Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Sub-Continent Pilgrim Ships History:

Before the advent of steamships, sailing vessels owned by Indians catered for this traffic and the Muslim rulers had given adequate support to this business.

During Mogul times and until the 18th century, pilgrims from India had the option of traveling to Makkah either by overland caravan or by sailing ships. The land route via the northwest of India was long, difficult and hazardous and also involved crossing hostile territories. The Indian pilgrims generally preferred to go by sea, primarily through the Red Sea, and occasionally through the Persian Gulf. However, rampant piracy and a strict Portuguese control over the Indian Ocean in the 16th century made passage through the Red Sea a dangerous trip. Most ships traveling from India to the Red Sea were forced to carry a Portuguese cartaz, or pass.

The earliest visit by Indians to Makkah for Haj is a matter of conjecture but it is very likely that such visits pre-date the Muslim conquests of Sindh in 664-712 AD.

(Because of the location of the Jeddah Port as the gateway to Makkah as well as a leading port for Red Sea trade, it attracted merchants and pilgrims alike in large numbers every year. The people of Hejaz were fascinated by India’s spices, pearls, precious stones, silk, sandalwood, oud and perfumes and looked forward to the arrival of Indian ships.)

In British India, Haj continued to get attention. In 1885, the British government appointed the famous tourist agency Thomas Cook as the official travel agent for the Haj pilgrimage. The British government affirmed that it had special obligations to protect the stream of “Muhammadan pilgrims going to the sacred places at Makkah and Karbala.” In 1927, a 10-member Haj Committee was constituted, headed by the commissioner of police, Bombay, which was replaced by the Port Haj Committee in 1932.

The largest shipping line operating from Indian ports was the Mogul Line, which was founded in 1888 and managed by the British company Turner Morrison. The oldest of the Mogul Line ships was SS Alawi (built in 1924) followed by SS Rizwani (built in 1930). These ships were scrapped in 1958 and 1959 respectively. Other early Mogul Line ships were SS Saudi (capacity 999), SS Muhammadi and SS Muzaffari (capacity 1,460), SS Islami (capacity 1,200), MV Akbar (capacity 1,600), SS Noorjehan (capacity 1,756) and SS Nicobar (capacity 1,170).

In 1927, Mogul Line ships carried nearly 20,000 of the 36,000 Hajis arriving from India. In the late 1930s, over 70 percent of pilgrim ships from India were Mogul Line vessels.

Moghuls Line had the monopoly of the Haj pilgrim traffic. For about 6-7 months of the year, it carried pilgrims from India, Pakistan, Ceylon, Bangladesh and Burma to Jeddah, while rest of the year, the ships were deployed for carrying cargo cum passenger service from India to the Red Sea ports including Aden and Djibouti.

But soon the Haj committee and certain sections of the Muslim community approached the Scindia Steam Navigation Company for berthing its steamers to carry this traffic as some of the Bengali Muslims were dissatisfied with the services of the agents of Mogul Line for trying to induce the Indian Government  to close the Calcutta port for pilgrim traffic. The Scindia Steam Navigation Company on the other hand was also tempted to get into this lucrative market. They built two new steamers at the cost of over Rs.50 lahks and started services in 1937.

The entry of the Indian Line into this traffic received tremendous support and the new steamer El Medina proved very popular! The Mogul Line soon started a rate war and fierce competition followed between the two companies in which the Scindia Steam Navigation Company incurred heavy losses as they were practically carrying pilgrims free. The Mogul Line too began to carry the pilgrims free of charge, providing them incentives like an umbrella and a container for carrying holy water. Several representations were made by leaders both outside and inside the Central Legislature to arrest this rate war. Finally Sir Muhamed Zafarullah Khan, the then commerce member intervened and brought about a settlement between the two companies by which they agreed to quote not less than Rs.115 as the return passage fare. Despite this agreement Mogul Line continued to charge low fares whenever the Scindia Steam Navigation Company’s steamer was on berth. Representations were made again in the Legislature which led to the fixation of uniform, stable and economic rates, but with the outbreak of World War II, pilgrim traffic closed down.

After the war Scindia Steam Navigation Company was unable to cope with the meager share of Haj traffic and soon withdrew. They strongly felt that the Indian Government had treated them unfairly by allotting a meager share of 25 percent of the traffic and 75 percent to Mogul Line. Thus another attempt by an Indian company to enter overseas trade was thwarted and abandoned. Meanwhile, Mogul Line acquired a new ship Islami in 1936 and two more modern ships Mohammadi in 1947 and Muzafari in 1948.

After nationalization in 1962, control of the Mogul Line passed to the Shipping Corporation of India (SCI) and finally in 1987 it merged with SCI. The Saudi company, Haji Abdullah Alireza & Co. Ltd., were agents of the Mogul Line in Jeddah.

However, most shipping companies operating haj service throughout the world had secondhand ships and the condition of majority of the Pilgrim Ships were  pathetic and deplorable. The overcrowding of Pilgrims onboard the ships was common as some greedy ship owners sought to make the most of the short but profitable season. There were only pilgrims on board, so many that the ship could hardly accommodate them. The shipping companies… had literally filled it to the brim without caring for the comfort of the passengers. On the decks, in the cabins, in all passageways, on every staircase, in the dining rooms of the first and second class, in the holds which had been emptied for the purpose and equipped with temporary ladders, in every available space and corner human beings were painfully herded together.

It is also worthmention that most of the pilgrims who traveled by sea were weak, fragile, old. Some of them died during voyage and were buried at sea with full merchant marine honour.

The Pakistan Government chartered passenger ships “Empire Orwell” and British India “Sardhana” and Bombay based Mughal Lines vessels “Islami” and “Muhammadi” in 1958 for the Pakistan – Jeddah run. The Sirdhana made some pilgrim voyages from both East & West Pakistan Ports to Jeddah. After that the Pan Islamic Steamship Co. Ltd. and later Crescent Shipping played a vital role in carrying the pilgrims from Karachi and Chittagong to Jeddah.

Some of the Pakistani passenger ships which carried pilgrims to Jeddah were as follows:

Safina-e-Arab (I)
Pan Islamic Steamship Co. Ltd.
Pan Islamic Steamship Co. Ltd.
Pan Islamic Steamship Co. Ltd.
Pan Islamic Steamship Co. Ltd.
Safina-e-Arab (II)
Pan Islamic Steamship Co. Ltd.
Crescent Shipping Lines Ltd. / PNSC

Their main operation was carrying the pilgrims but they also had some cargo capacity and were used as cargo cum passenger ships during off Haj season.

In early 1980’s the number of sailings started falling due to the competitiveness of air travel, with low cost flights, and sea borne trade started declining. Pakistani pilgrim ships became more and more older and required heavy repairs and maintenance. It was thus commercially not viable to run them anymore.

The last ship to perform Haj service was MV Shams (1994) (under PNSC) before it was scrapped. Thus the sea borne pilgrimage run effectively ended.

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