Hyderabad: It is that time of the year when an atmosphere of grief envelopes parts of the old city of Hyderabad, as loudspeakers from dozens of ashurkhanas blare 'marsiye' (elegies) and 'nohay' (poems expressing sorrow). Ashurkhanas are community spaces where Shia Muslims gather for mourning during Muharram. Ashurkhanas derive their name from ashura, the 10th day of Muharram, which is also the climax of the period of mourning that marks Muharram, a commemoration of the martyrdom of Hussain Ibn Ali, grandson of prophet Mohammed, in the Battle of Karbala 14 centuries ago. This year, ashura falls on Sunday.
The sermons by zakirs (Shia clerics), describing the events of Karbala, amid cries and beating of chests by mourners create a pall of gloom in Darulshifa, Noor Khan Bazar, Purani Haveli and the surrounding localities in Hyderabad. Addressing majalis (congregations of mourners) at ashurkhanas, the zakirs, with their exceptional oratory skills, give a detailed account of the events that led to the martyrdom of Imam Hussain and his family. The sermons by zakirs make one relive the events of Karbala, for it feels like those events are happening before one's eyes.
The historic ashurkhanas are abuzz with activity throughout the nights as mourners clad in black make their offerings to alams (or insignias of the martyrs) and attend the gatherings. The majalis, which began with Muharram (the first month of Islamic calendar), reach a crescendo on 10th Muharram, the day when Imam Hussain and his followers were martyred in 61 Hijri or 680 CE at Karbala in present-day Iraq. Muharram rituals are all aimed at remembering the great sacrifice of Imam Hussain and his followers, who refused to bow to despotic and tyrannical authority.
On 10th Muharram, a massive and historic 'Bibi ka alam' procession is taken out with the alam on an elephant. The procession passes through parts of the old city, with thousands of people, irrespective of religion and caste, standing along the roads to pay their respects. The Muharram of Hyderabad draws people from not just different parts of Andhra Pradesh but also other states like Karnataka, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu and even from northern states.
With about 200,000 Shias, Hyderabad is home to the second-largest Shia community in India, after Lucknow. Shias point out that there is no parallel to Hyderabad's Muharram procession in the entire country. "If Mysore is famous for Dasara and Mumbai for Ganesh festivities, Hyderabad is known for its Muharram," said Taqi Askari Vila, a member of the Shia community. The majalis continue for two months and eight days at over 800 ashurkhanas in Hyderabad. Some of these were built by Qutub Shahi rulers.
The Badeshahi Ashurkhana, the oldest in the city, was built in 1594 by Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah, three years after the construction of Charminar, the symbol of Hyderabad. Some people believe that Quli Qutub Shah named the city after Hyder, one of the names of Hazrat Ali, son-in-law of Prophet Mohammed and father of Imam Hussain. The Bibi ka Alam, assigned to Prophet Mohammed's daughter Bibi Fatima Zehra, was raised by Hayat Bakshi Begum during the reign of her son Abdulla Qutub Shah.
According to historians, the rituals of mourning during Muharram started in the Deccan during the 14th century. It received royal patronage during the times of Qutub Shahis, who were Shias. Over the centuries, the local customs and traditions in different parts of the kingdom came to be associated with 'azadari' or mourning. It is not surprising that in several parts of the Telangana region of present Andhra Pradesh, Hindus observe Muharram in their unique and distinct style. Even in Hyderabad, some Hindu families have been serving as caretakers of the alams for decades.
Though Asaf Jahs (Nizams), rulers of erstwhile Hyderabad State, were Sunni Muslims, they continued to patronise the observance of Muharram. It was during their time that special colonies for Shias were built in Darulshifa and surrounding areas. It was during the Asaf Jahi period that several ashurkhanas were built. The ashurkhanas enjoy special status as they are believed to have relics belonging to the martyrs of Karbala. One of such ashurkhana is Alawa Sartooq named after a son of Imam Hussain. Azza Khana Zehra on the banks of the Musi river is another famous ashurkhana built by the Nizam.
Another special feature of Moharrum in the city is the presence of about 40 'matami' or mourning groups, whose members recite elegies and also resort to self-flagellation. To show solidarity with the sufferings of the Imam and his family members, the groups of devotees inflict wounds on themselves by using sharp objects like knives and blade-encrusted chains. The streets in Shia-dominated areas wear a different look, with several roadside stalls (known as sabeel) coming up to provide water to people.