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Muharram and Tragedy of Karbala


Muharram in fact is the first month of Muslim Calendar consisting of twelve months as other calendars. Being based on lunar cycles it differs from other lunar cycle based systems in that it is without any calculation corrections to bring it in synchronizations of seasons with the months like the ‘Adhik Mas’ of Hindu calendar. The literal meaning of the word Muharram is “That which is forbidden.” or anything sacred.

Among Muslims, only the Bohras-A miniscule Shia Ismaili Mustalian sect-follow a fixed dates calendar with an addition of one day occasionally based on a formula in the twelfth month-Zul-Hijja: the month of hajj pilgrimage-. Rest of the Muslim communities commences their months only after sighting of crescent with the proviso that a month cannot exceeds a maximum of 30 days.

The festive season of Deepavli this year brings three new years together namely ; the Hindu Vikram Samvat 2070, Jains Vir Samvat 2540 Islamic New Year or Hijrisan 1435. Thus the whole atmosphere wears a festive look.

tazia-makingPreparation of Tazia at a Mosque in Udaipur

Moharram, however, is stamped in public perception as a period dominated by ‘Tazia’, ‘Alam’ and ‘Chadi’ processions accompanied with a band of bare-bodied men self-flagellating with chains and tiny sharp knives, chest beating and playing with drums and thimbles.

In the succeeding sections a brief and sketchy back ground description of this tradition is being presented for the readers not familiar with the cause behind this tradition.

On its arrival, Muharram is welcomed like an advent of new year and Muslim localities are decorated with lightings over road, path ways, mosques and meeting halls with stalls distributing sweet meats, cold drinks, milk, simple water and traditional ‘Sharbats’-sweetened liquid drinks. These stalls are called ‘Sabeels’.

muharram-udaipur1Tazia procession at Udaipur

These festivities for the Muslim communities are, however, conjoined by a period of mourning during the first ten days of the month because of a bad patch of cruelty committed by a tyrant ruler of Damascus by the name Yazid, the second Umayyid ruler of Muslim empire, fourteen centuries back at a place Karbala in the present day Iraq.

On the tenth day known in Muslim world as ‘Ashura’, Hazrat Imam Husain (a.s.), a grandson of Holy Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) was killed brutally along with his family and companions which included an infant child six months old and a band of close relatives and friends, few of them yet to reach puberty, numbering 72 by a large contingent of Yazid’s army by the order of governor of Kufa (Iraq)-by name Ibn Ziyad.

The ‘Tragedy of Karbala’ as it is known in history needs an elaborate treatment but suffice is to say that the only crime which the Imam committed was that he stood for ‘Truth’ and living life modeled according to Qur’an.

muharram-udaipurAlam Procession by Bohra Youth community

He came from Madina-a place hundreds of kilometers away from Kufa on the invitation of the Kufans for preaching the Quranic teaching of “Amr bil ma’ruf wa Nahi anil munkar’ i.e. enjoining goods and prohibiting evils. This Qura’nic injunction is in fact applicable to every Muslim including Yazid. The Imam even before commencing his journey had mentioned his intention (despite warning from his well wishers) in his farewell address at Mecca. With this purpose in mind he had kept the female members of his family in company.

This brutal act proceeds with and succeeds with unbearable hard ships for the Imam and his companions which needs a bit of description to add weight to the cause for this observation.

Before the ‘ Ashura’ Yazid’s army had blockaded supplies to Husain’s tents housing his male companions every one of whom was brutally killed as well as female companions and children which included his sister, the legendary Zainab binte Ali.

Even drinking water was forbidden for three days. One can imagine the agonies faced by these martyrs and the females encircled. Not only this after no one was left alive the cruel army reached the female tents and torched them to burn. The hapless females and children were left with nothing to seek a shade over their heads. A bold approach by Zainab at this juncture saved the modesty of the females from violation by the beasts.

muharram-udaipur2Alam procession by Shia Athna Ashari sect in Udaipur

They next mutilated the bodies of these martyrs (shaheeds) under the hoofs of their horses, picked up every severed head, raised them one each on a spear, the leftover companion-all females, children and a bed ridden son of Husain were chained and marched on foot all the way from Karbala to Kufa and presented this war booty to Ibn Ziyad who enjoyed their misfortunes and sent them all in the same fashion to Yazid’s palace all the way to Damascus, Syria. All this to the family members of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) barely fifty years after his death by the hands of a king ruling on the name of Mohammed (PBUH) and claiming to be a Muslim himself.

