It is Ashura, the tenth day of the holy month of Muharram. The Sun is setting slowly as we enter the Peeranwadi dargah near Belagavi.
People keep coming to the Dargah in auto rickshaws, vans, bikes and cars. The crowd swells till the ground the before the Dargah seems to overflow. Temporary shops outside the Dargah to sell sweets like Alipak (ginger-coconut burfi) and puffed rice are doing brisk business. Some young men have prepared a fire pit the size of a boxing ring. The embers shine bright and the colour form the pit seems redder than the horizon.
A colourful procession is taken out in the village. Boys dressed in new cloths of bright colours dance on the streets. Riwayat singers and Kolata dancers perform along the procession. Farmer have painted the horns of their bullocks to parade them in the streets.
An hour later, people of the village gather round the pit and run around it. They carry green flags with a crescent moon and raise slogans like “Hassan Hussein ki Dostara Din’’ or “Moulali Zindabad’’ in praise of members of Prophet Mohammad’s family who were martyred in the battle of Karbala 13 centuries ago.
The faithful carry the Alams (flags) run across the pit several times, amid loud slogans. In a few minutes, the onlookers begin crossing the fire pit. This is done for several hours, well into the night. When the morning sun rises, the Alams and Peer Panja are taken to the stream outside the village for immersion.
It seems as if the whole village has gathered around the Dargah. A typical Muharram is a celebration of the village festival and not just of the Muslim community. People hailing from the village, but working in far off towns and cities come home to celebrate Kattala Ratri.
Most of the villagers- Hindus and Muslims- again, have spent fasting half a day on the day before on Tasua or ninth day. It is a day of prayer and feeding the poor.
The Muharram cuisine is reminiscent of the conditions after the battle. People prepare sweets called Chonge and Maldi, (made from wheat flour and jaggery) and fruit juices. These are shared among neighbours and acquaintances and even strangers, because Hussein’s family were deprived of water and food by Yazid’s soldiers. Chonge plates, wooden planks on which the flour is kneaded to make the sweet pancakes, are sold on the roadside in Belagavi, Vijayapura and Koppal.
Joy with a capital J
The celebrations begin with the installation of the Panjas and Alams in a platform or in the court yard of a mosque built exclusively for Muharram. The festival ends with the immersion of the Peer Panjas and Alams in streams or lakes on Ashura. Ashura is observed as Qatal Rat (the night of the murder) which has transformed into the Kannada Kattala Ratri (the dark night).
.. However, the expression of grief has evolved into a celebration in the Indian villages. The tenth day is the most colourful day in the village that year. Men and women, young and old, dance along a procession in which brightly decorated Alams and Peers are carried. Young men dress up as Hassan and Hussein, with T shirts, jeans and goggles. The processions have people of all communities walking along, holding alams and panjas.
The predominant emotion that pervades everything around is joy, with a capital J.
How did a day of grief end up arousing joy?
“The transformation of a day of sadness into a day of celebration is amazing. I would like to attribute it to the creativity of the community,’’ says Rehmat Tarikere, professor of Hampi Kannada University who has studied Muharram practice before authoring the book on Muharram in Karnataka. It is pretty much celebrating Urs. Urs is the death anniversary of saints. But it is celebrated like a village fest across the country. There are two
History and Myth
Ashura the tenth day of the month of Muharram is the death anniversary of Hazrat Imam Hussein Ibn Ali, grandson of Prophet Mohammad. But it has assumed the shape of a folk festival in far off lands like North Karnataka.
The battle of Karbala that witnessed the martyrdom of Hussein and his relatives is recalled in songs, dances and stories during the ten day Muharram festivities. However, the tragedy has been transformed, over the centuries into a festival that embodies joy, fraternity and harmony.
The historical facts of the battle of Karbala are unquestionably established by researchers who studied the history of Islam and Arabian countries, the stories heard in Muharram pandals are as varied as the modes of its celebrations.
Scholars have documented that the battle was fought between the forces of Caliph Yazid the first and Hussein Ali in October 680 AD in Karbala in Iraq. Yazid’s forces outnumbered the other side by several times and Hussein’s forces lost. Hussein was beheaded and his 72 relatives and followers were starved and tortured to death. Hussein was the son of Bibi Fatima, Prophet’s daughter who was married to Hazarat Ali Ibn Abi Talib, the fourth Caliph.
The five family members of Prophet Mohammad, his daughter Fatima, son in law Ali and grand sons Hassan and Hussein are considered the holy five, represented by a stretched hand with five fingers, revered as the Peer Panja (the hand symbolising the saints).
So Different Yet So Similar
However, the stories you hear during Muharram across the region are varied. They are markedly different from what the historians tell us.
In Ayanur in Ballari district, for example, Karbala is remodelled as Sri Lanka. Yazid is Ravana whose mannequins are burnt.
In Ramdurg, Hussein is the younger brother of the village deity Durugavva. During the immersion procession he stops in front of the Durugavva temple to talk to his sister.
