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.
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.