Every year, for 10 days in December, ferris wheels light up the night sky at Mahim, a neighbourhood at the northern tip of the old island city of Mumbai. On a modest plot of land right next to the fishing jetty, wood fires cook up delicacies in giant vats, vendors tempt children with toys of every hue and the air is thick with festivities. During this time, a celebratory mood dominates life in this largely middle-class neighbourhood.
The festivities mark the Urs, or death anniversary of Makhdoom Ali Mahimi (1372-1431 CE), a Sufi scholar and saint believed to be buried at the Mahim Dargah. The shrine is tucked away in a narrow street not unlike many others in Mahim, choc-a-bloc with shops and eateries, and always buzzing with devotees who come here to pay their respects.
Every year since a few decades, a special prayer is organised at the dargah on the death anniversary of Makhdoom Ali Mahimi. Interestingly, the Urs starts at the Mahim police station, located in the area where the Sufi saint lived. The police, who have always shared a close relationship with the saint, get to place the first chadar of the Urs, the decorative tomb covering, to venerate the saint. A cupboard believed to contain the belongings of the Sufi scholar, now in the premises of the police station, is also venerated.
Makhdoom Ali Mahimi was born into the Nawait family, so called because they were newcomers who had landed in Mahim from the Arab region. They left their homeland to journey to Baghdad and Basra before they came to settle along the Konkan, the west coast of India, as early as the 8th century CE.
Konkani Muslims today consider themselves descendants of these Arabs, who by the 10th century, had assimilated with the local population. By this time, they had established themselves as successful traders, supplying teakwood for shipbuilding to Iraq and Arabia. Their legacy is visible even today in the numerous warehouses dealing in wood along the causeway straddling the Mahim creek.
During the time of Makhdoom Ali Mahimi, the region was under the rule of the Muzzafarid Sultans of Gujarat, as mentioned in a historical text, Mahikavatichi Bakhar (The Chronicle of Mahim). Historical records show that Makhdoom Ali Mahimi was married to the sister of Sultan Ahmad Shah of Gujarat (1389 – 1442 CE), which paved the way for the Muzzafarid Sultans to establish alliances with the local elite.
Due to his reputation as a renowned scholar of Islamic jurisprudence, Makhdoom Ali was also appointed as a qazi, or religious adjudicator, for Muslims from Thana district, for both civil and criminal cases. He is also credited with writing the first Indian interpretation of the Quran, along with various other theological treatises.
Makhdoom Ali Mahimi belonged to a group of Sufis called Uwaisi – those who have not received a formal initiation by a living master and are not affiliated to any known order like the Chishti or Suhrawardi in India. Upon his death, a dargah was built in the locality where he had spent his entire life.
Although the growth and development of India's financial capital have enveloped this landmark Mahim Dargah, and it is difficult to spot it amid a slew of restaurants, sweetmeat shops and flower sellers, its green-and-white gateway and domes continue to be a beacon for devotees.
– Did You Know?
Popularly called the JJ Flyover after the Parsi businessman and philanthropist Jamsetjee Jeejeebhoy, the official name of this 2.4-km-long overpass is Qutb E Konkan Makhdoom Ali Mahimi flyover.
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