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HISTORY

The pilgrim's progress ... diverse and truly global

ATUL ANEJA

The Haj seeks to reinforce equality among fellow Muslims, irrespective of differences in race, wealth or nationality.


"With millions across the globe clamouring to perform the Haj, preparations for the event through the centuries have been extensive and full of hardship ... Obstacles during the journey were plenty including encounters with thieves, cunning border guards, political upheavals, threats of slavery and deadly diseases."



Central to their faith: The Kaaba, inside the Grand mosque. Photo: AP

BRAVING great hardship, millions of Muslims across the globe, converge in the holy city of Mecca to perform the Haj, a pilgrimage that leaves behind a profound impact on their individual and collective psyche.

The Haj begins after mammoth crowds, from 158 countries, gather in the Saudi Arabian city of Mecca to perform a series of rituals that symbolise the life of Prophet Mohammad, and seek to reinforce bonds of solidarity among fellow Muslims, irrespective of differences in race, wealth or nationality.

Global event

The diversity among devotees is staggering. Apart from the presence of racially mixed crowds, the streets of Mecca are abuzz with a wide variety of languages. It is therefore not surprising that official announcements during the pilgrimage are made in Arabic, French, English, Hindi, Urdu and Bengali, making the Haj a truly global event.

The Haj has to necessarily take place in the month of Dhul Hijjah, in accordance with the Muslim lunar calendar, two months after the festival of Eid-ul-Fitr.

At the outset, the pilgrimage seeks to foster bonds of equality, by making it obligatory upon all men to wear the Ihram, a garment consisting of two sheets of white unhemmed cloth and a pair of sandals. Women wear a simple white or black dress and keep their head covered. The donning of the Ihram is accompanied by the articulation of the Talbiyah, a short benedictory passage marking the start of the Haj.

On entering Mecca, pilgrims perform the first Tawaf, which consists of seven anti-clockwise circulatory motions around the Kaaba — the central, cubic, stone structure, covered by a black cloth located in the Great Mosque in Mecca, the holiest site in Islam. The Great Mosque or the Masjid al Haram also contains the Maqam-e-Ibrahim and the fountain of Zamzam.

After performing Tawaf, the pilgrims head for the two hills of Safa and Marwa, located near the Kaaba. They walk rapidly between these two features, enacting Hajira's (Prophet Abraham's wife) search for water for her son Ishmael till Allah revealed the Zamzam well to her. This ceremony called Sa'ay, symbolises the need for ceaseless efforts in life.

Quest for knowledge

After performing this ritual, pilgrims throng towards the desert plain of Mina, located around 6.4 km from Mecca, and spend the night there. Next morning they leave for the plain of Arafat, the place where Prophet Mohammad delivered his last sermon. Despite the massive crowds, it is at Mount Arafat — a 70m high granite feature that rises from the plain — that pilgrims perform the rites of Wuquf, or standing, where they are required to be in solitary communication with God.

The journey from Mecca to Arafat is seen as a quest for knowledge. The pilgrim prays the whole day in Arafat and leaves the place soon after darkness, as if running away from the darkness of ignorance. Soon after, crowds head towards a place called Muzdalifah, a flat desert area set against a magnificent backdrop of barren hills. After daybreak, they return to Mina, marking the 10th day of Dhul Hijjah. This is the busiest day of the pilgrimage.

The first ceremony performed in Mina is the stoning of the devil, where pilgrims hurl pebbles at three pillars in a symbolic act of striking the devil. The ritual embodies the rejection of evil and ignorance, without which, the acquisition of knowledge is not possible.

It is also the festive day of Eid-al-Adha where animals are sacrificed. After that the worshippers shave their head or clip their hair — a symbol of rebirth signifying an act of self-purification with the performance of Haj. At this point, pilgrims can emerge from the state of Ihram, where non-violence and simplicity have to be strictly practiced, and return to wearing their everyday clothes. This is followed by the performance of another Tawaf of the Kaaba, which is called the Tawaf-e-ziarat. Before the day ends, worshippers perform another Sa'yy between the hills of Safa and Marwa.

Final phase

The final phase of the Haj begins with the return of the pilgrims to the tented city of Mina for another two to three days. On the afternoon, usually of the 12th Dhul Hijjah, they head back to Mecca to perform the farewell Tawaf of the Kaaba, marking the end of the pilgrimage.

With millions across the globe clamouring to perform the Haj, preparations for the event through the centuries have been extensive and full of hardship. Before the 19th Century, pilgrims travelled by foot, camel, caravan and ship for months, years and even decades to fulfil their lifetime obligation. Poorer pilgrims sometimes staggered their journeys in order to earn enough money that would enable them to carry forward their journey. In India's case ships carrying pilgrims traditionally sailed for Mecca from Bombay or Calcutta. During the Mughal era, Portuguese naval vessels for several years guarded them en route.

Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus were the strategic points from where the journey to Mecca began. A long trail of camels, with bells around their necks, teeming its way across the desert terrain was a common sight. Obstacles during the journey were plenty including encounters with thieves, cunning border guards, political upheavals, threats of slavery and deadly diseases.

The construction of the Hejaz railway, which spanned 1300 km to connect the Syrian capital Damascus and Madina, was a path-breaking event. Built by the Ottoman ruler Sultan Abdul Hamid II, with contributions from the Khedive of Egypt and the Shah of Iran, it cut the journey time to five days.

Railway's advent

The railway was officially opened on September 1, 1908 and in four years it was ferrying 30,000 pilgrims a year. As word spread that the pilgrimage had become easier, business began to skyrocket. By 1914 the railway was transporting 3,00,000 passengers annually, stopping en route at a number of stations including Amman (Jordan), Saana (Yemen) and Mashhad (Iran). However, with the advent of World War I, the railway was used extensively for transporting Turkish troops and military supplies. This led to a reversal in its fortune, for the railway was severely damaged by Lawrence of Arabia and the Arab Revolt.

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