The Treasures of the Sea
Mumbai (Bombay), India
Bombay, it just blows your mind. I have been away from Mumbai (as this city is now called after the Hindu goddess Mumbadevi) for just two years. When I returned for a brief business trip, I gasped – and it wasn’t just the pollution.
The plane swooped low over the Arabia Sea as the domestic airport or Chatrapathi Shivaji Airport neared. The international airport a few kilometers away has the same name. The Maratha king is famous here; Victoria Terminus, the main railway station in the business district of the city, has now been renamed after him.
The shanties dotting the runway seemed to have increased in number. To bear the onslaught of the fierce monsoons (seasonal rains) these flimsy houses bore a festive look. Yellow, blue and other hues of bright plastic adorned the roofs of these shanties, loose ends fluttering in the winds, like prayer flags. Picturesque, if you have no idea of the poverty it hides.
Cheek-by-jowl stood the multiple middle-class residential colonies. So far, at least from the aircraft, it seemed that nothing had changed.
The ride back to the southern part of the city, by taxi, is a story in itself (it took two hours to reach Nariman Point, the skyscraper-enriched business district). It is only in Mumbai that people reply in terms of hours, when asked “how far is XYZ place?” Was it any other Indian city, you would be given a reply in terms of kilometers not hours. A true indicator that here time is money!
Premises of textile mills, which had long downed shutters, now boasted the most modern office complexes. Lower Parel area, once dominated by the blue-collared, wore a swanky look. Old Udipi joints (restaurants selling cheap south Indian fast food) were crowded; with their paint peeling off they stood unabashed next to the newly opened ice-cream parlor done up in fiberglass and steel. Occasionally one saw the Irani teahouse being pulled down. The owners of that tiny cottage built in the early 1900s had finally given in to the builders’ green bucks and threats, and it was being demolished.
The traffic had grown worse. Cars actually moved bumper to bumper, even though several new flyovers had come up. I felt that my taxi driver was a lunatic. So was everyone else. Constant honking, the overflowing public buses, beggars including children crowding around the taxi at traffic signals, the loud traffic policemen, pedestrians actually being held back by a rope held by two policemen at the busy traffic signal, the unending stream of harried pedestrians – well, I no longer felt nostalgic. Instead I felt sick.
Peak hour traffic? Is there any time that cannot be called “peak hour” in Mumbai city? Traffic belched smoke; there was a strange smell of cooking gas (I learned later that taxis now also run on gas and not just diesel and petrol). I was ready to puke. Not a good start to being back home, even if for a brief visit.
There was a traffic jam at Haji Ali junction. And then, amidst the haze of pollution and monsoon clouds, I saw the ethereal floating shrine of pristine white. The shrine of saint Haji Ali. The clouds parted for a minute and as the sunrays shone down, I knew I was gazing at something truly majestic.
The Floating Shrine
The fresh salty breeze wafted its way from the Arabia Sea and hit my face, as did the drizzle. I felt alive and awake.
The shrine of Haji Ali can be reached easily during low tide. A well-constructed high concrete pathway, built amidst the rocky seabed, enables one to walk across even when the tides are rising. But at high tide, the rocks and the pathway are all submerged. Only the main shrine is seen, its dome and minarets floating peacefully in the midst of the sea, in an otherwise chaotic city which refuses to sleep.
As the name says, it houses the tomb of saint Haji Ali. His casket floated and found its way here way back in the early 19th century, and his devotees construed the shrine. The original edifice of the shrine is believed to be really old, but each year improvements and additions are made. Now it also boasts of a residential block where devotees can stay for a few days.
Men are allowed within the main sanctum where the tomb is placed. The tomb, which lies in a silver frame engraved with the 99 names of Allah, is covered with richly embroidered velvet in red and green. Offerings of flowers and scented sticks (aggarbattis) are made and the devout raise their hands and pray. Women have a separate enclosure for prayers, but they can see the proceedings in the main sanctum through the delicate latticework.
The mujawars distribute rose petals, sugar balls and shower blessings. While Haji Ali is a Muslim saint, anyone is allowed here. The only criteria: one has to be respectful. Shoes are collected at the entrance of the shrine, and one is requested to cover their heads, even if with only a handkerchief.
My taxi driver advised me to visit in the early hours of the morning. This seemed to be sound advice as I could see throngs of people in festive wear making their way to the shrine. I was told that while people do come here to pray, they also end up having a good time; lots of shops, selling trinkets and edibles, line up the pathway leading to the shrine. The quawalis (troupes singing devotional songs) add to the festive air. Beggars also line up, pleading for alms. The restaurant near the shrine enables one to buy food coupons; food is then distributed to the poor – a better alternative than to scatter money among the hundreds of beggars who line the pathway. The mujawars also appreciate a small donation; it helps supplement their meager salaries.
It is said that those who come here, have their prayers answered. So after checking out the timetable for the tides (Mumbai newspapers do have such a column) I made my way here early next morning. It was serene and peaceful, and I know my prayer was answered – my trip was indeed a success.