Karnataka: Amid growing intolerance, two mathas fight over who better represents harmony
The two opposing mathas: Dingaleshwara swami (left), present head of Fakireshwara matha locked horns with Thontadarya matha's move to celebrate 'Harmony Day' on February 21. Siddarama Swami (inset on right) hit back saying no one has a patent on harmony

Karnataka: Amid growing intolerance, two mathas fight over who better represents 'harmony'

Fakireshwara matha, which promotes inter-faith worship, is at loggerheads with Thontadarya matha, subscribing to a liberal Lingayat tradition, over which mathas represent 'harmony'

An unseemly and an unexpected controversy has broken out between two prominent religious institutions, both known as champions of religious harmony in Karnataka. Ironically, it is the word 'harmony' that has sparked off all the trouble.

The dispute seemed trivial, starting off as a bickering over the wording of an event held to celebrate religious harmony. But, the situation gradually got worse and serious enough for the police to impose a curfew at Shirahatti, a small town of 17,000 people in northern Karnataka. And, even stop one of the swamis from stepping out of his matha for an entire day.

Two opposing mathas

On one side of the dispute is the Fakireshwara matha, which hosts both a temple and a mosque inside its campus at Shirahatti. Saffron and green flags flutter in unison here and the matha blends Muslim and Hindu faiths in its name itself, Fakeera and Eshwara.

The matha administers over 50 temples and 5 dargahs, which draw thousands of Hindu and Muslim devotees daily. The swami, who heads the matha, sports a saffron turban, a green shawl and a white shirt.

On the other side is the Thontadarya matha at Gadag, about 28 kms away. For generations, Thontadarya swamis have followed a liberal Lingayata tradition and supported people of all faiths. They have donated land for masjids, appointed Muslims to head religious committees, at times overriding local orthodox opposition. Most recently, the present pontiff Siddarama swami stood up to rightwing Hindutva outfits, which wanted to keep Muslims out of a religious fair organised by the matha.

Not an ambassador of harmony

The dispute between the two mathas started in early February when the Thontadarya matha printed invitation cards to celebrate the 75th birth anniversary of Siddalinga Swami, the predecessor of the present swami, who passed away in 2018. The invitation said that February 21 would be celebrated as a ‘Harmony Day’ (Bhavaikyate dina) with a series of events to pay homage to Siddalinga Swami, described as an Ambassador of Harmony (Bhavaikyateya harikaara) .

Dingaleshwara swami, the successor to Fakira Siddarama Swami, the present head of Fakireshwara matha, held a press meet objecting to the use of the word ‘Harmony’ (Bhavaikyate) by the Thontadarya matha. He said the word is traditionally associated with Fakireshwara matha, which has been promoting interfaith worship for 500 years.

“We have a gopura and a minar, hoist both green and saffron flags and people of all religions come to us. In words, deed and appearance we are more open than the Thontadarya matha,” he said. “In contrast, Thontadarya matha is a Lingayata matha of the Virakta (ascetic) branch. Siddalinga Swami led the fight for a separate Lingayat religion and sought to break up Lingayats and Veerashaivas. It is not right to call him an ‘Ambassador of Harmony,’” he argued.

Further, Dingaleshwara swami claimed that he had earlier stopped chief minister Basavaraja Bommai from declaring February 21 as a ‘Harmony Day’ in honour of Siddalinga Swami. In January this year, Fakireshwara matha kicked off months-long activities to celebrate the 75th birthday of Fakira Siddarama Swami. On February 1, it took out 'Bhavaikyata Ratha Yatra', a grand procession with elephants, horses and camels in Hubballi, as part of the celebrations.

No patent for promoting harmony

Reacting to this, Thontadarya matha head Siddarama Swami spoke to the media suggesting that there was no patent on promoting harmony.

“The entire country should promote it as the society needs peace and tolerance. It cannot be limited to any individual or matha,” he said. A senior official of the Thontadarya matha said the institution had always stayed true to the Lingayata religion founder Basavanna’s liberal and inclusive philosophy. He pointed out that the 17th head, Siddeshwara Mahaswami (1881-1924), had donated land to build a masjid. A sufi poet, Syed Ghouse, had written a bilingual stotra in Urdu and Kannada praising him.

“This is just a small slice of our history,” he pointed out.

Siddalinga Swamy was indeed widely seen as a progressive religious leader who supported Kannada, environmental and livelihood struggles. He worked with Dalits and minorities, and was a recipient of the Central government award for National Integration and Communal Harmony.

