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The first batch of 820 (Haj-1439) pilgrims left Srinagar by air on 14 July 2018. In all, about 10,196 pilgrims from Jammu & Kashmir will perform Haj this year through the State Haj Committee. Of these, 8450 are from Kashmir. The last flight will take off from Srinagar on 25 July. The return flights commencing on 25 August will conclude on 7 September. Private tour operators would take another thousand or so Kashmiri pilgrims. Pertinently, the State Haj Committee introduced air travel for Haj pilgrims in 1996 and Srinagar became an embarkation point in 2002.

In olden times, travel to and from Makkah was arduous and time consuming. Very few people would embark upon the pilgrimage due to tough journey and poor economic condition. Some resolute and devout people, though, would undertake the journey on foot travelling through Afghanistan, Iran and Iraq. Haji Ali Joo Katju of Nalbandpora was one such pilgrim from Kashmir who is said to have travelled to Makkah on foot few hundred years ago. Like him, Noor Shah Qadri of Dangarpora, Eidgah in Srinagar travelled on foot to perform Haj in the distant past. About 80 years back, Mohammad Sultan from central Kashmir village of Chhatargam also achieved this feat and returned after a long time. Yet another pedestrian pilgrim was Abdur Rehman, later Imam of a local mosque at Zampa Kadal, who had performed Haj in 1930s. He had stayed in Medina for ten years and worked as sweeper there and came to Kashmir in 1948 along with migrating Muslim Tibetans.

There are many interesting stories of old times about people from Kashmir going on the Haj pilgrimage and coming back after years. If a pilgrim did not return for a year or two he was presumed dead and the family would perform his last rites in absentia. In certain cases, a ‘dead pilgrim’ would one day suddenly come home walking. Muhammad Rajab Saqqa of Breyikujen returned years after his last rites had been performed. His family members were pleasantly shocked to see him alive. It looks like that many people who went for Haj preferred to settle down in the holy land. Nawab Mustafa Khan Shaifta, Urdu poet and a contemporary of Mirza Ghalib, who left for Haj on 2 March 1839, mentions Kashmiris among the people of “different countries who have settled down in Makkah.”

For a long time, sea voyage remained the main mode of travel for South-Asian Haj pilgrims. A century ago, the embarkation points for sea-route pilgrims were Karachi and Calcutta. Bombay (now Mumbai) was added later. Pilgrims from Kashmir would take the Karachi route and arrived there by travelling through Punjab. This practice continued till the Partition of India in 1947. The road distance between Srinagar and Karachi was 611 km less than between Srinagar and Bombay and Karachi was 589 nautical miles closer to Jeddah than Bombay. The pilgrims carried no passports. Their travel document was a Pilgrim Pass issued by the concerned Deputy Commissioner or by the Port Haj Committee, if the pilgrim failed to bring it with him, against a payment of Rs. 8. Likewise, if the pilgrim was not inoculated at the place of his origin, he was vaccinated by a doctor of the Karachi Municipality before boarding the ship.

A page from Narwari’s Pilgrim Pass (1936)

Abdul Salam Narwari, a trader from Amira Kadal, Srinagar, was 36 years old when he went to perform Haj via Karachi in 1936. His pilgrim pass, bearing registration number K653 and issued on 27 November 1936, mentions his nationality as ‘K. State’. His inoculation certificate bears seal and signature of Dr. Bhagwan Das, Deputy Health Officer, Karachi Municipality. It took six months for Narwari to return from the pilgrimage. The ship he was travelling in had to drop the anchor at Aden in Yemen instead of Jeddah due to armed hostility going on there. From the port of Aden, he covered the distance to Makkah by travelling on camel back and also boarded a train at a particular point. One-way sea travel would take 15 days. On his return, he visited the Mochi Darwaza graveyard in Lahore where his uncle, who had passed away there about two decades back while returning from Haj pilgrimage, was buried.

