In mid-September, I had the opportunity to explore Mumbai, one of the world’s largest cities. Its sheer size was overwhelming. I’ve been to major U.S. cities like New York and Chicago, but Mumbai seemed different. Maybe it was the sprawling nature of its neighborhoods, maybe it was the never-ending stretch of skyscrapers, or maybe it was the fact that I’d spent the previous two months in relatively small urban areas of Rajasthan. Whatever the reason, Mumbai felt enormous.
I did a lot of sightseeing during my trip, but for now, I’ll focus on one particular area. Along the Western shore of the city, overlooking the Indian Ocean, two religious monuments sit side by side. One is the Haji Ali Dargah, a tomb and mosque built to honor a 15th-century Muslim merchant, and the other is the Mahalaxmi Temple, a shrine dedicated to the Hindu goddess of wealth. Each structure is unique in architecture and atmosphere, reflecting India’s religious and cultural diversity.
I visited the temple first. The narrow walkway to its entrance was lined with vendors selling flowers, sweets, and other offerings for the goddess. Groups of women passed by wearing brightly dyed saris. The colors, sounds, and smells blended into a single sensory experience. Fabric and incense, bells and petals, voices and statues. I climbed a set of stairs to the temple itself, where each worshipper walked in a circle around the main shrine, stopping in front of an image of the goddess to receive a tika (forehead mark) and a small handful of sweets. I looked around and admired the building. An array of fuchsia pillars supported the roof, which rose up to a white and orange tower with spires of pink and gold.
In contrast to the explosion of color at the temple, the dominant feature of the mosque was stark white marble. An imposing white gate opened into a courtyard with a tall white minaret, and a domed white building held the tomb itself. As the story goes, Haji Ali was a wealthy merchant who gave up his riches and made the pilgrimage to Mecca. But he died before reaching the holy city, and his coffin was cast into the Arabian Sea. Some time later, it washed up on the rocky shores of his home in Mumbai, and the tomb was constructed in his memory. The entire complex is located on an island, and the causeway connecting it to the mainland is just as striking as the monument itself. When I was there, it was packed with throngs of Muslims progressing toward the holy site. Some wore veils and robes, but others wore jeans and T-shirts. I’ll admit that I was somewhat apprehensive as an American in a Muslim gathering place. This was in the midst of last month’s YouTube riots, when anti-American sentiments were running high across the Muslim world. Just a few days earlier, Ambassador Stevens had been killed in Libya, and I had heard of protests in other parts of Mumbai. But I didn’t encounter any animosity at the Haji Ali Dargah, not even a dirty look.
It’s easy to underestimate the significance India’s Muslim population, especially as a foreigner. Hinduism has been the majority religion in India for thousands of years, and even the name “India” derives from the Old Persian word for Hindu. However, the Muslim minority has played a substantial role for centuries. Muslims ruled the country during the Delhi Sultanates and the Mughal Empire, and India is currently home the world’s third largest Muslim population, about 177 million people, just behind Pakistan’s 178 million. Relations between Hinduism and Islam in India have not always been cordial. Mumbai in particular endured its share of tension, most notably during the Bombay Riots of December 1992 and January 1993, when 900 people were killed. But at the Haji Ali Dargah and the Mahalaxmi Temple, the two religions coexist as neighbors, with little apparent conflict. Their proximity is a symbol of peace, embodying the promise of a single, unified India.