Tuesday, 3 October 2017

Blood of the Faithful: An Outsider's Experience of Muharram in Calcutta

Every year as Muharram approaches, Calcutta (Kolkata) radio veteran Mir Afsar Ali must remind his non-Muslim listeners not to wish their Muslim friends a “happy Muharram” because it is not a happy occasion. For most non-Muslims in India, Islamic rituals and practices in general, and Muharram, in particular, remains a complete mystery. People’s reaction to Muharram commemorations is tinged with fear. So this year, I set out to experience and document Muharram commemorations in my hometown, Calcutta (Kolkata).

The gathering at Gol Kothi, listening to the story of Karbala



Muharram is actually a month, the first month of the Islamic calendar and one of the four sacred months of the year. The reason non-Muslims in India know of only one day as Muharram is that that day is an official government holiday and is marked as Muharram in calendars. That day is the 10th day of the month and is known as the day of Ashura. Many historic events have occurred on the day of Ashura. According to well-known preacher Maulana Tariq Jameel, Noah’s ark is said to have landed at Mount Ararat on the 10th of Muharram. Abraham is said to have been delivered from Nimrod’s furnace on the 10th of Muharram. Moses is believed to have split the Red Sea and delivered the Israelites from the tyranny of the Pharaoh on the 10th of Muharram. But what the date is remembered for most of all, are the events that occurred on 61 Al-Hijra. To understand the events of that day, it is necessary to understand a little bit of Islamic history. It is important to stress, before I get into this, that there are a very large number of disagreements about events in Islamic history. There are a large number of sources, which are often contradictory. Added to that is the fact that each school of Islam, Shia, Sunni, and others, have a different set of beliefs. While Sunnis think of Ali as the 4th Caliph, Shias regard him as the 1st. But as a non-Muslim, I shall try and set this out in a manner that makes sense to me and others like me.

After the death of the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH), the question of succession emerged, since none of his sons had survived into adulthood. According to the Hadith of Khumm, the Prophet (PBUH) had proclaimed Ali as his most favourite and the rightful heir in front of an audience. A small group supported Ali’s ascension to the leadership. But his close companion and father-in-law, Abu Bakr was ultimately elected, thus making him the first Caliph or Khalifa, leading the first Caliphate, which can be said to be a kind of Islamic empire. This was the Rashidun Caliphate, Rashidun meaning correctly guided. However, the Rashidun Caliphate was plagued by internal strife, known as Fitna, or the Islamic civil war. The most serious challenge to the Caliphate emerged after Ali, Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) son-in-law became Caliph. Ali was technically the 4th Caliph of the Rashidun Caliphate, but the 1st according to Shia belief, since they believe Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) had already nominated him as his successor at the time of his death. The governor of the Levant (modern day Syria), Muawiyah, saw Ali’s failure to take action against the assassins of the previous Caliph, Uthman in June 656 C.E., as evidence of his complicity and went into open rebellion and war. Ali was assassinated on 27th January 661 and was succeeded very briefly by his elder son and Prophet Mohammed’s (PBUH) grandson, Hasan, referred to as Hasan ibn Ali, or Hasan, son of Ali.

A mourner at Gol Kothi wearing a Husayn headband

Faced with the prospect of further war and bloodshed, Hasan concluded a peace treaty with Muawiyah and abdicated in his favour in 661 C.E., thus laying the foundation of the 2nd Caliphate, called the Umayyad Caliphate, named after Umayya ibn Abd Shams. 9 years later, Hasan died in Medina, believed by some to have been poisoned by one of his wives. And then in 680 C.E., Muawiyah made the decision of nominating his son, Yazid as the Caliph after him. This was a controversial decision for a number of reasons. First, the Caliphate was not supposed to be hereditary. Abu Bakr had established a process of selection via an electoral council or Shura. Second, Muawiyah had specifically agreed to this in his peace treaty with Hasan. Both Hasan and his younger brother Husayn had stayed aloof from politics so far, but this time, matters had come to a head. Husayn refused to swear allegiance to Yazid.

