Muharram in Hyderabad shows shared cultural practices among Shias, Sunnis and Hindus

Salma Ahmed Farooqui

Spatial metaphors of power are like cultural symbols that are related to the politics of the day. Hence, re-engaging with earlier sources is necessary for historians to broaden their understanding.

Hyderabad’s history and culture, no doubt, has always had a universal appeal and is the subject of discussion at various forums and platforms. Some of the socio-religious traditions of the Qutb Shahi period like Muharram attract attention even today.

Muharram, the first month of the Islamic calendar, is special to Hyderabad for the Qutb Shahi sultans of Golconda were responsible for making it a major part of their religious and ceremonial annual schedule. While it is predominantly observed by the Shia Muslims, it does not preclude the Sunni Muslims and non-Muslims from participation. Rather, it is one ceremonial that envelops all segments of the society cutting across barriers of race, caste and religion.

The events associated with Muharram as pronounced in Golconda-Haidarabad during the Qutb Shahi times was not a simple replica of the ritualistic traditions of Safavid Persia as most historians believe. The over dependence of historians on primary sources in Persian, in this context, has led to ignoring the local historical understanding of Shiism and its patronage by the State.

Shiism, as expounded by the Qutb Shahi sultans, gave scope for new local interventions which resulted in the development of a mode of Islam that was peculiar to Golconda-Haidarabad’s native traditions. This process of acculturation was because Islam with its Sunni and Shia influences had trickled into the region long ago.

With the opening up of opportunities of long-distance trade came the imperial patronage resulting in many trading towns to receive court patronage. The emergence of the Safavid supremacy in Persia, which runs concurrent with the Qutb Shahis, only intensified this process of exchange and partnership further.

Therefore, traditions of Muharram in Golconda-Haidarabad opened up to influences from different religious and ethnic groups. This was the reason of large-scale participation of different Muslim and non-Muslim groups in the ceremonials connected with Muharram.

New scholarship on this subject traces the formation of the Qutb Shahi’s Deccani-Shia identity to the creation of their own Indo-Shia, Persianate-Telugu form of Shiism. In many ways, it was different from the Shia traditions observed in North India, even so from their neighbouring states of Bijapur and Ahmednagar

By the time the reign of Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah began at the end of the sixteenth century, the people who had immigrated into the Deccan from Persia could no longer be considered Persian. Muhammad Quli, like his father Ibrahim Qutb Shah, was fluent in the local vernacular languages like Telugu and Dakhni-Urdu.

This has been summed up beautifully by Karen Ruffle. She says, “Muhammad Quli’s world was simultaneously Persianate, Indic and Islamic.”

Further Indianisation of Muharram took place during Sultan Muhammad Qutb Shah’s time, when he started to disregard the colourful Muharram rituals sponsored by his predecessor Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah. At the coronation of Sultan Muhammad Qutb Shah, Mir Momin, his prime minister, wrote an eulogy that reflects Haidarabad’s changed religio-political environment under the new sultan despite the latter having good political relations with the Safavid state, patronising Persian literature and Afaqis at his court.

Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah

The reigns of the fifth and seventh sultans, Muhammad Quli Qutb Shah and Abdullah Qutb Shah, saw large-scale support of Muharram rituals in Golconda-Haidarabad. Most historians who have written about Muharram in the Deccan have read the Hadiqat-us-Salatin, a valuable text, by Mirza Nizamuddin Ahmed that sheds light on not just political events, but also religious events of Muharram and Milad-un-Nabi.

The information provided with regard to Muharram ceremonials during Abdullah Qutb Shah’s period, which is already well-known, is the participation of the Hindus and Sunni Muslims in the ceremonies of Muharram; the housing of alams in the various Ashurkhanas (where the mourning is observed); as soon as the moon of Muharram was sighted a sombre atmosphere started to prevail; music and dance came to a halt; drinking of wine, meat-eating, cutting of hair, sale and purchase of betel leaf was prohibited for 50 days; people dressed in black; there was illumination of administrative offices, invitations were extended to ulema, the learned, government officials and other important persons, there were processions of taziyas,  army reviews, beating of the chest; free food was given to the needy and substantial amount of money and textiles were sent to Makkah, Madina, Karbala and other holy places.

