The traditions of mourning Imām Husain during the ten days of Muharram has a very long history.
Before going further, let me first explain some of the terms: the term majlis stands for the congregational assembly or gathering where the memory of the martyrs of Karbala are invoked. It comprises basically of three parts: a typical majlis starts with soz khwāni, recital of dirges while sitting. It usually starts with salām (salutations: verses eulogising the Ahlulbayt) and ends with certain bayts (verses) of Marsiya (elegies). This is followed by the oratory (zikri/ majlis) “recited” by a zākir” orator: Though seldom “read” but delivered in the form of a speech it is “recited” as initially there used to be a recital of a book written during the 17th Century in Safavid Iran which was known as Rauzat ush Shuhada. It was a versified account of Karbala by Waez Kashifi. Later this job was taken over from the reciters by orators, zākerīn.
The zikr or main oratory has two parts: fazāil (praise, appreciation) and masāeb (travails). In the first part the orator tells about the life, message and parables from the experiences of the Ahlulbayt as well as discusses any theme or topic he may want, from meaning of Islam to the acts of terrorism today, the message of the Prophet to the social ills prevalent in the community. The end 10 to 15 minutes are necessarily devoted to the masaib: an account of the tragedy which befell on Imām Husain and his followers at Karbala.
The last part of the majlis is mātam, beating of chest as a sign of lamentation along with a recital (in fact singing) of nauha (dirges). The crescendo in the mātam is reserved for the last. The programme ends with a ziarat (salutations) and distribution of tabarruk (offerings) of whatever the host can manage: sweets or biscuits or whatever eatable on can manage. The distribution is amongst all who were present.
As such majlis (plural, Majālis) are held for all the ten days, it is known as “Ashra” ( ashr being 10).
It is said that if you want to experience the real spirit of Muharram, go to a qasba (a mufassil town) or a qarya (village).
My ancestral place is Haswa, once a qasba (during the Mughal rule and Colonial period) but now a village (grām) in the district of Fatehpur in eastern UP. It derives it’s name from a certain legendary Raja Hans, who was allegedly a contemporary of Pandavas. It was after him that the place came to be known as “Hanswa”, and later “Haswa”. It’s antiquity is attested to by a large number of Kushan period bricks found in the big pond near our house, ancient sculptures and stone carvings embedded within our ancestral homes and a Greek inscription found from a nearby temple a few years back.
During medieval times the place had two forts, a mud fort and another with stone ramparts attested to as late as the account of an 18th century traveller and Jesuit, Josef Tieffanthaler. According to Abul Fazl the revenues of Haswa were more than that of Fatehpur.
Today in Haswa, Muharram is commemorated only in our Muhalla, known as Muhalla Chaudhrana which has around 22-25 houses, all belonging to one family, ours. Like every other traditional ancestral family, ours too is divided into a number of branches (at least three in our case). All three branches have their own focal points, and are an example of living together separately.
Each house in our Muhalla is now basically an Imāmbada: a large Hall with shahnashīn (platform) a large courtyard and some dālāns and rooms, as the occupants come here only during Muharram to hold majālis (mourning ceremonies). Apart from all these, there is a separate Imāmbada and a Hātha, a former males quarters.
From early morning to late nights the whole neighbourhood and it’s occupants do only one thing: commemorate Husain! Every day there are community kitchens and “Hāzri” for all men and women, day and night.
Even the non-Shi’a neighbourhoods in Haswa start getting crowded with all type of people returning back home to commemorate Muharram: by first of Muharram the whole qasba is abuzz with people eager to receive Imām Husain amongst their midst. Among those who come are a group of of tabalchis – those who beat drums, dhols and tāshas and produce music. Since the sighting of moon the “Muharrami bāja” as they are called, are on the round through out the inhabited areas, passing from muhalla to muhalla announcing the mourning of Husain.
Special preparations start weeks before with every house being coated afresh, some residents even time building new structures to be completed by the dawn of first Muharram. The houses are well stocked to receive incoming guests; generators for electricity are installed and arrangements for proper water supply are made. White washing of the “Karbala” situated outside the village, beyond the lake, which also comprises the family graveyard is done.
From 1st of Muharram to 10th of Muharram there is nothing but sounds of lamentation and cries of “Yā Husain” emanating. Two days however are more elaborately hallowed: the 7th Muharram and the 10th Muharram which are marked by daylong processions of Alams (standard/banner/flag), tābūt (replica of biers) and tazias.
The “ashrā” of Majālis start from early morning of the first: at 7 O’clock the first majlis commences in the House (Imāmbada) of Iqbal Chacha. Followed by a majlis in our own Imāmbada. In fact in our Imāmbada two majalis take place: one in the morning and another at 4:00pm. All over the day around 8 ashras are held and they end late in the night, with people hopping from one majlis to another. When I started visiting my village 15 years back, there were only a few orators (zākirs) all from the family, I being one of them. Now since a few years around half a dozen professional orators are “imported” from Lucknow!
But suddenly on 11th the Muhalla starts getting vacated. If there were a thousand individuals a day before, by the noon of 11th half are gone. The other half who remain are usually gone in the next two days or so with only a couple of people remaining in the entire neighbourhood waiting for others to return the next Muharram.
The first Ashra of majālis to start at Haswa was in our azākhāna [mourning chamber: a place decorated with alam (flags & emblems), tazia (paper and wood replicas of the shrines) zarī (metal replicas of the same) etc. and a hall to assemble]. Later one of our uncles also started a second Ashra in our azākhana. So today, a majlis is held daily at 9:00 am and another at 3:30 pm. Before independence my father Allama Saiyid Sibtul Hasan, Fāzil-i Hanswi used to address the gatherings. These days, my cousin, a retired engineer who was last posted in Bhopal, Syed Razi Zaidi recites in one of the Ashras; the other is shared between a few other cousins. Till a few years back, I too would recite a number of majālis in my house.