Husayn departed Medina and spent the next 4 months in Mecca. During this period he received multiple letters from the people of Kufa asking him to come and lead them. Kufa, in modern day Iraq, had been an important city even during the early days of the Rashidun Caliphate. The letters from Kufa and the news that Yazid had sent an army to take charge of the Hajj caravans and kill Husayn and his followers, convinced him to travel to Kufa since he did not want the sanctity of the Hajj to be disturbed by a battle. But unbeknownst to Husayn, Yazid had appointed ‘Ubayd Allah ibn Ziyad as the governor of Kufa, who had made the people switch loyalties to Yazid and had his emissary, his cousin Muslim ibn Aqeel, killed. News of Muslim’s killing arrived when Husayn’s party was already on its way to Kufa, and caused most of his followers to abandon him. But a determined Husayn, with a small number of followers (between 70 and 150, 72 being the most commonly agreed upon number), continued towards Kufa and was intercepted 2 days from Kufa, in a place called Karbala, by Yazid’s army, on the 2nd of Muharram, 61 A.H., or 2nd October, 680 C.E..

Labbaik Ya Husayn banner in Matiyaburj (Metiabruz), a primarily Shia neighbourhood.
Yazid’s army would not permit Husayn to return to Medina or proceed to Kufa. Husayn was forced to camp on barren, rocky ground and Yazid’s army denied him access to water, even though they were only a short distance away from the Euphrates river. When Husayn brought out his 6-month-old son, Ali Asghar to plead that he be given water to drink, Yazid’s soldiers shot the child. After more than a week of thirst, the battle finally began on the morning of 10th Muharram, the day of Ashura. With Husayn and his followers numbering 72 and his opponents numbering as many as 30,000 by some accounts, the results were a foregone conclusion. Husayn’s followers were slaughtered, while a heavily injured Husayn was treacherously cut down while saying his final prayers. The women and children in the camp were taken prisoner.

The death of Husayn led to many revolts within the Islamic world and many expressed their regret for their apathy. With Husayn’s death, the Shia-Sunni split in Islam, which began with the controversy of succession, was complete. The word Shia itself is a contraction of the term Shiaat Ali,  meaning the partisans of Ali, since it was their belief that Ali, and not Abu Bakr, should have succeeded Prophet Mohammed (PBUH). This battle is what is commemorated now, on the 10th day of Muharram. The phrase “Labbaik Ya Husayn” is commonly used during this commemoration, showing up in posters, t-shirts, headbands, and graffiti and chanted in Muharram gatherings. Labbaik Ya Husayn means “Husayn I am here”, expressing solidarity with him, saying that you are prepared to fight for his cause and expressing regret that you weren’t there in Karbala to stand up for him. While Sunni Muslims also commemorate the day of Ashura through fasting etc, it is an overwhelmingly Shia event. The mourning of Muharram, known as “azadari”, can take several forms. The most benign of them are chanting and beating your chest with your hands. The more extreme forms, called “maatam”, include self-flagellation with chains, blades and even swords. Another aspect of Muharram commemoration is the taking out of Tazia processions. Tazia are miniature faux-mausoleums, imitations of the mausoleums of Karbala, made of coloured paper and bamboo. At the end of the procession, tazias are usually immersed in a water body. There are many such Karbala tanks here in Kolkata. In case such a waterbody is not available, the Tazia is taken to a Karbala ground. From the tank or the ground, the Tazia is taken to the Imambara and preserved for the following year. While it is not uncommon for Sunni Muslims to take out Tazia processions, the biggest Muharram commemorations in Calcutta (Kolkata), happen in areas with large Shia populations, such as Matiyaburj (or Metiabruz), where the Shia arrived with Nawab Wajid Ali Shah, the last Nawab of Oudh.

Massive crowd at Gol Kothi


The first call I received was from my friend Sohail. “The thing that you want to see will happen tonight at Gol Kothi, in Chitpur”. Iftekhar Ahsan of Calcutta Walks lived only a few minutes away from Chitpur and so I gave him a call. “Come down, we’ll go together”, Ifte readily said and so I set off after work to Khairu Place, where he lived and worked. I had been informed that the main event, the “zanjeera maatam”, self-flagellation with knives and chains would happen pretty late in the night, so we tucked into some kebabs from Adam and Dilshad’s Kebab shops in the Phears Lane area before walking down to Chitpur Road, aka Rabindra Sarani.

