Friday, February 18, 2011

The Life and Time of Abdul Wahid Radhu, the last Caravaneer

Abdul Wahid's family in Lhasa
I have just been informed that Khwaja Abdul Wahid Radhu passed away on February 14, 2011. He was between 92 and 94 according to official records and family lore respectively. 
He had a great life closely linked to the history of Modern Tibet. 
In the 1940's, he became friend with Bapa Phuntso Wangyal, Amdo Gedun Choepell and many others.
His son, Prof. Siddiq Wahid, till recently Vice-Chancellor of the Islamic University of Science and Technology in Avantipura (Kashmir) says: "His intellectual legacy to us is one of always saying a loud 'yes!' to life, avoiding self-indulgence of any kind and never compromising with political injustice. His passing away was both peaceful and beautiful; he 'breathed his last' with amazing awareness."
I personally believe that he was a sufi master, like his grand-father.
A couple of years ago, I went to Srinagar to meet him and later wrote a long article on his most remarkable life. I am copying here the first paras. The link to the entire article is given at the end.

[Excerpts]
Some encounters are different. The one with Abdul Wahid Radhu will always remain very special for me. One of the reasons might be that for the past twenty years or so, I read a lot about him and hoped to meet him one day; however circumstances and 'life' (or karma) had not permitted it.
Despite (or because of) his advanced age, this human being — very few such beings still exist today in our world of narrow-mindedness — who has been one of the last caravaneers of Central Asia and Tibet, can today look at his life and the historical events which changed the face of Asia with a certain detachment.
Abdul Wahid had the privilege to witness and even sometimes to be an actor in dramatic events that not only marked his native Ladakh for ever, but also the entire sub-continent, as well as Tibet and the whole Asia.
Born in Leh in the province of Ladakh of the Jammu and Kashmir State, Abdul Wahid Radhu received his higher education from the Aligargh Muslim University where he lived in the midst of intellectual and emotional ferment; he saw the first ripples of the movement which was to shake the entire sub-continent: the creation of Pakistan, or the Partition of India into two separate States, forever enemies since then. The young Abdul traveled with the one of the last caravans paying tribute from the Kings of the Ladakh’s tribute to the Dalai Lamas in Lhasa every three years The educated Ladakhi was present in the Tibetan capital when the Chinese invaded the Roof of the World, supposedly "to liberate” the Himalayan nation from imperialist influence.

