Last Saturday I decided to visit the Haji Ali Dargah, one of the distinctive landmarks of Bombay. In all my years living in the City, I'd never joined the stream of pilgrims one could see several times a day, making their way across the narrow causeway that leads to the dargah, the tomb of a sufi saint whose body, according to legend, floated back to this particular spot.
I got to the dargah at about 2:00 pm, at high tide on the breezy day. Waves lashed the causeway, and some parts were almost submerged. "Saab, come back at 5:00 pm." I stopped for a drink at the famous Haji Ali Juice Center right next to the dargah's entrance before heading to other parts of the City.
At about 4:30 pm a small line of devotees has already formed outside the entrance. I spend some time across the street in the (airconditioned!) Heera Panna shopping center, and precisely at 5:00 pm the gates open to let the swelling line of pilgrims through. The path leads downwards from the street, past mounds of soaking refuse, and stalls selling chaddars (brocaded bedsheets), sugar-balls and flowers -- offerings to be placed on the saint's tomb. Shouts of paanch ka do (two for five) ring out above the crashing waves. A board lists various rules and regulations for proper conduct set down by the Dargah Trust. Of course, out of that pervasive Indian paranoia, photography is prohibited.
The causeway itself is about twenty feet wide, with no railings and a line of rather sea-battered street lamps. The line of pilgrims stepping gingerly across the causeway isn't all Muslim. I spot several Hindu tikas, Hindu women in bright saris and jewelry, and even a few dazzling Kanchipuram saris from the South. I hear Urdu and Hindi and Marathi and Gujarati, and, right behind me, a couple of elderly Keralite men, lungis hitched high, chattering away in rapid-fire Malayalam. I spot one tattooed cross on someone's hand - a practice that is common (but not exclusive) to tribal Christians. I even spot a few Western tourists.
The waves break menacingly close to the barrier. The wind picks up and a particularly large breaker douses the breadth of the causeway. The women and girls shriek loudly. People laugh. I'm soaked to the bone on my left. I had the foresight to put the camera in my waterproof backpack. At least two such tall waves break over the causeway before I reach the island in the middle of the bay. The taste of seawater lingers in my mouth as I climb the steps to the dargah.
Once inside, there's a large courtyard. The roof dargah is covered in tons of multicolored chadars, with golds, greens and reds dominating, shimmering and billowing in the wind. The smell of kababs roasting over hot coals rises from one stall to the left. At several places, young men coax passers-by to leave their footwear with them, while large mutilingual signs warn that payment for the custody of shoes is strictly voluntary. "If asked for money, please inform Trust." That age-old trade, of extorting pilgrims to get their footwear back, is in check here.
I deposit my dripping Dockers with one fellow. Nearby, a young woman in a bright marigold colored sari, gold in her ears, nose, around her neck, almost certainly a newly-wed, the kunku still visible in her hair, is being told, "Ma'am, ladies on that side please." Of course, the women and men are segregated in the dargah itself.
I pick up a skull-cap, and duck into the dargah. The tomb of the wali is under several layers of chadars. Above it, a beautiful marble canopy rises. One side is sealed off with green cloth partitions - that's the window through which the women pray. Men are standing around, some in skull-caps, some with handkerchiefs tied around their heads. Some seated reading the Qu'ran, some hands extended in dua, supplication. Everyone bows deeply, touches their hands to the tomb, kiss it in veneration, while handing over their flowers and chadars to the attendant, dropping coins into the collection bins, and tying threads to their hands for mannat, a personal vow. I stand in a corner for a few minutes.
I wonder what petitions are being brought here? Prayers for health? For recovery of a loved one? For a son? For a good match for a daughter? The air is thick with devotion.
Outside, the crowds have increased. I retrieve my shoes, and sit around enjoying the breeze. Open space is precious in the city. There is a courtyard behind the dargah, and men are performing their ablutions and walking in. It's time for namaaz . Pretty soon the azan rings out, though this muzzein clealrly needs practice. He's way off key! In the courtyard, the gathering crowd faces the mihrab with literally nothing separating them from the holy sands of Arabia, except the wall, and the expanse of the Arabian Sea beyond.
A few minutes later, I head back towards mainland. The causeway is now lined with beggars, hands outstretched. "Baba Allah ke naam pe reham kar!" "Young master, have mercy in the name of Allah." At one spot, three men are lying on the concrete, arranged in a circle. One is missing a leg, two are missing both hands. They writhe and wriggle rhythmically, their stumps gyrating grotesquely, repeating in a drone-like monotone, "Ya Allah! Ya Allah! Ya Allah! Ya Allah!" Coins sail over their maimed bodies, landing with firm, resounding clinks in the center, multiple gestures of pity and horror.
[For more on the dargah go here or here.]