Inclusive subcultures of Azadari rituals

This is a developing story for archiving media-content focusing on inclusiveness of Azadari. If you have something relevant, please comment.

The tradition of Azadari is undoubtedly the highest form of subcontinent’s composite culture. There is no tradition or set of rituals which has crossed the divides of religions, ethnicity, geography, caste or creed like Azadari has. The amount of literature produced in desi-lands on Azadari is matchless — this includes most languages spoken here. As an example, Urdu language wouldn’t have been what it is today if it was not gifted with the tradition of marsia-khwani through Azadari in Awadh. You will struggle to find a single poet, writer or intellectual who has not made contribution to Azadari — this includes many Hindu, Sikh and Brahmin writers. From Ghalib to Mir Anees, Mirza Dabeer to Mahinder Singh Bedi the list is endless.

The symbolism, imagery, art and craft associated with Azadari has given birth to several subcultures of Azadari. The beauty of Azadari lies in its inclusiveness i.e. it has remained open to people of all or no faith, people of all sexual orientations, people from all walks of life, beyond ethnic origin and financial status. Azadari has also been open to let itself assimilate in local cultures of where its practiced — this has given birth to local sub cultures of Azadari. While its practiced all over the world from islands of Trinidad to plains of Punjab, from deserts of Rajhastan to snow capped hills of Canada — you will find a local flavour to it in all those places.

With the assault of literalists Wahabism on desi lands and Wahabi-in-tummy cultural nihilist urban liberals and leftists, there is a constant attack on this beautiful tradition. This is an attempt to archive multimedia records of inclusiveness of this rich cultural tradition.

With the tradition of Azadari being inclusive and open, it made way for celebrities, qawals and singers to contribute. This eventually resulted in a music subculture in Pakistan where you can find devotional music, qawalis, nohas and marsiyas from prominent singers and artists. There may not be a dedicated study on it but one can see how this tradition made it possible for Pakistan to produce much better music overall in the wider region.

Below is one of many from Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.

Another marsiya from unarguably Pakistan’s greatest female voice, Noor Jehan can be heard below:

Listen to more contributions in Azadari by prominent artists such as Nayyara Noor, Sajjad Ali, Ali Haider, Shaheed Amjad Sabri, Rahat Fateh Ali Khan, Ustad Ghulam Ali, Abida Parveen, Asad Amanat Ali Khan

Nobody knows how many of them are Shias, may be most are as it was arts and crafts were more acceptable within Shia community, but the point to make is that Azadari allowed for this cultural assimilation where devotional form of music came up as a new genre in desi-world going beyond the confines of Sunni or Shia.

The great role of Maratha Kingdoms in preservation and promotion of Muharram ceremonies has not received due attention of religious scholars and historians. Holkers of Indore, Gaekwad of Baroda, Scindias of Gwalior and Shahu Ji of Kolhapur institutionalised observance of Muharram with the splendor of royalty in their dominions. Azadari acquired status of mass movement during Qutb Shahi regime and people from all castes and religions performed Muharram rituals in Golconda. The significance of state patronage extended to Muharram ceremonies by Maratha rulers can only be gauged by a person with knowledge of Mughal history from the days of Emperor Aurangzeb, who was intolerant of other faiths and Shias were persecuted during his era. Successors of Maharja of Gwalior continued patronizing Muharram and even installed an Alam with ‘Mashkiza’ at his palace. Read more or this.

Ganesh Chaturthi is a Hindu festival celebrating the birth of Ganesh. It’s a ten day festival which includes processions marching with Ganesh clay idols in the bazaars while chanting Vedic hymns. Offerings and prashad is distributed from the pandal to the community and the festival culminates on the tenth day in the backdrop of music and group chanting as the Ganesh idol is immersed in a nearby body of water to end the procession. Some historians believe that the festival in the western states of India may have grown because the annual gathering and procession by Shia Muslims on Muharram , and after the ritual mourning of the death of the Imam, they would immerse Tazia (Taboots) into river or ocean on the tenth day of Muharram. It is believed that Maratha ruler Tilak started the tradition on the pattern of Muharram processions and now it is considered to be the most popular festival of Marathas.

