For an example of how India often struggles with its secular ideals, especially in election years, look no further than Andhra Pradesh. The chief minister Y.S. Reddy has decided the large southern Indian state will subsidise pilgrimages for Christians who want to travel to Israel.
So what exactly were more than two million Muslim pilgrims doing on the plain of Arafat outside Mecca on the afternoon of December 18, also known as the 9th of Dhul Hijja? I was there too, among them, so I should know, shouldn’t I? I must have seen many thousands of them close up on the haj this year, looked into their faces and tried to guess what they were thinking.
If you’re going on the haj pilgrimage, be fit and bring a sturdy pair of sandals. As with any pilgrimage, walking long distances is hard to avoid. The alternative is to sit in endless traffic jams inhaling diesel fumes. I didn’t walk as much as the real pilgrims did on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, but when I fell asleep at 7 a.m. in a resthouse, I had been walking since 1.30 a.m.
“Now’s the moment to say special prayers, for your family or anyone else you want to pray for,” said my Lebanese companion Ahmed. As he spoke, we caught a first glimpse of the black cloth cover of the Kaaba through the arches of the King Abdul Aziz Gate into the Grand Mosque in Mecca. I tried to remember all the people who had asked for prayers and mentally checked off their names, just in case. We picked our way through the crowds, some in the plain white cloth worn by pilgrims, others in ordinary street wear, according to their status under the complicated rules of the haj pilgrimage.