Mashhad, the capital city of the Razavi Khorasan province in eastern Iran is known to the world for a shrine. I spend a whole day in that shrine. I have no friends in Mashhad, so I go alone. Haram-i-Imam Reza is about 10 minutes by taxi from my hotel. I leave the taxi mid-way and decide to walk up to the shrine. In a short while I hear a fairly loud drum-beat. It gets louder as I draw close to the Haram. There it is. The tall arches decked in beautiful blue tiles are unmistakable. The large open space in front of it is crowded. I quickly realize that many in the crowd are not Iranians, but from various other countries.
In one corner of the open space a large number of men are engaged in a drill, with something in their hands that looks like a bunch of thin chains tied at one end. At one end of the rows is a large colourful placard, and on the other is a microphone on a stand, in front of which a man is beating a huge drum, while another is reciting portions of the Quran. With the beat of the drum the men standing in rows are striking the chain-bunches on their chest and back, emanating a jingling sound. It appears to be something between a Ramzan drill that we see in India and
a lezim drill. The striking of the chains on the body appears to be symbolic, it doesn’t hurt, and it isn’t gory like many of the Ramzan processions we have in India. Many men and women are watching, taking snaps even video recording the drill. It’s a curious sight for me: A hand jutting out of black column, evidently a lady covered from head to toe in hijab and burqa, with a sophisticated android in it, recording the event!
As for the drill, I don’t like it at all. I don’t like this brandishing of sorrow.
I decide to go inside the Haram quickly. The series of gates indicate that it is a huge shrine. It covers an area of 6443890 Sq. Ft. Within its precincts are one mosque, seven large courtyards, three museums, one library, a university of Islamic studies, a public dining hall, several prayer halls, a mehmanserai i.e. a guest house where pilgrims from other countries can stay once – free of cost, a few other buildings and right in the middle of it all a tomb, in
which is resting forever Ibn Musa Al-Reza, the eighth Shi’i Imam. How the venerated Imam passed away is highly contested. The Shi’i believe that even though the Caliph of Baghdad Abul Abbas Abdulla Al-Mamun Ibn Haroon Al-Rashid at one point wanted Imam Reza to be his successor Caliph, amid complicated politico-religious circumstances, it was on his order that Imam Reza was poisoned at the age of 53 in 818 CE. According to Encyclopaedia Iranica, such a possibility can’t be dismissed. The Shi’i followers believe Imam Reza was a martyr. Mashahad derives its name from his shahadat, martyrdom.
I am not allowed to carry my cameras inside the shrine. My cell-phone, however, isn’t taken away. As I walk past the gate, a different world opens up before me. Scores of beautiful domes, minarets and arches, in dazzling blue and gold catch my eyes. In the middle of it I see a courtyard large enough to contain a whole football ground. Much of it is covered with a red carpet. Someone is reciting what I think are portions of the Quran in a monotonous deep sad voice. And on the courtyard are hundreds of people. Never have I seen a congregation of such
diverse people. Diverse in every sense: men, women, children, old, young, middle-aged, sporting jeans-tee shirt, flowing jubbahs and turbans, formal coats and trousers, all-covering burqas, hijabs without any cover on the face. The crowd is not driven by any urgent purpose. Many are simply sitting on the carpets, some quietly reading scriptures, yet others praying and counting beads.
One middle-aged gentleman is weeping: he has no one else before whom he can unload the unbearable burden within his heart.
I loiter around the courtyards, one after another. At one point I enter into a large hall, which leads to another, and then another. Many of the walls are decked with millions of miniscule mirrors, reflecting lights in myriad rays from beautiful chandeliers. The scene inside is very similar to the ones on the courtyards. The whole place is teeming with people. Yet it’s unusually quiet. People come here from all over the world to pray, and just to pray. I am not a Muslim, I have nothing to do with the Quran, nor am I praying, yet the congregation fills me with a deep sense of peace.
The Haram has been built in phases over 1200 years. It has been desecrated and devastated by marauding troops. It has grown again from the debris. Not only in the middle ages, when Muhammad Reza Shah in his race to modernize Iran had banned the covering of heads with rusaris by women, the conservative section of the society had risen against the government diktat. On November 21, 1978, on Muhammad Reza’s order, his troops entered the Haram and killed several protesters. Again on June 20, 1998, terrorists had bombed the Haram killing 25 pilgrims. The Haram, however, has kept its doors open for all.
