It is really quiet outside. A handful of people are returning from their journeys. One or two shops are all that are open. The men are clad in two pieces of white cloth, one clung across the shoulders and the second wrapped around their waist. The women are clad in black burqas or wearing long scarves that reach their waist. We are similarly clad as we head in the opposite direction to the crowd. We are running late, the sun is already shining bright. Our original plan was to leave before sunrise, but the late arrival in Jeddah didn’t help. There is a chant on our lips as we encounter the huge signboard and then enter the gates.
The Masjid-al-Haram is a huge grey and white marble structure. Inside, people are sitting on carpeted floors. Some are reading the Quraan, some resting, others making their way to the Baitullah. We are among the latter. The Baitullah – a cubic structure, covered with a black cloth and inscribed with golden lettering – is where the foundation of Islam was laid. A sea of people is going round the structure, chanting prayers – some silently, some aloud.
We are holding hands for the fear of getting lost. The crowd is increasing every minute. The floor is cold even though the temperature is around 40 degrees. As we start our rounds, my eyes are locked on the Kaaba. My mind is rattling off prayers, my sister’s hand is gripping mine, we are navigating the crowd, yet I can’t stop looking at it. It is simply reassuring, the sight, as if slowly it is purging all the negativity out of me. Despite the crowd and the noise, there is calm. I am at peace. Later, sitting around the Kaaba, for once I can understand why tears spring up in the eyes of people as they pray.
Extremely close to the Baitullah, people are yearning and scrambling to touch a stone. This is the Hajr-e-Aswad. They stick to each other like magnets, desperate to lay a finger. A security guard tries to keep them at bay by holding the black cloth over the stone. As lore goes, this stone is said to have come 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 is itself like a palace, with huge chandeliers and intricate design work. There are designated sections for men and women to offer prayers here, which is convenient since it gets really crowded as the Namaaz time draws close. The first time we are there for Namaaz, we can’t make sense of it. We have never prayed in a mosque before. It is only after patient tutoring by my dad that we understand how it works. It is quite a different experience – a more drawn out yet inclusive process.
After the rounds around Baitullah, we head towards Safa-Marwah. Originally, these were two mountains, but now the Saudi government has built a building instead. It is said the Prophet’s mother ran to and fro in between the mountains to seek water for her son. Lore goes that the prophet’s heel moved the sand and water started spouting from the area. Fearing that the water will seep into the sand, the Prophet’s mother said the words ‘Zam Zam’ (stop). Since then the Zam Zam well has not been depleted. In remembrance of this incident, all Muslims have to follow her footsteps, by doing seven rounds between Safa and Marwah. We finish our rounds together, chanting prayers, and then cut off an inch of our hair to finish the process. Our Umrah is now done.
The next few days, we keep going back to the Baitullah and offer Namaaz in the mosque. Our only movements in Makkah are to the hotel and to the Haram Sharif. On the roads, people are mostly wearing the white attire for Umrah. There are burger and pizza joints, but the shops mainly sell burqas, religious attire, gifts and dates. There are no residential complexes here, just hotels wherever you look. The television has live feed from the Makkah besides two Arabic channels. There is just one in English – the BBC (atleast in our hotel). The newspapers are all Arabic; the lone one in English doesn’t mention a lot of world news. We have little idea of what is going on back home. The Indian sim cards are removed so there are no chat apps, no mails, no Facebook updates. It is like being transported to a simplistic era, without communications or distractions. There is a sole purpose here, to spend as much time in the mosque as possible.
On the seventh day, we head to Madina. The first thing we see is tall minars (columns), shining against the night sky. Next day, as we step into 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 minars. The inside of the mosque is again like a palace, but despite being so huge, it is very difficult to get a place inside the mosque. More than half the time, we pray outside the mosque but inside the premises.
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 itself holds the tomb of Prophet Muhammed and his companions. There is also a small section called the Riad ul-Jannah (piece of heaven) inside the mosque, where it is said all you ask is granted. It is here that we were most inconvenienced, and I was really scared of a stampede. Hopefully, the authorities will figure out a solution since it is a small place and there is huge crowd waiting to get inside the area.
We also visit the sites where Prophet Muhammed fought his wars; the Mina, Muzdalfah, Arafat regions, which are part of Hajj. I am astounded to see the sea of white tents in Mina, stunned that so many people come for Hajj every year. We also see the mountain top where Adam and Eve met as also the Masjid-e-Quba, which was built by Prophet Muhammed.
Aside from the religious places, we visit a place called ‘Wadi-e-jinn’. This is quite a distance away from Madina. On the way, there is just barren land and bare mountains, with camel camps in between. As we reach the place, the driver puts the gear into neutral ahead of a slight uphill slope, but the car starts speeding up, until the speedometer reading shows 120! It then decelerates and stops. We are at a loss for words, not understanding what just happened. Our driver expounds two theories – one involving a jinn and the second a magnetic hill. It is quite simple really. *
The infrastructure in Saudi Arabia, atleast the parts we encountered, is excellent. There are super smooth wide roads. The hospital charges are funded by the government entirely for pilgrims. There are metro trains along the Hajj circuit. But the one recurring issue which we faced was language. The authorities and guards only speak Arabic and seem averse to any other language. Communicating and figuring out things is a challenge, and it would be impossible if it wasn’t for the Bangladeshi workers. All throughout whether it was finding Safa-Marwah or the Riad ul-Jannah, we managed only because of these immigrants.
The people alongside us were from different parts of the world. They were all nice to talk to, even though we usually second guessed each other and used the sign language more than words. But that didn’t stop us from sharing dates or water or atleast a friendly smile.
On the shopping front, Madina has a number of shops for dates, gold, religious gifts, the Janamaaz etc. The shops are lined right outside the mosque. The date market is also close by. The shopkeepers in the area know broken Hindi and are Bollywood fans. While most enquire about the three Khans, one surprises us by asking about Sonia Gandhi. Bargaining with them for goods is a laugh riot; they call you kanjus (stingy) to your faces, but in good humour.
To sum it all up, it was a really different experience. I am not a overly religious person but the places spoke to me, especially the Kaaba. It wasn’t regressive or repressive the way I imagined it would be. Instead I brought along a little more faith back with me.
* (Apparently it is an optical illusion. Google for more.)
Ps: Umrah consists of 4 commandments – one spelling out the intention through namaaz, second – rounds around the Kaaba, third – Safa-Marwah and fourth the cutting of the hair.