Any typical Muharram day at Haswa however starts with an Ashra scheduled for 7:30 am in the house of late Iqbāl chacha. Usually a zākir from Lucknow is invited there.
The third daily majlis of the day is held in the azākhāna of Nihāl Bhai, who unfortunately expired much before I started going to Haswa myself. Since the last decade and a half I found Nihāl Bhai’s younger brother late Chānd Miyān organising this majlis. Since his passing away, Nihāl Bhai’s son has taken over. They also now invite a zākir, usually from Fatehpur to come for the daily majālis.
At around noon, or a little later, is held an Ashra in the house of Abrar Chacha. This majlis is still followed by a mātam accompanied with drums and tāsha, the mātami bāja. Unfortunately some individuals are trying to do away with this practice. And sadly, they appear to be succeeding: a Shia version of wahhabiyat where every second thing is “harām” or “biddat” is also gradually seeping in!
In the evening a majlis is held in the house of Hassu Bhai. Here generally the zākir who recites in the night at Imāmbada Bunyād Ali is asked to recite the majlis.
After the evening prayers a majlis is held in Hātha, a place which was a common mardānkhāna of the entire clan, but now held by a family. It is technically not an Ashra as majālis are held only till 8th Muharram and with a gap on 7th due to a procession. It is the largest majlis of the entire day and attended by people from far and wide. Usually a zākir from Lucknow is there. I remember that till a decade or so back, Razi Bhai (who now recite in our azākhāna) was the one who held the sway there. As it boasts of the largest gathering in Haswa, a number of poets too present their kalām from the mimber (pulpit). Even the number of nauha (dirges with chest beating) are much more here with each nauhakhwān (nauha reciter) vying with each other to get a chance!
The day ends with the last majlis of the day: the majlis in the Imāmbada of Bunyād Ali, one of our grandfathers. Here too, technically it’s not an ashra as only six majālis are held like in Hātha.
No account of Muharram at Haswa can end without the mention of two of it’s residents: Qaisar and Hasan Fatehpuri.
Qaisar has a very restricted vision but remarkably remembers all the nauhas and even soz! He single handedly takes up this duty in every azākhāna! And in every procession. His memory keeps us amazed.
Hasan Chacha is our own proud bard: we actually look forward for his new kalām every year! He not only is an accomplished poet, but is a possessor of a good throat and voice. May both of them live long!
As far as the julūs-i azā (mourning processions) in Haswa are concerned, they too, like in any other Shi’a basti in North India, are many.
However I will single out only two or three of them here. Haswa since before independence is known for 7th Muharram. On 7th a massive procession is taken out around noon from the Imāmbada of Bunyād Ali.
The procession commences with the recital of a certain dirge which is recited by a number of persons who stand holding the pulpit.
Accompanied with Alams (flags of Imām Husain and his flagbearer, alamdār, Hazrat Abbas and biers in the form of cots draped in green symbolising the bier of Hazrat Qasim, martyred son of Imām Hasan) first slowly marches towards Hāthā where Razi Bhai recites a majlis. The procession then heads towards the bazār, where people from even neighbouring villages have assembled. Here the procession is almost taken over by the Sunnis who perform zanjīr ka mātam (inflicting the backs of their torsos with small knives hanging from iron chains). By evening the procession proceeds back to from where it had commenced.
The second important procession is in the early morning of 10th Muharram. Soon after morning azān when it is still dark women assemble in our azākhāna and my aunt reads a long versified dirge. As it finishes in great lamentations, the two tābūts (replica of biers) along with an Alam is taken out and handed to the menfolk standing outside the house. Slowly the biers are taken out and all march towards the Hāthā situated at the other end of the muhalla (ours being the last house on this side.) As we proceed from each house enroute a bier and an Alam joins. By the time the procession reaches Hātha, more than two dozen tābūts and a number of alams are there. It is in fact one of the most grand scene: dozens of tābūts on the shoulders of silent mourners moving under the shadow of the flags of Husain!
Of course the culmination is in the form of the main procession of tenth Muharram. It has the same route as the one on 7th. The only difference is that it is accompanied by two main ( and many subsidiary) tazias.
It is remarkable that the tazias of Haswa are different from the usual ones: they are in the form of rath (chariots) associated with Shri Krishna! They have a pyramidal shikhara style roof with a shade for the maharathi (charioteer) extending in the front! On the top is the wooden “kalasha”.
These paper and bamboo structures were traditionally constructed by one of the family members himself: I remember my cousin Hadi Bhai would start making them soon after Baqr Eid! Now they are made by the professionals from whom we buy them.
Further, in Haswa we have a colour coding as well. The taziya of Hāthā, (the azākhāna of the Old Mardākhāna of our family, now in possession of one branch of the family) is compulsorily green in colour: the colour of Imām Hasan (he was poisoned to death by Amīr Muawiya: thus green, the colour of poison). On the other hand, the tāziya of ‘Imāmbada (of the family, but now controlled by another “branch”) is red, the colour of Imām Husain, who was martyred by sword.
This colour code is followed even in the tāziya kept in individual family azākhānās: thus in our house we have the green tāziya, for we belong to that particular branch of family.
Another tradition is that the Red Tāziya would be the first to be kept on the Imām Chowk. After it has been kept, only then the Green one would be brought out.