Facebook posts from friends appealing to Muslims not to visit Qabrastans or graveyards this Shab-e-Baraat as we fight the rampaging Coronavirus makes me nostalgic about my own visits to multiple cemeteries over the years.
Somehow I have an abiding interest in visiting the last resting places of people, famous and not so famous, close relatives and not even distantly related. To many, it must be melancholic to be amidst mausoleums and tombstones, but to me each epitaph on a tombstone has a story. The dead don’t tell their stories but the location of their last resting place says a lot about where they stood in the world. I can’t say I enjoy being among the dead but visiting cemeteries never tire me or bore me.
My earliest memory of visiting a graveyard relates to the happiest day in a year for every Muslim child. Yes, you guessed right—it is Eid. I must have been six or seven. As the much-anticipated Eid, after the end of Ramzan, the month of fasting, came, I jumped into new clothes, daubed myself in attar which my father would buy especially for the day, and joined the elder male members of the family in the morning prayers at Eidgah, a place especially earmarked for the two annual Eid namazs (the other is for Eidul Azha or Bakrid). The Eidgah adjoins the Qabrastan at the village’s periphery. The old Eidgah, abandoned since a bigger one came up a couple of years ago, could be seen from afar as its whitewashed western wall was propped up with one minaret on each corner.
To the uninitiated an Eidgah, unlike a mosque, is open to the sky and almost always a bit away from the population. This space is used, besides two annual Eids, for offering namaz-e-janaza or funeral prayers too. Funeral prayers can be held anywhere but for the purpose of convenience, these prayers in rural areas are mostly held at the Eidgahs.
So, after the Eid prayers, I saw my father and uncles, breaking away from the rows of worshippers at the Eidgah, standing near the nearby graves. The graves were unmarked and slightly sunken shrouded in shrubs. Traditionally, in communal graveyards in rural belts nobody puts tombstones to the graves of their dead as the Qabrastan belongs to everyone, rich or poor. This solves the problem that cemeteries in big cities face. The village Qabrastans are never short of space.
Praying at the graves amazed me. As I grew up, I found that the elders were praying for their ancestors.
Much later I found that Shab-e-Baraat is a night which comes just a fortnight ahead of Ramzan when Muslims visit graveyards to pray for their dead. It is also believed that on this night God writes the destinies of people for the coming year by taking into account the deeds committed by them in the past.
Now which religious man will not like to get his past sins forgiven and future written bright? So, they pray and pray. Pray at mosque and mazars, near the graves of their dead, all night long.
We are also told that we should often visit graveyards so that we remember that one day we too have to reach there. Death is inevitable and sooner or later everyone has to taste it.
After I left my village and joined Aligarh Muslim University (AMU), the visits to graveyards courtesy two annual Eids stopped as we would offer Eid prayers at the University’s Jama Masjid, carved in red stone with its white domes and minarets piercing the sky. But graves were never away here too. As you stand in AMU’s grand mosque’s courtyard facing West, to your right hand side close to the boundary wall lie buried a few gentlemen. The most prominent among them is Sir Syed Ahmed Khan (1817—1898), founder of MAO College which metamorphosed into AMU in 1920. No visit to AMU’s leafy campus is complete without a visit to Sir Syed’s grave and offering of fateha (the opening chapter of the Quran) there. So we never forgot to pray at his grave, at least on the two Eids.
Notable among those who lie beside him is Mohsinul Mulk, Sir Syed’s close confidante who also officiated as the institution’s head after Sir Syed’s death and Sir Syed’s grandson Sir Ross Masood, a former VC of AMU. We the residents of R M Hall had special affinity with Ross Masood as our Hall was named after him. We prayed for all those who sleep peacefully there.
Today it saddens many of us that the Prophet’s tomb, the holy mosque in Madinah are shut for congregational prayers. So is umrah or minor pilgrimage which involves tawaaf or circumambulations around the Ka’ba seven times and prayers at the holy mosque in Makkah. The photographs and videos of emptied space around the Ka’ba due to ban on umrah in the wake of the coronavirus shocked millions around the globe.
In Madinah, a stone’s throw from the Prophet’s green-domed mausoleum his mosque is Jannatul Baqi where many of the Prophet’s close relatives and companions are buried. The first time I visited it over a decade ago I spent a lot of time there. Unlike graveyards in the subcontinent, Jannatul Baqi is a flat ground with stone markers identifying graves of some prominent personalities in early Islamic history.
Apart from the Prophet’s mazaar in Madinah, I have been to mausoleums of several sacred souls, including Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti in Ajmer, Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia in Delhi, Hazrat Chiragh Delhi and several saints in Mumbai and elsewhere. Taj Mahal on the banks of Yamuna in Agra is uumatched in its beauty. But basically it is a mausoleum where Mughal emperor Shah Jahan and his beloved wife Mumtaz rest side by side. I have been there too.
So, I have seen dozens of graves and graveyards in India and abroad, including Imam Hussain’s mausoleum in Karbala and Hazrat Ali’s in Najaf, both in Iraq. But I yet to see a bigger graveyard than Behisht-e-Zahra or Paradise of Zahra or Fatima, in Tehran, Iran. Spread over acres and acres of land, it is Tehran’s biggest cemetery and off the highway that connects Tehran to the sacred city of Qom. Some commentators on internet call it Behesht-e-Zehra garden. And they are not off the mark. Trees and plants shade many graves here.
At Behisht-e-Zehra’s martyrs’ section are buried thousands of Iranian soldiers killed in the Iran-Iraq war. Hordes of families visit this cemetery on holidays and death and birth anniversaries of their departed relatives. I saw women sobbing near graves with children playing a few feet away. Surrounded by the sea of graves, many families eat lunches and snacks too once they have cried and wept and prayed for their loved ones. The internet has names of prominent Iranians, including military men, politicians, political dissidents, authors and scholars, buried at this cemetery.
Shahr-e-Khamoshaan (City of the Silence) is what they call graveyards in Urdu/Persian. It fits on most graveyards. Take Bada Qabrastan the biggest Muslim cemetery at Marine Lines in Mumbai. The name is self-explanatory. One of the country’s biggest and well-kept cemeteries, Bada Qabrastan’s notable interments include filmmaker Mehboob Khan, actresses Suraiya, Nargis and Shyama, 1993 bomb blast accused Yakoob Memon and don Dawood Ibrahim’s father. Konkani Muslim businessman Nakhuda Mohammed Ali Roghey, who had also donated the first cheque of Rs 10,000 to establish Anjuman-I-Islam, purchased two plots, first from Woomabay widow of Shamsheth in 1829 and another from Mrs.Shapoorjee Sorqbhjhee in 1832. The massive Khabrastan shares its high boundary with Chandawari Hindu crematorium and a Parsi cemetery. Ample trees and flowers give it appearance of a green zone. This Shahar-e-Khamoshan’s silence is broken only by chirping of the birds or when a body is brought for burial. The Qabrastan is maintained by the Jama Masjid of Bombay Trust. The beautiful Jama Masjid, sitting at the junction of cacophonous streets near the colonial Crawford Market is actually built on a live pond where colourful small fishes dance underwater playfully even as the muezzin’s calls pierce the busy bazaar’s noise five times a day. Just like the Qabrastan, the mosque too wears a deserted look.
When was the last time you visited a graveyard? Don’t visit it on this Shab-e-Baraat. Visit it after the deadly Coronavirus dies down.