District-wise number of Haj pilgrims from J&K since 2015

In 1936, an official communiqué on sailing schedule of pilgrims’ ships was issued in Srinagar for the guidance of Haj pilgrims. The communiqué provided information on three ships named S. S. Jehangir, S. S. Islami and S. S. Alavi, owned by Messrs Turner, Morison and Company Ltd. operating from Bombay and Karachi. As given out in an advertisement issued by the Mughal Line (The Bombay and Persia Steam Navigation Company Ltd.) in 1937, there were other Haj pilgrim ships like S. S. Rehmani, S. S. Akbar and S. S. Rizwani operating from Karachi and Bombay. During the voyage pilgrims were supplied with cooked food as cooking on board by passengers was strictly prohibited. A pilgrim was supplied with morning tea, breakfast, luncheon, afternoon tea and dinner. Unlike first and second class passenger, deck pilgrims were required to express at the time of buying their tickets preference between rice and chapatti and whether they would have dry fish with vegetable dish.

Articles of food were also made available to pilgrims on payment of extra charges. A fowl with gravy cost one rupee and 7 annas each, mutton korma and kofta 3 annas a plate, biryani 7 annas a plate and a shaami kebab 9 pies each. A boiled egg was sold at an anna and 6 pies, fried egg 2 annas and 3 pies, curry and rice 6 annas per plate, rice 1 anna and 6 pies a plate, halwa (pudding) 3 annas a plate and tea without milk 9 pies a cup and with milk an anna. A cup of coffee with milk cost 2 annas. An orange was sold at one anna and 6 pies and an apple at 2 annas. It may be in place to recall that before 1957 when India shifted to decimalized currency, 16 annas would make a rupee and 12 pies an anna. All cooks and attendants employed on board the ship were Muslims. Deck pilgrims had to provide their own plates, cups and other receptacles in which food was served. Water from ‘No-waste taps’ was allowed to be taken in a day four times of two hours duration each. Sadly, the official communiqué on the sailing schedule for Haj pilgrims was refused to be published by the Martand and the Kashmir Times, newspapers owned by the members of a particular community, unless the Government issued it as paid advertisement. The return fare with food charged by Messrs Turner, Morison and Company, Limited from Karachi and Bombay was Rs. 602 and Rs. 626 for the first class pilgrims, Rs. 427 and Rs. 451 for the second class pilgrims and Rs. 172 and Rs. 178 for the deck pilgrims. The Mughal Line (The Bombay & Persia Steam Navigation Co. Ltd.) information brochure of 1937 shows a uniform raise of Rs. 2 and anna 4 in the fare of all classes. The return air fare from Bombay to Jeddah was Rs. 1500.

The Haj Pilgrims from Kashmir would leave and return together on a single day. They travelled in buses from Srinagar to Pathankot, a surface distance of 427 kms. From there, they would board train to Bombay and then sail to Jeddah. Till few decades back, women pilgrims from Kashmir were far fewer in number. The situation has changed and their number is steadily increasing. In 2015, the number of women pilgrims from Kashmir was 2549. Next year, it rose to 2644. In 2017 there were 3332 women pilgrims and this year, 3745 Kashmiri women will perform Haj through the aegis of the State Haj Committee. At one point in time, women in Kashmir were reluctant to submit their photographs for travel documents as taking a lady’s picture did not carry social approval. In 1937, Amir Gul Khan from Anantnag tehsil submitted an application to the Governor of Kashmir seeking passport for his mother, Gul Bibi, wife of Sarwar Khan Pathan to go on Haj pilgrimage with two other women who had already obtained travel documents and were now “anxiously waiting” for her. Khan was asked to produce a photograph of his mother to complete the formalities. In response, he informed the Governor that her mother was a “pardah nisheen aurat” (veil observing lady) and since taking picture of a woman was not allowed in the family, he cannot submit her photograph. “Attested documents would be submitted, nevertheless”, he pleaded.

There was a time in 1950s-60s when Muallims from Saudi Arabia would come to Kashmir to book accommodation for Haj pilgrims in Makkah and Medina. A Muallim, literally meaning a teacher, was a Saudi national who owned residential property in the two holy cities and rented it out to the pilgrims with provision for food too. He would also act as pilgrims’ guide. One such Muallim, Zainul Aabideen, had cultivated quite an influence in the Valley. He would arrive ahead of the Haj time and register prospective pilgrims. To ensure maximum publicity, he distributed leaflets at important shrines and mosques.

