A Night of Ramadan in Old Delhi

Jama Masjid, Delhi, India Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Many Americans will be feasting with family and friends to celebrate Thanksgiving this week, and the holiday’s emphasis on food reminded me of my recent experiences in Delhi.

The end of my summer internship this past August brought me to the Puraani Shehar (in the Urdu language), or the Old City section of India’s capital, on the first night of the 9th month in the Muslim lunar calendar, Ramadan. Throughout the holy month, Muslims abstain from eating, drinking, and sexual relations from sunrise until sunset. The fast is traditionally ended by eating dates and followed by a congregational prayer in a mosque or the home of a local Muslim who is holding an iftar—the evening meal marking the end of the day’s fast.

Every night during Ramadan, thousands of Muslims enter the Old City’s Jama Masjid (Grand Mosque) and submit to God in appreciation for what they have been provided, both materially and spiritually. The completion of this sunset prayer, maghrib, signals the start of the day’s major meal.

While formal, organized iftars are held in community mosques, homes, and restaurants, the real eating action takes place in the 500-year-old streets of Old Delhi; in alleyways and in booths, food stalls and peddlers provide an array of options. A sea of people, young and old, women and men, flood the area, creating a joyous and bustling atmosphere. Muslims and even many non-Muslims come to celebrate the traditions and partake in one of the most appetizing culinary experiences Delhi has to offer all year round. Special types of food are prepared especially for Ramadan. Haleem, various sweets, and roasted chicken line the streets and create a potent mixture of aromas.

The destitute people of the area swarm particular restaurants for food handouts of biryani, various chapatis, and chicken, with many restaurant owners providing food to those in need to satisfy the Islamic requirement of alms giving, or zakat—2.5% of a person’s total wealth.

Indian Muslim Woman Prays at Jama Masjid Photo: AP/Kevin Frayer

The atmosphere is joyous, but calm, as Ramadan is not a time to celebrate, but rather reflect and remain conscious of one’s actions, thoughts, and spirit. A sense of joy and humility are apparent on the faces of many, as most Muslims have just completed another day praising God and cleansing their hearts through their fast. Gorging large amounts of food is not recommended and is actually looked down upon, in line with the Prophetic tradition of eating only a small amount of food. Modesty and moderation are strong virtues, and one gets this sense by watching the actions of people in the streets during Ramadan.

There are few sights greater than Ramadan in Old Delhi, a perfect opportunity for Muslims and non-Muslims alike to understand the Islamic principles behind the tradition and to taste the rich foods that are made throughout the month. Since Ramadan changes yearly, each season offers a unique atmosphere and different types of food. But even despite the Old City’s chilly temperatures during Ramadans spread over the winter months, you can bet that the culinary spread is just as impressive and the people are just as warm to outsiders as any Ramadan set in warmer seasons.

Are there similarities between the meaning of Thanksgiving and Ramadan? As a non-Muslim, have you ever fasted during Ramadan and joined an iftar with Muslims? As a Muslim, have you ever fasted with people of other faith traditions? Does food play a different role in the fasts of other religions?

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