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Azadaari: The Mourning Of Moharram In Kolkata

Moharram is a period of mourning and memorializing for the Shaheed – e – Karbala (martyrs of Karbala). For nearly 200 years now, there has been a prototypical Shi’i tradition, which still continues unabated, of observing Moharram on the premises of the property of Waqf Estate in Entally.  The Imambargah and the vicinal Mosque sprawling over an area of 9,000 sq.ft (approx.) belongs to the Waqf Estate which was founded in the year 1828 by Sirajuddin Ali Khan (who was Qazi-ul-Quzat, Sadr Diwani, what would be a stature equivalent to a modern day Chief Justice) and his wife Musammat Karamunessa Begum, both of whom hailed from the heartland of India, that is, Uttar Pradesh.

The year 1828 also saw the Waqf Estate receive its most famous visitor – Mirza Asadullah Khan Ghalib, undoubtedly the greatest Urdu poet of the 19th century. The heritage Hussainia / Imambargah is a grand, palatial structure what with the colonnaded arcade, dosserets, barrel vault, arched doorways, etc., and part of my resolve to chronicle the Moharram here, is to make you privy to its sheer beauty in all its resplendent grandeur at this time of the year – something that still leaves me breathless, even after spending aeons here.

The grandiose Imambargah, being a 19th century structure, necessitates intermittent restoration works that are initiated by the Waqf Estate, gingerly attentive so as not to, in any way, harm or diminish the aesthetic sensibilities and architectural design of the structure since its genesis. The Imambargah has a main congregation hall decorated with ornate lamps and a mimbar or pedestal for the speaker. The Zaridalan within, is adorned by the Nishaans (insignia), ornate gold-plated aluminium hands which symbolize the Panjtan-e-Pak, and miniatures of the Duldul (horses), and coffins of the martyrs. The walls have intricate concrete motifs embossed on them, apart from various Islamic art-work hung all over, and amidst it all, is a replica of the Iranian artist Mahmoud Farshchian’s painting The Evening of Ashura (1976) occupying pride of place.

For the first ten days of Moharram, there are two Majliss assemblies held routinely – a Mardaana Majliss (for men), and a Zanana Majliss (for women) – punctuated by the Maulana’s sermons which relate the stories of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain and the courage of those who believed in him in the wake of atrocities committed upon them at Yazid’s behest at Karbala, reciting of emotive lamentation elegies and poetry (Nawhas) and, salutations (Salaams).

On the third day of Moharram, there is a Moharram juloos (procession), or Alam that takes off from here – complete with Nishaan / Parcham (standards, or flags), caparisoned horses (which are called Zuljana / Duldul), and the pro bono sharbat, chilled water, and tea serving mobile Sabeel vans – which brings together over a thousand people from different socio-economic backgrounds, who participate in it dressed in black (often barefooted), and double that figure who descend on the precincts to witness the spectacle, or to simply soak up the aura.

Day Seven of Moharram indicates the day Yazid placed an embargo on the supply of water from Nahr – al Furaat (the river Euphrates in present day Iraq) to the Khaimah (tabernacle) of Imam Hussain and his entourage (72 people in all, including women, and young children). This day is reserved for the Mehendi and special Majliss for the Shaheed Hazrat Al-Qasim Ibn Hassan, who was a newlywed. So, in the Zanana assembly there are recitation of Nawhas specifically for Qasim, as also the partial re-enactment of his wedding with throngs of women and children bringing votive offerings of flowers, fruits, and sweets. But this is far from being a celebration of the wedding of this young martyr, and does not so much demonstrate joy, as it elicits a kind of an yearning for the joy that never was, which has the effect of intensifying the grief for this young life lost, and it also highlights the unbearable experience of the women in his family who had to live with it.

Day Nine is Shab-e-Ashoor – the night of the Shahadat (martyrdom) of Imam Hussain – and all the assemblies since Day One of Moharram lead up to this final Majliss – e – Hussain on the 9th of Moharram which goes on till the break of dawn, and culminates in the Alvida Nawha which reminisces the last meeting between Imam Hussain and those whom he loved (who were still alive, primarily the women) before he took their leave, went out and was beheaded by Shimr on Yazid’s orders. He had been thirsty for three days. The dazzlingly lit Imambargah’s lights are turned off, since Alvida could not be recited but in an unilluminated backdrop, amidst the heart-rending sobs of the Azadar present – women and men alike – and by partly re-creating the milieu of those final, stirring moments of togetherness Imam Hussain had with his loved ones for the final goodbyes. So, there is his last farewell to his beloved behen Zainab, who had been his unwavering companion since childhood and had trusted and followed him all her life, and who would now have to go on living, without him, to tell his story. Then there is the evocation of the leave-taking from his dukhtar (daughter) Sakina, his best-loved child, who had to be persuaded to give up falling asleep on his chest as was her habit, and to not go on weeping for her father who was going to die. A Nawha represents this encounter: “Achchi nahi yeh baat na royaa karo bibi / Pehloo mein kabhi maa ke bhi soyaa karo bibi…”

Though Moharram is a period of grieving, the essence of Moharram rituals is not so much about doctrinal abstinence as it is about fostering a spirit of generosity, without it being prescriptive. So, after every Majliss – both Mardaana and Zanana – handing out some form of Tabarruk has come to be quotidian. On some days, you will be served this hidden gem of a delicacy – a cup of milk tea which has been brewed with kewra essence, rose water, cinnamon and cardamom, along with a humble khaasta biscuit (shortbread cookie). On some occasions, there is Zaffrani Biryani, Sharbat (chilled milk with rosewater and crushed almonds and pistachios), Khichda, mithais like gulab jamun, imarti, etc., and on the 8th of Moharram – that is the day of Ha’azri for Hazrat Abbas – there is Sheermal parantha with tikia kebab. The idea behind freely sharing food is to alleviate thirst and hunger of those around you, and it is also a symbolic, humanitarian gesture to counter the heinous crime of Yazid who denied food and water to Imam Hussain and his family (including children) for three days before murdering them at Karbala. This message of showing love, generosity, compassion and empathy is not confined to those who are Muslims only, and so we have people from many mazhab (religions) and zaat (castes) coming and being served without being asked about their naam or nasab (descent). The message of Moharram is a message for humanity at large. It was a lesson set by a few righteous individuals who protected and upheld the faith in the face of overwhelming odds; they were conscious of certain death, yet declined to capitulate to falsehood or profess allegiance to an oppressive regime.  So, the driving principle behind observing Moharram is to ensure that this unparalleled sacrifice is not consigned to oblivion.

Lastly, I feel that minority cultural identities and their complexities have suffered systematic invisibilization, as well as neglect. Also, there is the hyper-visibility of dominant ways of seeing or imagining minority groups through the lens of over-determined, reductive stereotypes, which is why so much remains undocumented about our ways of life. This has been an attempt at transcending invisibility, though not necessarily an attempt to strive towards a visibility which comes down to ostentatiously parading ‘difference’ from the broader society. Minority cultures and their cultural distinctness need a wider, and more nuanced understanding so as to curtail the social exclusion, and stigmatization such cultures face precisely because of the ignorant snobbery on the part of the dominant majority.
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Afrin Firdaus Idris

M.Phil Research Scholar at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta

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