Haj — An Indian Experience Through the Ages

Dr. Ausaf Sayeed | Special to Review
Publication Date: 
Thu, 2007-12-13 03:00

THE region of Hejaz is a repository of a rich Islamic heritage and the site of Islam’s two holiest cities — Makkah and Madinah. Hejaz has been a witness to many religious and politically significant events in the history of Islam and is, thus, an object of great fascination for Muslims all over the world, including those from India.

Because of the location of the Jeddah Port as the gateway to Makkah as well as a leading port for Red Sea trade, it attracted merchants and pilgrims alike in large numbers every year. The people of Hejaz were fascinated by India’s spices, pearls, precious stones, silk, sandalwood, oud and perfumes and looked forward to the arrival of Indian ships.

The earliest visit by Indians to Makkah for Haj is a matter of conjecture but it is very likely that such visits pre-date the Muslim conquests of Sindh in 664-712 AD.

During Mogul times and until the 18th century, pilgrims from India had the option of traveling to Makkah either by overland caravan or by sailing ships. The land route via the northwest of India was long, difficult and hazardous and also involved crossing hostile territories. The Indian pilgrims generally preferred to go by sea, primarily through the Red Sea, and occasionally through the Persian Gulf. However, rampant piracy and a strict Portuguese control over the Indian Ocean in the 16th century made passage through the Red Sea a problematic trip. Most ships traveling from India to the Red Sea were forced to carry a Portuguese cartaz, or pass. In fact, the conditions at one point became so nonconducive for Haj that religious scholars at the Mogul court declared pilgrimage to Makkah as nonbinding under the circumstances.

The Mogul rulers patronized the Haj and sent several ships to undertake the voyage, providing free passage and provisions for the pilgrims. The ancient port of Surat in Gujarat, described as Bab-ul-Makkah, was a leading port of embarkation for Indian pilgrims. Emperor Akbar was the first ruler to organize the Haj pilgrimage at state expense and provide subsidies to pilgrims. He also founded a hospice for pilgrims in Makkah. In the 1570s, he appointed a senior noble as a Mir Haj (leader of pilgrims) and also directed his top noble, Abdur Rahim Khan-e-Khanan, to set aside three of his ships — The Rahimi, The Karimi and The Salari — for the free transportation of pilgrims to Jeddah.

Support for the Haj pilgrimage continued to a lesser degree during the reigns of Emperors Jahangir and Shah Jahan. The latter was known to be involved in sending regular charity to Makkah and appointing a Mir Haj for the pilgrimage.

Emperor Aurangzeb, who enjoys the reputation for being the most pious and orthodox among the Mogul emperors, was particularly lavish in his patronage of the Haj. Every year two of his royal ships traveled to the Red Sea carrying hundreds of pilgrims. Aurangzeb’s daughter, Zebunnissa, also extended her support to Haj. She sponsored the pilgrimage of a scholar, Safi bin Vali Al-Qaznavi, in 1087 AH (1676 AD), who recorded details of his voyage in his monumental work Anis Al-Haj, which is preserved today at the Prince of Wales Museum in Mumbai. During Mogul times, people were sent on Haj for various reasons: Religious obligation, religious studies, and rewards for good services and punishments for failures. Haj was also used as an effective instrument for sending potential challengers and adversaries into political exile. Emperor Humayun is known to have blinded his brother and sent him off on Haj in 1553. Emperor Akbar once became exasperated with the overbearing behavior of his mentor, Bairam Khan, and ordered him to undertake Haj. Emperor Jahangir banished his Persian doctor, Hakim Sadra, to Makkah for not giving him proper treatment. Emperor Aurangzeb forced Qazi ul-Quzzat to resign and go on Haj. Hejaz thus became a favorite locale for out-of-favor nobles, rebels and aspirants to the throne.

Interestingly, despite having huge resources, no Muslim male ruler, whether the most powerful emperor or the most insignificant local chieftain, ever performed Haj. Instead, the common practice was to send royal women on Haj and trading missions.

One of the first royal Mogul ladies to perform Haj was Bega Begam or Haji Begam, who later became Emperor Humayun’s wife. Gulbadan Begam, daughter of Emperor Babar, was one of the most prominent among Mogul women to perform Haj. In 1576 AD, she, accompanied by Salima Sultan Begam, a wife of Akbar, and nearly 40 other women, sailed on board the ship Salimi, escorted by royal officials in the ship Ilahi. She stayed in Makkah until 1582 AD and performed four Haj and several Umrah.

