The lone warrior rides swiftly across the scorching sands of the Arabian desert from the Shat-al-Furat, the mighty Euphrates. Faint cries of “Al Atash ! Al Atash ( thirst) carry on the still desert air.“ He looks back at the men who follow him. His hand pauses over his scabbard as he remembers his instructions – to safeguard the camp, bear the standard and not fight until permission was received to do so.
Horse hooves gather momentum. A sword flashes and his arm is severed from his body. He quickly transfers the Mashq (leather water bag) to his other hand as the sword flashes again and the other arm falls useless to the ground. He stumbles, bending only to pick the bag up in his mouth, determined to reach the camp where his young niece stands waiting for water. Another shower of arrows sheath themselves in his body. One hisses past him and buries itself in his Mashq. Horrified, he sees precious water trickle helplessly into the eager sand. As the mace crashes into his head, he shouts out his brother’s name. His last thought is that of his unfulfilled promise. Abbas Ibn Ali (AS ), Qamar Bani Hashim (the moon of the Hashimites), the Alamdar (standard bearer) dies without being able to take life saving water back to the camp.”
The speaker’s voice quivers. She has come to the end of her `bayan’ (sacred narrative ) in the `azadari’ (gathering to hear the bayan) . The wailing intensifies in the still room. Women beat their chests and cry out in distress “ Ya Abbas ! “ Hair untied, eyes heavy with weeping, they keen loudly. I have heard this and other stories about the tragic battle of Karbala a countless times since I was three years old. But it still feels like the first time. Year after year.
The `Majlis-e-Aza’ (meeting ) is over for today. But in Shia homes across Bangalore, there will be no rejoicing.No celebrations. No joyous occasion. For over two months and eight days, it will be time to take off one’s ornaments, put away the makeup and wear the traditional Shia colour of mourning – black. The time to grieve for Imam Hussain (AS), grandson of the Holy Prophet (SAW), son of Hazrat Ali Ibn Abu Talib (AS) and his family is here.
Over the next few days, tragic events will unfold, snowballing towards the culmination of the battle on Ashura, the tenth day of Moharram. The infant Ali Asghar will die in his father’s arms, neck pierced by an arrow. Aun and Mohammed will die. Hazrate Ali Akbar, strong and handsome, in the prime of his youth, will lead the `azaan’ (call to prayer) like he always has, before asking his father, Imam Hussain (AS) for permission to fight his last battle. Hazrate Qasim, they say, will take leave of his bride. Her hands will be stained with blood and not henna when they bring his body home.
It was a dark and turbulent time in the history of Islam. Religious and political divisions had taken a heavy toll on the faith. Racked by strife, schisms, discord and upheaval the tribes turned upon and against each other in a relentless quest for power.Old tribal rivalries came to the fore and clan divisions were reinforced. As Hussain (AS ) made his way across the desert in answer to a call for help from the desperate residents of Kufa, the beleaguered grandson of the Prophet (SAW) and about seventy two members of his entourage ( followers, women, children, family ) were surrounded by the opposing army of the Ummayid Caliph, Yazid in 61 AH (estimated to be 10th October, 681 CE ). Denied food, rest and water from the river, they were massacred in a poignant battle for succession on the burning, unforgiving sands of Karbala.
It is the tenth day of Moharrum. The sun paints the desert sand a vivid orange as it sinks low into the horizon. The time for prayer has arrived. Faint with multiple wounds and much loss of blood, a lone figure drops his sword and wearily sinks to the ground in prayer. It has been a fierce battle. Seeing him unarmed and defenceless, they rush towards him, slitting his throat as he bends in supplication. They trample upon his body and impale his head upon a spear to later carry it through the streets of Kufa. Hussain Ibn Ali (AS ) is subjected to indignities even in death.
It is an event unprecedented in the history of humanity. The women wail again.
Outside the community Ashurkhana in Johnson Market, the afternoon sun bounces off the 15 ft high Alams that are etched against the sky. The drum beats are solemn as the procession (Juloos) winds its way to the Shia cemetery on Hosur Road to lay the Alam’s to rest. Nauha’s and Marsia’s ( elegies ) are set to tune and recited. Men stand with palms resting over their heart and weep shamelessly in public. Curious bystanders sit on walls and cluster at corners watching hands being raised high in unison and lowered to chests with a dull, resounding, synchronised thud for the ritualistic `matam’. The juloos has been a part of our cityscape for over a hundred years. Hosur Road has been re-imagined as the long gone battlefield and transformed into a site of sacred meaning.
Elsewhere, the deadly `zanjeers’ (chains with blades) draw blood. There are feverish shouts ” Ya Hussain ! Ya Hussain ! Mazloom Hussain ! Shaheed Hussain !” as the blades make contact with the skin of those who symbolically relive the torture. A practise that is believed to have begun, like the elegiac Marsiya genre, during the reign of the Safavid dynasty (1502 -1736) in Iran. Many would have also walked over coals the previous night, representing a crossing of the desert with feet on fire. It is an event built on the pillars of powerful symbolism and recurring motifs – struggle, suffering, sacrifice, pre-determination and the eternal battle of good versus evil.They play a crucial part in the Shiite concept of salvation and serve as a spiritual perspective and moral ideal.
The Ashurkhanas, Imabaras and majlises are open to all faiths. In Varanasi, the city of Ghats, Temples and Vedic saints, there is a syncretic tradition of Hindu families participating in Moharrum ceremonies.The same holds true for cities like Lucknow, Allahabad, Kanpur and Hyderabad where non-Muslims enthusiastically participate in making `Tazias’ (symbolic miniatures of the Holy Mausoleum of Imam Husain in Karbala) and offer water and `sharbat’ to those participating in the processions. Poets of all faiths have written eloquent nauhas and marsiyas. Other Islamic sects also commemorate it in different ways. Ashura blurs the distinctions between castes and communities. Sorrow and joy are great unifiers.
Little children clamour to briefly sit astride the sacred horse, the Zuljenah and are blessed with the gifts of health and longevity. I imagine those mighty war horses carrying their riders into battle, pennants flying high. Like their riders, they too will leave never to return. It is indeed astonishing that neither the intensity nor the intent of the mourning has faded over the centuries.
With heavy hearts, the Alams will be symbolically lowered before sunset. The `Shaam-e-ghariban‘ (the evening of the poor ) majlis will begin in the Arab Lines off Hosur Road while far away in another age, grief stricken survivors and an ailing Imam shackled with chains will make their weary way across the desert to Damascus. The battle is finally over. The dead have been claimed.They have lost everything at dusk. All they will have to hold onto in the days to come, is their faith.
The Karbala tragedy is a historical event of human martyrdom of such importance that it can never be forgotten. It shall continue to influence the lives of billions of men and women of the world throughout the ages…” Dr. Rajendra Prasad.
* Written with inputs from my father, Syed Hasan Abbas Rizvi.
*AS – Allaihussalaam -May the blessings of Allah be upon him.