Indians at Herod’s Gate: A Jerusalem Tale

FPJ BureauUpdated: Saturday, June 01, 2019, 02:49 AM IST
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Navtej Sarna wanders through the timeless narrow lanes of Old Jerusalem, sifting through fact and fable to tease out the unique story of the Indian Hospice and the Ansari family.

Navtej Sarna, who is a diplomat by profession is the author of two novels, a collection of short stories and two books of non-fiction. The book under review is the story of Sheikh Nazir Ansari, a police inspector’s son from Saharanpur who established an Indian Hospice in Jerusalem, a place where Baba Farid spent 40 days in prayer. Ansari’s family has looked after the hospice all these years and the hospice has acted as a unifier in a city divided by conflicts.

Sarna recounts not merely the story of the Ansari family — the father, the son, the daughters, and the wives — but of the city itself, in a very easy and gentle manner. The Indian connection through the Hospice continues to do remarkable social work in Jerusalem. Sufi saint Baba Farid’s arrival 800 years ago in Jerusalem has been affectionately linked with nuggets of historical material. We are treated to a rich narrative of the Ansari family which originally hailed from Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh and the political and religious problems of Old Jerusalem.

The Indian Hospice is also called Zawiya al-Faridiya, after Farid, who is said to have visited the place, meditated and left behind disciples who spread his message of universal peace and brotherhood. This is a historical-travel story of centuries-old connection between India and Jerusalem. Jerusalem comes alive through the story of an Indian family we did not know existed.

The hospice in Jerusalem is spread over 7,000 square meters, some other properties and that of their Indian caretaker, Sheikh Mohammad Munir Ansari. Initially, there were many Indian hospices and the present one, around which the story revolves, was built gradually with the help of many rich Indian pilgrims like the Nawabs of Rampur and Hyderabad. Herod’s Gate which appears in the title of the book, is the place from where one can look right inside the compound of the Indian hospice. It was a witness to the visit of Baba Farid, who fasted and meditated there for 40 days.

Baba Farid’s verses are included in the Guru Granth Sahib and his contribution to Punjabi poetry and literature is highly respected Another Indian connection is that some parts of the hospice that is – the Delhi Wing and the Travancore Wing – were built during the Second World War by Indian soldiers .

Sarna’s painstaking research and enchanting style of narration lends the book a high literary quality. The book gives us insightful asides on Adam, David, Haram Sharif, Temple Mount, Mount of Olives, and the like. Sarna brings out the significance of places in the book. One example will suffice. “Haram Sharif, Temple Mount, Mount Moriah — by whatever name it may be called, this must surely be one of the most controversial and bitterly fought-over patches of land in the world. And also the most revered.

For the Jews, it is the site of their First and Second Temples, both long destroyed. For the Muslims, this is the third most holy place in the world, after Mecca and Medina, the site of the Prophet’s night journey to heaven. This, too, is the place that was personally cleansed by Caliph Omar when he uncovered the Rock after conquering Jerusalem for Islam, and give centuries later washed with rose water by Saladin to rid it of the sacrilege wreaked by the Crusaders.”

Sarna focuses not on the prophets but on Baba Farid, who was born on the first day of Ramzan in 1173 in Punjab in a family that traces its lineage to Caliph Omar. At 16, under the tutelage of Bakhtiar Kaki, who advised him to discover the world and meet mystics, Baba Farid went to Baghdad, Mecca and Medina, before reaching Jerusalem. Sarna, sans doubt, is an excellent story teller.

All through the cycle of ups and downs at the Indian Hospice in Jerusalem, in the lives of Sheikh Munir and his family, and of Jerusalem’s trees, buildings, mosques, churches and synagogues, the torch lit by Baba Farid shines brightly and the sterling quality of his Sufi tradition blesses the populace. This book is a standing testimony to the Baba and his disciples.

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