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VI. The Bombay Mohurrum: Stray Scenes

The luxury of grief seems common to mankind all the world over, and the mourning of the Mohurrum finds its counterpart in the old lamentation for the slain Adonis, the emotional tale of Sohrab's death at the hand of his sire Rustom, and the long-drawn sorrow of the Christian Passion. The Persian inclination towards the emotional side of human nature was not slow to discover amid the early martyrs of the Faith one figure whose pathetic end was powerful to awaken every chord of human pity. The picture of the women and children of high lineage deceived, deserted and tortured with thirst, of the child's arms lopped at the wrist even at the moment they were stretched forth for the blessing of the Imam, of the noblest chief of Islam betrayed and choosing death to dishonour, of his last lonely onset, his death and mutilation at the hand of a former friend and fellow-champion of the faith,--this picture indeed appealed and still appeals, as no other can, to the hidden depths of the Persian heart. The Sunni may object to the choice of Hasan and Husain as the martyrs most worthy of lamentation, putting forward in their stead Omar, companion of the Prophet himself, who lingered for three days in the agony of death, or Othman, the third Khalifa, who died of thirst, or "the Lion of God," whose life came to so disastrous a close. But the Shia, while admitting that the death of the first martyrs may have wrought severer loss to Islam, cannot admit that their end surpasses in pathos the tale of the bitter tenth of Mohurrum when the stars quivered in a bloodied sky and the very walls of the palace of Kufa rained tears of blood as the head of the Martyr was borne before them. He cannot also approve the Sunni practice of converting a season of mourning into one of revelry and brawl, for he does not realize the influence of the local Hindu element upon the Mohurrum and cannot comprehend that the Indian additions to the festival have their roots in the deep soil of Hindu spirit-belief. For to the Hindu, and to the Sunni Mahomedan who has borrowed somewhat from him, all seasons of death and mourning act as a lode-stone to the unhoused and naked spirits who are ever wandering through the silent spaces of the East. Some of these spirits we can appease or coax into becoming guardian-angels by housing them in handsome cenotaphs; others we can lodge in the horse-shoe or in that great spirit-house, the tiger, letting them sport for a day or two in the bodies of our men and youths, who are adorned with yellow stripes symbolical of their role; while other more malevolent spirits can only be driven away by shouting, buffeting and drumming, such as characterize the Mohurrum season in Bombay. The Indian element of nervous excitement might in course of ages have been sobered by the puritanism of Islam but for the presence of the African, who unites with a firm belief in spirits a phenomenal desire for noise and brawling; and it is the union of this jovial African element with the sentimentality of Persia and the spirit-worship of pure Hinduism which renders the Bombay Mohurrum more lively and more varied than any Mahomedan celebration in Cairo, Damascus or Constantinople.

Although the regular Mohurrum ceremonies do not commence until the fifth day of the Mohurrum moon, the Mahomedan quarters of the city are astir on the first of the month. From morn till eve the streets are filled with bands of boys, and sometimes girls, blowing raucous blasts on hollow bamboos, which are adorned with a tin 'panja,' the sacred open hand emblematical of the Prophet, his daughter Fatima, her husband Ali and their two martyred sons. The sacred five, in the form of the outstretched hand, adorn nearly all Mohurrum symbols, from the toy trumpet and the top of the banner-pole to the horseshoe rod of the devotee and the 'tazia' or domed bier. Youths, preceded by drummers and clarionet-players, wander through the streets laying all the shop-keepers under contribution for subscriptions; the well-to-do householder sets to building a 'sabil' or charity-fountain in one corner of his verandah or on a site somewhat removed from the fairway of traffic; while a continuous stream of people afflicted by the evil-eye flows into the courtyard of the Bara Imam Chilla near the Nal Bazaar to receive absolution from the peacock-feather brush and sword there preserved. Meanwhile in almost every street where a 'tabut' is being prepared elegiac discourses ('waaz') are nightly delivered up to the tenth of the month by a maulvi, who draws from Rs. 30 to Rs. 100 for his five nights' description of the martyrdom of Husain; while but a little distance away boys painted to resemble tigers leap to the rhythm of a drum, and the Arab mummer with the split bamboo shatters the nerves of the passerby by suddenly cracking it behind his back. The fact that this Arab usually takes up a strong position near a 'tazia' suggests the idea that he must originally have represented a guardian or scapegoat, designed to break by means of his abuse, buffoonery and laughter the spell of the spirits who long for quarters within the rich mimic tomb; and the fact that the crowds who come to gaze in admiration on the 'tazia' never retort or round upon him for the sudden fright or anger that he evokes gives one the impression that the crack of the bamboo is in their belief a potent scarer of unhoused and malignant spirits.