Other prominent royal women to perform Haj were the Queen of Bijapur (1661 AD) and the Begums of Bhopal, Sikandar Begum (1863 AD) and Sultan Jahan (1903 AD). In particular, Sikandar Begum stands out as the first ruling head of state, male or female, to perform Haj. She traveled with her mother and former queen, Qudsia Begum, and a retinue of 1,500 others. Nearly four decades later, Sultan Jahan embarked for Haj on board the ship, SS Akbar accompanied by 300 persons. Unlike her mother, she sailed from Jeddah to Yanbu and visited Madinah first before going to Makkah and returning to India in 1904.

The Nawab of Rampur, Kalbe Ali Khan, performed Haj in 1872 AD and brought a large number of rare manuscripts, including the unique 7th century parchment manuscript of the Qur’an attributed to the 4th Caliph Ali. The legendary Urdu poet, Dagh Dehlavi, accompanied him.

In British India, Haj continued to get attention. In 1885, the British government appointed the famous tourist agency Thomas Cook as the official travel agent for the Haj pilgrimage. The British government affirmed that it had special obligations to protect the stream of “Muhammadan pilgrims going to the sacred places at Makkah and Karbala.” In 1927, a 10-member Haj Committee was constituted, headed by the commissioner of police, Bombay, which was replaced by the Port Haj Committee in 1932 and another Haj Committee in 1959.

In 1959, the Reserve Bank of India issued two special “Haj notes” for pilgrims in denominations of 10 and 100 rupees. These notes were not legal tender in India, but could be converted into Indian rupees or into pounds sterling under agreements with Saudi banks. In 1959, Haj pilgrims traveling by ship were permitted to carry 1,200 rupees if traveling “deck class” and 1,800 rupees if traveling “first class” or 1,700 rupees, if traveling by air.

An interesting aspect of the Haj in the 1950s and 1960s was that, unlike at present, the choice of selecting the moallims or mutawwifs (pilgrim guides) rested with the pilgrims themselves. Moallims used to travel to various destinations in India for canvassing and booking pilgrims. There was a Shaikh-ul Moallimeen, who supervised the work of moallims, as the institution of moassasa or pilgrim establishment did not exist then. Until the mid-1970s, the Saudi government utilized the services of scouts from all over the world during Haj and an annual Islamic Scout Jamboree was held at Makkah in which contingents of Indian Muslim scouts regularly participated.

The largest shipping line operating from Indian ports was the Mogul Line, which was founded in 1888 and managed by the British company Turner Morrison. The oldest of the Mogul Line ships was SS Alawi (built in 1924) followed by SS Rizwani (built in 1930). These ships were scrapped in 1958 and 1959 respectively. Other early Mogul Line ships were SS Saudi (capacity 999), SS Muhammadi and SS Muzaffari (capacity 1,460), SS Islami (capacity 1,200), MV Akbar (capacity 1,600), SS Noorjehan (capacity 1,756) and SS Nicobar (capacity 1,170). After its nationalization in 1962, control of the Mogul Line passed to the Shipping Corporation of India (SCI) and finally in 1987 it merged with SCI. The Saudi company, Haji Abdullah Alireza & Co. Ltd., were agents of the Mogul Line in Jeddah and the septuagenarian Indian expatriate Rafiuddin S. Fazulbhoy was its assistant general manager. In 1927, Mogul Line ships carried nearly 20,000 of the 36,000 Hajis arriving from India. In the late 1930s, over 70 percent of pilgrim ships from India were Mogul Line vessels. An interesting statistical study published by the Saudi Ministry of Interior in 1969 indicated that over a period of 10 years from 1958 to 1968, a total of 200,100 pilgrims came from India for Haj. India thus ranked third in the number of pilgrims sent for Haj in this decade, after Yemen and the United Arab Republic, which sent 321,268 and 232,070 pilgrims respectively.

Throughout the 1960s, about 14,500 Indian Hajis traveled by sea and another 1,000 by Air-India chartered flights. The chartering of flights was done by the Haj Committee through the company “Trade Wings.” Both air and sea embarkations were carried out only from Bombay. The round-trip ship fare was 1,000 rupees for “first” class and 500 rupees for “deck” class. The number of pilgrims coming by sea began decreasing gradually and by 1994 it had fallen to 4,700. Finally in 1995, the sea voyage was completely stopped and all Indian pilgrims began arriving by air. By 2006, the number of Indian pilgrims was 157,000, second only to the number from Indonesia.

Dr. Ausaf Sayeed is the consul general of India in Jeddah. His book, “Haj: An Indian Experience in the 20th Century,” will be available soon.

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