Azadari is a global tradition — perhaps of the few traditions which have been able to cross the barriers of geography, religion, ethnicity and all possible divides. What makes it vibrant, colorful and inclusive is its inherent ability to assimilate in local cultures and take a local shape — instead of trying to impose its set rules. You might see Zuljenah in Pakistan, but Amaari (in remembrance of camels which women of Hussain’s family rode) in Middle East. You may hear the sound of maatam reverberating on the Islands of Trinidad in backdrop of drumbeats, but a silent procession (chup Taziya) in southern Sindh.

Unlike many practices, rituals and traditions in desi-lands, Azadari has women at its core. Three women define Shiism and make its three key men who they are: Khadija for Muhammad, Fatima for Ali, and Zainab for Hussain. This reverence of women for the faithful has also helped ensure women remain at the heart of Azadari. The traditions and rituals of Azadari are transferred through generations by mothers — nazar, niyaaz and sabeels are owned by women. The symbolism and imagery which you witness in these rituals have women at the background. The jaloos, although in public, are open for women and in many jaloos you will find women women walking side by side with the jaloos specially in small towns and villages where size of the jaloos is manageable. Read More.

Anyone familiar with Azadari must have heard classic nauha ‘Ghabraye gi Zainab’ — telecasted year after year since 1950s on radio and PTV in voice of Nasir Jahan. But, most do not know who penned it. It was Munshi Channulal Dilgeer of Bihar — a Hindu devotee of Hussain, who even precedes Mir Anees chronologically in the history of marsiya writing. He has many marsiyas and nauhas to his credit. This popular nauha has become synonymous with Shame GhareebaaN. There are claims that his family also built an Imambargah in Thakurganj. Azadari undoubtedly is the highest form of subcontinent’s composite culture. Read more or watch.

Hussaini Brahmin is a Mohyal community with links to both Hinduism and Islam. They are spread across Sindh and Punjab in Pakistan; Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Delhi and other parts of India, and also in Arabia. Sunita Jhingran, a renowned classical music singer best known for her thumri, khayal, dadra and ghazal, is a Hussaini Brahmin and in this video she tells the relationship between her community and Azadari. READ MORE and WATCH THIS or this.

According to the members of this community, one of their ancestors, Rahab Dutt, travelled all the way to Arabia where he became a disciple of Imam Hussain. Dutt fought against Yazid along with his sons, who were killed in the Battle of Karbala. Read more.

The last few decades has seen a steep rise of terrorism all over the word, inspired by literalist Wahabism. Taliban in various parts of the world and then ISIS shocking everyone with their barbaric ways in the Middle East. The platform of Azadari has also lent its shoulder to political movements making it also relevant in context of time. One fine example is Ashura and Arbaeen jaloos in London which for the last several years take the theme of a pro-peace, anti-terrorism march. Read more here, here and here.

In this short video clip, a Sikh man can be seen in Indian Punjab where he recites a verse in praise of Imam Hussain in the backdrop of wailing and cries of men busy in Azadari rituals. In many parts of subcontinent, Sikhs can be seen marching in Ashura processions.

It has become a common sight to see Christian devotees on the shrine of Imam Hussain in Karbala. This is a footage from the day of Ashura where a Christian priest can be seen walking towards the shrine of Imam Hussain crying and pays his respect.

A similar video can be watched here where Christian men partake in Ashura rituals side by side with Shias, making their halqa for maatam.

Several parts of Pakistan have a Dawoodi Bohra population but they are concentrated in Karachi. They are a sub-sect of Ismaili Islam as propagated by Fatimid Imamate. They are easily identifiable because of the dress code they follow. They are not only part of Azadari rituals but also organise special majalis and mahafil in their jamaat-khanas. Here’s a video from Karachi:

Duldul tazia of Ranchor Lines in Karachi is a historic taziya which is part of the jaloos — interestingly, setup and organised by the local Sikh and Hindu community. Sandeep Singh, who organises the taziya says it was his grandfather’s mannat as he didn’t have any children at the time. His family has been participating in the jaloos since 1965 with the taziya.

A short clip from Karachi shows Hindu community of the metropolitan partaking in Ashura procession and cleaning streets on route of the jaloos in view of heat.

