Ashura in Delhi


Joining the procession of mourners

Believe it or not, on the first day of the month of Muharram, a well-meaning Hindu friend called me to greet, “Soofi, Happy Muharram!”

Dear friends, this week I will show you Delhi’s Shi’ite life, inside a home and in a graveyard.

First, let’s go to Civil Lines, a genteel neighbourhood of bungalows and apartments in north Delhi. Say Salaamulaikum to Atiya Zaidi. Passionate about writers like Oscar Wilde, Mark Twain, George Bernard Shaw, Anita Desai and Qurratulain Haider, Zaidi, 55, lives in a book-lined ground floor apartment with her author husband, Irfan Habib, and two sons, Mehran and Farhan. She tweets under the handle @atiyaz. There she describes herself as “publishng [email protected] pblshr, pasionate abt edu n gndr isues.Fierce nationalist, bigoted secularist. Luv poetry.Luv criket whn India is wining.”

A Shi’ite, Atiya grew up in various cities; her father had a transferable post in the Reserve Bank of India. The family always had cooks though mother, Razia (who can recite the entire Ghalib by heart), would guide the preparations of meals. Atiya too has a kitchen assistant: Bela, a young Hindu adivasi woman from Jharkhand.

A Shi’ite Muslim from Oudh, the modern-day UP, Atiya describes her homeland as the cradle of Ganga-Jamuna civilization, referring to the two holy rivers that flow through the province. In Oudh, Islam and Hinduism influenced each other more extensively than in Delhi in terms of custom, dress, language and food.

“Our dishes are very different from what is found in Delhi,” Atiya is telling me. “It’s not on-your-face kind of cuisine. Flavours are subtle. There are less spices and less oil. The meal infuses you with warmth, and not leaves you with the sense of having a bloated stomach.” Atiya is now putting on the kitchen apron to make ‘chana dal ghosht’. She is saying, “Each time I cook chana dal gosht, I’m reminded of Chehlum, the 40th day of the martyrdom of Imam Husain in Karbala.” On this day, processions are organised and majaalis, or gatherings, are held to commemorate the tragedy. The sad events are narrated and elegies known as marsia are recited. In the morning, Atiya says, Shi’ite households in central and eastern UP make chana dal gosht. It is first taken to the in-house or neighbourhood Imambara, where a prayer is offered for the redemption of the martyr’s soul. Only then is the daal distributed.”

Atiya’s daal is meaty and delicious. I have it with roti. The side-dish is aloo saalan.

After leaving her home, I take the metro for the posh Jor Bagh.

The last person was buried here in 1985. Karbala, the Shi’ite burial ground in BK Dutt Colony, near Jor Bagh in central Delhi, is reserved exclusively for the funeral of tazias, the ritual coffins of the prophet’s grandson.

Every year on the 10th day of Muharram, mourners from Shahjanabad, Mehrauli and Hazrat Nizamuddin Basti gather here to commemorate the martyrdom of Hussain. The ground is arid, and the graves, few and far from each other, appear like half-marooned ships in a calm ocean. Some tombs are covered with red or blue silk; others are bare and broken. One grave, next to a dead tree, has a crack running along its surface.

Since it is evening, the graveyard is filled up with the cry of birds, flying across the sky. My thoughts are returning to last year. That December morning, I was attending the maatam (mourning) in the Muharram procession of Kashmere Gate, where it starts outside the Shia Jama Masjid. Wearing black clothes, the men were thumping their chests in the middle of Hamilton Road. Mothers, sisters and wives, robed in black, stood on the pavements. They too were doing seena-zani (chest-thumping). Soon everyone burst out crying for Hussain, Zainub and other shaheeds (martyrs).

Feeling the loss that had happened more than 1,300 years ago in the deserts of Arabia, the mourners walked slowly through the narrow road. The ancient grief was still fresh. Eyes brimmed with tears. The wailing of mourners gave a sense of togetherness. The rhythmic hum of Ya Hussain Ya Hussain was comforting. The roadside stalls offered rose sherbet.

In this dignified gathering of the defeated, mourners recited lamentations in Arabic, Urdu, and Punjabi to recall a rout that revived the true spirit of their religion. In the crowd, I spotted the famous historian Professor Mushirul Hasan, crying openly. Although a Sunni, he attends the Kashmere Gate Muharram every year.

Ahead walked a procession of Ladakhi Muslims; most were dressed in jeans, T-shirts, and black bandanas. A few took off shirts to lash themselves with knives, chains and shaving razors. Blood trickled out from their back, head and eyes. The moist-eyed Mullah who was exhorting the crowd to cry for Hussain had his crisp white kurta stained with a drop of blood – not his but somebody else’s.

Hours later, the procession ended here – at this graveyard in Jorbagh.

Dear friends, I hope, that on this sad month, Pakistan is spared of Shia-Sunni clashes. May God bless your nation.

Mayank Austen Soofi lives in a library. He has one website and four blogs. The website address: The blogs: Pakistan Paindabad, Ruined By Reading, Reading Arundhati Roy and Mayank Austen Soofi Photos.


  1. Education is very important key to progress in your personal health in the society, no doubt your getting education bring the positive changes in your life. You become active healthy and sharp among other members of the society and others no doubt follow you with confidence and happily.

  2. Oh, yes. The remarkable Ms. Atiya Zaidi. She always reminds one of Shakespeare.

    The lady protests too much, methinks…

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