I spend a very long time at the Haram, and when I leave, I leave with a feeling that this is a place where I want to come back with the person I love the most.
The Haram has no association with India, at least nothing that I know about. However, within five minutes of it is another ‘tourist site’ which I had listed in my ‘must visit’ list for Mashhad. In comparison to the Haram it’s like a speck of dust, and rightly so. Historically, however, it is associated with a very turbulent period of history. The mausoleum of Nader Shah. The same Nader Shah who had vanquished Muhammad Shah, one of the emperors of the flickering Mughal Empire, in the Battle of Karnal on February 24, 1738, and ransacked Delhi clean of almost all of its riches, including the fabled Peacock Throne and the Koh-i-Noor diamond. The extent of Nader Shah’s loot of the Mughal capital has never been accurately calculated, but it is said that the booty had to be carried to Iran on the backs of ten thousand elephants, camels and mules. What is known for certain is that over the next three years Nader declared a tax-holiday across his empire.
Born is 1688, Nader Quli Beg was a shepherd by profession, but by the time he was raiding Delhi, his empire extended from Afghanistan, the whole of Iran to Iraq. He has been notorious in history for being one of the most ruthless rulers of Iran. He was killed by his own guards in a place named Quchan.
The mausoleum, designed like a tent, is small. It hosts a museum, mostly displaying robes and arms of Nader Shah’s era. One particular sword is claimed to be used by the emperor himself. Nothing really is here to hold me back for long. As I leave the museum a cold razor-sharp wind begins to pick-up, thankfully by the time it turns into a full blast gale I’m back in my hotel.
My evening, therefore, is lost. I do not watch television. Never. At any rate Iranian TV offers very little to a foreigner. It is totally government owned, hence I can imagine the plight of the television journalists in Iran. Of course freedom of the press, world over has always been translated to mean freedom of the owner of the press, but for journalists of state-owned media it is the worst. Surprisingly I bump into one, post-dinner, at the hotel lobby. Well, not really, he seeks me out. As I get out of the restaurant door and walk to the elevator, a male voice calls me by my name. Must be some problem at the reception, I presume. I am wrong. A gentleman sitting at a corner of a fairly large lobby is calling me.
I am now alarmed for a moment. In a dark suit, in his mid-50s perhaps, almost as dark as I am, the gentleman doesn’t look like a member of Iran’s dreaded ‘secret police’ (It’s another matter that nowhere in the world the ‘secret police’ look like the ‘secret police’.) And he is not. As I approach him he stands up and politely introduces himself, “I am Syad,” (name changed), “I am a senior journalist with a state-run TV channel.” Hmm, I tell myself, at last I meet one of my ilk. We immediately strike a chord, light cigarettes and start saving the world from all imminent crises. And of course for once I miss my Scotch on the rocks.
Syad has a purpose for seeking me out. He needs reactions from foreign tourists for a documentary that he is shooting. He is from Tehran, and is staying in this hotel. On arriving at the hotel he managed to impress the young lady at the reception and obtain from her, albeit illegally, a list of foreign guests at the hotel. The list had just one name: Nilanjan Hajra. Syad had spotted me at the restaurant, but didn’t want to disturb me at my dinner table, and had been waiting at the lobby to catch me. He asks his crew members to set up two cameras in the lobby itself, and with the background music of the raging storm, I narrate my experiences in Iran over some 10 minutes. Finally we get to the real business in which two journos must engage themselves, when they meet beyond the call of duty. And it is in the course of this long exchange over the most important issues that concern the world, Syad tells me, “You know what’s the real problem of Iran? We people are like grass. We tolerate everything that passes over us without a word. These Mullahs don’t have the support of more than 10 per cent of the people, trust me. Yet you see, how they have managed to stay in power for decades!”
What strikes me most is the candidness of Syad to a complete stranger. But that is what has been my experience across Iran. The Musafir has never been allowed to feel like a stranger in a foreign land. It is unbelievable to what extent an Iranian will go to make sure that you feel welcome, the most incredible example of which I experience the next day, in a dazzling-Firouz morning in one of the most fabled cities of the world: Neyshabur.
Photo Credit : Nilanjan Hajra#