Muharram celebrations in northern Karnataka: A festival of harmony

Muharram is an important festival in villages across northern Karnataka. The celebrations are mainly led by Hindus and the event is marked even in villages that have no Muslim residents.

Published : Oct 02, 2019 06:00 IST

Muharram celebrations at Agasanur village in Ballari district.

Muharram celebrations at Agasanur village in Ballari district.

IT was almost midnight on the ninth day of Muharram, the first month in the Islamic calendar, which fell on September 9. But the residents of Agasanur village in Siriguppa taluk of Ballari district in Karntaka had not gone to sleep. Along with people from neighbouring villages, they gathered around the squat dargah of Mehboob Subhani, which was freshly painted white for Muharram. The rivayat (a ballad of the battle of Karbala) singers of Agasanur led by Raghava Reddy, Dose Eranna and Usman Ali, all in their sixties, stood in the courtyard of the dargah. The mystical songs they rendered in Kannada evoked the martyrdom of Hussain and Hasan, grandsons of the Prophet Muhammad.

A crowd of around 50 young men and children gathered around them and started doing a slow step dance, or hejje pada . They kept rhythm with the help of small painted pitchers that they tossed on their palms. This gentle precursor to the long night’s events would segue into an exuberant revelry.

The rivayat singers wound up after singing 65 songs. The action then shifted to a large bonfire kindled by neem tinder arranged in a pit dug near the dargah. Some 300 men danced in a frenzy around the bonfire in step with the furious beating of drums by 50 drummers dressed uniformly. The dancers carried cheap replicas of medieval period weapons which they swung with abandon. Men, women and children sat on mats laid on the ground, prepared for the long night that lay ahead.

The dancing was interspersed with comedy skits performed by the village’s theatre troupe. This night of gaiety would culminate around dawn when alam s (a metal standard resembling a decorated pole) of Hussain and Hasan would be carried in a procession by two individuals, one of them a Lingayat (the Lingayat community is dominant in northern Karnataka), and the other a Muslim, in keeping with the long-standing tradition of the village.

Muslims constitute around 10 per cent of Agasanur’s population. Muharram is the most important ooru habba , or village festival, of Agasanur, and Hindus observe it with more fervour than Muslims. All other festivals are secondary to the marking of the first 10 days of Muharram. For instance, this year, Ganesh Chathurthi was not celebrated in the village because Muharram coincided with it. In the past, festivities associated with Dasara have been temporarily abandoned because of Muharram. Agasanur is filled with spirituality during the days leading up to Muharram, and the village community follows various strictures such as not wearing footwear and abstaining from the consumption of meat and alcohol and even sexual activity during those 10 days.

In fact, villages across Karnataka, particularly in the northern part of the State, mark Muharram with a fervour that is unmatched by other festival celebrations. This was evident as this correspondent drove across the districts of Raichur and Ballari on the ninth and 10th day of the Islamic month. Muharram is locally known by names such as “Alaavi” and “Peerlabba” (festival of saints). Even villages that have no Muslim population celebrate the event. On the 10th day of Muharram, a grand feast is held in the villages.

Hussain and Hasan have been co-opted in the pantheon of Hindu gods of the region. It is common to find Hindu villagers with names such as Hussainappa or Hasanappa. Thus, it is limiting to call the Muharram celebration a merely syncretic practice as its historical evolution demonstrates that it has been adopted and owned by Hindus, producing something novel in its cultural and religious journey.

The origins of observing Muharram lie in seventh century Arabia. It is fascinating that this event, primarily identified as a ritual of mourning by Shia Muslims the world over, has transmutated into the most important festival in the Deccan. Rahamath Tarikere, a professor in the Department of Kannada Literature Studies, Kannada University, Hampi, estimates that Muharram is celebrated in 10,000 to 15,000 villages in Karnataka as the village festival. The villages have evolved various dances and elaborate song cultures specific to Muharram.

Significance of Muharram

The first 10 days of Muharram have a great salience particularly for Shia Muslims because it was on the 10th day of Muharram in A.D. 680 that Hussain, the son of Ali, the Prophet’s son-in-law, was martyred on the battlefield in Karbala (in present-day Iraq) in a hugely unequal fight with Yazid I. His brother Hasan had been poisoned to death 10 years earlier at the instigation of Yazid’s father, Muawiyah. The death of these two sons of Ali continues to rankle in the collective memory of Shias who were the partisans of Ali in the factional dispute that took place after the death of the Prophet on who should lead the Muslim ummah , or community.

