Muharram, one of the holiest months in the Islamic calendar, is shrouded in dichotomy. Despite being the first month of the year, it isn’t accompanied by celebration. Instead, it marks a period of remembrance for Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad, who was martyred along with his followers at the Battle of Karbala on the 10th day of Muharram (known as Ashura) in 680 AD by the army of Yazid, the second Khalifa of the Umayyad dynasty. A group of 72 companions of Hussain, trapped on all sides and denied water for the last few days, were massacred that day by an army of thousands for refusing allegiance to an unjust power.
The period of events leading up to the Battle of Karbala was of intense political strife, and became the impetus for division of the Muslim world between Sunni and Shia. Resulting in one of the longest lasting feuds on religious lines, it continues to manifest as one of the bloodiest conflicts in the present age.
India has largely been free from Shia-Sunni violence in recent years: incidents have been sporadic, and mostly a thing of the past. Though the atmosphere can get tense during processions in some regions, and it can also take on the colour of Hindu-Muslim conflict; yet, the period has remained free of any major incidents.
Unlike Shias, who mourn throughout this period and whose grief exhibits itself to the public through processions (maatam, seena-zani, tatbir), most Sunnis observe solemnity in memory of the tragedy. There is however, a sizeable Sunni population which observes Muharram in a manner similar to the Shia, and there is a shared culture of juloos, taziya, alam and majlis. In some places, Sunni Muslims even have their own Karbala—a cemetery, which also has a shrine in the tradition of a replica of Hussain’s tomb—like their Shia brethren.
This series of images is an attempt to understand how Muharram is observed in North India through spending the first ten days of the month with a Shia family in particular, and in a Shia neighbourhood in general. As a Sunni Muslim, and with some of my closest friends being Shia Muslims, it was somewhat embarrassing to not have a reasonable comprehension of what constitutes the most important part of their identity and faith. It was with this objective that I approached the subject, and as was wont to be, what emerged was more than what had simply met the eye till now.
The title has been taken from a popular elegy recited during this period, and is roughly translated into: O tyrant, don’t strike with your sword yet.
It is a period of mourning, through which an entire community comes together, making this the biggest social occasion on their calendars. Families, dispersed wherever they may be around the world, move back to their ancestral homes, even if those have been reduced to dilapidated structures—even ruins, to mourn together. Visiting neighbouring villages at the invitation of a friend or extended family member is the norm, and after congregating at the majlis, they share a simple meal served with exceptional hospitality by the host.
Between the wails of lament for those martyred, the collective cries of “Ya Hussain Ya Ali” and the beating of chests, the potency of grief in bringing people together gets reinforced, but isn’t all there is. Beyond grief and faith, that strength lies somewhere between the sharing of a meal with an extended family within the confines of an ancestral home, the unending discussions under the neem tree about the affairs of this world and how they affect lives on a local level, and sometimes even that simple sneaking around the corner for stealing a quick smoke while escaping the glance of elders.