Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Haji Ali - The shrine off the shore

Built in 1431, this monument has been sentinel to the shores of Bombay since a long time. 500 yards into the sea from the shore, Haji Ali is said to be the tomb of an ancient merchant saint, who died on his way to Mecca. His casket was brought to Bombay, where the dargah was built by Haji Usman Rangikar, the man who owned the ship that took pilgrims to Mecca.

The white dome and the solitary minaret of the mosque behind the dargah stands out on the west shoreline of Mumbai. Behind the huge marble doorway lies the tomb enclosed in a white structure lying in an exquisite silver frame supported by marble pillars. The inside of the dome is covered in colourful glass arranged in a kaleidoscopic pattern, which spells the names of Allah in 99 different forms.

Every day, thousands of pilgrims from Mumbai and beyond walk from the shore to the dargah on the concrete walkway to say their prayers and ask for wishes, which the devout claim, do come true. The walkway some years back had just beggars lined up, but today, it has shops on its left up to the entrance of the dargah -- on the right, beggars have the full advantage of the space – they eat, sleep and make themselves at home here.

The dargah is taken care by a trust which earns approximately Rs 30 lakh a month. For the past two years as I have watched and visited it, no repairs have been carried out to the entire structure. Being thrust into the sea, the structure faces massive damage each year and repairs, plastering, reconstruction and painting are required every year.

As you walk into the Haji Ali dargah compound, and you notice the side structure is covered in the brocade cloth offered at the dargah, the pillars are cracking and almost split in half, almost ready to tumble down. With crowds of pilgrims and visitors around, one fears to imagine the consequences.

According to a stall-owner here, there is a tussle between the trustees of the dargah and the municipal corporation (BMC) . The trustees want the BMC to do the repairs and the BMC wants them to do it. In fact, he says, a suit is going on in the court and nothing can be done until the final verdict comes. So, the ancient monument awaits the final decision, braving salty winds and corrosion of time. One hopes the Haji Ali dargah gets the badly-needed repairs and the throngs of devotees spared of a calamity. Unless the urgent work required is done at the earliest, this historic structure may degenerate into a dilapidated structure, with a "NO ENTRANCE" board hung outside.

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