Muharram marks the beginning of the new year in the Islamic calendar. It is a month marked by remembrance and deep reflections centred on justice against oppression. The tenth day of Muharram, “Ashura”, commemorates the martyrdom of Hussain ibn Ali (grandson of the Prophet Mohammad) who was killed in the historic Battle of Karbala. While Muharram has special significance for the Shi’a community, historians have indicated that both Shi’a and Sunni Muslims partake in the rituals.
The Battle of Karbala finds its roots in a succession dispute that followed the death of the Prophet. When the Ummayad dynasty ruler, Yazid I assumed position as the Caliph, the Prophet’s grandson Hussain refused to pledge allegiance. Hussain, seeking to revive the true nature of Islam, revolted against Yazid’s corrupting ways and it is this dissent (at the cost of his family) that is the central lesson of the Battle of Karbala and Hussain’s legacy. The resulting brutal assassination of Hussain and his 72 companions by the 20,000+ forces of Yazid is remembered as the day of Ashura. On the day, Shia Muslims reflect on Hussain’s sacrifice for Islam and the selflessness in standing up for justice.
Observing Muharram : in Paintings!
In the 19th century, Europeans working and living in India often engaged artists to document Indian life, culture and festivals. Known as Company paintings, these were a fusion of local artistic styles and western techniques. Many other traveling artists such as Marianne North also portrayed the festival on their canvas. Take a look!
The Muharram Ritual : Majalis
Throughout the month of Muharram, Shia muslims attend sermons and Quran-recitations led by Imams [or spiritual leaders]. These are known as Majalis and the sermons recount the events that took place at Karbala on the corresponding day. The sermons explore themes of justice, sacrifice, brotherhood, forgiveness, kindness, piety.
Take a look at this painting from the Chester Beatty Library.
Devotional poetry (nohas) is recited as well while those listening express grief (matam).
Public Processions on the day of Ashura, the tenth day of Muharram
The Ashura Procession takes place on the last day of Muharram, concluding a 10-day period of fasting and mourning. Here’s a glimpse from 19th-century Udaipur, as seen through the eyes of the Victorian era painter, Marianne North.
Another view of the Muharram procession in Calcutta as seen through a European painter:
Taziyas are the colourful, and ephemeral shrine-models of Hussain and his followers who were killed at the Battle. The word comes from the ‘azi‘ which means to mourn – an integral part of the procession. Take a closer look at this Kalighat painting of Al-Buraq carrying a Taziya [part of the Penn Museum Collection]
In the late 18th century, Patua painters around the Kalighat temple in Calcutta often produced paintings targeted at a flourishing colonial tourist market. Local festivals and culture were a popular theme and the painting above might have been one such attempt to make India’s cultural environment familiar to European visitors.
Taziyas, built of bamboo and paper vary in size and design across neighbourhoods where they are crafted. Also known as Tabuts, these stand in the neighbourhood for the first 9 days, and are paraded around the city on the last night.
The next day, the Taziyas are usually immersed in a water body to conclude the remembrance. It is important to mention here that in the 18-19th century, that followers of Hindu faith too, would participate in the Taziya rituals.
Here’s a watercolour painting from the British Library collection showing the Taziyas being taken for immersion.
From the collection of the Bhau Daji Lad Museum Mumbai:
At Ashura processions it is common to see worshippers carry a staff with a flag and an alam on top. The alam represents the family of the Prophet.
Take a look at this 16-17th century Alam from the David Museum collection. The upper part invokes Ali for help while the lower part addresses the Prophet and twelve Shia Imams.
This hand shaped finial (from the Asian Civilisation Museum collection ) would have been placed on top of a flag pole.
“This hand-shaped finial is known as the ‘hand of Abbas’. It recalls the event leading to Hussain’s martyrdom when his half brother, Abbas, had his arms amputated while trying to bring water to the camp. Abbas was also given the authority to carry the standard in battle”
Perhaps this is why, serving water during Muharram in the name of Hussain has been a ritual.