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MUMBAI

The Haji Ali Dargah (shrine) is set just off the coast of South Mumbai, with a narrow causeway connecting the mosque to the shore. Surrounded by water at high tide and mud flats when the tide goes out, Haji Ali offers pilgrims and visitors different experiences dependent upon the changing tidal conditions. I visited at low tide, when the city’s lack of adequate toilets for its inhabitants becomes apparent by the unpleasant stench arising from the city’s newly revealed border between land and sea.

The shrine is visited by both Muslims and Hindus; both groups make the pilgrimage here to Sayed Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari’s tomb in hopes of receiving the saint’s blessings. At the point of arrival at the mosque, men and women separate and enter the shrine from opposite sides. They then approach the tomb from different directions and are physically but not visually separated as they get as close as possible to the entombed saint.

A tree outside of the shrine, where pilgrims tie strings for good luck.

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The Worli Sea Link, completed in 2009, links Worli to Bandra, part of the western suburbs. The bridge reduces travel between the two parts of the city by car from 45-60 minutes to 7 minutes during peak hours. While this is a huge improvement for the small percentage of Mumbaikars who commute by car,  almost 90% of commuters use the city’s massively overcrowded trains to reach their workplaces. So, this $3.25 million infrastructural investment affects only those city dwellers (29 per 1000 residents) who have the luxury of owning a car.


Infrastructure on the way to Bandra

Crossing over the Worli Sea Link on the way to Bandra from South Bombay

On Tuesday, I traveled over the Worli Sea Link to Bandra, where I spoke with a Sunni Muslim cleric, Mohamed Tariq. Hanifa Ahmedi, who works with a friend of my brother, hosted us at her home and kindly translated between Mr. Tariq, who spoke Urdu, and myself. In my conversation with Mr. Tariq, I hoped to learn more about the history and rituals surrounding Muslim burial as well as his thoughts regarding a potential dearth of space for burial in dense, urban centers.

Mr. Tariq informed me that the origins of the Islamic tradition of burying the dead began with the burial of the prophets, who taught that we are made from the soil and hence, we return to the soil. He told me that unlike cremation, which creates both air pollution as well as an odor, the Muslim method of burying the dead directly in the earth does not cause any pollution and allows nature to take its own course. When I pressed Mr. Tariq to consider the possibility of spatial constraints, he did not believe that Muslims would ever resort to cremation, but that perhaps some other method of disintegrating the body could be utilized, though nothing like this is officially sanctioned in Islam. He also informed me that because Muslims can re-use a grave after just 6 months (he claimed that the body, apart from the bones, disintegrates within 3 months), that space for burial is not an issue. While in Christianity and Judaism, burial is typically associated with individual memorial, the re-use of graves in Islamic burial leads to more shared spaces of memorial.

I asked both Hanifa and Mr. Tariq about the place of women in Muslim burial and received different answers from them, demonstrating the range of practices existing across the different sects of Islam. Hanifa informed me that within her tradition, women are granted access to the gravesites of their loved ones but, according to Mr. Tariq, it is best for women not to enter kabristans because ‘their hearts are soft’ and because it could lead to the improper mixing of men and women.

 

 

Views looking back to south Bombay from the Elephanta Island ferry. The Gateway of India and Taj Mahal Palace are pictured in the image above.

The ferry passed by this island bunker, used by the Indian Navy.

Out on Elephanta Island, the transition from land to water was softer and the conditions much more rural. The city’s presence was felt only when looking back to the industrial development within the harbor.

 

Yesterday morning, I ventured out to Elephanta Island to visit the famed cave temple, an hour ferry ride west of Mumbai’s center. The cave temple and all of the statuary are carved entirely out of the volcanic basalt rock existing on-site. So, there is nothing additive in the caves; everything you see is carved out of a single, giant piece of basalt.

Protected from the elements, the cave temple is impressively preserved, apart from damage wreaked on some of the reliefs by the Portuguese during the 16th century, who found the caves to be the ideal location for a shooting range.

The temple is dedicated to Lord Shiva, depicted above as Sadashiva (‘Eternal Shiva’). The central face shows Shiva in serene contemplation, to the left is vengeful, angry Shiva, and on the right is Shiva as Uma, his feminine side. As illustrated here, in Hinduism each god contains many different and sometimes contradictory aspects or incarnations.

Parsi Museum, Mumbai

The most famous death ritual of Mumbai involves the Parsi’s (Zoroastrian) Towers of Silence. The Parsis practice corporeal disposal by means of placing their corpses atop their private and protected Towers of Silence and allowing vultures as well as other birds and animals, to dispose of them. Unfortunately, today the population of these large birds has dwindled in and around Mumbai, and in recent years, the birds have not been able to properly dispose of the bodies. This leaves the Parsis struggling and sometimes divided between tradition and innovation. Yesterday, I stopped by Mumbai’s Parsi Museum, where I had the pleasure of meeting Mrs. Nivedita Mehta.

Mrs. Mehta is an archaeologist who, after suffering a stroke and losing the ability to travel and participate in archaeological digs, took over as curator of the small museum. She has spent her life in the Parsi community in Mumbai and shared some of her thoughts about their current situation.

With Mrs. Nivedita Mehta, archaeologist and curator of the Parsi Museum

She identified a divide in the community between those more orthodox members, who desire to keep the Towers of Silence tradition functioning at all costs, and those members of the Parsi community who recognize a faltering system and a need for change. According to Mrs. Mehta, many Parsis (even some of the more orthodox community members) are now sending their bodies to crematoria, because they do not approve of or agree with the situation surrounding the Towers of Silence. Mrs. Mehta explained that even though the large birds are gone, the bodies are usually still disposed of during most of the year by the combination of smaller birds and the sun; it is just during the monsoon when issues arise. The Towers of Silence are extremely protected from outsiders, so much so that when views into other Towers of Silence that used to exist in another part of the city became available from apartment towers rising nearby, the Parsis chose to stop utilizing those towers for their rituals. There are restrictions within the community as well, though some have changed in accordance to societal trends. While no Parsis apart from priests are allowed to enter into and thus desacralize their fire temples, in recent years, women have been able to accompany their deceased loved ones to the top of the Towers of Silence to say a last goodbye, while before, it was only men who were afforded this privilege.

Towers of Silence, from googlemaps

After speaking to Mrs. Mehta and seeing the museum, I walked as close as I could to the nearby Towers of Silence. As expected, I was not able to get very close; the most I saw was the stone wall surrounding the extensive garden that houses the towers and the lush vegetation protecting these holy ritual spaces from my prying eyes.

View of wall surrounding the Towers of Silence