Sunday, 4 March 2012

A less than warm welcome

Writing this post makes me a little bit sad, because I really want to be more positive than I am going to be. One of the things I'd been meaning to do for ages is visit the Jama Masjid, India's largest mosque, which lords it in serene magnificence over Old Delhi. I had a few friends in town for a couple of days, so it was a good excuse to take a morning off from the daily grind and tick this particular box.

I'm never totally comfortable visiting places of worship as a tourist. I'm very aware that entering a place of such deep spiritual significance, while not being able to fully understand that significance, is a dangerous thing to do and something that requires great sensitivity. I think most people approach visits to religious buildings in the same way, anxious not to cause offence, aware that one might very easily do so through sheer ignorance.

Of course not everyone subscribes to this common-sense caution. We've all heard tales of the topless guys and the bikini-clad girls trying to access this or that holy site. I am sure that the folks at the Jama Masjid, which is maybe only surpassed by the Golden Temple in Amritsar as India's most-visited religious site, have seen plenty of such indiscretions in their time. Which may help explain why the welcome we received there was, frankly, the rudest and most hostile I've experienced in India.

It didn't start well, when I was (literally) yelled at to take my shoes off even while I was still on the steps up to the mosque. I'd been observing the locals, and saw that they climbed the steps, took their shoes off at the top, and then carried on inside. So it wasn't as though I was about to march in in my shoes; my ignorance just seemed to be assumed. There then followed an unpleasant exchange about the 200 rupee camera charge. I don't have a problem with paying this - a building the size of the Jama Masjid takes some maintenance and it's only fair that non-religious visitors should contribute to that - but I did object to the bullying manner with which it was demanded of us. This included it being re-demanded after we were deemed to have taken too long looking in our wallets for the required notes (about five seconds).

Once we'd run this gauntlet we were able to get inside and appreciate the gracious, wide open space of the interior of the mosque, and climb the tower for some impressive (if smoggy) views of Delhi. But again the visit was marred by being interrupted about eight times by scowling men who growled "ticket!" at us as if we were schoolkids caught in the corridor during class time.

By the time we left we felt thoroughly unwelcome, and I'm sorry to say that this rather overshadowed our appreciation of a remarkable building. To make matters worse, hidden charges emerged, including "shoe charge" (which we paid) and a charge for borrowing a sarong for my friend who was wearing shorts (which we didn't, since no mention had been made of a charge for this at the time). Again, these were demanded with a brusqueness that verged on the outright aggressive.

I think it was the first time in India that I've felt so very unwanted, and I think I can honestly say this was not down to any behaviour on our part (given the general caution towards visiting religious places I mentioned above). Maybe it is just down to the fact that so many hundreds of tourists come through here every day. On the day we visited most of the people at the mosque seemed to be foreign tourists. And I can see how this might be vexing, given that we are talking about a place of worship, not a tourist attraction. Of course tourists' needs take second place to people visiting the mosque to worship, and of course a financial contribution is entirely reasonable. But since tourists are - happily - able to visit, a smile or two would make the whole thing a far more pleasant experience - for both sides, I think.

Anyway, that aside, here are a few shots I took during the visit. As you can see, it's a beautiful and peaceful place. When you're not being growled at.

The mosque is drenched in sunlight and is apparently a good (though I imagine rather hard) place for a nap. Not sure what the American ladies made of it though.

Another good spot to sleep in the sun.

On the main steps up to the mosque

Ladies gathered under the call-to-prayer loudspeaker

Plenty of space to play

Young mosque-goer

Chatting in the shade of the mosque

Gathered round the central pool

The impressive main gate of the Jama Masjid, with the Red Fort in the background

There's a lot of floor to sweep.

Minaret of the Jama Masjid, Old Delhi in the background

Birds' eye view of the mosque's main courtyard

Posing with the main gate in the background

While the courtyard is an open, calm oasis, on the other side of the wall is the more familiar frenetic city.

Sleepy in the sunlight

And here are some from the Meena Bazaar, just outside the Jama Masjid, which always presents lots of interesting photo ops.

So altogether, not my favourite experience in Delhi. But you learn to take the rough with the smooth. It's a naive traveler who expects to be welcomed with open arms everywhere, and I got to enjoy some glorious architecture and some space to breathe in this normally shoulder-to-shoulder city. 

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