Chest beating begins

It was already drizzling when we arrived and the drizzle would continue non-stop through the night, never picking up, but never really stopping. From the crossing at the Faujdari Balakhana till Poddar Court, the Police had barricaded the road. Pedestrians were let through, but cars were turned away. In the middle of this stretch was the Gol Kothi Imambara and when we arrived, people had begun to gather around it. The road was filled with thousands of men and women, mostly wearing black. Many sported white headbands with Husayn’s name written on it in Urdu. There were youngsters with messages about Imam Husayn on their t-shirts. There were families, husbands wives, and very young children. From the ground floor balcony of Gol Kothi Imambara, announcements were being made, asking people to move their parked cars, requesting them to empty certain areas, informing that water was available for those who were thirsty, and so on. Ifte and I walked through the crowd taking photographs as we went. On the pavement, enclosures had been made with bamboo and black cloth were women and young girls were seated. We took our position opposite Gol Kothi, behind a stall that was serving water and waited patiently. The announcements slowly change from the purely operational to the more religious. The leader of the congregation reminded the crowd that they should all be grateful that they are not in Pakistan but in India, where their religious freedoms are protected. In Pakistan, in spite of it being a Muslim country, the Shia are a persecuted minority. 

Chest beating continues

After an hour, out of nowhere, a rather intimidating looking man appeared, demanding to know, who was the person taking photos. Somewhat concerned, I identified myself. I was expecting a confrontation, even to be ejected. But to my great surprise, I was escorted inside the Gol Kothi Imambara. “Standing on the pavement isn’t safe. If you want to take photos, we will find a better place for you”, I was told. We climbed the wooden staircase to find the interiors of Gol Kothi in chaos. Hundreds of people, men, women, and children, were milling around. Children were asleep in several places. But there were two large windows which it was suggested would be a good vantage point. However, when I looked through, I could barely see anything, because of large corrugated sheets protruding from below. And that is how Ifte and I came to stand right behind the person making the announcements, on the ground floor balcony, barely a few feet away from the “action”.

The razors appear. The mourners draw blood

By now, the narration of the story of Karbala had begun. I had read before that the narration of Karbala drove people to tears, but I couldn’t believe what I was seeing here. Grown men, some older than my father, were howling, as if it was their own family members who had been killed. How could a battle that happened 1400 years ago, have such an effect? By now, there was a crowd jostling for position even on the tiny balcony. Someone gave up his chair to me and asked me to climb on top. Doing that gave me a good vantage point. There was a solid mass of people in front of Gol Kothi and at a signal from the leader of the congregation, the mass split into orderly queues. And then began the chanting. It was slow at first and then began to pick up in tempo and volume. Through the crowd, large boxes called “tabut” were being passed around. These were mock coffins, representing the coffins of the dead of Karbala. As they were passed around, everyone was trying to touch them or to carry them for a brief moment. The idea here, I was later told, was to give everyone the opportunity to bear the martyrs on their shoulder. I was periodically peeping out to take photos, worrying all the time that my camera was getting rained on, and reassuring myself that the 5D could handle a bit of water, when Iftekhar called out to me. “Did you see the horse”? A horse? Here? I peeped out again, and there it was. Like some strange dystopian scene, a beautiful white horse, decked up, walking calmly through the frenzied crowd. This, I assumed was supposed to represent Zuljanah, Husayn’s horse.

Zanjeera Maatam

And then at a signal from the leader of the congregation, the crowd parted into queues. The chanting was getting louder now. And to its repetitive rhythm, the crowd began beating its chest. “Ya Ali Asgar” said the leader. “Ya Ali Asgar”, replied the crowd. And I realized what sounded like a leather percussion instrument, was the sound of palms hitting chests. The crowd began to move. In unison. The chanting rose and fell like crests and troughs. When it fell, the young men patted their chests gently. But every few seconds, it would rise, and the young men with determined faced would crouch, suddenly rising higher, raising their hands to the sky and bringing their palms crashing down with fearsome force. The men were in a trance now. Behind them, the women continued to beat their chests as well, but nowhere near as fiercely. Slowly the men wearing black were replaced by men wearing white. I didn’t realize when it started, but I looked out and suddenly, there were bare bodied young men, wearing white pajamas, and in their hands, they held what looked like straight razors. With those razors, they were now beating their chests to the rhythm of the chant. Skin split open. Blood poured freely, turning their white pajamas red and turning the already muddy streets reddish brown. But the men showed no signs of pain. The chant continued. The maatam continued. An unstoppable rhythm driving an entranced crowd.

Zanjeera Maatam continues. The streets are now covered in blood.

