Muharram in Mumbai.
Muharram marks the first month of the Islamic Calendar. On sighting the new moon, Shia Muslims do not celebrate the beginning of the new year. Instead they don black clothes, bring out the alams and begin a period of mourning which lasts for two months and eight days. They mourn the death of Imam Hussain and his kin in the battle of Kerbala in present day Iraq. On new years eve, Shia Muslims bring out the alams (see picture) and hoist them in tiny ashurkhanas* in their homes. Some hold a majlis* in their homes for which they invite other Shias. After the majlis they distribute tabbaruk* to those who attend it.
The heart of Muharram in Mumbai is at Mughal Masjid on Sandhurst Road along the harbour line. Every night at 9 for the first ten days of Muharram, Maulana Athar Mirza, popularly called as Athar Saheb* reads a majlis at Mughal Masjid at Sandhurst Road which is attended by thousands of faithfuls. He is very progressive minded, a gifted speaker and has been reading majlis at Mughal Masjid since over thirty years! He is also a favorite with the listeners – both young and old, since he speaks about present day issues.
The final day of Muharram (Ashura) is a public holiday. Shia Muslims fast on this day. This fast is a partial fast or a faakhah. A faakhah is different from the normal fast – it is kept without having a sehri in the morning as in Ramazan fasts. Huge processions of Shias emerge from nearly every corner of Mumbai in the afternoons, starting at one mosque and ending at another. Men wearing black clothes performing maatam* walk barefoot on the roads, the crowd being lead by the bearers of the alams. These alams, unlike the ones installed in Shia homes, are tall and have to be maneuvered to avoid the overhead wires and trees.
Maatam is usually accompanied by cries of “Ya Hussain” or “Ya Ali” or sometimes nauhas, which are poems about the battle of Kerbala. Nadeem Sarwar is one such popular poet, but there are several tradional nauhas which have been passed down generation after generation and are recited every year. The Bohri Muslims who also observe Muharram, hold a tiny play or a shabi in which they recreate the battlefield of Kerbala. I recollect watching a proud white horse as Zuljanah (or Duldul) and a new born as Ali Asghar in a Bohri procession. It was so real, it made me cry.
The most unusual feature of these Muharram processions is the practice of self-mutilation, which is an exaggerated form of maatam. Maatam is sometimes done with blades or daggers, drawing blood. The braver ones use daggers to slash their foreheads, and this practice is called as ‘kham ka maatam’. The injury is so grave at times that the they require immediate medical attention. Most of the processions are accompanied by ambulances incase of a medical emergency. But these self inflicted wounds heal remarkable well and fast, without any medical aid. The scars last on most people forever. After the procession ends, the men break their fasts with khichdi* and achaar*, served in huge plates. Four or five people eat out of each plate. Although this practice of multiple people eating from the same plate is a Bohri tradition, it is observed among Shias as well.
Another peculiar feature of Muharram are the sabeels installed at street corners by Shias. A sabeel* is a table on which pots of water are kept. This water is meant to quench the thirst of weary travelers which can remind them of the thirst the army of Imam Hussain had to undergo. Some sabeels stock Ruh-Afza and Rasna as well.
During Muharram, Shia Muslims abstain from luxuries. They do not watch TV or movies, they do not wear festive colors like red and yellow, and do not start with anything new. For most Shias, the period of mourning ends on the tenth day of Muharram, but the more religious ones observe this period of mourning till the end of the month of Muharram, through the month of Safar and the first eight days of Rabi-ul-Awal.
On the tenth of Muharram (February 9), thousands of people participate or watch the processions in the bylanes of Sandhurst Road. The smell of blood mixes with the smell of rose water as bystanders watch blood splattered backs, and the sunlight stream in through the trees, forming diamonds in the sky as they watch the tall alams. The bystanders or sometimes even the participants comprise of not only Shia Muslims but varied religions. If you are reading this, and if you are curious about Muharram, you can feel free to watch the processions like many others do. You do not have to be Shia, not even Muslim to watch and understand. But if you still feel a little intimidated, you can wear black to blend in with the others. Women will feel not so out of place if dressed in a dark colored shalwar kameez, as you will not find many dressed in western outfits there.
To reach there, you must get off at Sandhurst Road Station and walk it up to Dongri’s Chaar Nal. Do not attempt to cross the tracks at Sandhurst Road station as it is located on a bridge, and crossing tracks can be risky here. Follow the crowd, be a part of it.
As Pinaki puts it: “The emotions and gore of Muharram turn many people away and reinforce stereotypes about Islam. Being a non-Muslim I was warned against going out into the streets to shoot among people thought of as religious fanatics, but it is only through contact and understanding of different cultures that mutual respect, and peace, can be earned. I came home blood-splattered, but unharmed.”
ashurkhanas – temples
tabarruk/nyaaz/prasad – sacred offerings
saheb – Sir
maatam – beating of ones chest to express grief
khichdi – spicy rice
aachar – pickle
sabeel – spring of fresh water
Sandhurst Road, a Taxi Ride later::
I invite cross-posts on Muharram from metroblogggers of other cities.