Home>Posts>Community Issues, Politics, Religion & Culture>Muharram in India during colonial rule – Dr. J. N. Hollister

Muharram in India during colonial rule – Dr. J. N. Hollister


    To the orthodox Sunni, the Shiite Ta’zias (تعزیہ) and the public exposure of grief and mourning as if opposing Allah’s will, even with a martyr, are, to say the least, irregular. Admitting this, some explain the widespread participation of Sunnis in the Muharram festival by saying that only the superstitious do it; others, […]



To the orthodox Sunni, the Shiite Ta’zias (تعزیہ) and the public exposure of grief and mourning as if opposing Allah’s will, even with a martyr, are, to say the least, irregular. Admitting this, some explain the widespread participation of Sunnis in the Muharram festival by saying that only the superstitious do it; others, that the Sunnis take part only as a tamasha (تماشا) or carnival; others are satisfied to say it is a custom. Brown says that in the Deccan the Muharram “is the carnival of the year; observed more by Sunnis than Shi’as” [1]

 In the north many Sunnis keep Ta’zias and take them out in procession. Often this is in keeping of vows that have been made. When asked why the Sunnis participate, a Shia replied to me to this effect: 

“The Sunnis recognize Hassan and Hussain as grandsons of the Prophet whom he greatly loved, and that they were killed. Some too have found prayers answered, and so continue to pray”. 

One feels, however, that there is an explanation deeper than these, that the human heart hungers for an understanding and sympathy not found in Islam’s rigid insistence on arbitrary power, and that something of that hunger is met by the idea of a mediator with a human touch — within Islam.

In 1934 a special feature of the Muharram majalis in Delhi was the fact that Sunnis, Hindus and Shias attended [2]. Sunni participation in the ta’zia procession at Shahjahanpur, United Provinces (UP), has transformed it until the element of mourning has been almost completely eliminated, and the time for the procession has been changed to night, getting under way about ten o’clock and reaching Karbala (امام بارگاہ) in the morning. All Ta’zias are accompanied by bright lights. The procession halts at short intervals, and opportunity to admire the Ta’zias is facilitated by burning sparklers in front and behind. Often rockets are sent up. Musicians beat drums and blow horns and other instruments. Along the line of March and between parts of the procession, are sideshows where men with fire on poles or with swords in hand, dance before large crowds. Now and again, in front of a ta’zia one hears a dirge, or Masriya (مرثیہ), but it is in no way the prevailing note, nor the spirit of the march, which is entirely that of a tamasha, or show. The procession on the night of Chehlum is almost a repetition of the Muharram procession. 

Conflicts between Sunnis and Shins at Muharram are not in-frequent. Processions in cities are accompanied by police along fixed lines of March. The following quotations from a single newspaper are not unusual. They indicate what might happen if government did not keep the situation under control: 

“Adequate measures avert incidents”; “Muharram passed off peace-fully”; “All shops remained closed in . . . in order to avoid incidents”; “Several women offered satyagraha (ستیاگرہ) in front of the final procession . . . about twenty miles from Allahabad. They object to the passing of the procession through their fields”; “the police took great precautions to prevent a breach of the peace”; “as a sequel to the cane charge by the police on a Mendhi (مہندی) procession the Moslems of . . . did not celebrate the Muharram to-day. No taizia processions were taken out. Business was transacted as usual in the Hindu localities”; ” bomb thrown on procession” [3]

Not all of these disturbances spring from sectarian differences, but those differences actuate many fracases. Birdwood says, that in Bombay where the first four days of Muharram are likely to be devoted to visiting each other’s tabut khanas, women and children as well as men are admitted, and members of other communities — only the Sunnis are denied “simply as a police precaution” [4]

If many Sunnis have come to share in the Muharram celebration, much more have Hindus, and with them there is no inhibition from their religion. The celebration appeals to them as also the story; the horse-shoe celebration, the finding of the crest of Husain’s banner, the qadam-e-Rasul (قدمِ رسول), and a stone impression of ‘Ali’s hand, the making of vows, etc. — all these savour more of Hinduism than they do of Islam, but through the years they have been accepted by Sunni Muslims also. 

