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XI. Scenes in Bombay: A Musulman Holiday

Nearly all the Mahomedan inhabitants of Bombay observe as a general picnic day the last Wednesday of the month of 'Safar' which is known as 'Akhiri Char Shamba' or 'Chela Budh'; for on this day the Prophet, convalescent after a severe illness, hied him to a pleasance on the outskirts of Mecca. During the greater portion of the previous night the women of the house are astir, preparing sweetmeats and salt cakes, tinging their hands with henna, bathing and donning new clothes and ornaments; and when morning comes, all Mahomedans, rich and poor, set forth for the open grounds of Malabar Hill, Mahalakshmi, Mahim or Bandora, the Victoria Gardens, or the ancient shrine of Mama Hajiyani (Mother Pilgrim) which crowns the north end of the Hornby Vellard. To the Victoria Gardens the tram cars bring hundreds of holiday- makers, most of whom remain in the outer or free zone of the gardens and help to illumine its grass plots and shady paths with the green, blue, pink and yellow glories of their silk attire. Here a group of men and women are enjoying a cold luncheon; there a small party of Memons are discussing affairs over their 'bidis' while on all sides are children playing with the paper toys, rattles and tin wheels which the hawkers offer at such seasons of merry-making. Coal-black Africans, ruddy Pathans and yellow Bukharans squat on the open turf to the west of the Victoria and Albert Museum; Mughals in long loose coats and white arch-fronted turbans wander about smoking cigars and chatting volubly, while Bombay Memons in gold turbans or gold-brocade skullcaps, embroidered waistcoats and long white shirts stand on guard over their romping children.

The road leading from Mahalakshmi to the shrine of Mama Hajiyani is particularly gay, and the Vellard is lined throughout its entire length with carriages full of men, women and children in their finest attire; while under the palms on the east side of the road the hum of a great crowd is broken from time to time by the cry of the sellers of sweets, toasted grain, parched pistachio nuts and salted almonds, or by the chink of the coffee seller's cups. A happy, orderly crowd it is, free from all signs of quarrelling and excess, packed more densely than usual around the shrine of Mama Hajiyani, where every little vacant space is monopolised by merry-go- rounds and by the booths of bakers and pastry-sellers. Here are men playing cards; others are flying kites; many are thronging the tea, coffee, and cold drink stalls; while in the very heart of the crowd wander Jewish, Panjabi and Hindustani dancing-girls, who have driven hither in hired carriages to display their beauty and their jewels. Mendicants elbow one at every step,--Mahomedan and Jewish beggars and gipsy-like Wagri women from North Gujarat, who persistently turn a deaf ear to the "Maf-karo" or "Pardon" of those whom they persecute for alms.

Many of the holiday-makers carry packets of basil leaves and flowers, which they place upon the grave of the Mother Pilgrim, silently repeating as they do so the 'Fatiha' or prayers for the dead. Others more Puritanical, perchance more sceptical, utter not their prayers to the grave; but as the words pass their lips, turn their faces seawards, remembering Holy Mecca in the far west. Glance for a minute within the room that enshrines the tomb, and you will see the walls hung with tiny toy cradles,--the votive offerings of heartsick women from whom the grace of Mama Hajiyani has lifted the curse of childlessness. So, as the sun sinks, you pass back from the peace of the Mother Pilgrim's grave to the noise of the holiday-making crowd; and turning homewards you hear above you the message of the green parrakeets skimming towards the tomb "like a flight of emerald arrows stolen from the golden quiver of the Twilight."


Who does not know the Mahomedan quarters of the city of Bombay, with their serried ranks of many-storeyed mansions extending as far as eye can reach?

Dark and forbidding seem many of these houses; and to few is it given to know the secrets they enshrine. But these square battalions of brick and plaster are not wholly continuous. For here and there the ranks are broken by the plain guard-wall and deep-eaved porch, or by the glistening domes and balcony-girt minarets of a mosque: and at such points one may, if one so wish, see more of the people who dwell in the silent houses than one could hope to see during the course of a month's peregrinations up and down the streets devoted to the followers of the Prophet.