These rituals continued for a full forty days, the first ten days being very important. The sultan had more than thirty palaces, and each one of them wanted to outdo the other in the demonstration of these celebrations. Huge amounts were spent by the sultans to conduct the ashura observance during the month of Muharram. 

Devotees visiting historic Badshahi Ashurkhana as this month during Muharram

The Baadshahi Ashurkhana became the focus of a beautiful Qutb Shahi ritual held during the ashura, the ten-day period from the starting of Muharram. Every night, the sultan would light a row of one thousand lamps, so that on the final night a full ten thousand lamps blazed from the alams, then taken out of the edifice in procession form.

Stories connected with Muharram became part of Hindu folklore and were rendered into Telugu verses. Likewise, the Muslim saints and poets not only borrowed from Hindu traditions and rituals but they also wrote in Telugu and Sanskrit. Akbar Shah, the son of the famous Sufi saint Shah Raju Qattal of the period of Abul Hasan Qutb Shah, wrote a Sanskrit treatise on the many moods of love, known as the Sringaramanjari.

Muharram of the Qutb Shahi times came to be understood as a religious and ceremonial process conducted in a congregation, and the rituals attached to veneration of objects became a central point with processions of mourners culminating at the ashurkhanas. On re-looking closely, it is noticed that in the name of ceremonial, there are rituals that came up which are specific to mourning and those that are celebratory in nature.

This leads to another closely connected and significant question of the role of specific Shia relics and alams that are kept in the ashurkhanas. The Qutb Shahi sultans felt a need to create new spaces for holding the religious events of Muharram, as well as to adopt material and visual practices to infuse the memory of Imam Hussain among their populace, especially the Shia community

 In the latest trends of research in this field, Karen Ruffle and Sussan Babaie who are experts on the particular subject, suggest that ‘in South Asian Shiite practises of Muharram, image-objects, specifically in the form of the alams, taziya, jhula of Hussain’s infant son, Ali Asghar, and the figural representation of Zuljanah, Hussain’s faithful battle horse, are focal objects that shape cultural memory.

It is both the royalty-nobility and the common man who become participant-agents in shaping the specific ritualistic traditions of Muharram. Most importantly, they say while the participants are identified as being Shia or those having reverence or proximity to Shiite Islam, they may not necessarily be religious.

In other words, these participants are influenced by the philosophy and appeal of the historical event of Karbala that happened more than 1300 years ago. This appeal takes shape and is re-lived in material form such as that of the alams, taziyas, Ashurkhanas and so on that bring in a tangible element to support cultural memory.

With the shifting of power to the Mughals in 1687 and then to the Asaf Jahis (Nixams) in 1724, both of who were Sunni Muslims, Muharram underwent yet another wave of change. After a brief lull during Mughal occupation, Muharram resurrected once again with its new found supporters, the Asaf Jahi Nizams and their nobles who seemed enthusiastic in supporting the ceremonials at Haidarabad’s ashurkhanas, which were renovated in the second half of the eighteenth century.

The relics, taziyas and alams at the ashurkhanas, the processions of Muharram had by now absorbed more local influences. The Qutb Shahi sultans had creatively put together Indo-Shia theories of kingship, native ritualistic traditions of Muharram and the use of monumental built space to mark multiple meanings.

The Muslims and Hindus brought in their own brand of social practices to interact within these spiritual and imperial spaces of power. Thus, from the Qutb Shahis to the Asaf Jahis there was enough scope to innovate a new expression of Shiism which sometimes took a turn of mourning, sometimes a celebration, but aimed only at keeping alive the memories of Imam Hussain and his progeny.

Salma Ahmed Farooqui is Professor at H.K.Sherwani Centre for Deccan Studies, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad. She is also India Office Director of the Association for the Study of Persianate Societies (ASPS).

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