The departure and return of Haj pilgrims used to be an occasion of festivity in Kashmir. Pilgrims were taken in processions from their homes to the Tourist Reception Centre amid shouting of religious slogans. Enthusiastic children in large numbers joined these processions to raise and respond slogans at a full pitch. Women of the family and neighbourhood would shower candies on a pilgrim once he stepped out of his home. In cases where family members could afford they travelled to Pathankot to bid the pilgrim adieu there. Festivity was also observed in villages and towns of Kashmir at the time of bidding farewell to and receiving Haj pilgrims. On return of the pilgrims, welcome arches were erected and a feast held by their families for relatives and neighbours. Immediate relatives also invited the pilgrim to sumptuous meals before he left for Haj. In 1972, the Jammu Railway Station was commissioned and the rail travel for a Haj pilgrim from Kashmir began from there instead of Pathankot.

Till recently, Kashmiri pilgrims would take with them rice, dried vegetables, mixed spice cakes, chili and turmeric powder, salt, dried fish, green tea leaves and pickle to have homely food while being away from home. Some chronic smokers also carried tobacco and hookas with them. Mercifully, that practice has stopped now. The pilgrims carried light bedding and a large steel trunk filled with clothes and food items, which they watched over all the time. During return journey, the steel truck would carry different gifts for family members and relatives which generally included dates, beads, praying rugs, pieces of dry soil of Medina believed to have curing properties, perfume, pocket and wrist watches, Kamkhwab cloth, kohl, umbrellas, transistor cum tape recorders and video cassette recorders (VCRs). Unlike now when only 5 liters per pilgrim are allowed, there was no limit prescribed for carrying Zamzam water and pilgrims would bring large canisters of the holy water.

On their journey to Makkah, pilgrims would reach Bombay weeks before sail. The wait could extend for as long as 20 days during which time formalities were completed and tickets booked. A long queue was seen at the booking centre and since most of the pilgrims were illiterate or modestly literate, filling of forms and other formalities took long time to complete. Most of the pilgrims in the queue would return to the Saboo Sidiq Musafir Khana, named after a philanthropist who died at a young age of 26, to come again next day. The process would continue till all passengers were booked and the ship was ready for sail. The time of departure printed on the ticket meant nothing as no ship ever left Bombay without postponing its departure several times and, in certain cases, pilgrims were made to wait longer than a month. In 1994, when the last ship carrying Haj pilgrims sailed from Bombay, the total number of pilgrims from all over India, taking both air and sea route, was 25,685. Of these, 4650 had opted for sea travel.

Communication system being very primitive with near non-existent telephony, a pilgrim would be in touch with his family only through a letter which took weeks, if not months, to reach its destination. In the age of mobile telephony and social networking applications like the Whatsapp and IMO where a pilgrim even relays live to family and friends his circumambulation of the Ka’ba or paying obeisance at the Green Dome in Medina, it is difficult to imagine today that pilgrims would virtually go incommunicado for months. In certain cases, communication received by the family would cause grief and anguish when the sender had meant to convey good news. In early 1970s, after long wait at Bombay when the day of departure finally arrived, Dost Muhammad of Uri sent a two-words cable – “Sailing today” – to his home. The telegram received by the family read “Ailing today”. The news caused concern and grief at home. A member of the family was rushed to Bombay to take care of the sick pilgrim. When the person arrived in the port city he came to know that Dost Muhammad, as other pilgrims, had since departed for Jeddah.

In 1957, new rules were laid down for facilitation of the pilgrims. The shipping companies were asked to publish the tentative departure schedule 6 to 9 months in advance and the final schedule at least 15 days ahead of the departure. Bookings were ordered to be started with the publication of the tentative schedule. The pilgrims were directed to provide all personal details with their applications. An amount of Rs. 100 was to be deposited with the application in the case of each adult and Rs. 50 in the case of a minor pilgrim. The pilgrims were asked to book their luggage at the Tourist Reception Centre a day before their departure and, on the day of leaving, reach the Polo Ground early in the morning from where they would board buses and set out for the holy journey. Pilgrims arriving in Bombay without booking their seats were required to register themselves with shipping companies as intending pilgrims on a payment of fee of Rs. 10 and attach their photograph with their application. Pilgrims who had already booked their seats were asked to buy their tickets at least 3 days before their ship left the Bombay port.

The pilgrims were instructed to deposit their luggage a day before departure from Srinagar. According to a Government notification issued in 1958, the departure was scheduled for 29 May. The pilgrims were advised to deposit their luggage with Muhammad Yusuf Rafiqi, Haj Clerk, at the Tourist Reception Centre on 28 May between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and reach the Polo Ground at 6.30 a.m. the next day. They were also advised to report at the office of the Chief Secretariat, Political Department, Shergarhi on 25 May to pay the balance fare of ship, bus and rail. The notification was issued by the Secretary Haj Committee, Dwarika Nath. The sea-route pilgrims travelling in cabin or first class were required to submit Income Tax certificate at the time of buying a ticket and could carry with them currency up to Rs. 3400. The deck class passengers were exempted from Income Tax certificate and the currency limit for them was Rs. 2400.

