It’s quiet outside. Just a few men in white drapes, clung over their shoulders and wrapped at the waist. The women trailing behind are in black burqas; the younger ones, in colourful long scarves that reach their fingers. Scrambling in the opposite direction, Labaik on our lips as taught by the maulana, we enter the gates of Masjid-al-Haram.
“Labbayk, Allahumah labbayk! Labbayk, la shareeka laka, labbayk! Innal-hamda, wan-n’imata, laka wal-mulk. La shareeka lak’.” (“Here I am, O Allah, here I am. Here I am, You have no partner, here I am. Verily all praise, grace, and sovereignty belong to You. You have no partner.”)
A huge grey and white marble structure, the mosque is alive even at this hour. It’s roughly 3 am. The floors are covered with people reading the Quraan, praying and resting on the janamaaz (prayer mat). There is a long line of people making their way to the Baitullah, probably having landed in Jeddah a few hours ago like us. It’s advised that pilgrims, who have donned the ihram (a scared state where you don the clothes and declare your intention for umraah or Hajj), complete it as soon as possible. With the flights arriving at all hours, there is always a stream of pilgrims headed both ways as we soon discover.
A cubic structure, covered with a black cloth and inscribed with golden lettering, the Baitullah is where the foundation of Islam was laid. It does stop you in your tracks, that first sight, even as Mom whispers the prayer, one of the many we had to learn, as people nudge past us to the inner enclosure.
Here, the ever-swelling crowd is making circles around the structure, chanting prayers – some silently, some aloud. The reverberations of the place are taking hold, even as we lock hands – the four of us – so as not to get lost as we begin our own circumbulations. The floor is cold for an area with temperatures upwards of 40 degrees, one of the many improvisations enabled by the Saudi administration, a subject of much debate outside. Sure enough, the backdrop has tall cranes working on adding an additional floor to accommodate the rise in visitors each year. Looming taller than the mosque is the Royal Mecca clock tower complex. Me, I can’t stop looking at the Baitullah even after the tawaaf (seven circumbulations around the structure). It is reassuring and calm despite the calls of hundreds around. There is peace. For once, I can understand why people well up when they pray.
Close to the Baitullah, people are yearning and scrambling to touch the Hajr-e-Aswad, being kept at bay by a security guard. Lore goes that this stone came down from the heavens when Prophets Ibrahim and Ismail were in a fix on how to build the Kaaba. It is said to adjust its height as needed. Other tales talk about how it was pristine white when it descended but became black because of the burgeoning sins of the people.
The Masjid-al-Haram itself is like a palace, with huge chandeliers and intricate design work. There are designated sections for men and women to offer prayers here unlike the Baitullah. It would be our home for seven days – as we walk to and fro to the mosque from the hotel, a few minutes away, stealing away only for the night or short naps. A different existence, really. The television with just five channels – four of them Arabic and BBC News, which we barely switch on. The lone English paper without much international news. It’s like being cut off from the wider world. With no residential complexes in the adjacent area, no kids going to school, adults to work, we are part of a collective mass just engaged in prayer.
That first day, as part of Umraah, we head to Safa-Marwah after seven rounds of the Kaaba. Originally mountains, there is only a building now – the barren rock is left projecting at either ends to preserve some semblance of Hajra’s (Prophet Ismail’s mother) journey. There are many iterations to this story but it goes that she was looking for water in the desert, running between the two mountains, but to no avail. Till the prophet’s heel moved the sand and water started spouting from the area. Fearing that it will seep into the sand, she said the words ‘Zam Zam’ (stop). Since then the Zam Zam well has not been depleted. It is here we complete the last commandment of Umraah. We cut off an inch off our hair (men have to shave their head completely) to complete the cycle.
The next day, we head to Masjid-e-Aisha to enter Ihram and repeat our Umraah. We do this twice in a week before heading to the tall minarets of Madina.
Inside the Masjid-e-Nabawi, the roof is beautifully laid out against the morning sun. There are an array of columns, which open up like an umbrella during the day to protect against the sun. At night, they stand tall as minarets.
Madina is where the Prophet came to after Makkah. Here, he spread the roots of Islam and it is here that he is buried. The mosque holds the tomb of Prophet Muhammed and his companions. There is also a section called the Riad ul-Jannah (piece of heaven) inside the mosque, where lore goes “all your wishes are granted”. It is but a small place and with so many people scrambling to get inside, it’s crazy. It’s the one part which is full of chaos in an otherwise calm journey.
Nearby, there is Mina, Muzdalfah, and Arafat, where Prophet Muhammed fought his wars and which are an intricate part of Hajj. The sea of white tents in Mina stretches far and wide as the bus speeds by. Then, there’s the mountain top where Adam and Eve are said to have met as also the Masjid-e-Quba, which was built by Prophet Muhammed. A visit to ‘Wadi-e-jinn’ offers a different side of Jeddah. One with tall residential towers and foreign joints en route. Then, camel camps and barren land for miles. A quick reminder of city life, which we had almost forgotten in the fortnight.
In the days spent praying, language is a barrier but not for sharing dates, water or laughs with fellow pilgrims. Not surprisingly, the few coherent conversations we have with shopkeepers are about Bollywood. Much of the support staff, drivers, construction crew is from the subcontinent, who are quick to help and guide. Contrary to expectation, the journey wasn’t repressive as I had imagined. In fact, I brought along a little more faith back with me.
Ps: Umrah consists of four commandments – one spelling out the intention through namaaz, second – rounds around the Kaaba, third – Safa-Marwah and fourth the cutting of the hair.