The Brill Dictionary of Religion describes pilgrimage as ‘time-honoured migrations to outlying sacred places … This devotional journeying is underlain by the belief that the local presence of a deity, a hero, or a saint in this specific place makes transcendence in immanence especially effective and available to experience, and thereby especially efficacious for one’s own concerns.’ From the point of view of cultural history, a pilgrimage is a symbolic move, incorporating both bodily relocation and heightened piety. For Muslims, the Haj, the pilgrimage to the two holy sites in Mecca and Medina, is not merely a farz (duty) but also a spiritual journey – one that can, for the fortunate few, lead to spiritual evolution and salvation. Consumed with a desire to see the two holiest shrines of the Muslim world, the Baitul Muqaddas and the Haram Sharif, pilgrims embark upon a journey of faith that takes them out of their small, protected world, across the seas to another world.
In Islam there is no fixed age by which time the Haj must be undertaken, and consequently most Muslims, till very recently, would postpone it to old age. For centuries this explained why older people afflicted by disease and infirmity, and the poor and indigent, formed the bulk of pilgrim traffic. Year after year, governments across Asia and Africa were forced to incur the expense of repatriating the destitute and penniless, and local authorities had to cope with the burial of those who died of disease, neglect or poverty in the Holy Land. Also, given the phenomenally large numbers of pilgrims who descended upon the holy sites during the annual Haj pilgrimage, several issues came into play – trade, commerce, transportation, sanitation and the logistics of housing, feeding and caring of ‘Allah’s guests’. The question of pilgrimage thus went beyond the confines of mere religion, spilling over from the personal to the public domain, from the sacred to the secular.
There are historical records of Indian Muslims going on Haj from the medieval period; the earliest text documenting the voyage and the sights is Anisul Hujjaj authored by the tutor of the Mughal princess, Zaibunnisa. While a great many went of their own accord, there are also references to those who were sent on ‘compulsory’ pilgrimage. Akbar is known to have sent his regent, Bairam Khan, on one such prolonged stay in Mecca when the latter fell out of favour. This is not to say, however, that the great majority of those who went did not do so of their own free will. There have also been instances of alim, or men of learning, who chose to extend their voyage after the Haj by going for long stays at centres of learning, such as the al-Azhar university in Cairo. For some, the Haj offered an opportunity to meet Muslims from all over the world and interact with ulama from different traditions and discourses.
With the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, Haj traffic from Southasia and Southeast Asia picked up. The British colonial government had a virtual monopoly on the ships that plied the Arabian sea at the time, and the entire Haj passage was rigorously monitored and controlled. The government kept an especially careful eye on the hajis who went from India, not merely because they were Indian subjects, a great many of whom were venturing out into a new world for the first time in their life, but also for reasons of trade and commerce. The British had a monopoly on just about everything that was sold in the markets of Mecca and Medina and, except for local produce, everything that was sold in these shops was manufactured in Britain.
During the 19th century, a significant number of Muslims would go on the annual Haj pilgrimage by ship via Yanbou or Jeddah, and a smaller number by camel caravans that undertook the long, arduous overland journey across inhospitable deserts and treacherous plains. From 1882 to 1893, an average of 12,000 pilgrims per year set sail for the Hejaz, the region where Mecca and Medina are located, from Bombay. These figures increased considerably during the first decade of the 20th century, when the imperial government took measures to alleviate the problems experienced by pilgrims. Various Haj committees were formed to expedite the travel arrangements.
While things improved substantially, the state of affairs was far from perfect and the journey of faith far from smooth. The pilgrims, as always, were a mixed lot: some were rich and could, according to contemporary chroniclers, afford all manner of luxuries, while others were so poor that they depended on the kindness of strangers even for food and shelter.
Floating melting pots
As sea travel increased, with increased maritime activity linked to the introduction of steam-powered ships across the Arabia Sea, more and more Indians began to set out on these voyages. By the late 19th century at least 100,000 were going on the Haj each year, with some 30,000 said to be travelling by sea. Those who were literate or held jobs in the government showed a propensity to jot down their experiences, both during the journey and in the holy cities, providing us with accounts that are a seamless blend of the secular and religious, at once travelogues and religious treatises.
