Hazrat Babajan was a Pashtun Muslim saint considered by her followers to be a sadguru or qutub.
Early life and realization
The earliest recorded account of Hazrat Babajan, who was named at birth Gulrukh, "Face like a Rose", states that she "is the daughter of one of the ministers of the Amir of Afghanistan". Later accounts report that Babajan "hails from Afghanistan … and was the daughter of a well-to-do Afghan of noble lineage"; "born to a royal Muslim family of Baluchistan." The precise date of Babajan’s birth is unclear. Biography variants range from 1790 to c. 1820. Her education was in keeping with her family's social status of that time, and well-educated, she was fluent in Arabic, Persian and Urdu, in addition to her native Pashtu. She was also a hafizah, one who learns the Quran by heart. An introspective child, and spiritually inclined, from "early life she developed mystical tendencies, and unlike girls of her age, she used to pass a good deal of her time in prayers, meditation and solitude."
Following the conventions of Afghan nobility, Babajan was reared under the strict purdah tradition, in which women were secluded from the outside world, and also subservient to a custom of arranged marriages. She opposed an unwelcome marriage planned for her, and ran away from home on her wedding day at the age of eighteen. Disguised in her burqa, she journeyed to Peshawar, the frontier city at the foot of the Khyber Pass. It was in or near Peshawar that she eventually came into contact with a Hindu sadguru. Following instruction from the guru, "she went into seclusion in a nearby mountain outside Rawalpindi and underwent very severe [riyazat] (spiritual austerities) for nearly seventeen months. Thereafter she came down to [the] Punjab and stayed a few months in Multan. It was in Multan, while [Babajan] was 37 years of age, she contacted a Muslim saint … who put end to her spiritual struggle by giving her God-realisation." After that experience she returned to Rawalpindi to reconnect with the Hindu guru who, after several years, helped her return to normal consciousness.
Travels and pilgrimages
After a second stay in Rawalpindi with her earlier Hindu master, Babajan embarked on several long journeys through the Middle Eastern countries Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. "It is said that she traveled to Mecca disguised as a man [apparently to avoid detection] by way of Afghanistan, Iran, Turkey and doubling back into Arabia." At the Kaaba, she offered salat (prayers) five times a day, always sitting at one selected spot. While in Mecca, Babajan often gathered food for the poor and personally nursed pilgrims who had fallen ill.
From Mecca, Babajan made pilgrimage to the tomb of the Islamic prophet Muhammad in Medina, where she adopted the same routine of offering prayers and caring for fellow pilgrims. Leaving Arabia, she passed through Baghdad, Iraq and back to the Punjab. She then traveled south to Nasik and established herself in Panchavati. From Nasik, Babajan traveled on to Bombay, where she stayed for some time and her fame grew.
In April 1903, she made a second pilgrimage to Mecca, this time sailing from Bombay on the SS Hyderi. About 1904, Babajan returned to Bombay and soon afterward proceeded to Ajmer in northern India to pay homage at the tomb of the Sufi saint Moinuddin Chishti who established the Chishti Order of Islam in India. From Ajmer she again returned to Bombay and then soon after traveled west to Pune.
Residence in Pune
Babajan under her neem tree in Char Bavadi, Poona
By 1905 Babajan arrived in Pune, where she established her final residence. Now an old woman, her back slightly bent, shoulders rounded, with white matted hair, and shabbily dressed, she "was seen sitting or resting at odd places, in different parts of the City." Babajan finally located to a slum area called Char Bawdi (Four Wells) on Malcolm Tank Road, part of a British Army cantonment.
The Char Bawdi area at that time has been described as "a picture of dirt, desolation and ugliness, a breeding spot of plague and pestilence and a regular haunt of dangerous riff-raffs by night." After several months’ exposure to the natural elements, Babajan grudgingly allowed her devotees to build a basic shelter of gunny sacks above her. Children were in the habit of throwing stones at her. She was a homeless faqir; she knew how they lived. The gifts from her devotees were shared among the poor and destitute, and in some instances stolen from her by thieves. She remained indifferent to the material offerings or the loss. Gradually, out of devotion, or mere curiosity, increasing numbers of people from Pune and elsewhere sought her out. Several alleged miracles have been attributed to Babajan.
According to one observer, within a decade of Babajan taking residence "the [Char Bawdi] locality underwent a metamorphosis surpassing all expectations. What with the featural changes in the buildings all around, electrified tea-shops ringing with the clatter of cups and saucers, a concourse of peoples consisting of all ranks and creeds waiting for Babajan’s darshana, a street bard entertaining the crowd with his music, the beggars clamouring for alms, easy-going idlers standing indiscriminately hampering vehicular traffic and the whole atmosphere heavily laden with sweet burning incense perpetually kept burning near Babajan, presented a scene typically Eastern, leaving an indelible impression on one’s memory.
In 1930, several months before Babajan died, then journalist Paul Brunton visited her. He wrote, "She lies, in full view of passers-by, upon a low divan. . . Her head is propped by pillows. The lustrous whiteness of her silky hair offers sad contrast to the heavily wrinkled face and seamed brow." The meeting was brief. Yet Brunton was clearly emotionally affected, and afterwards, in his hotel room, he reflected: "That some deep psychological attainment really resides in the depths of her being, I am certain."
On 18 September 1931, one of Babajan’s fingers was operated on at Sassoon Hospital, but afterwards she did not appear to be recovering. According to one version, a few days before she died, Babajan muttered, "It is time … time for me to leave now. The work is over … I must close the shop." One of the devotees pleaded, "Do not say such things Babajan, we need you with us." But she cryptically replied, "Nobody, nobody wants my wares. Nobody can afford the price. I have turned my goods over to the Proprietor."
Shrine in Pune
Hazrat Babajan died in the Char Bawdi section of Pune on 21 September 1931. On Wednesday, 23 September, The Evening News of India reported her death. The newspaper article informed that the "Muslim community in [Pune] has been greatly moved by the death of the famous saint…. Her funeral yesterday … was very largely attended with thousands of people both Muslims and Hindus taking part in the procession." The white marble dargah (shrine) of Babajan was built alongside the neem tree under which she had sat for so many years, by the roadside which is now a busy thoroughfare. "It is a small one roomed dargah with the turbat [grave] placed under a tree. The trunk of the tree emerges through the rooftop." Her dargah is frequented by people of all religions.
Master to Meher Baba
Hazrat Babajan is most notable as the original master of Meher Baba.
In May 1913, Merwan Sheriar Irani, then nineteen years old, was riding his bicycle on the way to class at Deccan College, when he looked up and saw an old woman sitting under a neem tree surrounded by a crowd. He had cycled past on previous occasions but had never paid much attention to her, though he was aware that she was regarded by some as a Muslim saint; yet others thought her "a mad woman or a witch or sorceress." His father, Sheriar Irani, held Babajan in high regard. Born into a Zoroastrian family, Sheriar Irani had been an itinerant dervish for a number of years before finally settling in Pune and marrying. Babajan beckoned Merwan, who in turn was drawn towards her. For several months thereafter Merwan Irani would visit the saint; they would sit together yet seldom spoke. One night during January 1914, he was about to leave, and before doing so kissed Babajan’s hands, and she in turn held his face in her hands. She then kissed him on the forehead, during which he received her spiritual grace (barakah). The event subsequently left Merwan Irani in an enraptured state in which he remained abstracted from his normal surroundings for nearly nine months. The young man would later become known as Meher Baba.