Friday, February 17, 2012

India's Shia street: Passing by Shia Muslim localities in Lucknow

Urdu verses on Karbala on a hoarding at a haveli in Old Lucknow

Shams Ur Rehman Alavi

Recently I had a chance to spend sometime in Shia dominated localities in Lucknow during a short trip.

Though Shias form a sizeable chunk of Muslim population in India, being a minority within a minority, their culture and traditions aren't too much in focus.

Except the rituals during Muharram, there is little attention towards the Shia sub-culture among the Indian Muslims.

Though I know many people belonging to the Shia community, I had no close friend and as a result several aspects about them were not known to me till now. As the ruling family of Oudh was Shiite, the influence of the Shiasm was quite strong on the culture and traditions.

One may not agree entirely but several leading historians and writers ranging from Qurratul Ain Hyder to Amaresh Mishra [author of Lucknow: Fire of Grace] have termed the era of Nawabs of Awadh as a confluence of Brahmin-Shia ethos.

Though that period has passed long ago, Lucknow has dozens of Shia mohallas. And hence the Shia street is more visible in Lucknow. At other places, Moharram is observed for ten days or at the most 40 days every year.

A view of Shia college on the day of Eid-e-Zehra
But in Lucknow the mourning period stretches up to 2 months and eight days [68 days]. The 'Azadari' continues during this entire duration.

Even otherwise, the innumerable monuments and puts Lucknow in a different league as far as Indo-Islamic culture is concerned.

Here elegiac Urdu poetry reached new heights. Poets like Anees and Dabeer were masters of this art form [marsia] and composed long sorrowful verses on the tragedy at Karbala.

Apart from this not much is more to non-Muslims or even Muslims. Frankly, there is often a level of prejudice among Sunnis. 

However, there is much more to Shia culture in Lucknow. It is not just about Imambadas or the Ashura rituals.

Just a few observations:

1. A couple of months back when I passed through Nakhas, I'd seen black flags atop all the houses. This time red flags were [crimson] visible all around.
View of a street in Old Lucknow

It was Eid-e-Zehra. Though I was well aware about Eid-e-Ghadeer, I came to know about this festival [Eid-e-Zehra] for the first time. I saw colour spread on the streets also to express the joy.

2. Unlike other Muslim localities where one is used to seeing travel agents' advertisements about Haj and Umrah, here tour operators advertised other trips as well.

They included pilgrimage to places important for Shias that are located in Iran, Iraq, Syria et al.

3. Every few feet one could see posters or pamphets on the walls about a 'majlis'. Most of the posters were in Urdu but some in Hindi and even in Roman Urdu. Many shops had put up boards that 'sheerini' (sweets) for 'tabarruk' to be distributed during the 'majlis' are available.
Poster in Lucknow about Delhi issue

4. Shops were selling casettes and CDs of 'nauhas' [poetic genre about events that led to the martyrdom of Hazrat Imam Husain AS and his companions at the battle in Karbala].

The posters announced arrival of new 'nauhas' and about facility of downloads on cellphones also. CDs and DVDs include that of marsias, salams, manqabats, nauhas et al.

5. The incident involving alleged police high-handedness at Karbala Jor Bagh [Delhi's Dargah Shah Mardan] seemed to have a strong reaction in Lucknow.

The walled city had billboards in abundance about the Sheila Dixit government's mishandling of the issue and Congress' anti-Shia stance. Another notable feature in Shia quarters is that many people are seen dressed in black.

6. Huge posters dotted the streets. There were long messages in Urdu from religious heads.

Also, photographs and life size images of the clerics were seen.
Posters in Walled Lucknow about 'majlis' and Eid-e-Zehra
7. Advertisements about Shia TV channels and websites were also seen.

A day [or two] later, there was again a clash between Shias and Sunnis, a strange Lucknow phenomenon. The city has no history of Hindu-Muslim rioting except a communal clash. But this sectarian issue continues to take the form of street fights here.

It was after years of agitation that the processions of both the sects were allowed. After writing this post, I realised that I had now written a couple of posts on Shias:

1. Indian Shias: Poor political representation despite substantial population

2. Hidden Heritage: Coming across a Shia shrine in Unnao in Uttar Pradesh

3. Shias focus on acquiring more political clout

4. Shia-Sunni blackboards in Lucknow