Balwan Nagial
Balwan Nagial

A Little India Living in Old Jerusalem

Every single ancient culture holds some interest for all of us, but when this culture is continuing, then this interest becomes much more contemporary and topical. The subject culture is studied can be divided into two halves, i.e. material and mental. Both Indian and Israel cultures are deep-rooted in history and continuing.

Jerusalem is a city in Israel in West Asia on a plateau in the Judaean Mountains between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea. For a reason, these solid and age-old associations, bloody conflicts to control the city and sites within it have been fought for thousands of years. Jerusalem has been attacked 52 times during its long history, captured and recaptured 44 times, besieged 23 times, and destroyed twice.[1] The oldest part of the city was settled in the 4th millennium BCE, making Jerusalem one of the oldest cities in the world.[2]  Unfortunately, this holy city of Jerusalem has always been the most fought-over city in world history, ever since King Solomon built the first Jewish Temple in 957 BCE.[3]

Subsequent historical incidents, immense and insignificant, have converged to make Jerusalem home to the holiest holy sites for all three major Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Furthermore, this conjunction took place within an enclosed area of about 0.35 sq mile/0.9 kilometres. The Old City is home to several  Temple Mount and Western Wall sites for Jews, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre for Christians, and the Dome of the Rock and al-Aqsa Mosque for Muslims.  It was entered into the United Nations Education Scientific and Culture (UNESCO) World Heritage Site list in the year1981.

Though the future of the Jerusalem’s remains uncertain, yet it is evident that this city has enormous religious, historical and political powers and would continue to do so for many years to come.

However, amidst this interface and jumbling of religions, cultures, civilisation, and politics, there is a little corner of Jerusalem that is forever India. Situated just opposite the Herod’s gate in the old city, the Indian Hospice in Jerusalem is the symbol of Indian Cultural heritage and presence in the city goes back to almost 800 years ago, and its current guardian has planned for his family to keep the Indian flag flying high for many generations to come.  This is a good example of Indian composite culture. Since ancient times India believed in the assimilation and synthesis of culture.  Because rigidity and exclusiveness are the sources of perpetual inter-cultural conflicts.

In the 12th century, and about one decade after the armies of Saladin had forced the Crusaders out of the city, an Indian saint came to the holy city of  Jerusalem. Hazrat Farid ud-Din Ganj Shakar, popularly known as Baba Farid, was associated with the Chisti order of Sufism, a mystic brotherliness that thrives even now across many parts of India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan. He came on pilgrimage and prayed in seclusion for 40 days at the current site of Hospice, which became a pilgrimage site for the Indian pilgrims visiting Jerusalem. It is believed that he utilised his time by cleaning the stone floors around the al-Aqsa mosque and abstaining from worldly life in silence by confining in a cave inside the city walls.

Over time, the Indian Hospice has expanded to its present 7000 sq meters spread and is located only minutes away from the holiest sites. Since 1924, the Hospice has been under the direct supervision of a representative from India. Indians At Herod’s Gate: A Jerusalem Tale by Navtej Sarna, who was Indian Ambassador to Israel from 2008 to 2012, unfolds this history of convergences and conflicts to survey a little more, which is also known as the story of the Indian Hospice in Old Jerusalem. It revealed a nuanced history of just when this Hospice for pilgrims was built but why it is located where it is – close to Herod’s Gate. The populace still cites this vicinity as Al-Hind or place of Indians. The author has brought this perceptible oral history into life. Many centuries after Baba Farid visits this area,  Indian soldiers of different faiths and religions stayed here when positioned to the Middle East during the First World War and inter-war years. Moreover, these soldiers donated to the Hospice by building its significant Travancore and Delhi wings.  These add-ons thus contributed to the Hospice’s capacious built space, which stood against the vagaries of time.

This book was published in 2014, and since then, this Hospice is the limelight. Once again, this place has come to notice due to the recent Israel-Palestine conflict in May 2021. It is learned that the recent Israeli-Palestinian flared up over the court cases to evict about 300 Palestinian people from Sheikh Jarrah. This eviction caused turmoil in Palestine and has now spread all over the world through social media.

According to Navtej Sarna, Ansari’s family looked after the Hospice all these years, and the Hospice has acted as a bridge between people in a city divided by conflicts. Ansari family has its roots in Saharanpur in Uttar Pradesh. The Indian Hospice is also known as Zawiya al-Faridiya, which has spread universal peace, love and brotherhood. In 2011 Sheikh Munir was awarded the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman, an award given by India’s President for exceptional service.

All through the ups and downs at the Indian Hospice in Jerusalem, and in the lives of Sheikh Munir and his family, and the city of Jerusalem,  the torch lit by Baba Farid shines far and wide, and the subtle quality of his Sufi tradition blesses the populace. He flies an Indian flag from the roof, its saffron and green noticeable over a city that remains as unpredictable as ever. The future of the Hospice and its inhabitants were thus undistinguishably tied to the public events and upheavals ensuing the Israel-Palestine conflict and deepened by intermarriage with Palestinians as well.

[1] “Do We Divide The Holiest Holy City?”. Moment Magazine. Archived from the original on 3 June 2008. Retrieved 5 March 2008. According to Eric H. Cline’s tally in Jerusalem Besieged.

[2]  “Timeline for the History of Jerusalem”. Jewish Virtual Library. American-Israeli Cooperative Enterprise. Retrieved 16 April 2007. Wikipedia.

[3] Sifra Lentin   A piece of India in Jerusalem, Gateways House in Mumbai, India.

About the Author
Colonel Balwan Nagial retired from the Indian Army in 2019 after serving for thirty years. Managed administration, security, project mgt throughout his service. He loves writing and contributing in newspapers and magazines in India. He loves Israeli culture.
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