The Haji Ali Dargah, or Shrine of Haji Ali, is Bombay’s most famous mosque and the city’s most recognizeable building. Built on a small island that separates Mahim Bay from the Arabian Sea and accessible only by a single causeway that is submerged at high tide, the Haji Ali Dargah still manages to receive millions of visitors every year. Thanks to its position off the west side of Bombay, the shrine has become an popular site to see at sunset. It is by far the most popular Muslim pilgrimage destination in India outside of Delhi and Agra, although hundreds of thousands of non-Muslims also visit every year in hopes of receiving good luck.
The city of Bombay is located on the west coast of India, an area that has historically been easily accessible by sea to Persia and Arabia. It is therefore somewhat surprising that it took Islam many centuries to become full established in the region. Bombay did not become a prominent Muslim city until the establishment of the Gujarat Sultanate in the late 14th century. The Gujarats built Bombay into a major metropolis, adorning the city with palaces, mosques and other public works. In 1431 AD they built the Haji Ali Dargah on a small island off the coast of the city.
Sayed Peer Haji Ali Shah Bukhari, or Haji Ali for short, was a wealthy merchant and devout Muslim who lived and worked in Bombay in the early 15th century. He had a reputation for philanthropy, and there are numerous legends surrounding his life that, while probably apocryphal, are nevertheless beloved by the people of Bombay. In the best known story, he came to the aid of a poor woman who had spilled a jar of oil and was fearful that her husband would beat her. Whether through generously purchasing more oil from the marketplace or miraculously conjuring more oil from the ground, both versions of the story are circulated, he made certain that the woman had enough to take home and ensure her safety.
Sometime around the 1420s, Haji Ali decided to give up his worldly possessions and devote his life fully to spiritual concerns. Some of his money was used for the construction of the island-mosque that would later bear his name. Most of the rest was turned over to the poor, reserving just enough to make the Hajj to Mecca. According to most traditions, Haji Ali died on his way back from Arabia. His body was returned to Bombay, again, some say by miraculous means, where he was buried inside his mosque.
The Haji Ali Dargah remained India’s most important Muslim pilgrimage site throughout the Gujarat period. Because of Bombay’s importance as a port from which many Muslims departed to Arabia on the Hajj, the Haji Ali Dargah received huge numbers of visitors enroute to or from Mecca. After the Gujarat Sultanate fell to the Mughals, the importance of the Haji Ali Dargah waned as massive new monuments were erected in Delhi and Agra, including the Taj Mahal. Nevertheless the shrine remains Bombay’s most popular and beloved religious site.
The Haji Ali Dargah was started by Haji Ali towards the end of his life and completed by the Gujarat sultancs sometime around 1431 AD. Virtually the entire mosque dates from this early period. Because of its position on an island off Bombay’s coast, the shrine is accessible only by a causeway which stretches nearly half a mile to the primary mainland road. Because the causeway is submerged at high tide, access to the island and mosque are limited.
The shrine itself is one of India’s most memorable sites. Although not quite so large as the great mosques of Delhi and Agra, its position at the meeting of sea and sky makes it seem to loom larger and more imposing than it actually is. The architecture of the Haji Ali Dargah is much more Middle Eastern in style, as opposed to Persian or Central Asian, than the Mughal style which would come to define Indian architecture in later centuries. A single large dome and minaret dominate the mosque’s silhouette at sundown. The entire island is currently undergoing a major renovation that is expected to be completed in 2011.
The Haji Ali Dargah island and causeway juts off the northwestern shore of the city of Bombay, more than four miles north of the city center. It is open to both Muslims and non-Muslims, and the only practical restriction to the site are the causeway and the tides. The current renovations are expected to include work on the causeway, making the site more accessible. Further restrictions may currently be in place due to ongoing construction work, so visitors should check ahead. There is no cost of admission. Web: www.hajialidargah.in (official website)
While Bombay is not predominantly a Muslim city, it does boast nearly one hundred mosques which largely date from the British colonial period. The city’s most prominent mosque is the 19th century Jama Masjid of Bombay. There is no relation to the other various Jama Masjids built by Shah Jahan.