A Hindu-Muslim peace stitched by lovely threads

From her tidy home, Naseem Bano stitches imaginative jungle-patterns of embroidery and lace that can only be found in Lucknow.

Like many Muslim experts in the craft known as chikan work, Ms. Bano depends on Hindu shopkeepers to sell her wares. And Hindu shopkeepers depend on Muslim artisans like Bano to provide embroidered cloth to sell. In many ways, chikan is the very fabric of Lucknow, keeping it peaceful while other towns burn with communal Hindu-Muslim violence.

"Chikan embroidery holds this community together," says Ms. Bano, as her husband, S.H. Rizvi, shows examples of their national award-winning work.

The peace in Lucknow is all the more striking, since the root cause of Hindu-Muslim strife is just two hours away in Ayodhya, where Hindu nationalists are preparing for a controversial prayer ceremony Friday at the site of a 16th- century mosque that was razed by Hindus in 1992, igniting riots that killed 3,000. Hindus believe it is the birth place of the god Ram. On Wednesday, India's high court is due to consider whether the ceremony is legal.

While Hindu mobs in the western state of Gujarat continue rampaging in villages, killing Muslims in revenge for the Feb. 27 massacre of Hindu pilgrims, and the death toll climbs past 700, the citizens of Lucknow have staged peace marches and maintained a peaceful status quo.

Theirs is a culture of coexistence that permeates every activity of daily life, from daily business to religious worship. And nowhere is the interweaving of communities more obvious than in Lucknow's famous chikan embroidery.

In Saguna Rastogi's shop, Chikan Plaza, salesmen unfurl dozens of cotton outfits fit for a maharani, or Hindu princess. The customers are Hindus, choosing outfits for their soon-to-be married daughter. The outfits they are examining - some with glittering silver and cotton-stitched paisleys - were all embroidered by Muslims who make up the bulk of Lucknow's chikan workers.

"We are sentimentally attached to the Muslim families," says Saguna Rastogi, owner of Chikan Plaza. "We attend their marriage ceremonies and festivals, and they come to our temples. Some of these families have lived and worked next to each other for 250 years, so they know each other very well. When new families move in, they adapt to the culture."

In a back-alley workshop, Rajkumar Chandiramani inspects the work of young men stitching creamy mother-of-pearl-style sequins into a pale green traditional sari dress.

"When you depend on Muslims for your business, you have no interest in all this political agitation," says Mr. Chandiramani, who owns a chikan shop called Chintan Creations. "Lovely work, isn't it?"

Mutual tolerance is woven into this community, with threads reaching back for hundreds of years. No one knows when chikan embroidery began here, but legend has it that one of the nawabs, or Mogul governors, married a Persian princess 200 years ago. With nearly 30 wives vying for his attention, the Persian bride embroidered him a cap, and he liked it so much she became the favorite.

Whatever the history, it is clear that chikan is one of many crafts and businesses where Hindus and Muslims blend their talents and set communalism aside.

The tone, researchers say, was set at the top. While other Muslim conquerors ruled Indian regions through fear, destroying Hindu temples and converting thousands by the sword, the nawabs who ruled Lucknow preferred a more tolerant brand of Islam called Sufism. They built Hindu temples and Muslim mosques, and hired Hindu administrators. They believed that God communicated to man in a state of ecstacy - through poetry, dance, and song.

In the treasure house of the Lucknow nawab's summer palace, some of his descendants have gathered to recite poetry and talk about Lucknow as it once was, and India today.

"Unless there is trust among people, this sort of bond can never be there," says Jafar Mir Abdullah, who retains a symbolic title. "When it comes to religion, it is good for anyone to have faith in one's religion, but at the same time to have respect for each other's feelings, which is what we have in Lucknow right now."

Replicating the Hindu-Muslim relationship in Lucknow in other cities would be the work of a lifetime, adds Mr. Abdulla's brother-in-law, Suleiman Nagvi, a retired Army colonel. "Basically, all men are secular," he says. "It is only when religion is politicized that these troubles come."

In their home-based workshop, Naseem Bano and S.H. Rizvi say they are grateful that Lucknow has remained peaceful. But even they worry that Lucknow's social fabric may still be torn by communal violence.

"This is a delicate city, a culture of people respecting different views," says Mr. Rizvi. "But if the violence continues in other parts of the country, it will impact this city. There is no guarantee the peace will continue."

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