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Half and Half: A community that is both Hindu and Muslim

The Cheeta-Merat(Kathat)community of Ajmer, Rajasthan practice a unique syncretic religion combining Hinduism and Islam

Ishmeet Nagpal 07 Dec 2019

RajasthanImage Courtesy: theindianfeed.in

With a population of almost 400,000, the Cheeta-Merat a.k.a. Kathat community is spread across 160 villages in Ajmer and Bewar towns of Rajasthan’s Ajmer district. The Cheeta and the Merat are two separate clans who intermarry with each other. Most of them are small peasants and landless labourers. They call themselves Chauhan Rajputs, and identify their religion as ‘Hindu-Muslim’, or either ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’ or simply ‘Cheeta-Merat’. The community supposedly descended from Prithviraj Chauhan. The popular theory about the Cheeta-Merat is that their ancestor Har Raj voluntarily converted to Islam at the hands of the renowned Sufi, Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer. This is why, it is argued, he is also known as Pir Har Raj, having received the honorific title of Pir, which is used for a Muslim saint.

The Kathat community is said to follow the footsteps of Pir Har Raj who accepted three rules of Islam- khatna (male circumcision), dafan (burial after death), and eating Halal meat. The Kathat people have mixed Hindu-Muslim names, follow Hindu as well as Muslim traditions, celebrate all festivals, and even have weddings with both Nikah (Muslim wedding ceremony) and Pheras (Hindu wedding ceremony) as rituals.

A majority of the community is dedicated to maintain the syncretic Hindu-Muslim traditions, citing the promise that their ancestor, Pir Har Raj, is said to have made to a ‘Muslim Sultan’. To abandon the Islamic customs that their ancestor had adopted, they believed, would be to go against his wishes. However, things began to change from the mid-1980s, when both Hindu and Muslim revivalist organizations entered the Cheeta-Merat belt in order to win the community to their respective folds.

In an eye opening documentary shared by PSBT India, the confusion and dilemmacreated by Hindu and Muslim organizations is as clear as it is disturbing. As Radhika Saraf, a young photographer from Mumbai who spent time with this community, puts it, “It seemed as if the Kathat community were elastic, being stretched on both sides until it would finally break. This community is on the edge, under attack and soft target to accomplish what Hindu and Muslim sectarian groups seek- power and mass.”

So, on one side, as children are educated about the Quran in Madrasas, slogans of “Dharamaantaran band karo (stop religious conversion)” erupt from the schools funded by Vishwa Hindu Parishad. The children of the community have been reduced to pawn pieces in this decades-long chess game of religious divide.

The core Kathat community is adamant to hold on to their syncretic and harmonious ways. “We say Ram-Ram to Hindus and salam to Muslims. We hold a laddu in each of our hands”, says resident Salim Khan commenting on the contradictory appeals of Hindu and Muslim revivalist groups competing with each other.

For some Cheeta-Merats a new, more distinct Hindu, particularly Rajput, identity is also a means for asserting a claim to upward social mobility and a quest to be more accepted by the surrounding Hindu community. The pressure exerted from VHP and the Muslim Jamaat organizations is tremendous- with bribery, coercion, social banishment, all in play.

What is happening to the Kathat community can almost be used as a small-scale primer to understand the overall communal tension in India. In fear of losing their identity, most factions cling even closer to the radical and aggressive beliefs of their respective religions because any ambiguity hurts them. Religion becomes more than their personal choice as it determines social standing and ties to their community, also enabling them to feel accepted and secure in their immediate society. Religion brings people together in a unit which can defend them against external attack. With the possibility of literal or figurative attacks rising, everyone feels the need to belong to a team to feel safe. If they were all to follow the example of the Kathat community and practice traditions from two religions, they would end up being a battleground too. So what results is overcompensation and a sense of competition from religious groups borne out of fear, to ‘preserve’ their numbers.

In the Cheeta-Merat community, while the VHP conducts “Shuddhi (purification rituals)” and “Ghar waapsi (returning home)”, while reciting ‘Dharamaantaran band karo’ in the same breath, logic and irony take a blow. The Madrassas meanwhile influence the children to accept Islam exclusively and cut ties with families who have aligned themselves to Hinduism by not getting their children circumcised. Confusions come to a head when the offspring reach marriageable age and they realize no family is willing to wed their daughter to them unless they are circumcised and then last-minute circumcisions are carried out before the wedding.

It is not easy to polarize a tightly knit community but the fundamentalism from both sides has made a dent over the last 30 years. As the Kathat people struggle to retain their simple and harmonious lives, the tug of war rages on. Resident Buland Khan states simply, “Some of us are Muslims and others are Hindus, like me and my nephew here. But still we live together in harmony. We interdine and we intermarry. Religion is a personal issue and does not affect our relations.” If only this could become every Indian’s mantra!

