According to Wikipedia, 80% of the population of India is Hindu; 13% is Muslim; 2% is Christian; just under 2% is Sikh; Buddhists, Jains, Jews, Zoroastrians, and the Bahá’í Faith comprise less than 1% each of the population. India has the second largest Muslim population in the world. Since 1947, religion has been a key brick on the road to creating the world’s largest democracy. That road has not always been a smooth one, but, much like the roads here, often covered in potholes and slow to be repaired when damaged. However, for the most part, Indians of all faiths respect each other’s beliefs and often celebrate each other’s festivals.
When we went to Mt. St. Mary’s fair a few weeks ago, many non-Christians joined the Catholics celebrating Mass. When we went to see Hiranandanicha Raja on his way to immersion in Powai Lake, we were not the only non-Hindus present. When we went to Haji Ali Dargah, a tomb for a Muslim saint, I saw Hindu women praying alongside Muslim women; when we entered Mahalaxmi temple an hour later, I saw non-Hindus like myself making offerings to the goddesses, Parvati, Laxmi, and Saraswati. As our driver often says, “It goes this way,” meaning that such sights are just part of living here in Mumbai and not extraordinary.
On Sunday, we visited Haji Ali Dargah and Mahalaxmi temple. That we would visit a Muslim holy site and a Hindu one on the same day is not a surprise here. In 2010, Mumbai Mirror readers ranked Haji Ali Dargah as one of the seven wonders of Mumbai. Four of the seven wonders are religious sites that represent four different religions (Buddhism, Catholicism, Islam, and Jainism). Ironically, despite the Hindu religious majority, no Hindu sites made the list. This oversight, however, might have more to do with Mumbai Mirror readership demographics than with the architectural worthiness of local Hindu temples.
Haji Ali is situated about 500 yd (500 m) off the coast near Worli Sea Face and is one of the most easily recognizable landmarks in the city.
The complex houses the tomb of Muslim Saint Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari (R.A.) and draws about 10 to 40 thousand visitors a day, many of them non-Muslims. The walking bridge that connects the dargah to Mumbai floods during monsoon, especially during high tide. Stalls selling religious objects line the walkway. Among the items for sale are perfumes made without alcohol, in keeping with the Islamic tradition against alcohol consumption; large cloths that followers can have draped over Haji Ali’s coffin; handkerchiefs for the men to wear if they do not have a head covering.
After we crossed through the entrance gate, we removed our shoes and gave a donation for someone to watch them.
Even though the site is a tomb and not a mosque, men and women are separated, so our guide and I went in one entrance, while the guys went in the other.
Inside, we stood behind a railing. We could see the saint’s tomb, and the men praying near it.
Along the ceiling, the 99 words for Allah were inscribed in marble. Muslim religious sites do not have images of people, so these simple words were the only decoration.
Their prominence compels you to consider the very nature of God, the beauty of language used to understand God. Even if you don’t understand what the words mean, which I don’t, you can still sit and marvel at the sheer volume of names given to a single higher being.
After we went to the dargah, we enjoyed sweet lime sodas at the Haji Ali Juice Center. The stand has been in business since 1937 and does a brisk business in juice (obviously) and snacks like pizza and sandwiches. If you don’t feel like going in, you can pull up in your car, and someone will take your order. From what we were told, the line of cars can get quite long in the evening. Inside, the restaurant is small but clean. The staff is friendly and helpful.
Much like the walkway to Haji Ali, the area leading to Mahalaxmi temple is filled with shops selling religious items, including flowers (lotus blossoms are associated with Laxmi), representations of Laxmi’s feet (used during Diwali to symbolize wealth coming into the home), and small packages of bridal accoutrements (sandalwood and turmeric powders, bracelets, and mangalsutra, the necklaces worn by married women).
Laxmi is the goddess of wealth. Our guide was quick to point out that wealth does not mean money, as many people believe, but also spiritual wealth. Laxmi is often associated with success in business, but is also the goddess of knowledge and courage.
Even though I initially resisted, Brian convinced me to purchase an offering for the temple.
This decision allowed us to leave our shoes with the vendor for no charge and ensured our shoes would be there when we returned, which is always something you pray for in the temple.
Compared to the temple complex, the temple interior is relatively small. Like Haji Ali, the crowd is divided by gender. This practice is not typical in Hindu temples, but because Mahalaxmi draws such large, diverse crowds, it is a precaution to ensure women’s propriety. We made our way through the line as the guards let alternating groups of men and women enter. When I arrived at the altar, I placed my offering on a little metal dais that resembled an airport baggage claim turnstile and waited for the priest to return my offering plate. I received a bit more than I offered, including a coconut that was not part of the original offering. Because the offerings are now blessed and sacred, they can only be disposed of by immersion in the sea or at special bins in the temple complex. The coconut that I received had to be consumed.
I decided to dispose of my flowers in the sea. As we exited the main temple, we turned right to access the sea-facing area where we could release our offerings to the sea. Still in our bare feet, we entered the blazing hot, sun-drenched patio area; the soles of our feet were promptly scorched. It certainly encourages you to make your offering quickly so that others can do the same.
Brian gave the coconut to one of the beggars inside the temple complex: an old woman who held her apron out so that she could catch whatever people tossed her way. Brian gently laid the coconut in her apron and kept walking. We do that a lot here. We keep walking. We walk by starving children; we walk by beggars; we walk by street dogs; we walk by Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, and Christians; we walk by Indians, Americans, Germans, Chinese, and Brits. We all walk along that pothole-riddled, left-hand-driving, lanes-and-stop-signs-are-optional road together.