Stand with me at sundown opposite the gateway of the mosque and watch the stream of worshippers flowing in through the portals of the house of prayer. Here are the rich purse-proud merchants of Persia, clad in their long black coats; there the full-bearded Maulavis. Behind them come smart sepoys hailing from Northern India, golden-turbaned, shrewd-eyed Memon traders and ruddy-complexioned close-bearded Jats from Multan. Nor is our friend the dark Sidi wanting to the throng: and he is followed by the Arab with his well-known head-gear, by the handsome Afghan, and by the broad- shouldered native of Bokhara in his heavy robes. Mark too the hurried steps of the brocade-worker from Surat, and note the contrast of colour as the grimy fitter or black-smith passes through the porch side by side with the spotlessly-clad Konkani Musulman, whose high features and olive skin betray his Indo-Arab origin. Rich and poor, clean and unclean, all pass in to prayer. As the concourse increases the shoes of the Faithful gather in heaps along the inner edge of the porch: only the newer shoes are permitted to lie, sole against sole, close to their owners, each of whom after washing in the shaded cistern takes his place in the hindmost line of worshippers.

As the service proceeds the ranks of the congregation kneel, stand, fall prostrate, and press the brow upon the ground with a rhythm so reverential and so dignified that the watcher forgets for a time the torn or tawdry raiment, the grime of the factory, the dust of the streets, and feels that each fresh attitude of devotion is indeed the true posture of prayer. It is as a sea troubled by the breath of some unseen spirit,--wave upon wave rising, bending, and finally casting itself low in humility and self- sacrifice at the very footstool of the Most High. But all the worshippers are men. "Where are the women," you ask; "do they not repeat the daily prayers also?" "Verily yes," replies our guide; "they are all praying in their homes at this hour. More regular, more reverent are they than we are; and if we men but prayed as the women pray, no shadow would dim the brightness of Islam."

As the evening-prayer progresses groups of men and women with children in their arms gather at the main entrance of the mosque. For the children are vexed with sickness against which medicine has availed nought, and in a higher healing lies their only chance of recovery. So, as the congregation passes out through the gateway, the parents hold out their ailing children; and well-nigh every worshipper, rich or poor, young or old, turning his face downwards lets his prayer-laden breath pass over the face of the sick child that needs his aid. A picturesque custom is this, which illustrates two ancient and universal beliefs, namely that all disease is spirit-caused and that the holy book is charm-laden. He who repeats the inspired words of the Koran is purged of all evil, and his breath alone, surcharged with the utterances of divinity, has power to cast out the devils of sickness. Thus to this day all classes of Mahomedans, but particularly the lower classes, carry their sick children to the mosques to receive the prayer-laden breath of the Musallis (prayer-sayers): and sometimes in cases of grievous disease a Pir or Mashaikh is asked to perform the healing office, prefacing the brief ceremony with that famous verse of the Koran:--"Wa nunaz-zilo minal Kuraani ma huwa Shifaun wa rah matun lil moaminina" which being interpreted means, "We send down from the Koran that which is a cure and a mercy unto true believers." So the mosques of the City are homes of healing as well as of prayer.

Occasionally, when the prayer-breath of the ordinary worshipper has failed to effect a cure, a Mussulman mother will take her sick child to some Syed or other holy man in the city for what she calls "Jhada dalwana" (i.e. the sweeping-over). The Syed questions her about the symptoms and duration of the disease. "Ay me," moans the mother, "I cannot say what ails the child, Syed Saheb! He was full of life and health till the other day when I left him on the threshold sucking a sweetmeat. There came by an old Wagri woman who stared at him, whining for alms. I gave her a little bread, wishing her well away: but alack! no sooner had she gone than my child sickened and hath not recovered since." The Syed then asks her to drop a pice upon a paper covered with magic squares; which being done, he consults a thumb-marked manuscript and decides that the child is a victim of the Evil Eye. Accordingly he proceeds to pass the end of a twisted handkerchief seven times over the child's body, murmuring at the same time certain mystic formulae which he, as it were, blows over the child from head to foot. This operation is performed daily for three or four days; after which in many cases the child actually gets better, and the mother in gratitude pays the Syed from eight annas to a rupee for his kind offices. So too it is the Syed and the prayers he breathes which exorcise the spirit of hysteria that so often lays hold of young maidens; and it is likewise the prayer-laden breath of the devout man which fortifies the souls of them that have journeyed unto the turnstiles of Night.