An example of early writings on the Haj often took the form of ‘visions’ or extremely personal experiences of the narrator-recorder’s stay in the holy places. One example would be the Fuyuz al-harmain, by the revivalist Islamic theologian Shah Waliullah, written in 1730. This form of deeply religious records of the Haj experience were followed by accounts by the poet Shefta who travelled from Delhi in 1841, Siddiq Hasan Khan from Bhopal in 1870, the begum of Bhopal in the same year, and the nawab of Rampur in 1872, to name a few.
By the early 20th century, descriptions of the holy places abound. One of the finest travelogues is by the scholar at Nadwatul Ulama, Allama Shibli Nomani. Another very useful account is by the sajjadanashin belonging to an unbroken line of caretakers of the dargah of Hazrat Nizamuddin in Delhi, Khwaja Hasan Nizami; it is written like a diary but obviously meant for publication. Two other useful travelogues, coming some years after Nizami’s, are by Maulana Abdul Majid Daryabadi and
Mufti Raza Ansari, the alim at Lucknow’s Firangi Mahal. There is also a vivid account of the Haj (the second one performed after a gap of 25 years) by Ahmad Riza Khan of Bareilly in his Malfuzat-e-ala hazrat. Many other travelogues were printed by some of the leading publishing houses in North India, lending not only credibility to the accounts but also facilitating in the wide circulation of these books.
The value of these accounts is enhanced by the fact that these travelogues – or safar-e-hejaz, as they are called, and there are several bearing the same name. These record not only the narrator’s own experiences but also recall the experiences of others whom the narrator has known or known of. They acquire a special resonance and significance today because they record for posterity the experiences of a variety of individuals at a variety of levels.
Some of these accounts paint vivid pictures of the Haj experience, including the journey to these holy places through the hot Arabian deserts. Pilgrimage afforded a great opportunity to meet people from different corners of the Subcontinent and elsewhere, with the pilgrim ship becoming a huge melting pot. Apart from the Central Provinces, the bulk of the pilgrims were Bengalis, Hyderabadis, Gujaratis, Pathans, Malabaris, Memons, Bohris, etc; there were also a good number from Persia, Afghanistan, Java, Bukhara, Tibet, China and Burma, who joined the ships.
The pilgrims came from a wide cross-section of their societies: educated and illiterate, rich and poor, well-placed and socially and economically disadvantaged. The pious included pirs, maulvis, teachers, newspaper editors, engineers, pleaders, doctors, landlords, merchants, petty clerks and officials in the colonial government, among others. For many, this was a first outing – often from the village or town, sometimes from the province and almost always the first voyage outside the country. Except for the common goal – of performing the Haj and visiting the holy places – there were more differences than commonalities among them.
Upon their return, the pilgrim-narrators – be it of written accounts or orally transcribed reports – were held in high esteem. Invariably, they added the prefix Haji to their name and regaled friends and neighbours with stories of their travels. Having seen a bit of the world and its ways, they were often called in to arbitrate on matters both secular and religious.
The subsidy dilemma
The Haj, which literally means ‘to set out for a place’, is one of the five pillars (arkan) of Islam. Given that it is obligatory for all Muslims to perform the Haj at least once in their life, the whole business of Haj subsidy for Indian Muslims acquires a peculiar significance. The Muslims of India go for the Haj through the Haj Committee, which operates under the Ministry of External Affairs. Like several other bureaucratic institutions, it too is a relic of the Raj. In colonial times, the pilgrims went to Haj on ships that were owned by British companies, and the fares – which were quite steep – went to a British cartel. After Independence, Indians either have gone by ship or, increasingly, by air. Until 2010, hajis only travelled by Air India, the only one allowed to fly to Jeddah; since then, Saudi airlines have also been able to ferry Indian pilgrims.
The Haj subsidy provided by the Indian government (to the airlines) was substantial and, arguably, unnecessary. In fact, Islam is very clear that only those Muslims who can afford to go on the Haj should do so. While rightwing Hindu forces complain about ‘Muslim appeasement’, many voices from within the Muslim community too have urged removing the subsidy – as it went to Air India rather than directly to pilgrims. With an eye on its political implications, the government has been wary of doing away with it altogether. Of the approximately 160,000 Indian pilgrims who are expected to perform the Haj this year (in November), the bulk will go through the Haj Committee, which will continue to subsidise travel costs. The total number of Indian pilgrims, however, is decided by the Saudi Arabian authorities. Once they reach Arabia, all pilgrims have to go through a guide or muallim, usually a Saudi national, who takes a fee that is non-negotiable.