Fazil Kashmiri, poet and a teacher by profession who later rose to the heights of literary fame, was one of the 141 pilgrims, including 25 women, from Kashmir who performed Haj in 1958. There were two infants also in the group. On 29 May which happened to be a Thursday, the pilgrims reached the Tourist Reception Centre early in the morning where a large number of people, including relatives, acquaintances and keen onlookers, from different parts of Kashmir were assembled to see them off. The pilgrims were garlanded. At 8.15 a.m. when the buses started moving, the air was rent with slogans. People stood in two rows to pave way for the moving buses and waived at the pilgrims, praying for their safe journey, sound health and successful completion of the pilgrimage. The caravan of pilgrim buses reached Anantnag at 10 a.m. and Qazigund at 10.30 a.m. Haji Muhammad Amin, an employee of the recently constituted State Haj Committee, accompanied the pilgrims. Enroute, groups of enthusiastic people were waiting for them along the road under heavy showers. They greeted them and, in reverence, kissed their hands. The pilgrims reached Jammu by 7 p.m. and stayed for the night in a traveler’s inn at Talab Khatikan. Next day, they were taken in a procession to the bus stand where they boarded buses for Pathankot. They spent the night at the Pathankot Railway Station and the train chugged off at 5.30 in the morning. During the train journey, many pilgrims cooked their food. On their arrival at Bombay on 2 June, the pilgrims were received, among others, by Haji Ghulam Ahmad Pardesi Kashmiri, a Bombay based Kashmiri trader. From the Railway Station, they were taken to Saboo Sidiq Musafir Khana, the halting place for pilgrims in the port city, where they stayed till 9 June. During their halt at Bombay, the pilgrims purchased for their onward journey umbrellas, Ahram (unstitched cloth worn by pilgrims during the five days of Haj), dry milk, hand operated fans, charcoal, beads, buckets and fruit.

After luggage check and customs clearance, the pilgrims sailed for Jeddah on 9 June in S. S. Rizwani captained by B. M. J. Macklanahan. Most of the pilgrims travelling by sea for the first time felt bouts of nausea and some vomited out what they had eaten as breakfast. During sea journey, a pilgrim was served morning tea with biscuit, lunch and dinner each comprising a plateful of mutton/vegetable, pickle and dal, and tea and pudding in the afternoon. By 13 June, the pilgrims recovered from sea sickness. Congregational prayers were held five times a day after Adan, the call for prayer, was said on a microphone. Later, muallims would deliver religious sermons explaining various elements of the Haj and how to perform those. The ship arrived at the port of Aden at the crack of dawn on 16 June and the pilgrims had the first sight of sea shore and the barren mountain-line of the city after a week since their departure from Bombay. The ship halted at the port for 6 hours during which the pilgrims were not allowed to disembark. Here, fresh drinking water was loaded in the ship and many small boats filled with merchandise came near the ship to sell goods to the pilgrims. At the port of Aden, pilgrims posted letters to their families back in Kashmir.

Three days after their departure from Aden, the pilgrims arrived in Jeddah on 19 June. Describing the city of those days, Fazil writes:

This is Jeddah. A dazzling city sits here on the sea shore with houses like those in Bombay. Not a single house is kucha; all are built in solid masonry. The buildings are 8-9 stories high. The roads are wide and metalled on which hundreds of cars move one after the other. The ikkas and tongas [the main modes of transport in Kashmir in olden days] are not in use here. However, the donkey-driven chhakras [carts] are available everywhere for hire. Its driver usually sits on the back of the donkey that pulls it. The fare of the chhakra is higher than that of an exquisite motor taxi. Like in Lal Chowk where tongas move around here and there in search of passengers, superb motor cars run around in Jeddah to lift passengers. All the markets in the city look ambulant … In Hedjaz, Coca Cola is available in sealed bottles. It is like a black coloured soda water and tastes very sweet. It saves a Haji from heat and thirst. It is very useful and chilly. You can drink it as much as you want. A bottle costs a little over half a Riyal.

