People often ask me what my favourite place in India is. It’s hard to decide on just one as there is so much to see in India, and every experience seems so different from another. But if by favourite we mean a place that we keep going back to, then Old Delhi is that place for me. There is something about its maze of lanes, the dangerously dangly live wires, the people in an area of six square kms evocative of a bygone era that fascinates, inspires and challenges me.
In Old Delhi, India’s largest mosque, the Jama Masjid dominates the skyline over the city. The mosque holds up to 25000 people and was built at the apex of Shahjahan’s reign (of the Taj Mahal fame). It is a wonderful place to visit at any time but if your timing is right, one of the best times to to visit is during Ramzan (as they say in Urdu; or Ramadan in Arabic).
The month-long fast most Muslim adults embark on annually is one of the five pillars of Islam (the others include proclaiming one’s faith, praying five times a day, giving to charity and going on pilgrimage to Mecca) and culminates in the celebration of Eid al-Fitr at the end of the month.
Those fasting abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sundown in an exercise of obedience, self-discipline, appreciation for the suffering of the poor and fellowship with other Muslims. Children don’t fast until they hit puberty so growing up in Malaysia, I remember my friends’ excitement at their first experience of grown-up spirituality when they were old enough to embark on their first fasts. There were also wonderful spreads at iftar, the evening meal, that we non-Muslims were invited to partake in. It really was a time of communal harmony and unity.
Arriving just before sundown, we walked into the mosque after nearly being denied entry by the ticket collector on the basis that it was open to Muslims only. He kindly relented after we said we were here to experience Ramzan with the community. Or perhaps it was the inference (his, not ours) on seeing our cameras that we were journalists doing a story. Whatever the reason, we were grateful for being allowed in.
In the courtyard of the mosque, families sat on picnic blankets preparing food, chatting to each other, kids ran around giggling, the devout performed ablutions and some sat in silent reverie. The atmosphere was heavy with anticipation and excitement. At sundown, an explosion was fired into the air, eating ensued and a hush descended upon the crowds. The fast is traditionally broken with a dates, thought to be the favourite food of the Prophet Muhammad, followed by fruits, salads and snacks. As moved around the periphery watching people enjoy their food, a few families invited me to eat with them. I felt an amazing sense of affinity.
After twenty minutes, the mellifluous call to prayer, the azan*, rang out. It was time to pray. Men flocked to the front and women stood by their picnic blankets. We watched from the side as the faithful gave thanks for food and life. In today’s world of rising extremism, sectarian violence, intolerance and racism, I am ever more grateful for the opportunity to travel and experience things like this. The crowds dispersed after prayers to enjoy the Ramzan delicacies of Old Delhi and we hopped in a rickshaw to go home, buoyant at the thought of the welcoming smiles, kindness and sense of community we encountered at the mosque.
*In places where there is no azan, technology has meshed with tradition and smartphone apps sound off alarms at the designated time. We experienced this for the first time in the car with our driver in Oman when it sounded throughout the day and were endlessly amazed by the evolution of technology.