 65, visiting many shrines in that city.  This version (appearing on the web) was not in evidence prior to 2014.


Bibliography  Relating  to  Hazrat  Babajan

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Aftab, Tahera, Inscribing South Asian Muslim Women: An Annotated Bibliography and Research Guide (Leiden: Brill, 2008).

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Burman, J. J. Roy, Hindu-Muslim Syncretic Shrines and Communities (New Delhi: Mittal Publications, 2002).

Fenster, David, Mehera-Meher Vol. 1 (Ahmednagar: Meher Nazar, 2003; second edn, 2013).

Ghani (Munsiff), Abdul, "Hazrat Babajan of Poona," The Meher Baba Journal (Ahmednagar-Bangalore, Feb. 1939) 1 (4): 29-39.

Green, Nile, Islam and the Army in Colonial India: Sepoy Religion and the Service of Empire (Cambridge University Press, 2009).

Judson, Janet, ed., Mehera (New Jersey: Naosherwan Anzar, 1989).

Kalchuri, Bhau, Feram Workingboxwala, David Fenster et al, Lord Meher (Meher Prabhu) Vol. 1 (Reiter edn, North Myrtle Beach, SC: Manifestation Inc., 1986).

Kantak, M. R., ed., Hazrat Babajan: The Emperor of Spiritual Realm of her Time (Pune: K. K. Ramakrishnan, 1981). This miscellany includes reprints of two early articles by Dr. Abdul Ghani (Munsiff).

Kerkhove, Raymond, Authority and Egolessness in the Emergence and Impact of Meher Baba (doctoral dissertation, University of Queensland, 2002, available online).

Natu, Bal, Glimpses of the God-Man Meher Baba Vol. 5 (Myrtle Beach, SC: Sheriar Press, 1987).

Newell, James Richard, Experiencing Qawwali: Sound as Spiritual Power in Sufi India (2007, online PDF).

Purdom, Charles B., The Perfect Master: Life of Shri Meher Baba (London: Williams and Norgate, 1937).

-------The God-Man: The Life, Journeys and Work of Meher Baba (London: George Allen and Unwin, 1964).

Shepherd, Kevin R. D., A Sufi Matriarch: Hazrat Babajan (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1986).

-------Meher Baba, an Iranian Liberal (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988a).

-------From Oppression to Freedom: A Study of the Kaivani Gnostics (Cambridge: Anthropographia, 1988b).

-------Investigating the Sai Baba Movement (Dorchester: Citizen Initiative, 2005).

-------Hazrat Babajan: A Pathan Sufi of Poona (New Delhi: Sterling Publishers Private Ltd, 2014).