Shias mourn the death of Hasan and Hussain in a profound manner and have kept the memory of Hussain’s martyrdom alive. They dress in black and take out processions on the 10th day of Muharram, called Ashura , and men often flagellate and wantonly injure themselves. Sunni Muslims, particularly those in South Asia, take out processions on the first 10 days of Muharram but do not inflict any bodily injuries on themselves. Puritan Sunni theologians frown on this practice as it is not sanctioned by the scripture.

The Muharram observation in Karnataka villages does not follow the rituals codified by Shia theologians. They have developed their own rituals. While their celebrations consist of processions by alam s, each village has adopted peculiar practices of its own. For instance, in the highly evolved Muharram rituals in Agasanur, various Hindu caste groups have strictly defined roles to play. The drum beaters are Dalits, and the young men who surround the alam -bearers usually belong to the Valmiki caste (a Scheduled Tribe). The procession weaves its way through the village, stopping at the houses of prominent villagers who usually belong to higher castes.

The procession, which is the centrepiece of all Muharram celebrations, has evolved into an elaborate event in Mudgal, a town of around 25,000 people in Lingsugur taluk of the neighbouring Raichur district. On the 10th day of Muharram, the alam s of Hussain and Hasan are brought from separate parts of the town to a large ground next to the fort of Mudgal. The 10-day celebrations of Mudgal attract thousands of visitors from the hinterland and even from neighbouring districts and States, and the events lead up to the finale, the milan (union) of Hasan and Hussain. The final event sees the participation of more than a lakh of people, making it the largest congregation of Muharram in rural Karnataka.

It is evening by the time the two separate processions of Hussain and Hasan wind their way across the town to the fair ground. The event is organised by the Mudgal Town Municipal Council and, recognising its importance for the people of the region, is patronised by politicians cutting across party lines. While the alam bearers are Muslims, the participants in the procession are mainly Hindus. A collective roar erupts when the two processions meet, but this is just a play as the union is supposed to never happen. The two alam s come close and parry the moves of each other with this ritual lasting for almost an hour before they are withdrawn and taken back as firecrackers rend the air. Thus, Muharram in Mudgal has evolved into this unique ritual of Hussain and Hasan, represented by their alam s, almost meeting but their union remains unfulfilled forever.

Origin of Muharram in Deccan

The origin of Muharram in northern Karnataka can be attributed to the reign of Shia Muslim rulers in the 16th and 17th centuries. Following the implosion of the Bahmani Sultanate, which ruled the Deccan in the 1490s, five Deccan Sultanates emerged of which the largest three, the Sultanates of Ahmednagar, Bijapur and Golconda, had notable Shia Sultans. While all the Sultans of Ahmednagar and Golconda were Shias, the rulers of Bijapur vacillated between following the tenets of Sunni and Shia Islam. After the Battle of Talikota in 1565, when the Vijayanagara Empire was defeated by a coalition of the Deccan Sultanates, it was mainly the Adil Shahi Sultanate of Bijapur that benefited geographically as it expanded its territories in the region of modern Karnataka. Thus, while the mourning associated with Muharram by Shias is more than 1,300 years old, it has a much more recent history in the Deccan and is only 400-500 years old.

This is corroborated by oral accounts of residents of Agasanur and Mudgal. M. Gopal Reddy, ex-president of Siruguppa Taluk Panchayat and a resident of Agasanur, said that his family had been observing Muharram for several generations, going back to at least 400 years. Mohammed Sadiq Ali, secretary of the Hussaini Alam Ashurkhana (Sunni) of Mudgal, had a more interesting story on the founding of the Muharram in Mudgal.

He said: “The fort of Mudgal frequently changed hands between the Vijayanagara kings and the Sultanates. Finally, Ali Adil Shah I procured these alam s from Iraq and led the battle against [Aliya Rama] Raya in 1565 in which Vijayanagara was defeated comprehensively. After this, he left the alam s in Mudgal, from which year the Muharram celebration began here. An inam of 48 acres [one acre is equal to 0.4 hectare] of land was made to the family of the alambardar [standard bearer].”