The pilgrims arrived in Makkah at midnight. After performing Haj, they left for Jeddah to proceed to Medina – some by bus, some by motor taxi and a few like Fazil by air. On his return, he and 24 of his batch mates sailed from Jeddah in S. S. Muzaffari and after 12 days of voyage reached Bombay on 1 August. Others returned by S. S. Rizwani. On 6 August, Fazil reached home. Later, he came up with a useful and comprehensive Urdu language Haj Guide, Tasveer-i-Haj, with interesting details of the travel and hand drawn sketches. He considered Rs. 1500 sufficient for moderate expenses of the pilgrimage and gave point to point expenditure on transport from Srinagar to Makkah and Medina, and back. Goods costing more than Rs. 500 carried by a returning pilgrim were subjected to custom duty at Bombay. Within this limit, a pilgrim could bring home one wrist and pocket watch each, a fountain pen, a Gramophone, toys, Zamzam water, utensils, pictures of holy places, religious books for personal use, soil of Medina, medicines for personal use costing not more than Rs. 30, personal bedding, 4 to 6 silk or cotton shawls, 42 yards of Zamzam washed cloth, beads costing up to Rs. 25, dates, a camera costing up to Rs. 75, a bicycle, a sewing machine, a traveler’s type writer, 100 cigarettes, 25 cigars, 250 Bidis, half a pound tobacco, a cigarette case, a binocular and 3 praying mats including a used one. Import of gold was banned and a violator was arrested and prosecuted. In 1957, some pilgrims had been jailed for committing this offence.

A positive trend observed in recent years is that a large number of people prefer to perform Haj in young age as compared to earlier times when only aged and often physically weak people embarked upon the pilgrimage. A person would think of performing Haj only after he had retired from service or business, built a house, financially settled his children, married them off and had now no gainful work to do. It was then that his family members, friends or acquaintances would persuade him to go for Haj. Many who had never ventured out of the Valley were sacred of sea or air travel. Some years back, one such pilgrim when his plane had a rough flight due to bad weather sank in his seat, frightened and sweating, and was head murmuring, “Noshi kaer saezish”, meaning that his daughter-in-law who had insisted on his going for Haj had actually conspired to get him killed in an air crash. Some aged pilgrims would nurse the desire to die and be buried in the holy land. Any pilgrim passing away there was considered very fortunate. Yet his family members would mourn and grieve on receiving the news of his demise.

On his return from the holy pilgrimage, a Haji would narrate for months and years anecdotes, spiritual experiences and travel stories. There always were eager and interested listeners. Habibullah Wani of Sonawar who had performed Haj in 1960s narrated tales of the pilgrimage over a long period of time at a local saloon and people would wait for him to take them on a virtual journey to the holy land. In many cases, Haji became the surname of a person and his family after his return from Haj. There is to this day a family at Chhatargam with the surname Haji whose one of the members had performed Haj 8 decades ago. Ramzan Haji of Sonawar had never undertaken the pilgrimage. His grandfather or great grandfather had. Hence the surname!

Makkah and Medina being the cities of reverence for Muslims across the world, some pilgrims removed their footwear while walking through streets and passages Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is believed to have set his feet on. In early 1960s, when Ghulam Nabi Naqash of Malik Sahab, Safa Kadal returned from the pilgrimage, his neighbours were aghast to see his feet in bad shape, wide cracks in his heels and eyes sunken deep into sockets. When Haji Muhammad Jamal, a senior neighbour, asked the reason of his run down condition, Naqash told him that on his arrival at Jeddah he had thrown his slippers into the sea and travelled barefooted through Makkah and Medina. Some pilgrims had pleasant encounters that they would have never imagined. Habibullah Panzoo from Naid Kadal who performed Haj in 1966 could not have asked for more when to his great joy he met Mirwaiz Molvi Muhammad Yusuf Shah there. After enquiring from Panzoo about his place of residence the Mirwaiz placed his family and told him how he had relished sumptuous food, especially the dish of spinach, many a time at his home. A diehard follower of the Mirwaiz who like thousands others had not reconciled to his separation as he was living in exile in Muzaffarabad since 1947, could not control his emotions and cried, “Ba haz lagai balayi” (I will sacrifice my life for you).


Khalid Bashir Ahmad is the author of Kashmir: Exposing the Myth Behind the Narrative, a SAGE (2017) publication.

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