Lahore Lahore Aye: Lahore remembers Islam’s fallen
By A Hamid
With the sighting of the Muharram moon, a pall of sadness falls over Lahore. The radio and television stations stop broadcasting music and programmes assume a sombre tone. The Muslims of Lahore, be they Shi’a or Sunni, put on hold any celebratory event that they might have planned till the month has passed. Between the first and the tenth day of this month of mourning, commemorative sessions or majaalis are held in homes and imam baras to honour the memory of the martyrs of Karbala. These commemorative sessions recall their lives and sacrifices in verse sung without music. Zakirs, religious ministers who know the history of those bygone days and how and why the tragedy came to pass, narrate the powerful story of that watershed event in such a dramatic and moving way that it brings tears to the eyes of their listeners. The supreme sacrifice of Imam Hussain, whom all Muslims consider the Prince of Martyrs, and his family and companions, is recalled with such fire and passion that it brings that great tragedy to life.
All through Muharram, sabeels or water dispensing points, are set up all over the old city. They are decorated with great love and reverence and if the month of Muharram falls in summer, cold milk and iced water is on offer to passers-bye. In winter months, even aromatic green tea is served at some sabeels. When the mourners go past, rose water is sprinkled over their heads and flower petals showered on them from balconies above and by those lining the streets. The sabeels put up in Bhaati Gate and Mochi Gate are so elaborate that people come from far and near to look at them. Some of the sabeels even recreate the plain of Karbala where the Prophet’s family was put to sword. With special reverence the courage of Zainab is recalled who stood in the court of Yazid and fearlessly spoke the truth.
Inside Mochi Gate is held Lahore’s main majlis-e-‘aza or commemorative sitting of believers and Syeda Mubarak Begum’s majlis-e-‘aza takes place inside Bhaati Gate to which come not only people from the city, but mourners from other parts of the Punjab. Commemorative and remembrance sessions are also held at Haveli Nisar Shah, Imam Bargah Wajid Ali Shah, Haveli Nawab Sahib and Mohalla Chehel Bibiyaan. Often famous zakirs, elegy reciters and scholars from Lucknow, the heart of Shi’a Islam in the subcontinent, are invited to these sombre and reverential sessions. Three of the great Shi’a scholars that the people remember with respect were Hafiz Kifayat Hussian, Allama Rashid Turrabi and Allam Naseer Ijtihadi. In the old city, children, both from Shi’a and Sunni families, are dressed by their mothers in green as Imam Hussain’s faqirs.
Until the fifth day of Muharram, the commemorative sessions continue to take place in the city’s imam baras, while arrangements are completed for the grand Ashura procession of mourners, which follows a trditional route. On the seventh day of Muharram, in the old city seven Muharram processions are taken out, all of them ending at Chowk Nawab Sahib. At night torchlight mehndi and jhoola processions represent the observances marking the martyrdom of Islam’s holiest family.
On the tenth day of Muharram, final arrangements for the grand Zuljinnah procession are wrapped up. This important consultative meeting takes place in Haveli Nisar at Chowk Nawab Shah. All Mochi Gate side streets are thronged by and when the Zuljinnah, Imam Hussain’s profusely decorated white charger, is led out of Haveli Nisar, so moving is the sight and so powerful is the symbolism that the onlookers begin to wail and beat their breasts. The procession winds its way from Mochi Gate to Chowk Nawab Sahib and by the time the call for morning prayers rises from the area’s mosques, the mourners have arrived at the Jamia Masjid located in the famous roundabout. Everyone is keen to see Zuljinnah because of its powerful symbolism. This is the moment for mourners with chains and knives tied in a bunch to get to work, hitting themselves on the back and drawing blood but such is the power of their faith and so fiery is their passion for the fallen heroes of Islam that they revel in the pain they are inflicting on themselves. The air is rent with soul-stirring slogans of ‘Ya Ali’ and ‘Ya Hussain.’ The most respected member of the community has the honour of leading the Zuljinnah by its reins.
Smaller Ashura processions of mourners also come to Chowk Nawab Sahib from where they move out to Lakkar Mandi, Chohhatta Mufti Baqar, Mohalla Kakkeziaan and finally to Chowk Purani Kotwali. At this last mentioned point, the mourners smite their backs with chains and knives and then move forward going through Kashmiri Bazaar, Dabbi Bazaar, Suha Bazar, Bazaaz Hatta and Haveli Kabuli Mal. The mourners carry black and green standards and every standard is topped by a silver hand, whose five unpright fingers are symbolic of Islam’s holy family comprising the Prophet, Ali, Fatima, Hassan and Hussain. At about two in the morning, the Zuljinnah procession arrives at Bhaati Gate, having traversed through the ancient, narrow streets of the old city. Bhaati Gate at this hour is full of people, thousands upon thousands of them. There are also people on roof tops and people hanging out from their windows and balconies. Young mourners beat their breasts so thunderously and in such perfect unison, producing such an awesome rhythm that no one, be he Shi’a or Sunni, can remain unaffected or unmoved.
In Bhaati Gate the mourners come to a stop in front of Koocha Faqir Khana where a ritual offering is made at the Imam Bara of Syeda Mubarak Begum. The Zuljinnah is received with great reverence and love. It is a very moving moment. Free food has been distributed all day from the Faqir Khana, seat of one of the most respected Syed families of Lahore. The ceremony comes to an end at this point as the procession enters Karbala Gamay Shah. As the white charger ambles into the famous imam bara, so poignant and emotionally overpowering is the scene that it is difficult to hold back one’s tears. This is the end of the tribute paid to the martyrs of Karbala by the people of the old city of Lahore. However, commemorative ceremonies continue for the next thirty days in private homes and imam baras.
Imam Hussain and his gallant companions chose to lay down their lives rather than compromise with a tyrant and a usurper. And that is why they live on in the hearts and memories of people more than 1,400 years after their supreme sacrifice.
A Hamid, the distinguished Urdu novelist and short story writer, writes a column every week based on his memories of old Lahore. Translated from the Urdu by Khalid Hasan