Turn off the main thoroughfare and you may perhaps find a lean Musalman, with a green silk skullcap, sitting in a raised and well-lighted recess in front of an urn in which frankincense is burning. He has taken a vow to be a "Dula" or bridegroom during the Mohurrum. There he sits craning his neck over the smoke from the urn and swaying from side to side, while at intervals three companions who squat beside him give vent to a cry of "Bara Imam ki dosti yaro din" (cry "din" for the friendship of the twelve Imams). Then on a sudden the friends rise and bind on to the Dula's chest a pole surmounted with the holy hand, place in his hand a brush of peacock's feathers and lead him thus bound and ornamented out into the highway. Almost on the threshold of his passage a stout Punjabi Musulman comes forward to consult him. "Away, away" cry the friends "Naya jhar hai" (this is a new tree), meaning thereby that the man is a new spirit-house and has never before been possessed. A little further on the procession, which has now swelled to considerable size, is stopped by a Mahomedan from Ahmednagar who seeks relief. He places his hand upon the Dula's shoulder and asks for a sign. "Repeat the creed," mutters the ecstatic bridegroom. "Repeat the durud," say the Dula's supporters; and all present commence to repeat the "Kalmah" or creed and the "Durud" or blessing. Then turning to the Mahomedan who stopped him, the bridegroom of Husein cries: "Sheikh Muhammad, thou art possessed by a jinn--come to my shrine on Thursday next," and with these words sets forth again upon his wanderings. Further down the Bhendi Bazaar a Deccan Mhar woman comes forward for enlightenment, and the Dula, after repeating the Kalmah, promises that she will become a mother before the year expires; while close to Phulgali a Konkani Musulman woman, who has been possessed for six months by a witch (Dakan), is flicked thrice with the peacock-feather brush and bidden to the Dula's shrine on the following Thursday. So the Dula fares gradually forward, now stopped by a Kunbi with a sick child, now by some Musulman mill-hands, until he reaches the Bismillah shrine, where he falls forward on his face with frothing mouth and convulsed body. The friends help the spirit which racks him to depart by blowing into his ear a few verses of the Koran; whereat the Dula, after a possession of about four hours, regains consciousness, looks around in surprise, and retires to his home fatigued but at last sane.

Wherever a "tazia" or tomb is a-building, there gather all the Mohurrum performers, the Nal Sahebs or Lord Horse-shoes, the tigers and the mummers of Protean disguise. The spot becomes an "Akhada" or tryst at which the tomb-builders entertain all comers with draughts of sherbet or sugared water, but not with betel which has no place in seasons of mourning. Here for example comes a band of Marathas and Kamathis with bells upon their ankles, who form a ring in front of the "tazia", while their leader chants in a loud voice:--

"Alif se Allah; Be se Bismillah; Jum se meri
Jan. Tajun Imam Husein Ki nyaz dharun."

"Alif for Allah; B for Bismillah; J for my life.
An offering is this to Husein."

The chorus take up the refrain at intervals accompanying it with the tinkle of the ankle-bells; and then as distant drumming heralds the approach of a fresh party, they repeat the Mohurrum farewell "Ishki Husein" (Love of Husein) and pass away with the answer of the tryst-folk: "Yadi Husein"
(Memory of Husein) still ringing in their ears. The new party is composed of Bombay Musulman youths, the tallest of whom carries an umbrella made out of pink, green and white paper, under which the rest crowd and sing the following couplet relating to the wife and daughter of Husein:--

"Bano ne Sakinah se kaha. Tum ko khabar hai
Baba gae mare!"

"Bano said unto Sakinah. Have you heard that
your father is dead?"

This party in turn yields place to a band of pipers and drummers, accompanying men who whirl torches round their head so skilfully that the eye sees nought but a moving circle of flame; and they are succeeded by Musulman men and boys, disguised as Konkani fishermen and fishwives, who chant elegies to Husein and keep the rhythm by clapping their hands or by swinging to and fro small earthen pots pierced to serve as a lamp. The last troupe, dressed in long yellow shirts and loose yellow turbans, represent Swami Narayan priests and pass in silence before the glittering simulacrum of the Martyr's tomb.

The most curious feature of the Mohurrum celebration is the roystering and brawling of the Tolis or street-bands which takes places for two or three nights after the fifth day of the month. Each street has its own band ready to parade the various quarters of the city and fight with the bands of rival streets. If the rivalry is good-humoured, little harm accrues; but if, as is sometimes the case, feelings of real resentment are cherished, heads are apt to be broken and the leaders find themselves consigned to the care of the Police. It is difficult to see the connection between these brawling street-companies and the lamentation for Hasan and Husein; but the rivalry of the mohollas recalls the free-fighting which used once to take place between the various quarters of Gujarat and Kathiawar towns during the Holi festival, while the beating, shouting and general pandemonium evoked by the Tolis are probably akin to the extravagance once practised at the beating of the bounds in England and Scotland and are primarily designed to scare away evil-spirits from the various quarters of the city. The Tolis are indeed a relic of pure Hinduism--of aboriginal spirit-belief, and have in the course of centuries been gradually associated with the great Mahomedan Festival of Tears. Originally they can have had no connection with the Mohurrum and are in essence as much divorced from the lamentation over the slaughter at Karbala as are the mummers, the Nal Sahebs and the Lords of the conchshell (Sain Kowra) of the modern celebration from the true Mahomedan who wanders back from the sea-shore uttering the cry of grief--

"Albida, re albida, Ya Huseini albida."
"Farewell, farewell, ah, my Husein, farewell!