In the 70s, during this time of the year, roads around Yellow Gate near Mumbai Port would resound with chants of “Labbayka Allaahumma labbayk, labbayka laa shareeka laka labbayk. (Here I am, O Allaah, here I am.)
The talbiyah, the defining prayer of the Islamic pilgrimage of Haj, would be chanted by thousands of pilgrims across India as they waited to board a ship to sail across the Arabian Sea to take them to the port city of Jeddah for their journey to Mecca and Medina.
With the pilgrimage set to take place in Saudi Arabia this week, the religious chant around Yellow Gate has been replaced by a steady drone of trucks, which ferry goods to and from Mumbai Port.
The last of the seafaring pilgrims hovered around Yellow Gate in 1994, finally drawing the curtains on the centuries old importance of Mumbai as the only embarking point for Indian Haj pilgrims. The Haj is one of the pillars of Islam. Every Muslim who can afford it is obliged to travel to Mecca for the Haj once.
All Indians who wanted to go for the pilgrimage had to undertake a journey to erstwhile Bombay to board a ship from the port. Till the 80s, the majority of Indians would head to Saudi Arabia in one of the 11 ships the government had earmarked. A miniscule percentage of the then 20000 odd pilgrims would take an airplane.
As the aviation industry grew, travelling by ships, which would take seven days to reach Jeddah, was dropped.
“The number of pilgrims coming by sea began decreasing gradually and by 1994 it had fallen to 4,700. Finally, in 1995, the sea voyage was completely stopped and all Indian pilgrims began arriving by air,” Dr Ausaf Sayeed the former consul general of India in Jeddah wrote in his book, Haj: An Indian Experience in the 20th Century.
The final curtains on the seafaring Hajis was drawn in 2015 when the government decided to decommission its most iconic Haj pilgrimage ship the MV Akbari in 2015. The ship is presently used to ferry passengers between India and Andaman and Nicobar.
“It was a different experience altogether, bunking with 1600 other pilgrims on a ship for over a week. Now people can undertake the journey to Jeddah in a plane in less than four hours,” Mohammed Zakir, a septuagenarian who undertook the Haj in the 80s in Akbari said.
It was the British who first constituted the Haj Committee in 1927 headed by the police commissioner of the then Bombay. The committee made logistical arrangements for pilgrims from across India interested in undertaking the pilgrimage.
The management had even formulated the Indian pilgrimship rules. Amongst other directions, the rules listed prices at which biryani and korma could be sold in the ship and how many white shrouds the ship needed to carry in case of any death on the ship.
Interestingly, Indian pilgrims were allowed to buy specially minted currency by the Reserve Bank of India, which could be purchased in Mumbai. These travellers cheques could be redeemed for either riyals or pound sterling by Hajis in Saudi Arabia for meeting their expenses. As a global phenomenon, passenger travel by ships declined. People started travelling by air. Air travel was introduced gradually for Haj pilgrims. Till 1994, around 5,000 pilgrims used to travel by ship from the sea port of Bombay for performing Haj and about 19,000 used to travel by air.
However, from 1995, travelling by the sea route was discarded and all 1.3 lakh Hajis who travelled for Haj this year travelled by air, in over 300 sorties from various airports.
From a lone embarking point of Mumbai, there are 22 across India from where Hajis can now head to Saudi Arabia.
A return journey, which would earlier take well over three months, is now being completed in 40 days in far more comfortable conditions. However, Hajis who have undertaken the pilgrimage by sea in spite of the hardship lament the closure of travel by sea.
“An airplane makes you reach quicker and in far more comfort. However, travelling by sea heightened the spiritual experience. Floating in the ocean, you had ample time to contemplate on your life and deeds before you submitted yourself to the creator. In today’s times, the journey is spiritual but increasingly commercialised. For me, my sea journey from Mumbai has been the most fulfilling experience of all my pilgrimages,” Sakina Shaikh, a 73-year-old home-maker said.