Eid ul Azha Prayers at Old Delhi’s Jama Masjid

Recently, I’ve spent way too much time sitting at my desk writing about Old Delhi, and not nearly enough time doing what I love most – actually being in Old Delhi.  But yesterday, a couple of friends and I decided to try and catch the Eid ul Azha prayers at Jama Masjid .

Thinking the prayers would be the first  of the day, we dragged ourselves out of bed at 4, only to find the mosque closed.   A policeman suggested we come back at about 8.  A difficult moment.  I’m not going to lie – at this point, still half asleep, staring at the locked gates of the Jama Masjid, the temptation to head straight back to bed  was enormous.  It was a very close call but  somehow we forced ourselves to stay, and I’m so glad we did.

Of course every walk in Old Delhi is an adventure but there’s something particularly special about watching the city wake up. First, though, we needed to wake up properly ourselves.  We wandered down into a very dark and  almost deserted Matya Mahal and found a tea shop.  Several sweet chais and omelettes later,  and after quizzing every Muslim customer about the exact time of prayers, we were ready to take a stroll.

We found many stalls starting to set up including this splendid young man taking care of the pre-dawn Kachori business

The beautiful emerging light showed off the dazzling sweet displays which people would later give as Eid gifts.

At the junction of Chitli Qabar lines of prayer mats were being laid out for early prayers, stretching back along the lane from a mosque in Churiwalan

The soft, barely audible sounds of the mosque and  gentle rhythms of the prayers were mesmerising.  As the line grew and we were pushed further and further down the street, we realised we couldn’t get back to the Jama Masjid without disrupting the men’s prayers so we looped back through the tiny back alleys, where  we joined hundreds of men in  fresh white kurtas all heading in the same direction.

Eid ul Azha, which is also known as ‘Bakra’ (‘goat’) Eid is one of the most important dates in the Muslim calendar.  It commemorates   the moment the Prophet Ibrahim’s faith was tested when Allah asked him to sacrifice his son Ismail.  Allah replaced Ismail with a goat at the last moment hence the tradition of sacrificing  a goat immediately after the Eid prayers.  The meat is then distributed among family, friends and the poor.

At the mosque we were shown into the ‘press gallery’ a raised platform with the best view in the house.

The mosque was full (it can hold up to 25,000) and even beyond the walls, every bazaar and piece of open ground was filled with neat rows  of worshippers.

When the prayers started, everyone, inside and out, moved in a single wave.  Sitting high above the bazaars, it felt as if  the soft prayers had the power to silence the city.

At the end of prayers, everyone turned to their neighbour and embraced. Eid Mubarak!

As everyone exchanged Eid greetings, I looked  out over the Meena Bazaar side of the mosque. The early morning mist  seemed to blot out everything beyond the Old City.  It felt as if, for a few moments, there was, again, nothing but ‘Sheher’.*

A good feeling.

* ‘Sheher’ means ‘city’ and is the name for Old Delhi used by residents and former residents.  It refers back to time when Shahjahanabad was the only city and everything beyond the city walls (where New Delhi now lies) was wild jungle and primitive villages.

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Gorgeous Goddesses and Lashings of Aloo Puri in Old Delhi

Saturday was Ashtami, the 8th day of the nine-day Hindu fasting period known as Navratri  (literally, ‘nine nights’) during which the goddess Durga is honoured.

Food, as ever, plays an important part.

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Ashtami Celebrations in Sadar Bazaar

I’ve said this before (many times) but I’m going to say it again anyway:  I never cease to be amazed by the extraordinary kindness of people in India and the everyday  willingness of complete strangers to open their hearts,  homes and recipe books to me – particularly in Old Delhi.

On Tuesday Dean and I  were extremely  touched to be invited to an intimate family Navratra celebration.  At the home of the Arora family (Amit and his mother Kamlesh) in Old Delhi, a world away from the mayhem of the Durga Puja pandals,  we took part in a quiet and dignified Ashtami Puja.

Ashtami is celebrated on the 8th day of Navratra and is a moment many families hold a special ceremony to offer prayers to the Mother Goddess or Durga/Kali. For the Aroras, Ashtami is a particularly poignant time because it is a time memories of Amit’s father Ashok (of Ashok and Ashok fame) who died suddenly in 1997, come flooding back.

As in Ashok’s day, nine little girls  from the neighbourhood are invited in to represent devi, or goddesses.

4 beautiful goddesses: Moni, Seema, Nandini, Kajal

My devi of the day: Moni

The girls, some as young as 2, all sit perfectly still throughout the proceedings. First, Vijender, from the local temple, lays out offerings for Durga: coconut, almonds, sugar, walnuts, almonds, raisins, burfi and puris topped with chick peas and halwa.

Kamlesh leads the puja, emotional as she remembers her husband, a picture of whom can be seen in the shrine. In his day, Amit tells us later, everyone was invited and his father  used to take Polaroid pictures of everyone to hand out.

When the prayers are finished, and Dean and I have taken a turn at offering prayers,  Kamlesh gets to work in the kitchen, frying up mountains of puris.

As the room fills with the smell of ghee and incense, Amit ties sacred threads round each child’s wrist.

Tying the scared threads

The devi are then served their food.  On Ashtami it’s traditional to eat chole, (spiced chick peas), sooji halwa, (semolina halwa) and freshly fried puris (puffed, deep fried bread). The food looks  and smells wonderful but it’s our turn to be patient as we watch the devi devour their food.

Where are my puris?

Soon the plates are clean  and the girls revert to being a little less heavenly. Perhaps  they’ve been on best behaviour too long or  a sugar rush from the halwa suddenly kicks in but when they realize Amit has a stash of  chocolate and crisps a stampede ensues.

When the snack supplies and 20 rupee notes have been exhausted, the children clatter off down the stairs leaving us to savour our own plates of Ashtami food.

In the Hindu calendar, this is the time of year blessings are bestowed and counted. As I walk slowly back through Sadar Bazaar, Khari Baoli and Lal Kuan I marvel for the millionth time at  the great good fortune that brought me to India then led me to Old Delhi.