By Ranjani Rajendra and Deepa Alexander
June 14, 2017
For 35 years, the Wallajah Mosque has been witness to a celebration of multi-culturalism that this city subtly wears on its heart
Inside Triplicane, you can turn a corner and leap back centuries. We are on a journey that is beyond maps, in search of the integral mosaic formed by various communities in the city. Beyond the congested urban sprawl of shops selling Burqas and bread, hold-alls and Haleem, is a lane whose ordinariness gives way to a grand vision—the slender minarets of the Wallajah Mosque framed against a pleasant summer sky. Pigeons flap heavily beneath the arches. Puffy clouds chase across the gathering dusk as the sun sets off a halo in the background. It seems like a spiritual adventure as we pass from the road to the courtyard.
Children swing from the rails on the broad, sweeping steps that lead to the front of the mosque. Men in skull caps are busy setting bowls of piping hot kanji in neat rows on the floor for Muslims who worship at this mosque to break their Roza at the end of a day-long Ramzan fast. On the shirts of these volunteers are badges that read ‘Sufidar Khadim Ramzan Ul-Mubarak’. At the head of the steps are rows and rows of colourful buckets with rose milk, Rumani mangoes, bananas, dates, Pulao, pickle, and water packets, ready to be served to the Taqiyah-wearing men who have just begun trickling in for Iftar and Maghrib prayers.
The mosque is of 1795-vintage, built during the twilight years of Mughal rule by Muhammad Ali Khan Wallajah, Nawab of Arcot, whose writ ran large over the Carnatic. Considered the principal mosque of the city, it accommodates thousands during Eid festivities, and is a solid granite structure with low-slung scalloped walls that frame it. Old houses with stained glass skylights and latticed balconies about the mosque, while shops selling chicken Samosas and juice huddle against its compound wall.
The story of how Sindhi volunteers from the Sufidar Trust found themselves serving iftaar at this mosque is a story interwoven into the fabric of the city. When the Sindhis exchanged the shores of the Arabian Sea for those of the Bay of Bengal, while fleeing the horrors of Partition in Sindh, Pakistan, Dada Ratanchand settled in Madras. Under his guidance, the Sufidar Trust was established as a dedication to the Sufi saint Shahenshah Baba Nebhraj Sahib, whose teachings guide members to work with disadvantaged sections of society and foster communal harmony. For the past 35 years, by serving iftaar and partaking in it only after those on fast have had a meal, the volunteers have stayed true to Ratanchand’s calling.
When the Trust first supplied food to the mosque, it was the Nawab of Arcot who went over to inspect the preparations. “Their concern was that the entire process should abide by their religion. We serve only vegetarian food and eat only after they have eaten,” says Ashok Khubchandani, businessman and one of the trustees of the Sufidar Trust, pointing towards the truck where excess food is being packed to hand out to volunteers.
Eighty-one-year-old Narayan Das, born in Hyderabad, Sindh, coordinates the supply. The minute a volunteer signals an empty vessel, he sends out another to keep the process of serving going without a hitch. “Time is of extreme importance here,” says Khubchandani, adding, “The Trust sends at least 60-70 volunteers from young men to old, divided into teams assigned with specific duties, to the mosque each evening, with freshly prepared food. Dada Ratanchandji believed that service to mankind is service to God, and these are God’s disciples. This is our way of doing seva”.
Every morning, for the 30-day period of Ramzan, the cooking begins at 7.30 and the food is packed and ready to be loaded in a mini truck by afternoon. By 5.30 pm, it arrives at the mosque, where volunteers receive it and begin preparing for Iftar that takes place around 6.30 pm. “We always ensure there is enough food. The excess is distributed to the poor,” says Khubchandani. The menu ranges from Bisibela Bhath, Chole Rice and wafers to rose milk, fruits and kanji. “On the days we serve kanji, we inform the authorities at the mosque, so they can accordingly adjust the quantity they prepare,” he smiles. “They like our kanji. It is very tasty.”
Khubchandani has been participating in the seva for several years. “My father used to come here; now, my son and I do. In fact, Das used to volunteer alongside my father back in the day,” he adds. The Trust would earlier provide food for about 350 worshippers; it now caters to almost 1,000. For Eid, the members of the Trust are invited by the Nawab of Arcot. “We’ve been coming here for years now and have made some great friends. At the end of the month of Ramzan, we also give little gifts to the mosque workers. It’s a good feeling,” he says, just as iftaar is announced and the volunteers hurry to fill plates.
When it’s all over, they clear up, fold away their skull caps and whiz away in their vehicles to their other life as businessmen.