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A visit to Jama Masjid

The heat in Delhi was unrelenting but I told myself, if I want to call myself a photographer, I have to get out there, click photographs and collect stories. No pain no gain as they say. And so, my little excursion to visit Jama Masjid began. Jama Masjid is one of India’s largest mosques, built in the seventeenth century, commissioned by Shah Jahan, the same Mughal emperor who built the Taj Mahal for the love of his life.

Disconnected from the grid, disarmed by a cellphone rendered useless, I had to trust my limited command over Hindi to find my way to Jama Masjid on the day of Friday prayers. I was excited about the possibility of taking pictures of Muslim men performing the Sujud (prostration) in complete synchrony. I dreamed of photographing a young boy with a taquiah on his small head, lit by the afternoon sun. Sounds poetic but street photography doesn’t work that way. You don’t plan. You simply capture what you get, and take what life gives.

I started my little adventure at the Botanical Garden Metro Station. I’m not very good at following simple instructions. Getting the tickets issued was a daunting task. After intense failed negotiations with the ticket vending machine, I asked for help. The response from the ticket counter clerk contained zero words. Just a swift diagonal head movement which seemed to suggest that I walk diagonally across and renegotiate with the vending machine. To confirm my understanding, in the little Hindi I knew, I asked if I should use the vending machine and a different head movement was communicated. This time, his head moved straight along the vertical axis top to bottom, implying a resounding yes. I wanted to believe, I had mastered the language of Indian head gestures by observing two quick movements. Eventually, the tickets worked out and I was on my way.

After an uneventful Metro ride, I successfully located the Jama Masjid. As I climbed the stairs from Gate 2, the mosque slowly came into my view. And when it did, it was majestic, demonstrating triumph of the times. But like everything else in life, things change with time. The once strong tomb is now barely maintained, with visible cracks across its surface. The once strong Mughal empire is now replaced by a democracy led by a Hindu Nationalist party. Atop the tomb, from within the cracks, there was sufficient foliage that undoubtedly proved indifference from the authorities.

The day would be filled with many ups and downs. Just when I would begin to feel awesome about something, the scene would turn instantly ugly. And just when I would begin to feel disappointed with humanity, something incredibly beautiful would happen. This unassuming pattern would repeat.

I would end up witnessing three fights during the day, the first of which was a physical brawl between a young couple in the mosque square. It was an ugly sighting in a place of worship. Fellow worshippers did their best to break the fight but delegated the resolution to the counsel of an elderly woman.

The second fight would be even more physical, right outside the mosque between two young men with a motorbike in the middle of it. The fight was finally broken and so was the motorbike. The third one would be a verbal squabble between a rickshaw driver and a rider about a previously-agreed-upon price.

Why people fight is beyond me.

Boys and men gathered around a square pond for the purpose of Wudu, partial ablution before prayers, a form of ritual purification. The green water reflected men washing their faces, arms, and feet against the backdrop of the brick red mosque. By the pond’s side, worshippers fed grains to seemingly agnostic pigeons that didn’t believe in any religion other than food. There’s something disarming about pigeons in a mosque, conveying romance and freedom, all the same time.

Men, mostly dressed in white cotton, started pouring into the mosque for the Friday afternoon prayers, braving the heat of the midday Delhi Sun. They assembled quietly waiting for the Namaz to begin. The brotherhood of Islam was palpable with complete strangers offering space to each other, greeting one another Salaam Alaikum and Alaikum As Salaam. Somewhere else in a church, Christians greeted each other with a similar spirit, “Peace be with you.”

Religions are inherently the same.

Humans are the ones who make them different.

A young man, no more than twenty years of age, rode a moped improvised to be a mini-truck. He transported floor rugs for worshippers. He slammed on the annoyingly loud horn to get people out of his way, He yelled, “hat jao,” meaning “get out of the way,” at seniors with such unsightly condescension, it was disgusting to witness such aberrant disrespect in a place of worship.

And then, we heard a magical voice, so deep in its soul, descend from the minaret. The early afternoon prayer, Salat al-Zuhr, begins when the Sun crosses the celestial meridian, true noon, exactly halfway between sunrise and sunset. I didn’t understand the language but it didn’t matter. The voice was spiritual, peaceful and calming. Worshippers with their heads covered in taqiyahs, didn’t quite make their prayer movements in complete synchrony as I had imagined, but it was graceful no less.

After the prayers, the Imam delivered the sermon in Hindi. All I heard were three words and a name – Kashmiri, Hindustani, Muslmaan, and Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. Everything else in the sermon were words I didn’t need to understand. With such intensity and aggression in tone, I didn’t need to know the language to know that the sermon was filled with hate. This is not a stab on Islam. In fact, I’ll go out on a limb and say, all religions offer their own version of hate, be it through a sermon or otherwise.

I visited Jama Masjid at a sensitive time.

[To establish some political context, the Indian parliament recently repealed Article 370, which had originally allowed the residents of Jammu and Kashmir to live under a separate set of laws, including those related to citizenship, ownership of property, and fundamental rights, as compared to residents of other Indian states. With the recent repeal, all the provisions of the Indian constitution are now applicable to Jammu and Kashmir. In addition, there are reports of widespread curfews and communication/Internet blackouts. The Muslim majority in J&K does not approve of India’s most recent move. This context is based on my research on the Internet. Feel free to keep me honest.]

The politics of religion often promotes divisiveness in public discourse, which normally wouldn’t exist if not for the blatant instigation by both religious and political leaders.

I did not want to leave Jama Masjid with a hate-filled sermon as my last memory. And so, I continued walking barefoot in scorching heat hoping to capture few more slices of life through my camera. Most visitors seemed far too removed from the political and religious dissonance. They were simply being themselves – posing for photographs, chit-chatting with family, walking across the square and feeding pigeons.

As these scenes unfolded, I was practically melting, slowly dissolving myself in sweat.

Published by Arun Muthu

In 2019, I relocated to India after having lived in California for more than two decades. These scribbles attempt to capture my observations at what I call home through a foreigner's eyes.

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