A short documentary on tradition of Tazia in Multan and Sunni led Ashura processions in this city of the Sufis. Multan as become synonymous with Sufi saint, many of whom were either Syeds fleeing from the Middle East in backdrop of persecution or Sunni/Shia saints who moved here to propagate the message of Ahlebayt. The shrines of Multan and adjacent areas is where Shias, Sunnis, Hindus and locals of all religions intermingle.

On the eve of Ashura, Christian men can be seen not only commemorating Imam Hussain but also partaking in maatam while chanting:

‘In the name of Jesus, the son of Mary, we offer our condolences this Muharram’

Sardar Bhishan Singh, a local Sikh community leader in Pakistan tells about his participation in Azadari rituals.

Christian community in Batapur neighborhood of Lahore spread rose petals on the street on route of annual Ashura procession in respect of Zuljenah and in commemoration of Imam Hussain. [Credits] This is not the only area but in walled city of Lahore where main Ashura procession is based, the local Christians organise sabeels and can be seen in the procession year after year.

In another example of interfaith harmony on Azadari, ToI reports story of a Hindu family organising Azadari for 65 years. More here.

Inline with inclusive tradition of Azadari, references to it can be found in any form of media irrespective of where it comes from in subcontinent. One such example is Mir Anees’ marsiya making way into a Bollywood film Shankar Hussain (1976) produced by Hari Singhaani / Tajdar Kamal and directed by Yusuf Naqvi.

In at least two ancient Hindu temples in the old Karachi, the Hindu community passionately works to make taziyas, which are a representation of the tombs of Hazrat Imam Hussain and Hazrat Imam Hasan. Read More

Sindh, the jewel of Pakistan, has a long unending tradition of interfaith cultural activity. It is no surprise that Hindu community in Sindh partakes in Azadari rituals with as much vigor as the local Shias. Here’s a short BBC documentary on the topic.

Christian community from Rawalpindi’s central Church partake in annual Ashura procession in Saddar bazaar. This is a decades long tradition where the community sends their representatives and setup stall on route of jaloos serving chilled doodh-roohafza to Azadars in view of heat in the city. [Credits]

Pakistan has a small Sikh community, concentrated in parts of Punjab and in KPK. They have been an integral part of Azadari rituals in subcontinent. Sikhism has a lot of parallels with Shia Islam and the fact that Guru Arjan, a Sikh Guru, was martyred adds to the narrative. This is a short news feature where a sevak of gurdwara tells how Azadari rituals are commemorated in gurdwards all over Punjab.

A Sikh poet, while emphasizing on his non Muslim beliefs, reads his poetry in praise of Imam Hussain clearly portraying the inclusive tradition of Azadari. Farhan Ali Waris compiled some of poetry in praise of Imam Hussain by Sikh poets in this nauha.

In many parts of Sindh where Hindus are majority including Tharparkar, the community takes out special taziyas on the day of Ashura. Hindu women can be seen as part of the procession throughout the province. Here’s an image from Mithi. [Credits]

Azadari has always remained an inclusive tradition — open to people of all or no faith irrespective of their backgrounds. That is why you would see celebrities in subcontinent from various fields partake in Azadari rituals. Here’s a clip of famous singer Shafqat Amanat Ali reciting a marsiya.

Sikh community not only commemorates Imam Hussain in gurdwaras but inclusive traditions of Azadari means that majalis and jaloos are open to anyone to share their experiences and opinions on Ashura. Here is a clip where a Sikh devotee of Imam Hussain is invited on mimbar in an Imambargah to speak in praise of Imam Hussain.

Sindh’s diversity shines again — here’s my Hindu friend from Sindh seen participating in Ashura procession commemorating Imam Hussain wearing black in mourning. [Credits]

The history lessons from Karbala has many lessons and heroes — not all known outside Shia circles. Zainab, the surviving sister of Imam Hussain is credited as the storyteller for next generations and lead the protest movement post Karbala. Many identify her as a ‘feminist’ icon in Karbala. More here.

The tradition of marsiya-goyi has crossed all barriers of religion, caste, creed and ethnicity. The inclusive rituals of Azadari has brought people from all religions together. Here’s a video of a Sikh devotee reading a marsiya on Abbas ibn Ali.