Is there any example like this one in the annals of world history? It is this scenario which compelled the historian Gibbon (In his ‘Decline and Fall’) to says, “in a distant age and climate, will awaken the sympathy of the coldest reader.”

It is exactly as if in the vindication of Gibbon’s observations that the atmosphere during these days of Muharram displays nothing but mourning. Black dress, black flags, black buntings everything black- signs of mourning.

Question will arise in the minds of readers as to what was the cause for this slaughter? Simply put it was a contest between everything wicked on one side and everything called morality on the other-morality hued in Islamic values like justice, equality and God fearing behavior on the part of rulers.

It is based on historical reasons but to cut the story short the purpose seemed to be to eliminate the influential personalities from the family of the Holy Prophet (PBUM) from the scene for ever. Yazid propagated Husain’s presence at Kufa as a revolt against established Muslim Empire.

A revolt by only seventy two including an infant against a force of a mighty power. What a joke! Rather it succeeded in bringing the Islamic civilization and history to disrepute.

For record, nevertheless, this tragedy was responsible for triggering a permanent schism in Muslim Ummah leading to formation of the branches of ‘Sunnis’ and Shias which in turn resulted in bloody encounters during the Muslim Khilafat period and thereafter till to date.

Notwithstanding the above, while the schism developed has been misused and exploited politically by vested interest on one hand by, on the other, the memory of ‘Tragedy of Karbala’ however, gives a glimmer of hope of reconciliation in that both the Sunnis as well as the Shias commemorate ‘Ashura’ with equal religious firmament .

Baring few pockets the event is observed throughout the world by cursing the perpetrators of the tragedy. The forms vary from place to place but the aim remains the same-expressing grief for the martyrs and curses for their killers.


At Udaipur as elsewhere in India, Majalis (gatherings) are organized in various localities for sermons and recitations of grief poetry called Nohas, funeral elegies (Marsias) and salutations called ‘ Salams’ for the first nine days and ‘Tazia’ and ‘Alam’ processions on the tenth day.

The Bohras however restrict their form to only sermons and silent processions with an exception at Udaipur where the Bohras who style themselves as ‘Youth faction’ take out ‘Alam’ procession. ‘Tazias’ or ‘Tabuts’ (representing a models tombs at Karbala) are famous everywhere in the sub continent.

The writer of this piece has observed Tazia processions and there placements in many cities of India but the one at Udaipur is unique in all respect-both in its grandeur and religious inclination.

In Hugue’s Dictionary of Islam (if one may like to read) a section illustrate with sketches a graphic description of the observance of the Muharram at Isfahan (Iran) in the year 1811, which has in turn been taken, with some slight alterations from Morier’s Second Journey through Persia.

As per one narration lamentation on the Tragedy commenced during the rule of Buyid dynasty in Iraq during Abbasid period by the Shias. Later on when the Safavids declared Ithna Ashari Shiism as official religion in Iran, it took the scale of observation on national level.

Further as per yet another narration the tenth day of Muharram was also observed in commemoration of its having been the day on which Adam and Eve, heaven and hell, the pen, fate, life and death, were created.

Abb. Used in brackets:

· PBUH stands for “Peace Be Upon Him”, which the Muslims use whenever the name of Holy Prophet is mentioned.

· a.s. stands for “Alai his-salam” are used by Shias whenever the names of an Imam from the house of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) are mentioned.

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  1. Zaheer says

    Very well informed and useful article for both Muslims (of different sects) and Non-Muslims. Moharram is often misunderstood by many people. It is not a festival but a condolence to the grandson of Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W).

    Thank you again.



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