The Sultanates of Bijapur and Golconda were defeated by the Sunni Mughal ruler Aurangzeb in 1686 and 1687 respectively, but the tradition of Muharram lingered on and continued during the reign of the Hyderabad Nizams in their territories. Five north-eastern districts of present-day Karnataka were part of the erstwhile royal state of Hyderabad. Thus, the rituals of Muharram continued in these and the neighbouring regions. “Although the Nizams of Hyderabad were Sunni, they continued the liberal religious policies of the Qutub Shahi Sultanate [Golconda] and did not interfere in the practice of Muharram. The mother of the last Nizam, Osman Ali Khan, was Shia, and in homage to her the Nizam constructed one of the biggest ashurkhana s [mourning house], the Aza Khane Zehra in Hyderabad,” said Dr Mohammed Safiullah, honorary managing trustee of the Deccan Heritage Trust, Hyderabad.

According to the Kannada writer Rahamath Tarikere, some historical links with Sufism in the region have contributed to the popularity of Muharram in the region. He writes: “While ideologically, Sufism and Muharram are not directly related to each other, these two streams have been hybridised together in Karnataka through folklore. Some historical links have also contributed to the background of this hybridisation.

Several Sufi saints of Karnataka belonging to the Chishti and Qadiriyya sects claim to trace their genealogy back to Hasan and Hussain” ( Karnataka’s Muharram: Localisation and Hybridisation translated from Kannada by Maithreyi Karnoor).

Song culture

Muharram in Karnataka demonstrates the mixing of Islamic history and local cultures. This is evident not only from the participation of Hindus in the festival but also from the liturgy of the songs. The rivayat singers, who sing mournful dirges during Muharram, often mix their evocations to Hussain and Hasan with references to Hindu gods and goddesses.

Chand Basha M., an assistant professor in the Department of English, Vijayanagara Sri Krishnadevaraya University, Ballari, writes: “According to my observations on the existing scholarship on Muharram and Muharram related literature in Kannada language, the rivayat s seem to have interacted with different literary and cultural expressions of Karnataka. The prominent interaction seems to have happened with vacana literature (the literature that emerged with the Lingayat movement of the twelfth century in north Karnataka). Tarikere in Karnatakada Moharram confers the influence of vacana writers on the song culture of Muharram. Furthermore, there is a litany of unpublished rivayat s I have collected during my study in various localities of Karnataka. They contain the words Sharanavacana , Siva, which seem to have reproduced the idiom of the Kannada language in the Muharram songs. Intervention of such signifiers of different cultures indicates that the song culture had an opportunity to interact with other song cultures that were/are available in the cultural map of the landscape to which Karbala culture has travelled to” ( Karbala in Kannada Orature: The Saga of a Memory Along the Deccan ).

Chand Basha’s translation of a rivayat sung in Agasanur is rendered here:

All ye gathered, listen, with folded hands I shall a little speak./ What joy to behold you all!/

To them who without swerving walk the path,/ a place in Kailasa shall be found.

In Mecca-Medina lived a meat-loving hunter;/

Longed for the same and left with a net for the forest.

Beheld with joy, a grazing deer on the green horizon,/

threw his loom of deceit and drew the deer to his trap.

Removing the deer from his trap the proud hunter bound her neck with all the ropes he had;/

due to hunger had dropped dead his house/ with no time to lose women pounded chillies.

Nabi Saheb to offer Namaz started from his house in the bazaar./

‘Salaam Walekum’, greeted the deer,/

Nabi Saheb heard the novel words and turned around to respond.

‘Mahadeva! In the trap I have fallen’ cried the deer/

‘Like a Sharana, I shall spread your glory. To my children let me go. I shall suckle them, a few moments are all I seek.’

(The rivayat is incomplete)

The local people of Agasanur and Mudgal say that the number of participants in Muharram festivities has increased over the years. But what needs to be recognised is that being a hybrid and highly localised festival, it occupies a liminal identity on the threshold of both mainstream Hinduism and Islam. This has led to a unique problem.

To quote Tarikere: “While Muharram is, on the one hand, accused by Muslim fundamentalists of being a Hinduised, unIslamic practice, on the other, it is accused of Islamising Kannadigas. Perhaps all faiths that undergo transformation by localisation have to face such accusations.”


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