Saturday, 3 September 2016

One Rainy Night at Haji Ali

My love-hate relationship with Mumbai reverberates to a crescendo as I draw nearer to Haji Ali Dargah, standing tall in the middle of the Arabian sea. I am partly drenched due to the rain. Hundreds of devotees frequent the tomb of the legendary Saint Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari, located on an islet off the coast of Worli in the southern part of Mumbai. Legend has it that Pir Haji Ali once came across a lady crying in exasperation because she spilled some oil from her vessel. To pacify her, the Saint retreated to the spot where the spillage occurred and pushed the earth with his thumb, filling the vessel with oil. After this incident, he was engulfed by remorse for unintentionally wounding the earth and so he set out on a voyage from his hometown in Bukhari, Uzbekistan, eventually settling in Mumbai. Upon the Saint's death, the casket containing his body was dropped off into the ocean as per his wish. It came to settle on the rocky islets near the shores of Worli and the dargah and mosque were erected at this location in the years to come. 

The unfenced walkway leading to the dargah is lined on one side by hucksters selling a variety of articles ranging from chadars for the baba to sweets and savories for the visitors. Invariably, I stop to admire the semiprecious stones of various hues arranged in compartments in front of the exotic surma holders with intricate peacock filigree. The other side of the narrow road stretching out to the shrine is home to the destitute. They sit hunched up under the cover of raincoats. The waves lap against the black rocks on either side of the pathway and the rains pour away, impervious to the frail beings treading above them. 

I am not a devotee and this is not my first time here. I just like to experience the mystical vibes of this ancient, white monument of Indo-Islamic architecture, sentry to a plethora of human emotions and longings. I feel the mysteries in the minds of the million faces I encounter during my train rides, culminate here, merging into a powerful surge of faith as the tides oscillate between highs and lows. Silent cries, nameless fears and yearnings that run deep. Questions that have not found answers yet. Wishes still not fulfilled. Hopes dangling on an invisible thread. This blind faith challenges the skeptic in me and carves a path out of the obstacle of reason - an illusory road to the unknown. 

It's a Friday. The lustre of the moon overpowers the sea of darkness. The Qawwal Khana is alive with the ascending notes of Sufi music. The velvety sounds arising from the harmonium blend with the rhythmic beats of the tabla and dholak as the rustic voice of the artist soars in tandem with his passion. The onlookers are filled with feeling. Their piety and trust know no bounds. It is time for Isha' (night prayers). The men and women move towards their respective wash areas for ablution. I return to the simple pleasures of earthly life.

On the way back, I stop at the iconic Haji Ali Juice Centre to relish some Kaju Anjeer with Fresh CreamKasturi Chicken Kabab from Cafe Noorani and Mutton Paya from Bagdadi follow


Haji Ali Dargah was recently in the news when the activists of Bhumata Brigade filed a Public Interest Litigation against the Haji Ali Dargah Trust for banning the entry of women into the sanctum sanctorum of the dargah. In the events that followed, the Bombay High Court lifted the ban allowing all women unrestricted access to the dargah. Previously, the women could only go up to the railing guarding the tomb. They passed on their chadars to the attendant who would place it on the tomb on their behalf. With the HC upholding the rights of women, the question arises whether Islam has forbidden women from entering a place of worship in the first place. A well-written article on the issue from an Islamic perspective.

On another note, it should be remembered that as per Sunni Islam, worshiping a saint and visiting a dargah (tomb) are forbidden and considered a despicable crime (shirk) against God. This prohibition is based on the Quranic verses which vehemently disapprove of idol worship or joining anything, dead or alive, in worship with Allah. In effect, visiting a tomb and praying to the deceased for Allah's pleasure is tantamount to attributing partners to Allah and goes against the basic tenet of the oneness of God. Now, I neither intend to sound didactic nor do I wish to get embroiled in the labyrinth of religious dogma. For the record, I do not profess any religious belief at the time of writing this piece. So let me close the argument saying each to his own.