The tradition of niyaz in the name of Imam Hussain is centuries old in our part of the world. It is not restricted to Shias though, as an example, here’s my Hindu friend from Karachi sharing his experience of preparing niyaaz himself to feed the poor — his way of commemorating Imam Hussain. [Credits]

Azadari is not a day on calendar — while there is a ritual climax on Ashura but the tradition of Azadari is ongoing throughout the year. Langar, nazar and niyaaz have given birth to what we can refer to as cuisine of Azadari. Ofcourse there are local flavours to it but some foods have become synonymous with Azadari. In Northern India and Pakistan, Naan Haleem has become defacto tabarruk. After the majlis is over, everyone irrespective of their religious belief or lack of it or even if they were in the majlis or not, can get some food. Usually, you have a naan with a splash of Haleem spread over it — more daal than meat but finely grined. The naam is usually rolled up and so the Haleem becomes sort of paste and spread all over the naan. Arguably one of the best things you can eat in this part of the world.

There is this tradition in many parts of India and Pakistan where Haleem is cooked throughout the night so it can be distributed as niyaaz in a jaloos or majis, or just distributed as free food to everyone in memory of martyrs of Karbala. Sunnis participate in this practice year after year.

While many people would associate tazias with Shias, the fact of the matter is that the tradition of making taziyas, especially in the city of Chiniot in Punjab is credited to Sunnis. In his book ‘Taziyas of Chiniot’, Ghulam Abbas writes:

“In Chiniot no one can differentiate between Shiite or Sunni devotees during the performances of the Muharram rituals, as each thinks of his/her participation in the rituals as a cultural custom and religious duty.” In fact, with a few exceptions, almost all tazia-makers belong to the Sunni sect. Read More

While Chiniot has become synonymous with wooden-taziyas, Haiderabad in Sindh and Jhang in Punjab have also some remnants of this tradition. Syed Hassan Ali, writes for DAWN:

Tazias tend to cross sectarian and even religious boundaries, as one remembers reading of a Sunni lady based in Saddar who, along with her sons, faithfully has a Tazia built every year based on the design of the tomb of Khwaja Moinuddin Hasan Chishty, the respected sage of Ajmer. This is perhaps a cosmic coincidence as the celebrated rubaiyy, `Shah ast-o Hussain (AS)`, is attributed to Khwaja Sahib. Read More

BBC Sairbeen Urdu reports the story of a Hindu zaakir in Sindh named Ravi Shankar who has been travelling places to recite in Azadari majalis. He tells the tale of traditions of Azadari in Umerkot and how Hindus from the area has been organising and partaking in Ashura rituals for centuries.

Suleman Akhtar writes a brilliant blog for DAWN with references to Karbala making into roads into mysticism, marxism and Urdu poetry. More here.

The inclusiveness of Azadari has never been limited to certain genders or people from certain backgrounds. A cursory visit to any Ashura jaloos will reveal people from all sexual orientations are welcome. Even in areas urban middle class generation will feel awkward like the redlight district of Lahore, none is barred from Ashura processions. Hamza Baloch adds further.

One Ashura jaloos in the city of Haiderabad is specifically organised and lead by Hindu community — that’s from the Sheikh mohalla. In addition to this, in many cities across Pakistan including Tando Muhammad khan, Mir Pur Khas, Sanghar, Umer Kot, Tharparkar, Badin, Thatta and Dadu; Hindu community partake in Azadara rituals. They refrain from marriage ceremonies in Muharram, wear black in mourning, distribute langar and many even hoist the alam — in rememberance of Abbas ibn Ali. Manish Kumar writes further.

Post Saddam Hussain when the gates to Iraq were open for ziyarat, Karbala and Najaf have seen huge number of visitors. On Arbaeen, millions of people gather at the shrine of Imam Hussain — it is a sight to watch with people coming from various religious and ethnic backgrounds for one man. In the last few years, there has been a strong representation from the Christian community in Arbaeen and Ashura processions.

Also see this in backdrop of ISIS killing Christians in Iraq: Fleeing Iraqi Christians find safe haven at the Shrine of Imam Ali

blogger, technologist, foodie, vagabond, avid reader, cricket-lover, and an activist focused on human rights and the case for the environment.

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