Besides pointing and repeating yeh nazaara (this sight), 35-year-old Nayyer Azan finds it difficult to advertise Haji Ali, one of his favourite getaways in Mumbai.
“Yeh nazaara dekh kar aisa lagta hai ki tum apni manzil ke paas chal rahe ho par…,” says Azan, facing the Dargah, and after a long pause, adds: “…par kya yeh tourist ke liye hai? (This sight makes you feel you are walking close to your destination…but is it for tourists?” , now pointing at the path leading to the dargah, dotted with beggars, varied vendors and garbage.
One of the most recognisable landmarks in the city, the Haji Ali Dargah, with a daily footfall of more than 20,000 visitors and even more on the weekend, has for long offered calmness to many amid the sea. The iconic white dome houses the tomb of Iranian saint Pir Haji Ali Shah Bukhari and is said to have been first constructed in 1431. From the bustling Heera Panna traffic junction, one reaches the concrete track that connects visitors to the shrine. The walk on the track is an experience difficult to forget, with seagulls flying close and the sound of the waves cancelling out the noise of the traffic behind.
This walk is one of the main attractions for Mira Road resident Azan and his family, who visit Haji Ali bi-monthly.
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“Once you’re inside the structure, the mood, the rituals, they capture you. Many tourists can relate to the comfort sensed inside,” Azan says.
However, a foreign visitor who did not want to be named says his experiences to the shrine was “enchanting”, but “quite the opposite on the way out”. “There is poverty around the shrine, which is unsettling to visitors. But where else will they go to have their prayers heard?” says Azan.
“So many people come here. The time has come to provide more facilities, such as toilets, to cater to more people,” says a local, pointing at some construction work on the concrete pathway, claiming that authorities were not widening the stretch.
The Dargah has been in the news recently over women’s protests, seeking the right to enter the shrine’s sanctum sanctorum. Out with his three-year-old son Okkasha, Azan takes many selfies, like many other visitors around. For him, the treat is not over yet.
“On your way out awaits the strawberry cream at Haji Ali Juice centre. For me, this too is a ritual to be followed at Haji Ali,” Azan says.