He was then a friend with the Dalai Lama’s family and most of the Tibetan aristocratic families. He was very much a part of the Tibetan Muslim community, very liberal and in many ways remarkably integrated with a Buddhist Roof of the World. Abdul Wahid also had the occasion to exchange ideas and share the aspirations of a group of young Tibetan rebels living in exile in Kalimpong in North India in the forties. They wanted the Roof of the World to participate to the new world stake as they had realized that the world was changing rapidly; they all dreamt of a modern and more democratic Tibet.
He related to us his exceptional life.
It is during the 18th century, Sheikh Asad Abdul, the ancestor of Abdul Wahid migrated to Ladakh and established a trading house. It is said that a Persian inscription on the Sunni mosque in Leh mentions his name. Asad Abdul’s father, Sheikh Muhammad Radhu was an important religious personality of the Kashmir Valley. The tradition reports that he would have been the one who deposited a hair of the Prophet in the famous Hazratbal mosque in Srinagar. Abdul Wahid says that the Radhu family can trace its ancestors to a family of Kashmiri Pandits. They were known as the Trakru before converting to Islam. Sheikh Asad’s son, Faruq Radhu became the first caravaneer of the family.
Thanks to him, the name of Radhu acquired a great notoriety on the tracks and trails of Central Asia and Tibet. At the same time, others branches of the family began to open businesses beyond the Karakoram pass, in Kashgar or Yarkand in Eastern Turkistan . Most of them married in these distant regions and got integrated in the local society. The Radhu’s blood began flowing in many towns and trading centers of Central Asia and Tibet. Apparently, a branch of the family still resides in Xinjiang today, a few remain in occupied Tibet, while another lives again in the Kashmir Valley where we met Abdul Wahid.
While Faruq Radhu’s two elder sons, Haider Shah and Nasr Shah decided to settle in Ladakh, another brother left for Tibet where he married a Muslim Chinese girl. The relations, mainly business ones, between the cousins living in Tibet and the Ladakhi branch remained close; the family continued thus to spread and prosper.
Haider Shah’s son, migrated to Tsetang, a small town situated south of Lhasa and married a Tibetan Buddhist. In Leh, the Radhus were an envied lot. They owned the most beautiful properties and their coveted merchandises from all corners of Asia filled up their warehouses.
It is in this cosmopolitan environment that the young Abdul Wahid grew. Several of his close relatives served the British Administration or the Maharaja of Kashmir, though there were always two divergent opinions in the family: while some thought that it was necessary to give to the children a ‘modern’ education, in other words a British education, others believed that a more traditional training as of caravaneer and trader was enough to carry on with the family trade.
Haji Muhammad Siddiq, the grandfather of Abdul, whom the latter adulated, strongly believed that it was more important to preserve the family traditions. But the young Abdul wanted to see the world and even learn the language of the British. His grandfather tried for a time to oppose young Wahid’s departure to Srinagar, but finally he had no choice but to abandon his grand son to ‘his fate’: "My grandfather was a patriarch that reigned on a household of about twenty persons. He was the one of most eminent and popular personalities in Leh. Till his death, he was rather happy to have been able to preserve the family traditions", recalls Abdul nearly eighty years later. When he arrived for the first time in the big city of Srinagar, the capital of the State of Jammu and Kashmir, Abdul made an extraordinary discovery: his cousin Ataullah could ride "a vehicle on wheels. He jumped on the machine. I never had seen such a thing”. It was a bicycle…
Ataullah "mounted it, rushed, and fast as an arrow, he disappeared in a bend; suddenly he appeared in the opposite direction, driving at a staggering speed, until he came back to us. His demonstration stunned me." Abdul had begun his discovery the world; he would soon be initiated to a myriad of new things such as electricity, telephone, radio transmission, movie and even motor vehicles. Abdul remembers now that after a few days, he was already used to it. Today the wise man says, "It is only inner discoveries that one never tires of".
Ataullah, who for the past two years had attended a high school managed by the missionaries in Srinagar, quickly initiated the young Ladakhi to his new life. It should however be mentioned that very few youngsters from the high Himalayan mountains where timelessness ruled life, had the opportunity to attend western schools. The two cousins were a rare exception.
During their childhood years in Ladakh, their contact with ‘outside’ was extremely limited. Beyond the massive ranges there were usually only tracks and tracks again.
In Lhasa, the situation was slightly different. As the Muslim community was larger, madrassas (primary Koranic schools) were opened. The students were taught about the Koran and the pillars of Islam, particularly how to offer namaz (prayers). Apart from Tibetan language, Urdu was part of the main curriculum. Before the Chinese invasion, there were two madrassas in Lhasa and one in Shigatse.
Like their young colleagues in Srinagar, the Kache students were sent to India to join institutes of higher Islamic learning such as Darul-Uloom in Deoband, Nadwatul-Ulema in Lucknow or Jamia Millia Islamia in New Delhi. Researchers have found the attendance of two foreign students: a Burmese and a Tibetan, in the 1875 Annual Report of Darul-Uloom Institute. Jamia Millia Islamia received its first batch of Tibetan students in 1945.
The difference between the Kache youth and our Ladakhi friends was that the latter had attended a Christian Missionary school in Kashmir and had received their primary education in English.
When Ataullah left Srinagar to enter Aligarh University, the blow was hard for Abdul Wahid. At first, he had no choice but to get use to his lonely schoolboy existence though he finally made some friends. It is symbolic of Kashmir before the venom of separateness entered the Valley, that the principal of the Christian school was a Brahmin octogenarian, the respected Pandit Shankar Kaul. The Himalayan children were taught not only Urdu language, but Persian literature as well. The school however insisted on the importance of the English language as a medium. Abdul remembers: "The history courses were centered on England and the British empire. In a way, it was organized to make of us all good servants of the British."
As often with the Ladakhis, the young Abdul did not have an easy rapport with his Kashmiri schoolmates, though they belonged to the same Muslim faith. Most of his friends were, like him, natives of the highlands such as Gilgit, Hunza, Astor or Punyal . There was a deep solidarity and camaraderie between the ‘Himalayans’ who had come from regions so unlike the rest India or even the Kashmir Valley. Their way of thinking, of eating, of behaving, the way they perceived the world was simply different.
