Ramadan in Bangkok
(featured in Masala magazine, August 2012, Thailand)
[For original click on the link below]
A fast-breaking trip to Bangkok Mosque reveals the city’s vibrant and close-knit Indian Muslim community
From directing my taxi over the phone, to having me seated with the ladies and giving a tour of the premises, Bangkok Mosque board trustee Mr. M Naina Maricar, an Indian from Tamil Nadu who has been living in Thailand with his family, he proudly informs me that they were the first South Indian family to set up base in Thailand and have been here for over four generations. He is a part of the MTS Marican Import and Export group, a company set up by his great grandfather and Managing Director of Marican Gems, and a devoted trustee of the Mosque by night. A cheerful gentleman with a thick south Indian accent has been a courteous host who passionately explains the significance of Bangkok Mosque in the Muslim community.
Situated on Suriwongse Road in the Bangrak District, Bangkok Mosque’s pristine white building with its Arab-inspired minaret is distinctly visible a mile away. The impressive five-storey building embodies a 200-year history of the Indian Muslim community in Bangkok. Initially founded by the Tamil Muslim Association and supported by its mother mosque Haroon Masjid, Bangkok Mosque was built to support the increasing numbers of Indian Muslims in Bangkok who needed a place to call their own.
I’m here for the iftar, the fast-breaking meal every evening during the month of Ramadan. Mr. Maricar says, “Through fasting we celebrate the way of Islam, by resisting food and other desires we keep ourselves holy for God and in the process cleanse our body.” After 30 days of fasting, the community comes together to celebrate Eid-ul fitr with a grand lunch party at the mosque. Every year, Mr. Maricar says, the Eid party takes place in a hall where over 1,000 people are invited; they arrange lucky draws for mega prizes such as flight tickets, gold chains, and a Haj pilgrimage. However, this year’s event remains to seen as President, Haji M. Wavoo Shamsudeen and the committee are still in the planning phase. Mr. Maricar says “Unlike in India where people have Islamic shows and entertainment, we choose to keep it simple with lunch and games.”
After a tour of the mosque, I am led to the ladies dining area where I witness the breaking of the fast. It all starts in the traditional manner, with a sweet nutritious date, followed by a more typically South Indian meal: a bowl full of rice kanji, an appetizing soup made with rice and lentils mixed together with light spices. On the my plate I also find an assortment of fresh fruits, steamed collard greens, tangy pakora and a south Indian bajji, similar to a pakora except the fillings are crunchier. The smiling lady across the table offers me a sweet sherbet made with coconut and lemon juice. “This is just the menu for today,” she says. “Our chefs keep changing it every day.”
After the iftari, the women move downstairs to the third floor, a carpeted and air-conditioned prayer room for their evening prayers and then eventually head home, but not before I persuade a few of them to speak with me. Afra, a student from an International School in Bangkok, comes here daily with her family of five for the tarabi prayers which start at 8:45 and last until 10:30pm everyday during the Ramadan month. Her family like most is from the southern state of Tamil Nadu, in India. “I know most people here,” she says. “The mosque is a small community for us; we have special events and get regular updates regarding Ramadan-related timings.”
Another regular mosque-goer Mrs. Jesima Syed Mohamed, originally from Cuddalore in Tamil Nadu, moved to Bangkok from Phuket in 2010, a Math and English teacher at a bilingual school she feels it is always good to do anything in a group. She informs me that here no membership is required. “Just the fact that the mosque is built is enough proof that it is a place for everyone regardless of religion and ethnicity.”
The close-knit community seems to agree that the mosque is a big identity for them here. “If this mosque was not here, we wouldn’t have anywhere else to go” says Mrs. Kudos, a housewife from Nidur, a small town in Tamil Nadu but now based in Bangkok has been coming here since its opening six years ago. Jesima adds, “Of course, there are other places but this place is home, it is safe and comfortable. We come here as one and seeing how big we are gives us a feeling of belonging and a sense of community.”
Bangkok Mosque has not only become a religious platform for all Muslims but has also, through trust funds and sponsors worldwide, extended public services towards the Thai community. The community mobilized to deliver food and ration packets to over 400 families that were affected by the flood crisis earlier this year. Joining hands with other mosques in Bangkok, Mr. Maricar says “We were active in Ayuthaya, Lopburi, and Nonthaburi to help people who were suffering” [in the aftermath of the disaster]. Bangkok Mosque’s charitable activities broaden even further; Mr. Maricar stresses how the mosque has helped people from the local community to start up businesses. “Regardless of religion and nationality, we give out funds to help start up small ventures such as food stalls and roadside cafes.”
My previous visit to the mother mosque Haroon Masjid was an experience similar to this. The smiling and most gracious host Imam Abdul Ahad, welcomed me to the first iftari of Ramadan. At the Masjid people broke their fast by eating out of plates the size of a small coffee table; covered with allegedly the best mutton biryani served in this part of town. These communal platters were a metaphor for the principles that the Mosque stands for: community.
The warmth of the people and the cordial hospitality of my hosts bundled with the richness of its wonderful group of people gave me an evening to remember and many reasons to come back. The Muslim Community of Bangkok is a society that stands for togetherness and aims to serve the local public through charitable endeavors and love.