Down Memory Lane History & Culture

Day of great mourning

Tearful journey: A Tazia procession at the Jama Masjid in Delhi

Tearful journey: A Tazia procession at the Jama Masjid in Delhi  

Tracing Delhi’s long tryst with Muharrum

Muharrum, which marks the first year of the Islamic calendar, has been observed in Delhi since the time of Qutubuddin Aibak, the first ruler of the Slave dynasty in the 12th Century. The succeeding Sultans carried on the tradition though they were mainly Sunnis and not Shias, for whom Muharrum is a day of great mourning as it commemorates the martyrdom of Hazrat Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad at the Battle of Karbala in the late seventh century. The tomb of the Imam is a highly venerated spot in Iraq, where the memorable battle took place between him and the forces of Yaazid, regarded as a tyrant, who wanted to become Imam or head of the Islamic fraternity after the death of Hazarat Ali, son-in-law and nephew of the Prophet. Imam Hussain and his brother, Hassan were Hazrat Ali’s sons.

This year Muharrum falls on 21st September and, as usual, it would be the scene of Tazia processions and mourning in the Imambaras of the Shias. The main centre is Lucknow, whose nawabs were the ones who built the city’s famous Imambaras. It was known as Awadh then and the poets of the principality were the ones who wrote and recited the Marsias or elegies of Muharrum. Among them the most famous was Mir Anis, who has given a wonderful description of the Battle of Karbala, though it is more romantic than factual. The poet says that the sun got darkened and the birds forgot to sing and even the lion’s roar got stuck in its throat after Imam Hussain and his 70-old companions, including children, died at Karbala, many of them because of thirst in the harsh, sandy plain.

In vivid detail

The Marsias recount all this in vivid detail, bringing copious tears to the eyes of the mourners, among them women in black burqas beating their breasts, unlike of course the men who beat themselves so much that their bodies are covered with blood amidst chanting of “Ya, Hussain, hum na hue” (Alas, Hussain we were not present at the battle to lay down our lives for you).

The Mughal rulers were Sunnis, though Jahangir’s wife Nur Jahan (like Mohd Shah’s queen, Qudsia Begum) was a Shia and propagated the sect at the court by inviting Qazi Shustri, a scholar from Shustar on the borders of Iran and Iraq, who became a controversial figure at the Mughal court and was killed on the orders of Jahangir for a perceived insult to Sheikh Salim Chisti on whose blessings he was born to Akbar. The tomb of Qazi Shustri in Agra is greatly venerated. It is said he died a horrible death as his tongue was pulled out through the back of his neck (guddi-phat) for “querying” the greatness of Sheikh Salim Chisti with the remark, “Een marda Chist” (who is this man Chisti)? Among the Shias of Jahangir’s court was the great general Mahabat Khan, whose house in Delhi, near what is now ITO, becomes the focal point at Muharrum. There a road is named after him.

The main dish eaten at Muharrum is khichra or halim, a mixture of all the grains and meat, as the same was eaten by the famished Karbala martyrs at their last meal after all the food was exhausted. Muharrum-ka-dhania and sherbet are also popular though one doesn’t see the “Bels” (bulls) of Muharrum, boys dressed in green kurtas, with bells around their waists, making a round of the local cemetery for 9 nights, the 10th being the battle day.

Delhi’s miniature Karbala is situated in Jorbagh and once extended up to the Tomb of Safdarjung, the Shia nobleman of Ahmed Shah’s court who founded the Nawabi dynasty of Awadh with special links with Iran. This Karbala has seen clashes of late between RWA members and Shias who allege encroachment on the historic Shah-e-Mardan cemetery built in the 18th century by Qudsia Begum.

Chehlum, the 40th day after Muharrum, is another occasion for taking out tazias, replicas of the tomb of Hazrat Imam Hussain in Iraq.

Though the number of tazias is not much, the enthusiasm is great. Delhi has always observed this day with great fervour, the pulses, and meat dish halim are distributed, though some opt for biryani. This day generally leads to clashes between Shias and Sunnis not only in Iraq but also in other Islamic countries. In India too clashes are reported in places like Hyderabad, Rampur, Lucknow and Moradabad. Last year, Delhi too witnessed a violent Chehlum during which Shia mourners clashed with the police at the Jorbagh Karbala.

Though tension at Muharrum and Chehlum was evident even during Mughal times, the tazia processions made it to the historic Jorbagh quite safely. The processions went from Kotla Ferozeshah (since there was no Walled City then) and made a detour towards the haveli or mahal of Mahabat Khan, who served Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan, and had become a Shia later in life. His real name was Zamana Beg and his exploits were many. Whenever Muharrum comes around, one cannot help but think of its link with Mahabat Khan whose grave is situated in Jorbagh.

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Printable version | Apr 3, 2020 5:36:37 AM |

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