In Bihar, low castes are said actually to worship Hasan and Hussain as gods. Even among good Hindu castes (Kayasthas, Agarwala, Rajputs), men and women vow that if they get a son he will serve as a paik during the Muharram for a period of years, usually three to five, but sometimes for a lifetime. These refrain from salt, animal food, and all luxuries during this period. They wear small bells as a girdle around the waist, have a small, cone-shaped turban and carry a yak’s tail in their hands while they run as messengers from one akhada (اکھاڑا) to another. In Darbhanga, it is said that most of the paraphernalia used in the  

Muharram is owned by Hindus [5]. In Baroda, various castes of Hindus regard the Ta’zias as sacred and perform various actions in fulfillment of vows, such as passing under the Ta’zias and throwing themselves on the road in front of them [6]

A correspondent to The Statesman, Calcutta, writing from south India (probably the Deccan), states that Hindus from all castes, excepting Brahmans, call the Alams (علم) pirs (پیر) and have incorporated them into their religion. The ‘Alam of ‘Ali is called Lal Sahib (لعل صاحب) and the other two are known as riders, “Vendi Sowar (Silver Rider), Ankus Sowar and Tangalur Sowar”. The origin of these names is uncertain, but these three Alams are “looked upon and treated with the same reverences as the village Goddesses’’.

Here, too, is the custom of making vows to be fulfilled at Muharram. Women wanting children throw themselves before the Alams that they may be beaten with the peacock chauri (fly-flapper), and so have their desire realized. Children born there-after, are named Hoosana, Husseinna, Fakira, Fatima Bhai, Nanchiamma, etc., and are in fact, “dedicated to the Pirs and annually during the time of Muharram fulfill their parents’ vow and are called for the time Fakirs”.

Such was the case of Sailu, a boy of the weaver caste. His grandfather had suffered from rheumatism and vowed to the Pirs that he would give a present at the next Muharram if he got well. He obtained relief at once, but was unable to keep his vow. The rheumatism at once returned, but again ceased when a new vow was made. He fulfilled his vow at the next Muharram and since then one member of the family has acted as faqir at Muharram. One year Sailu’s family had to prepare at their own cost three pots of panakum or jagari syrup and one pot of rice. The food was taken to the ‘ashur khana and after puja before the Pirs, two pots of panakum and half the rice was given to the Muhammadan in charge, and the rest was distributed to the Hindus.

On the tenth day the Alams were taken in procession to the village tank. The pole of Lal Sahib was fixed to a palanquin; the others were carried by Hindu boy faqirs.

“The five Mohammedans (all Sunnis) who comprise the total of two villages, accompanied the procession, headed by chamar drummers, in their best clothes. On reaching the tank the Pirs were undressed (sic), the poles and the emblems washed, and the whole paraphernalia put in a box to await the next festival. The box was earned back in procession and deposited in the Ashur khana. There is no doubt in my mind that the Hindus reverence the Pirs and claim them as part of their religion, and during Muharram look upon the Mohammedans as presiding priests of those deities” [7]

The Mahabir Dal procession in Bihar, which formerly was of little importance, was reorganized a few years ago 

“to compensate low-caste Hindus for the abstention from the Muharram which the Arya Samajists had imposed upon them. Its most objectionable feature from the Mohammedan point of view is its close imitation of the Muharram emblem and procedure” [8]

Then follows an account of a clash between these people with the 

“Mohammedans who had taken the greatest exception to the celebration,” when not less than ten Muhammadans were beaten to death!

In Baroda, the Gaekwar, a Hindu, patronizes the Muharram festival, and in Gwalior, the Maharaja, also a Hindu, annually leads the Muharram procession in his capital city [9]. Concerning the origin of this custom in Gwalior I was told this story: 

“Some fifty years or so ago, the Maharaja was sick. In his illness he saw Imam Hussain in a dream, and was told that he would get well if he would hold a Majlis (مجلس) in Hussain’s name and distribute alms. He also saw the face of the man whom he should call to preside at the majalis. On his recovery, he instituted a search for this man who was resident in Benares”. 

Since that time this individual, or one of his family, has been employed by the Gwalior State for the particular business of conducting the majalis at Gwalior. He has been generously rewarded for his duties. The ruler who started the custom is said himself to have helped in carrying the Ta’zias, but the present Maharaja is satisfied to ride on a beautiful horse as he leads the procession on the tenth day. The State Treasury defrays the expenses of the festival [10]

Source: Norman Hollister, “The Shia of India”, pp. 177 – 180 , (1953)


1: Brown, G. E., Moslem World, II, p. 68. 

2:The Statesman, Delhi Ed., April 24, 1934. 

3 : The Statesman, Delhi Ed., Feb. 21, 1940. 

4: Birdwood,  page 175.

5: CIR, Bengal and Orissa, 1911. V, p. 252. 

6: CIR, Baroda, 1911, XVI, p. 69. 

7: Hindus and the Muharram, News and Notes, Sept. 1926, pp. 67/68. 

8: The Statesman (Overseas Ed.) May 23, 1929, p. 2. 

9: IGI, 1908, Ajmere and Merwara, V, p. 148.

10:  Oman, J. C., The Brahmans, Theists and Muslims of India, Pt. III, Ch. I.


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