The congregation now broke into song. Asghar-e nadan...jhooloo jhoolna! They were singing about Husayn’s son! Nanhe mujahid...nanhe sipahi haay! Asghar, the youngest martyr of Karbala! Visible in the crowd now, were men bearing the “zanjeer”. Each man, wearing only white pajamas, carried in one hand a set of four or five long knives, suspended on chains. The chanting had resumed, and it was frenzied and faster now. Ya Husayn! Ya Husayn! Ya Husayn! Ya Husayn! To the hypnotic rhythm, the men swung their knives. The chains swung around their torso and slammed into their bare backs. The blades removed chunks of skin and flesh. More blood poured out. But the chanting continued. The maatam continued. Iftekhar tugged at my t-shirt. Had I seen enough? Could we leave? Leave? Through that? How? “Oh you can move from one side”, one of the Imambara people assured me. “They will make space for you. There is no need to be scared”. We ventured out into the streets, now slick with the blood of the faithful. The sweet smell of rose water mixed with the metallic smell of blood filled the damp air. I walked away, still in a daze, unable to fully grasp what I had just seen. Faith could drive people to do great things. But this? This I could never have imagined.

Rose water is sprayed on the mourners.


If Gol Kothi was blood on the streets, Kidderpore during Muharram can only be described as party on the streets. Maatam does happen in places like Kachchi Sadak in Matiyaburj, but around the Kidderpore crossing, the atmosphere is that oa village fair. Temporary stalls set up by the side of the street sell a bewildering variety of knickknacks. Khichra, a traditional dish made with rice and pulses, and cooked in the “dum pukht” style with the same spices as biryani, is distributed free of cost to the poor. Performers of all kinds set up shop by the side of the road as well. All along the road, there are pandals from which loudspeakers blare Islamic religious songs. Preachers deliver fiery sermons in the most sophisticated Urdu. In the middle of all of this, there are kids who are trying their hand at drums, traditionally played during Muharram processions. All of this together creates an absolutely ungodly racket, which continues till late in the night.

A Hindu woman makes an offering of flowers at a Tazia. It is common for Hindus to worship at Shia sites.

I walk around with my friend Sohail, looking for opportunities for a good photograph and waiting for the Tazia processions to begin. Kidderpore’s Muharram commemorations have lost their sheen, Sohail tells me. Since war is the theme of a Tazia procession, in the past there would be professional stick-fighters and swordsmen, brought in from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh to join the processions and thrill the crowds with their skills. There would be experienced old men playing the drums. But all that has ceased some years ago. I find mostly kids fooling around with drums and balls of fire. But all of this has little to do with Muharram and the martyrs of Karbala. So why does this continue? I am reminded of something Mir had written many years ago. Matiyaburj is home to a very large and very poor population. The poor have little to look forward to except the monotony of hard work. They will go for anything that offers them a little change, a little excitement, a little hint of colour in their dull lives. That is the purpose that this whole display serves. It has little to do with religion.

A Tazia passes a Hindu temple


The practice of “maatam” faces much criticism these days, especially from conservative Sunnis and Salafis who want to return to a more “pure” version of Islam. My Muslim friends tell me that this is all part of a concerted effort to silence the “other voices” in Islam. While I am an agnostic, I was born and raised a Hindu, and in Hinduism, a similar attempt is beng made in the last few years, and I can see no good coming of it. Certainly, zanjeera maatam looks frightening to outsiders, but one must remember that extreme practices exist in all religions, and it is certainly not unique to Shia Islam. Among Roman Catholics, there are the “ flagellanti” processions in Italy. Among Hindus, there are the Aghori, who have practices that most mainstream Hindus find frightening. Having observed one from very close quarters myself, I can say this – yes, the sight of blood is disturbing, but the participants and the onlookers were very aware of the fact that I was an outsider. They made every effort to ensure my safety and went out of their way to help me get good photographs. As in many other things, I go back to a scene from a Satyajit Ray film here. In his “Ghare Baire” based on Tagore’s novel of the same name, Victor Banerjee says, “I may follow my own religion, but I have no say in the religious practices of others. I may be Vaishnava, but that does not mean the Shaktos will give up animal sacrifice”. Over the last few years, I am told, the extreme forms of “azadari” have been on the decline. But if the Shia are to move away from such practices, it is important that they make that decision themselves. It is not for outsiders to impose their will and their values upon the Shia.

Fire-breather at Kidderpore

- by Deepanjan Ghosh (with inputs from Iftekhar Ahsan and Shaikh Sohailuddin Siddiqui)


Donner, Fred M. - The Early Islamic Conquests (Princeton University Press, 1981)
M. Th. Houtsma (Ed) - E. J. Brill's First Encyclopaedia of Islam, 1913-1936, Volume 4
Aghaie, Kamran Scot - The Martyrs of Karbala: Shi'i Symbols and Rituals in Modern Iran (University of Washington press, 2004)
Kennedy, Hugh - The Armies of the Caliphs: Military and Society in the Early Islamic State (Routledge, 2001)

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