Saudi Arabia revives historic sea route for Hajj pilgrims from India

S. N. M. Abdi

Published: Updated:

Saudi Arabia has agreed with India’s decision to revive the option of sending Haj pilgrims to Jeddah by sea.

After 22 long years, India - home to the second largest Muslim population in the world - had suggested reviving the historic sea route to Saudi Arabia for the annual Haj pilgrimage.

Many elderly Muslims fondly recall the journey by ship from Mumbai to Jeddah which usually took 10-12 days, often through rough seas, until 1995 when the state-owned Shipping Corporation of India’s ageing fleet was phased out and Haj pilgrims had no option but to travel by air.

But come 2018 and cruise ships with all modern amenities will sail from Mumbai, Kolkata and Kochi ahead of the world's biggest yearly assembly of believers in Mecca. Each new ship will accommodate around 5000 pilgrims and cover the distance between Mumbai and Jeddah in just 2-3 days.

Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, India’s Minister for Minority Affairs, has announced that the re-introduction of sea route will dramatically reduce Haj expenses by more than 50 percent. At present, the government subsidises Air India’s Haj flights from 23 destinations in the country. Pilgrims travel either through the government’s Haj Committee of India (HCOI) or Private Tour Operators (PTO).

Naqvi described the unexpected new move as “revolutionary and pilgrim-friendly”. Essentially, from next year pilgrims will be able to choose between sea and air routes depending on their budget.

There are accounts from the 1980s and 1990s of Mumbai Port’s Yellow Gate echoing with cries of “Labbayka Allaahumma labbayk, labbayka laa shareeka laka labbayk. (Here I am, O Allaah, here I am.) as pilgrims boarded ships for Jeddah en route to Makkah, Mina, Arafat, Muzadalifa and Madinah in Saudi Arabia.

Sakina Shaikh, a 73-year-old home-maker who has traveled by air and sea, told Indian Express newspaper: “The journey by air is faster and more comfortable. But the sea journey heightened the spiritual experience. Floating in the ocean, one had ample time to contemplate on your life and deeds before you submitted yourself to the creator. For me, the sea journey from Mumbai was certainly far more fulfilling and emotionally rewarding than jetting.”

Over centuries, Indians traveled for Haj by sea or the overland route through modern-day Pakistan and Iran braving pirates and bandits. Epidemics also took a big toll of lives but the magic of Haj proved irresistible.

“The number of pilgrims coming by sea began decreasing gradually and by 1994 it had fallen to 4,700. Finally, in 1995, the sea voyage was completely stopped and all Indian pilgrims began arriving by air,” Dr Ausaf Sayeed, former Consul General of India in Jeddah, wrote in his book, Haj: An Indian Experience in the 20th Century.

By 2006, the number of Indian pilgrims shot to 157,000, second only to pilgrims from Indonesia. 2006 was noteworthy for another reason – that calendar year witnessed two Hajs – a repetition of 1974. This year Saudi Arabia has permitted India to send 170,000 pilgrims.