It’s dusk in Chennai. The warm evening light streams in from behind the two white minarets of the Wallajah mosque in Triplicane. In the spacious front yard, more than 50 men wearing white fez caps wait silently. A little before the evening prayers begin in the 220-year-old mosque, a yellow truck swings into the driveway. The men immediately spin into action, unloading metal containers of porridge, biscuits, bananas and vadas.
As they have done for the past 35 years, Sindhi volunteers from the Sufidar Trust – who follow the teachings of Dada Ratanchand, a Partition refugee who settled in Chennai – have gathered to serve iftaar, the meal that ends the daily fast during the month of Ramzan.
The trust aims to spread the teachings of the Sufi saint Shahenshah Baba Nebhraj Sahib of Rohri, Sind. “We believe all Gods are one, only people have turned it into different sects,” said Govind Bharwani, who has been a volunteer with the Trust almost since its inception. “That is what our guruji told us.”
Every afternoon, followers of Dada Ratanchand gather at the temple of The Sufidar Trust to offer du’aa, or prayer, to the Sufi saint Baba Dastageer. This is a large room with statues of Hindu gods and goddesses, Jesus Christ, the Sindhi river god Jhoolailum and pictures of several Sufi saints.
Most of the people here are second-generation Partition refugees from Sindh. Jaikishan Kukreja, a businessman, said that his grandfather had traveled to Bombay during the Partition, and had heard an announcement in the railway station about trains going to Chennai. “My father’s brother was already here in Chennai at that time,” said Kukreja. “So everyone traveled here.”
Kukreja’s father was a hawker on Godown Street in Central Chennai. “He used to sell long cloth that used to be brought in from other states,” said Kukreja. “That’s how he came up in life.”
Godown Street in Central Chennai is still known for its low-priced, wholesale textile shops, a business that was once popular among the Sindhi refugees. Dada Ratanchand himself worked in a shop at Godown Street before he took up a spiritual path.
Call to prayer
At the Wallajah mosque, more than thousand Sunni Muslim devotees filed into the courtyard, seating themselves in rows in front of the mosque. They will break their fast before going in to pray. The members of the trust wasted no time in serving the food. Although they do not know why their teacher has chosen this particular mosque to serve, they believe that this is tradition allows them to work actively together as a community.
“We call it seva,” says Govind Bharwani. “Our guruji started this many years ago and we are continuing with it. He began this tradition because he just felt like doing it. Nobody objects to this from the mosque also.”
The Wallajah mosque, also known as the Big Mosque, was built in 1795 by Muhammed Ali Wallajah, the Eighth Nawab of Arcot in Triplicane. One of the most striking features of the mosque is a chronogram composed in Persian by Rajah Makkan Lal, the Nawab’s private secretary.
About 35 years ago, at Dada Ratanchandji’s request, the mosque authorities granted the Sufidar members permission to distribute food at the mosque. Ever since, there has been an understanding between the mosque authorities and the Trust that iftaar will be distributed by the Sufidar members. “We have never really coordinated with the mosque to do this,” says Bharwani. “We just come here every year ourselves.”
Suhail Ahmed, a volunteer of the Wallajah mosque, said that in most other places, they don’t allow people from other communities to distribute food. But this period is special. “Eid is a time when we can all come together,” he said. “That is one reason why we continue this tradition. We look at this as a time for brotherhood and to meet people, be it Hindus, Muslims or anyone.”