17th December was the last day of the month of Moharram on the Islamic calendar. And it was also the day of the Tazia procession that Shia Muslims take out every year on that date. This is done to mark the martyrdom of Imam Hussain (Prophet Muhammad’s grandson) in the battle of Karbala by the forces of the second Omayid Caliph Yazid. Tazia is a re-enactment as well as an act of remembrance of the sufferings that Hussain suffered during his martyrdom. It is an act of extreme devotion that seems highly barbaric to most non-Muslims and Sunni Muslims alike. But if one goes to the depths of its meaning and logic, then nothing but respect comes out of one’s heart for these mourners. Although I myself don’t relate much to this bloodshed, I have all the respect for these devotees who show a form of devotion which we ourselves cannot dare to profess.
I had witnessed a Tazia procession when I first came to Delhi six years ago. Obviously it was a nerve-wrecking experience for me then. So when my two photographer friends, Zubair and Jaun, who are Shias, invited me to come along with them for photographing a Tazia procession, I just couldn’t refuse it. I desperately wanted to overcome my demons to fearlessly watch the streams of blood flow away at a Tazia procession. So I picked up my camera and shoot off with my friends to the Shia dominated area of Bara Bazar at Kashmere Gate to face my demons again.
Walking through the narrow lanes of Bara Bazaar gives you a distinct feel that you are walking in the Ballimaran area of Old Delhi. But once we heard the thumping sound of the Maatam (mourning) from a little distance, I was shaken out of my hangover of the distinctly Sunni dominated Ballimaran. And in no time we were confronted by a crowd of men and women thumping their chests in perfect rhythm to the chants of the mourning. Shouts of “Ya Hassan! Ya Hussain!” roared through the by lanes as the crowd continued with their chest beating. As we waded through the crowd we soon discovered that leading the crowd were a group of bare bodied men covered in blood, who were flagellating themselves with razor sharp blades and knives attached to the chains in their hands. This was the scene I had been dreading for the past six years. And now it was in front of me. My hands began to shake and I feared I may drop down my camera. My friend Zubair, who is from Kashmir, asked me, “Are you ok? It seems like you’ve seen a ghost!” His question almost came as a sarcastic comment for me making me angry for a moment. As if I attend Tazia processions everyday! But I instantly gathered my courage and started clicking away on my shutterbug.
We followed the procession to the Imam Bada (Shia Mosque) of the area where crowds of women draped in black clothing were waiting over the balconies of the building wailing their hearts out. Here the procession entered into the courtyard of the Imam Bada where the flagellation continued with a new zeal. The women who were overlooking the whole scene from the balconies above us started wailing out even more loudly and the men who were around me started to sob loudly. I could very closely see the ecstasy in the faces of the men who were the centre of attraction as they continued oozing blood out of themselves. It seemed as if they had found peace in the midst of this pain. Some of the old keepers of the mosque kept throwing water at regular intervals to wash away the blood that had covered the white marble floor of the Imam Bada. So blood heavily mixed with water was constantly flowing around our feet most of the time.
Soon the Imam (head cleric) called over his microphone to start the Maatam (mourning) in a highly emotional voice. The group of men stopped beating themselves and got down on their knees that were soon followed by the entire crowd of men that had gathered in the courtyard of the Imam Bada. Soon the Imam started reciting the passages where accounts of Hussain’s martyrdom are narrated. As the Imam continued with his sermon in a voice that seemed it may crack at any moment out of anguish, the people around the courtyard began to wail out loudly as they listened how their beloved Imam Hussain died on the battlefield. The women wailed out madly from the balcony thumping their chests as if Hussain’s body was in front of them. Zubair put his camera into his bag, got down on his knees and joined in the mourning. My other friend who was at another corner of the building could not be seen. I continued taking pictures in the midst of all these wailing and soon realized the fact that I was the only person in the Imam Bada who was not crying then.
Frankly I was feeling out of the place as all around me were weeping inconsolably as the Imam carried on his sermon in full emotional ecstasy. I stopped taking pictures and closed my eyes and listened carefully to the words of the Imam. And soon images of the events started forming in my mind as the Imam recounted the events. Hussain’s sufferings… how he was dealt 17 blows on his neck… how he had a vision of the Prophet Muhammad as he was dying… his sister Zainab’s agony on the news of his death… the death of his son Ali Asghar… his horse returning without its rider from the battlefield… vivid images were forming in my mind as the Imam carried on his sermon and the people around me wailed.
Soon the sermon was over and the Maatam too along with it. I opened my eyes and discovered that the unthinkable had happened. I had tears in my eyes. The mourning had really cast its shadow on me and I had somewhat realized the pain and anguish of the mourners who were around me. I was totally dumbstruck but felt surprisingly relived as I wiped away my tears. Suddenly it all started making sense to me and I realized that there is no reason why I should not respect these mourners. I didn’t really have all the answers to my doubts. But I didn’t want any. I somehow felt at peace.
As we made our way to the main road outside, we washed our hands at a tap on the roadside. I was trying to wash off some blood stains that had somehow got sprinkled on my hands. While I was washing them off, Zubair said, “It’s a good sign. The blood of the Tazia is holy. You’ll do good work now.” I smiled. I somehow believed him.
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