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The Festival of Pirs is an ethnographic study of the religious life of the village of Gugudu in Andhra Pradesh. It focuses on the public event of Muharram, which is practiced by urban Shi'i communities across South Asia, but takes on a strikingly different color in Gugudu because of the central place of a local pir, or saint, called Kullayappa. The story of Kullayappa is pivotal in Gugudu's religious culture, effectively displacing the better-known story of Imam Hussain from Shi'a Islam, and each year 300,000 pilgrims from across South India visit this remote village to express their devotion to Kullayappa. As with many villages in South India, Gugudu is mostly populated by non-Muslims, yet Muslim rituals and practices play a crucial role in its devotion. In the words of one devotee, "There is no Hindu or Muslim. They all have one religion, which is called 'Kullayappa devotion (bhakti).'" Afsar Mohammad explores how the diverse religious life in the village of Gugudu expands our notions of devotion to the martyrs of Karbala, not only in this particular village but also in the wider world.
Afsar Mohammad is Lecturer in Asian Studies at the University of Texas at Austin.