Released Date : 11/01/2013
Advancement in communications technology means one can always stay connected from anywhere. It also means one can never get away. A pilgrimage is about getting away – getting away from family, work, everything worldly and spending time in communion with self and God. It is vital to plan this. Almost all my time before embarking on the trip was spent trying to bring my work to a logical end and hand over appropriately, visit my children’s school, ensure provisions are stocked at home for the period, pay credit card bills for the month and next etc. anything that was likely to come up in the next 6 weeks. The idea was zero phone calls from office during the trip and only the odd weekly call with family. When we sat at Mumbai airport waiting for the flight to Jeddah the predominant emotion was not of anticipation or excitement but fatigue and a sense of fear; fatigue from all the long nights and early mornings of trying to close every action and the fear that withall this pre-occupationwhether I had given enough time forpreparation –had I learnt all the duas, memorized the rituals, read about the obligatory procedures etc. Because the one thing one didn’t want to come back with after undertaking a journey like this was regret; the regret of having not given it your best. And the other overriding feeling was of being betrayed – betrayed by someone close. One of my closest relatives who also stayed in Mumbai had simply not bothered to inquire or come for help or even see us off at the airport. Traditionally a visit to Haj is the most revered journey that a Muslim undertakes and thus, despite the increase in frequency of people travelling for Haj, there is still a sense of occasion when someone in the family decides to perform it. Yet my relative paid only a cursory visit a day earlier, said a tepid farewell and didn’t offer any help at a time when I was struggling to finish my tasks. It left me in deep anguish. Why did this happen? Did somewhere deep in my heart I wanted it to happen so that I could justifiably feel a victim? Do we love it when we are rightfully wronged? Through the next six weeks there would be many such questions of self that would surface as we embarked on a journey that besides helping us come close to God would also take us closer to self. For a person entering Makkahwith the intent ofperforming Haj (or Umrah) it is essential to get into a state of ihram (consecration) at the defined meeqat or boundary. The boundary when you are flying in from India comes before Jeddah i.e. you fly over it and hence one normally gets into the state of ihram at the airport itself. It is critical to understand the significance and purpose of ihram because it is amongst the three compulsory conditions for Haj. Ihram is derived from the Arabic harama (to prohibit) and in English means consecration or sanctification for a special purpose or service, usually religious.Consecration has the same root as the word ‘sacred’ and literally means to get sacred, to dedicate oneself to the service of God. Hence before entering the state of ihram a person has to take a bath, clip the nails and remove the hair from the armpit and pubes. Then the male needs to discard all his clothes and adorn two sheets of plain white, unstitched clothing, one to be wrapped around the loins, another to be worn over the shoulder. The purpose of this is twofold: First is universal brotherhood. Our clothes form the last vestige of our social status. By discarding our clothes we also discard our social status and thus when every Haji presents himself in only these two pieces of unstitched white all appear equal with no distinction of caste, creed, nationality or social and financial status. The second and more spiritual significance implies the giving up of the world. The white clothes resemble the shroud or the kafan, the clothes in which we will be wrapped after death. We have already left behind our family, our work and our properties and wealth to undertake this journey.By wearing the ihram we get into a state of ‘virtual death’ and this state of the mind makes it conducive to distance ourselves from worldly matters and look at life for the temporary endeavor that it is. This mindset helps in recalling our sins and seeking genuine forgiveness when we pray at Kaaba. There are thus restrictions in a state of ihram; you are prohibited to kill animals including insects, pluck leaves, remove body hair or apply fragrance and engage in intimate dialogue with your spouse. There are also two virtues which are essential not only in the state ofihram but during the entire journey for the Haj to be deemed acceptable by God; patience and service. You are thus not supposed to engage in arguments and wrangling, be tolerant of any hardships and provide assistance to your fellow travelers. The ideals seem desirous and the heart longs to follow them, but you realize what a challenge it can be the moment you land at Jeddah airport; it is midnight (2:30 am IST,) you are exhausted and desperately longing for your hotel bed, but there are numerous procedures to clear. And there are thousands of pilgrims from all parts of the world, each with a different temperament – quite, obstinate, short-tempered, over-smart, ignorant etc. and each as tired and desperate for sleep as you are. And the young men at the counters are college students drafted especially for the Haj season who have to stay at the airport barracks and report for 16 hours of duty every day. They are generally courteous and respectful of the Haji, but they need their breaks and have their frustrations with the many people who have never flown before and understand only their local language. In this conundrum of people, process and paucity lies the true test of your character; how tolerant are you of the officer who walks out for a break just when your turn had come after half an hour of waiting? How willing are you to give up your seat for a family and wait for the next bus to Makkah which may not be due soon? And then you realize that in such circumstances, which will be often during the journey, it is only taqwa – the continuous consciousness of what is right – and mindfulness – an awareness of your own state of mind – that will help you stay in control of your emotions and guide you to act in the desired manner. And you realize how 40 days of such deliberate consciousness can help you imbibe some of these principles for your life hereafter; of how a pilgrimage has the potential to transform if done as prescribed.