At first, Ghogha looks like any small-time coastal settlement of Gujarat – not entirely a village nor a town, as if a village, bored by its own half hearted attempts at urbanization had fallen back into its old slumber. Clusters of mud houses interspersed with cement and brick structures – looking garishly out of place among mud and slate surroundings – dusty roads and by lanes, with puddles of stagnant water and stray dogs lingering at corners.
Closer to the sea stands a forlorn looking government rest house with an old tamarind tree standing in its large courtyard. From the stone wall skirting the courtyard you can see the rocky beach below. Waves loaded with mud and sand constantly lash the rocks. Riding these very waves, sailing in their sturdy ships, the first Arab traders landed at Ghogha around the early seventh century and built a masjid here. This was the time when Qibla (direction to be faced while offering namaaz,) of the Muslims was Jerusalem instead of Mecca. For a brief period of 16 to 17 months, between 622 and 624 A.D., after Hijra (migration) to Medina, the Prophet (s.a.v.) and his believers faced Jerusalem while offering namaaz. This ancient masjid, locally known as the Baarwaada Masjid or Jami Masjid, was built during this period and is one of the oldest if not the oldest masjid in India. Later the Prophet (s.a.v.) received Wahi (Revelation) commanding him to change the orientation point from Jerusalem in the north to Mecca in the south. This masjid, therefore, predates all the other masjids in India whose mehrab face Mecca. This ancient masjid also bears the oldest Arabic inscriptions in India. The masjid falls under the care of Barwaada jammat but in spite of its historical significance, it lies in ruins needing urgent repair.
This small town has over eleven masjids and dargahs, which were built later during the Sultatnate period in Gujarat (1401- 1572), including the old mazaar of Ashraf Shah Baba who made Ghogha his home. A copy of the Holy Quran hand written by him can also be seen here. There is a tunnel under his mazaar which is believed to go as far as Mecca!! A few adventurous youths did make an attempt to verify this belief but had to turn back after a few kilometers due to lack of oxygen !!
In its heydays Ghogha was the center for Islamic learning and a flourishing port which had trade links with Shri Lanka, Africa and Middle East and was appropriately called, Sher-e-abaad , the prosperous city. During the Moghul period, its yearly income was believed to be 1666 pounds. Later it became a major cotton exporting port. However with the passage of time, a decline in cotton prices and the development of railways brought about a decline in the commercial importance of ports along the Gulf of Cambay (Khambat). With the development of the nearby Bhavnagar port, the significance of Ghogha as a port diminished further.
Today this coastal town lies half-forgotten along with its inhabitants, the majority of whom are Muslims and identify themselves as Ghoghari Arabs. However their love for the sea continues with every Ghoghari family having at least one male working on a ship somewhere. Due to lack of local employment opportunities, most of the men folk have left their homes for work in places like Mumbai and Middle East. The locals believe that this is due to the curse of Ashraf Shah Baba. According to local folk lore the Baba cursed the men of Ghogha for casting an evil eye on his beautiful daughter. He cursed the men folk of Ghogha that they would never be able to live with their family and will have to wander away from home in search of livelihood.
A boat making unit started some years ago closed down due to some internal problems. A salt works trade started some time back, met with the same fate. The Ghogha – Dahej ferry boat service started by the State Government with much ballyhoo ended in a whimper. Only a few bentonite processing factories offer limited employment to the locals.
Today Ghogha and its ancient masjid bear a look of decadence. Perhaps the development planners can cast off the Baba’s curse and it would be a great loss to our cultural heritage if this ancient masjid is allowed to crumple to dust.
Note: My above article was published in July 2, 1996 issue of The Times of India