Mudgal village in Raichur witnesses what is probably the largest gathering for Muharram in Karnataka. The Alams and Panjas are built on bamboo poles as tall as 20 feet. A mosque has been built for Kalla Devaru, a survivor from the battle of Karbala. Unlike others, this is not immersed on the tenth day.
The Muharram in Kudremoti village in Koppal district is the longest where it is celebrated for a month. The village turns into an open air market place for artists, farmers and dancers and singers. The Hagalu Vesha dancers of Folk street theatre artists descend on the village from across the country. Old disputes are settled and marriages are organised.
In Agasanur, Muharram assumes the shape of a Hindu festival. Villagers don’t wear slippers for ten days nor sleep on beds. They sleep on mattresses. On Ashura, villagers dressed in white, go the house of the Jangama priest, an upper caste Hindu and invite him to the Dargah. There, he he transfers the Peers and Alams to Muslims.
In Hosakatti village near Hubballi, women sweep the ground using their veils.
The village of Bilagi in Bagalkot district lights up on the night of Ashura. A cart carries burning torches in a procession. Appanna Jadhav, a Maratha has been carrying the Doli or palanquin for 40 years in Bilagi now.
Extreme rituals like self flagellation are observed in cities like Bengaluru with a significant Shia population or Bidar that has a colony of Iranis.
The rituals, songs, and stories of each village are all different and unique. The stories of Muharram are fused in local myth and beliefs. For example, in Kalaburgi, the story of Hussein is intermingled with that of Pundalika, a local youth who suffered as he neglected his old parents. In Harooru near Chikkodi, Yajid is a local money lender who harasses farmers. In Mugalkhod in Belagavi, Hazrath Ali who is the patron saint of the Garadi Mane (wrestling school), is the younger brother of Lord Hanuman. The images of Hanuman and a tiger symbolising Ali are seen in several villages in Mumbai Karnataka.
“Karnataka’s folk literature has been enriched by Muharram songs. They contain songs of sorrow, and conquering grief, the death of Hussein and the ultimate victory of good over evil. The story of the Prophet’s family and the battle of Karbala continue to dominate the Muharram songs. But their striking feature is that they contain so many local elements that sometimes they are bereft of the stories of Karbala,’’ says Chandrappa Hebbalkar, folk scholar who has edited a book on Muharram songs. He cites saint poets like Shishunala Shareef who have Muharram songs, among their oeuvre.
“The ballads speak of contemporary issues. The singers have infused their present day pains into the historical tragedy. They dont speak of Iran or Iraq, they speak as if the Karbala martyrs were born in their own village,’’ says Arun Joladkudligi, a research scholar of Hampi Kannada University who has worked on Muharram traditions.
“In one village, we were amazed to find that people included Indira Gandhi in Muharram songs. They were singing about her welfare programmes like widow pensions. In Humnabad I found a Riwayat songs on Dr Ambedkar and Buddha. A singer in Kalaburgi spoke of a recent tragedy where 20 villagers died in a bus accident. A singer in Bagalkot spoke of farmers who lost lands in the Upper Krishna irrigation project,’’ he said.
I feel that the celebrations were localised by the villagers themselves, because they wanted to be unique and different from other villages,’’ he said.
Muharram in Modern Times
The folk festival has reinvented itself in today’s world, says Dr Joladkudligi. It has made singers into youtube stars. Youtubers like Venkatesh Mitta and his brothers and
Karim Sab and Basavantaraya, Rajasab Akkalkoti, Revanasidda Dyamugol and Khaja Nadeem Saab. `Moharram songs are acting as caller tunes in villages. “The mobile recharge shops are acting as archives of Muharram songs. I recently got 50 gigabites of Muharram songs downloaded from a mobile shop in Vijayapura district,’’ he said.
“Young, educated Muslims are moving away from Muharram saying it is a corruption of the original practice or that it is unislamic. That is a cause for worry,’’ says Shahmbhuling Waldoddi, a teacher in Bidar, who has been celebrating Muharram since childhood.
“This is because of a puritan view of Muharram taken by some schools like Wahabi, Tablik Jamat or Ahle Hadis, explains Bidar based writer Yousuf Rahim Mir Bidri. “In several villages, it is not the Hindus who are walking away from Muharram but the young Muslims, especially those who have returned from the Gulf,’’ he said.
“I believe that such non puritanical practices are important for strengthening the multi cultural basis of our society,’’ says Professor Tarikere. “Several times, it is the unlettered masses who carry on our rich heritage and traditions. The non traditional, non ritual celebrations and observations add to the spirit of India. Some would like to term Islam in India as Sufi Islam or folk Islam, but that is what determines Indian culture. Practices like Muharram and Urs of Sufi saints are an inseparable part of Indian culture,’’ he said.
Muharram in north Karnataka has had its share of controversies. In some villages in Kalaburgi, it was stopped as Dalit boys refused to play the drums or clean the Ashur Khana if boys from other castes did not join them. In some villages, the rise of the right wing forces has reduced the participation of upper caste Hindus in Muharram.
“But Muharram still remains a festival of harmony, with a large participation of Hindus. We have documented Muharram in villages that do not have a single Muslim family,’’ says Professor Tarikere.