Saturday, February 3, 2018

Following the Ramzan Trail

Published in 'Madras Musings', dated July 16-31, 2017 Triplicane is the part of Madras that offers the best festive feel during Ramzan. To experience and soak in a bit of history, around 60 heritage enthusiasts assembled at the Muhammadan Public Library to participate in a Ramzan Walk I led. The library, at the junction of Wallajah Road and Triplicane High Road, was the ideal starting point to introduce the participants to the history of the Muslim community in Madras. Though Islam came to Tamizhagam even as it was spreading across Arabia in the 7th Century and over a period of time resulted in the evolution of the Tamil Muslim community (which is spread across the State), it was the Nawab of Arcot moving residence to Madras in the 1760s that brought in a large Urdu-speaking Muslim community to the city. Though the Arcot Nawab’s history began with the Mughal conquest of much of this region in the late 17th Century, Muhammad Ali belonging to the Wallajah clan, which was founded by Nawab Anwar-ud-Din in 1744, is the person who is most connected with Madras. ‘Wallajah’ was a title conferred by the Mughal emperor on Anwar-ud-Din’s son Muhammad Ali, upon the latter’s capture of Pondicherry along with the English. When Wallajah moved from Arcot to Madras in the 1760s and built his palace at Chepauk, the neighbouring area, adjoining the Triplicane Parthasarathy temple, developed into the residences of the nobility and others working for the Nawab. The East India Company in honour of their trusted ally had named the Fort St. George gate leading to Chepauk palace as the Wallajah Gate and the road that leads to the Chepauk Palace is still known as Wallajah Road. It was on this road that we assembled and the group was told about the Tamil Muslim community, the Urdu Muslim community as well as other communities in the city, such as the Gujarati Bohras, Kutchi Memons, Malayalam-speaking Mapilas, Konkani-speaking Nawayats and Telugu Muslims. walajah mosque 12 The tank by the Wallajah Mosque. The Muhammadan Public Library itself is more than 150 years old and owes its beginnings to Edward Balfour, an East India Company surgeon who was instrumental in setting it up. The library has books gifted by the King of Egypt and contributions from the Nawabs, the Governor General, the Governor and others. As it was evening, a time when traffic on Triplicane High Road becomes unmanageable, making it difficult to be heard amidst all the din, I narrated the story of the next important landmark in our itinerary at the Library. It was the story of the Kaman Darwaza, an arched gateway that once led to the palace of Begum Sultan-un-Nisa, sister of Nawab Umdat-ul-Umra. If Chepauk Palace reminded us of the Wallajah dynasty’s heydays, the Kaman Darwaza a little away from the Adam market is a sad reminder to the fall of the dynasty. During the rule of Umdat-ul-Umra, who succeeded Muhammad Ali Wallajah, it was his senior sister Sultan-un-Nisa Begum who was considered to be the actual power behind the throne, so much so that matters of state were very often discussed at her palace. The sister believed that it would be her son Rasool Umra who would succeed to the Arcot throne upon her brother’s death. When Umdat-ul-Umra made it clear that he intended to make his own son Tajul Umra as his successor to the throne, the sister was outraged and began sulking. The East India Company, looking for an ideal opportunity to take over the reins of the Carnatic, used this simmering resentment within the Arcot family as an excuse to plot its way. When Umdat-ul-Umra died, the embittered sister refused to let her brother’s coffin pass in front of the Kaman Darwaza. Today, the Kaman Darwaza still stands with ‘Azeempet’ emblazoned on it. Story heard, the Group made its way down Triplicane High Road, past an old publishing firm, Sahul Hameed & Sons, and Adam Market, before it briefly stopped to take a look at the Kaman Darwaza. Then it made its way through shops selling attar (perfumes), books and other essential items required in a Muslim’s religious life, till it came to the Rumani semiya sellers on the pavement. Rumani semiya is mostly handmade in Muslim homes and goes into the making of Sheer Kurma. Towards the last week of the month of Ramadan, the pavements of Triplicane High Road, adjacent to the Big Mosque, are crowded with the Rumani semiya-sellers. The next stop was the Masjid-e-Anwari on Big Street. This simple mosque that opens into a courtyard is named after Nawab Anwar-ud-Din and is believed to have been built by him. Then it was on to our final destination, the Wallajah Mosque compound. As you enter the compound it is difficult to miss the large beautiful white building that appears on the left. Today a lodge for weary travelers, it was the Ottoman Turkish consulate in the early 20th Century, when members of the Badsha family were the Turkish Consuls. The Badsha family helped in the building of the Hamede-Hedjaz railway line by the Ottomans, which would later become the target of Lawrence of Arabia. The Wallajah mosque, a very Muslim religious edifice, is a fine example of the secular traditions of this country. Inside the mosque, above the mihrab where the priest stands and conducts the prayer, is a chronogram composed by Raja Makhan Lal Khirad, a Hindu officer who served Wallajah. It was constructed in 1794. As the mosque was getting filled with Muslims about to break their fast, the group was not able to go in and see the chronogram, but it did see another secular tradition of contemporary times, that of the volunteers of the Sufidar trust, mostly Hindu Sindhi volunteers, men and women, serving Nonbu Kanji (a sort of rice porridge with lentils) to those fasting. The concept of Nonbu Kanji is a very Tamil Muslim tradition, something similar to the Koozh served in the Tamil month of Aadi by a section of Tamil Hindus. As the men in the group entered the mosque, the women took their place by the dargah along with other fasting Muslim women and were served the Kanji and dates with a few other accompaniments. When the time to break the fast came, the group, mainly non-Muslims, happily enjoyed the Kanji. Some of them, like Priya, had gone light on their lunch, just to experience the hunger pangs that a fasting Muslim would feel. Sitting with thousands of fasting Muslims and experiencing the breaking of the fast was a moment to cherish for the group. Once the fast was broken, the group assembled again to hear the story of Bahrul Uloom who is buried next to the mosque in the dargah by which the women had sat and broken the fast. Bahrul Uloom was a revered religious scholar, who was invited by Muhammad Ali Wallajah to settle in Madras. It is said that when the scholar reached Madras, Wallajah himself came out of the palace to carry him in a palanquin. Bahrul Uloom was paid one thousand rupees, a princely sum in the late 18th Century. We discussed the Shia-Sunni divide, Sharia, and a whole lot of other issues facing Muslims, while walking to the tomb of Quaid-e-Millat. Then it was time to talk about Muhammad Ismail Sahib, a Tamil Muslim from Tirunelveli, who became known as Quaid-e-Millat, the leader. He was the founder of the Indian Union Muslim League. After independence, even as Muhammad Ismail Sahib struggled for the Muslim cause, he also argued in the Constituent Assembly debates for Tamil to be made a national language. After his death in 1972, he was buried where Nawabs had been buried. From Wallajah to Muhammad Ismail, from monarchy to democracy, the heritage walk gave the group an understanding of the history as well as diversity of the Muslim community in Madras. P.S: It was Vincent D’Souza who suggested this walk for the city since last year.

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