Related:

Hindus and Muslims help renovate a gurudwara in Pakistan
Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb: Muslims help with Guru Nanak Jayanti celebrations
“Allah and Ram are one”: Muslim youth who cleans mosques and temples
Maulvi inaugurates temple that Muslims helped restore after demolition
In Tamil Nadu, Hindus observe ‘Allah Festival’ on eve of Muharram

Half and Half: A community that is both Hindu and Muslim

The Cheeta-Merat(Kathat)community of Ajmer, Rajasthan practice a unique syncretic religion combining Hinduism and Islam

RajasthanImage Courtesy: theindianfeed.in

With a population of almost 400,000, the Cheeta-Merat a.k.a. Kathat community is spread across 160 villages in Ajmer and Bewar towns of Rajasthan’s Ajmer district. The Cheeta and the Merat are two separate clans who intermarry with each other. Most of them are small peasants and landless labourers. They call themselves Chauhan Rajputs, and identify their religion as ‘Hindu-Muslim’, or either ‘Hindu’ or ‘Muslim’ or simply ‘Cheeta-Merat’. The community supposedly descended from Prithviraj Chauhan. The popular theory about the Cheeta-Merat is that their ancestor Har Raj voluntarily converted to Islam at the hands of the renowned Sufi, Hazrat Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer. This is why, it is argued, he is also known as Pir Har Raj, having received the honorific title of Pir, which is used for a Muslim saint.

The Kathat community is said to follow the footsteps of Pir Har Raj who accepted three rules of Islam- khatna (male circumcision), dafan (burial after death), and eating Halal meat. The Kathat people have mixed Hindu-Muslim names, follow Hindu as well as Muslim traditions, celebrate all festivals, and even have weddings with both Nikah (Muslim wedding ceremony) and Pheras (Hindu wedding ceremony) as rituals.

A majority of the community is dedicated to maintain the syncretic Hindu-Muslim traditions, citing the promise that their ancestor, Pir Har Raj, is said to have made to a ‘Muslim Sultan’. To abandon the Islamic customs that their ancestor had adopted, they believed, would be to go against his wishes. However, things began to change from the mid-1980s, when both Hindu and Muslim revivalist organizations entered the Cheeta-Merat belt in order to win the community to their respective folds.

In an eye opening documentary shared by PSBT India, the confusion and dilemmacreated by Hindu and Muslim organizations is as clear as it is disturbing. As Radhika Saraf, a young photographer from Mumbai who spent time with this community, puts it, “It seemed as if the Kathat community were elastic, being stretched on both sides until it would finally break. This community is on the edge, under attack and soft target to accomplish what Hindu and Muslim sectarian groups seek- power and mass.”

So, on one side, as children are educated about the Quran in Madrasas, slogans of “Dharamaantaran band karo (stop religious conversion)” erupt from the schools funded by Vishwa Hindu Parishad. The children of the community have been reduced to pawn pieces in this decades-long chess game of religious divide.

The core Kathat community is adamant to hold on to their syncretic and harmonious ways. “We say Ram-Ram to Hindus and salam to Muslims. We hold a laddu in each of our hands”, says resident Salim Khan commenting on the contradictory appeals of Hindu and Muslim revivalist groups competing with each other.

For some Cheeta-Merats a new, more distinct Hindu, particularly Rajput, identity is also a means for asserting a claim to upward social mobility and a quest to be more accepted by the surrounding Hindu community. The pressure exerted from VHP and the Muslim Jamaat organizations is tremendous- with bribery, coercion, social banishment, all in play.

What is happening to the Kathat community can almost be used as a small-scale primer to understand the overall communal tension in India. In fear of losing their identity, most factions cling even closer to the radical and aggressive beliefs of their respective religions because any ambiguity hurts them. Religion becomes more than their personal choice as it determines social standing and ties to their community, also enabling them to feel accepted and secure in their immediate society. Religion brings people together in a unit which can defend them against external attack. With the possibility of literal or figurative attacks rising, everyone feels the need to belong to a team to feel safe. If they were all to follow the example of the Kathat community and practice traditions from two religions, they would end up being a battleground too. So what results is overcompensation and a sense of competition from religious groups borne out of fear, to ‘preserve’ their numbers.

In the Cheeta-Merat community, while the VHP conducts “Shuddhi (purification rituals)” and “Ghar waapsi (returning home)”, while reciting ‘Dharamaantaran band karo’ in the same breath, logic and irony take a blow. The Madrassas meanwhile influence the children to accept Islam exclusively and cut ties with families who have aligned themselves to Hinduism by not getting their children circumcised. Confusions come to a head when the offspring reach marriageable age and they realize no family is willing to wed their daughter to them unless they are circumcised and then last-minute circumcisions are carried out before the wedding.

It is not easy to polarize a tightly knit community but the fundamentalism from both sides has made a dent over the last 30 years. As the Kathat people struggle to retain their simple and harmonious lives, the tug of war rages on. Resident Buland Khan states simply, “Some of us are Muslims and others are Hindus, like me and my nephew here. But still we live together in harmony. We interdine and we intermarry. Religion is a personal issue and does not affect our relations.” If only this could become every Indian’s mantra!

Related:

Hindus and Muslims help renovate a gurudwara in Pakistan
Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb: Muslims help with Guru Nanak Jayanti celebrations
“Allah and Ram are one”: Muslim youth who cleans mosques and temples
Maulvi inaugurates temple that Muslims helped restore after demolition
In Tamil Nadu, Hindus observe ‘Allah Festival’ on eve of Muharram

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