The Madaris of India

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    You don't hear of them much these days, but there was a time when the ‘Madari’ was a character you would frequently encounter on the streets, in children's stories, or even in Hindi films. A generic term used to refer to street performers, often accompanied by performing animals (monkeys and bears), few realise, that the term ‘Madari' is actually quite historic. Originally, it referred to the followers of a 14th century Sufi saint called ‘Shah Madar' from Syria. The story of how his followers evolved, took up arms against the British and eventually lent their name to street performers is quite a tale.

    Originally the term Madari referred to the followers of a Sufi saint called ‘Shah Madar’ from Syria

    Not much is known of the early history of Hazrat Syed Badiuddin, the 14th century Sufi saint who was also known as ‘Shah Madar’. His dargah today stands at Makanpur, in the Kanpur district of Uttar Pradesh.

    Records say that he was born in the city of Aleppo, Syria and arrived in India sometime during the reign of Sultan Firuz Shah Tughlaq who ruled between 1351 and 1388 CE. In India, he travelled to various places such as Surat, Ajmer, Kalpi (UP), Jaunpur, finally setting base at Makanpur in the present day district of Kanpur, where he set up a khanqah (religious assembly). Over time his followers came to be known as Madaris (after his title ‘Shah Madar’). He passed away in 1436 CE, and the khanqah became a Dargah with his grave, where pilgrims came.

    The Madarriya order of Sufism, which Shah Madar established was different from the other Sufi groups such as the Chishtis of North India or the Nimatullahs of the Deccan. It was far more syncretic and followed many practices similar to those followed by Naga Sanyasis. The madaris too smeared their bodies with ash and consumed hemp (bhang). They were also known to perform spectacular feats - walk on flames and perform magic tricks. Those who were not as skilled, would perform tricks with monkeys and bears. As a result, over centuries, the word ‘Madari’ became a generic term to refer to all jugglers and street performers.

    The madaris too smeared their bodies with ash and consumed hemp

    The Madarriya order reached the height of its power and influence under the patronage of Mughal emperor Akbar, who was known to generously support khanqahs and dargahs. Vast lands and grants were given by Akbar to the Madari shrines, including the main dargah at Makanpur. Such was the importance of the Madari order, that the patronage was continued by all Mughal emperors, right upto the reign of Emperor Alamgir II (1699-1759). It even continued under the Nawabs of Bengal and Awadh.

    In the 1770s, the Madaris made their mark, when they participated in the Fakir-Sanyasi revolt, against the British East India company. Though you will find little about it in history books, this was an important movement, that inspired many others. At that time, a fakir named Majnu Shah was the head of the Madariyya order, based in Makanpur. He sent Madari ascetics, to fight in the Battle of Buxar (1764), on the side of the Awadh army, against the British. However, the British won complete control of Bengal and their further exploitation and mismanagement, led to the great Bengal famine of 1770, which wiped out a third of Bengal’s population.

    In the 1770s, a fakir named Majnu Shah was the head of the Madariyya order

    Majnu Shah, joined forced with Hindu Sanyasis and fought a guerrilla war against the British for fifteen long years between 1771 to 1786. This became known as the ‘Fakir-Sanyasi’ revolt. During this movement, armed ascetics would raid the British kacheris and ambush British patrols and attack other establishments, finally retreating into the forests. The fights continued till 1786, when Majnu Shah was severely wounded in battle and had to retreat to the dargah at Makanpur, where he died two years later in 1788. Years later, Majnu Shah’s revolt would inspire another group of fakirs to take up arms against the British in North Bengal. That would come to be called the revolt of the Pagal Panthis.

    Today, the Madariyya order is still thriving in parts of North India, and every year, thousands attend the annual Urs at the shrine of Shah Madar.

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