What his grandfather had dreaded was fast happening: "At that time, all of us went through a very strong attraction for the West, the ‘modern world’… We were anxious to dress like Europeans and for most of us, the highest ambition was to join one day the British administration. Waiting for that day, our uppermost dream, the greatest privilege of all, was to be on the list of those who every year were selected to go London with a scholarship granted by the Government of the Maharaja. For us, England was at the center of all our thoughts."
While he prepared his entry examination to Aligarh Muslim University, Abdul one day received the news that his grandfather was dying. Although the results were awaited any day, he had no choice but to leave immediately for Ladakh and thanks to his family contacts, he could use the ‘express way’ of the postal services. In seven days, he was in Leh. Being the only male descendant, his grandfather thought that Abdul Wahid would now take care of the family heritage and business. Decades later, Wahid wrote: "When Haji Muhammad Siddiq was alive, we did not realize fully the inestimable values that he embodied; often we did not listen to his advices and sometimes we even deliberately opposed his ideas and his principles. Indeed, we were all in love with western modernity."
Muhammad Siddiq died in May 1937, a few days after his grandson had reached Leh. The old man left his terrestrial sheath like the wise Sufi he was. With a perfect lucidity, he told his entourage: "Now my sight is dissipating, my sense of smell slowly disappears. The last moment approaches.” He asked for his grandson who, too frightened by the proximity of death, did not immediately come to his bedside.
Decades later, Abdul wrote: "I often wondered if Haji Muhammad Siddiq did not wanted to transmit me a tradition, maybe of initiatory character, for he was connected with the Tariqa Chishti, the Indian Sufi Brotherhood. Maybe also it was his intention to teach me to recite a special prayer". Later, Abdul Wahid while emptying the attic of their Leh residence found one of these Sufi texts. Since that day, he daily recites it: "to try to make amends for the mistake committed by not replying to the patriarch’s ultimate call."
The death of Muhammad Siddiq was for the family the beginning of the end of the epoch of the great caravans; it was only a question of some years before the century-old tradition completely disappeared. Soon disputes erupted between the different members of the clan; nothing would be like before.
The world around had began to spin faster and faster and the remote Himalayan valleys were not spared. This was the time when the Valley of Kashmir saw its first ‘democratic’ movements led by a charismatic leader called Sheikh Mohamed Abdullah who was to play an important political role during the following years.
At the end of the thirties and early forties, the Muslim population of Ladakh was an integral part of the society; they still lived in harmony with the followers of the other religions, primarily the Buddhists. In many ways they embodied a symbiosis of Buddhist and Islamic cultures. When one meets Abdul Wahid, one realizes that his immense admiration for his grandfather was due to the fact that Muhammad Siddiq was the perfect example of a typically Ladakhi combination. The old caravaneer was both a Tibetan by race and culture and a Muslim by religion: "His face, his clothing, his behavior, the way in which he had furnished and decorated his house where everyone was welcome, were Tibetan. He always appeared dressed in a gown similar to the Tibetan one, but as a headgear he wore a white turban."
Wahid adds: "In addition, and this may have appeared unbelievable in an Indian society compartmented by classes, there were marriages between families of the two communities. "
Having passed successfully his entrance examination and after some months spent in the enchanting surroundings of Leh, the young Wahid decided to join his cousin in Aligarh. A new life was beginning for him.
In Aligarh, Abdul Wahid discovered the tremendous influence of Western thought in Indian Islam. Much later, the young Ladakhi realized that the religious beliefs of leaders of the Muslim University, wanting to project themselves as tolerant towards Christianity and modern ideas, "remained in reality superficial and incapable of guaranteeing the preservation of our cultural identity in front of the intellectual enticements of the West."
In the room that he shared with his cousin, he often participated in long discussions on the meaning of ‘modernity’ and what he conceived then to be "the summits of the human thought." These western influences reigned supreme amongst intellectual Muslims of that time; for them the British civilization represented the peak of societal evolution. Ironically, it was the same intellectuals who were at the origin of the concept of Pakistan, a ‘separate and modern State’ for the Muslims in the sub-continent. One of the characteristics of the teaching of Aligarh was a "constant usage of Western thought as reference.” Wahid explains that for these intellectuals, Western thought offered the deepest criteria to judge the validity of any knowledge, even when it came to the understanding of philosophies flowing from typically Eastern reflection or similarly for Islam.
The main mentor or intellectual leader of the University was Muhammad Iqbal. Although considered by many as the most important Muslim reformist of the 20th century, he is viewed by others as the spiritual father of Pakistan. Abdul feels that Iqbal "favoured of a form political activism among the Muslims, thereby contributing to popularize the idea that they constituted a nation separate from the other communities living on the sub-continent." He adds "his prestige was considerable among my generation’s students. As early as 1947, many of them declared themselves Pakistan nationals. For their career, they left their native regions in India for the newly formed State of Pakistan."
He still believes that the main preoccupation of most of the history and philosophy professors was to reconstruct or rewrite the religious thought of Islam. They considered it necessary to ‘reinterpret traditional Islam in a modern way’. Abdul said that they commented "with sympathy of the theories of a Nietzsche, qualified by them of ‘modern prophet’, of a Bergson and even of a Freud." Many years later, while the Ladakhi served the Dalai Lama, who had left Tibet to take refuge in India, Abdul Wahid learnt than the Tibetan leader had also studied western philosophers such as Kant, Nietzsche or Bergson. He sent him a note: "These philosophers are henchmen of the devil. For God’s sake, Your Holiness, please realize the level of lowness they are in comparison with the timeless wisdom Your Holiness represents."
Click here to read the entire text of my article on Abdul Wahid Radhu.

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