Row escalates

With the Thontadarya matha refusing to back off, the row escalated and Dingaleshwara swami gave a call to his followers to observe February 21 as a Black Day. He planned a counter procession in Gadag and announced a route map as well. Fearing disturbance, police imposed section 144 and barricaded the gates of Fakireshwara matha and stopped him from stepping out.

Author Rahamat Tarikere, who has written several books on Sufis of Karnataka, pointed out that while most religious institutions were getting radicalised to appease the Sangh parivar, the opposite was happening in this case.

He found it particularly heartening to see the two mathas squabbling to be seen as the "rightful inheritors of a popular syncretic tradition that has evolved over centuries in Karnataka".

North Karnataka history: Building a society of equals

North Karnataka has a strong history of being the epicentre of a collage of faiths. In the 12th century, north Karnataka witnessed a powerful egalitarian movement, the Sharana or the Lingayata movement, which tried to build a society of equals. With the rise of the Bahmani and the Adil Shahi kingdoms, Sufis started settling down here in large numbers, setting off a gentle social churn that would weave together different religious beliefs and practices.

“The sufis and sharanas came together as they shared a huge common ground. Both of them pursued mystical love, initiated anyone who showed interest, emphasised on the role of gurus and promoted a liberal reading of the religion,” said Tarikere.

The region also saw the rise of other distinct traditions that added to the churn. The popular Siddarooda swami of Aruda sect in Hubballi had a Muslim disciple, Kabir Das. The most famous of the Tatvapadakaras, who composed short devotional songs, was a Muslim, Shishunala Shareefa. His guru Govinda Bhatta, was a Brahmin and a Shakta practitioner.

Deep-rooted syncretism

The impact of these popular movements turned North Karnataka into a region brimming with several syncretic saints, pilgrim centres, rituals, and festivities. It became a collage of faiths, where it was difficult to tell where one denomination ended and another started.

Deep-rooted syncretism continues to this day with a bewildering array of religious practices. During the Hazrat Hashimpeer urus of Bijapur, a Krishna Parijata play with many Muslim actors has been a major draw. A 19th-century Sufi poet, Qadri Peera was equally devoted to the 9th-century Persian mystic Mansur Al-Hallaj and the 12th-century revolutionary Basavanna.

Life of Fakirappa

The life of Fakirappa, Shirahatti matha’s patron saint, also illustrates the porous nature of the religions here. A 17th-century Sufi saint, Khvaja Amin-ud-din Ala, anointed a Lingayata child, Channavira, as his successor, who later came to fame as Fakirappa. The saint wandered far and wide impressing even Akbar the great and Nizam of Hyderabad with his miracles, according to the legends. Among other things, he reportedly helped the poor, resolved communal strife and persuaded a childless Muslim ruler to adopt a Hindu child.

The ruler agreed to the condition that the Hindu descendants would carry the surname ‘Khan,’ and a few Hindu families are said to be still following this practice.

Legends further hold that Fakirappa’s Sufi guru, Khvaja Amin-ud-din Ala was reborn as a Hindu saint, Monappa, who is also worshipped as Maun-ud-din. The annual fair of Moonappa at Tinthiṇi commences with the following Sufi prayer:

Ek lakh aisi hazar pancho pir paigaṃbar

Jita pir Maun-ud-din Kasipati Har Har Mahadev

(Of 1,80,000 saints, five are prophets. Maun-ud-dīn is the living prophet, hail Mahadev, the Lord of Kasi)

“Siddalinga Swami came from Bijapur, the epicentre of Sufism in Karnataka. His syncretism was organic, came out of his lived experience of understanding and working with different communities. He was indeed an ‘Ambassador of Harmony,’” said Tarikere, the author.

The bitter controversy has caught many by surprise. The senior official at Thontadarya matha said both the institutions enjoy a close bond.

“Dingaleshwara swami’s senior Fakira Siddarama Swami and Siddalinga Swami were classmates in college. When we started celebrating Harmony Day, we invited Fakira Siddarama Swami to inaugurate it. He had no complaint,” the official said.

The personal angle

Many feel there is a personal angle to the controversy. A few years ago, a committee was formed to choose the successor of the popular Mooru savira matha at Huballi. Dingaleshwara swami wanted to be considered for the position, but he was rejected, and he reportedly blames the Thontadarya swamis for the snub.

“The committee took the call. But this idea that we blocked his chances is so firmly embedded in his brain, he keeps sniping at us,” said the senior official at Thontadarya matha.

Dingaleshwara swami did not return calls when this reporter reached out for comments. Most devotees of the mathas seem to be steering clear of the controversy.

A Muslim devotee of Shirahatti matha said, “We respect Thontadarya matha as much as we respect Fakireshwara matha. There was no need for this controversy.”

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