This year, Ashura falls on October 23. It is the culmination of ten days of mourning held every year during the Islamic month of Muhurram to commemorate the Battle of Karbala. The Battle of Karbala took place on the tenth day of Muharram in 680 AD at Karbala, in present day Iraq. On one side were the supporters and clan of the Prophet of Islam’s grandson Hussain ibn Ali while on the other were the troops of the Umayyid Caliph, Yazid the First.
Imam Hussain, the son of Hazrat Ali and the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, came to fight the forces of the oppressive Caliphate at the request of the people of Kufa, although his brother Hassan had already been killed by these rival forces in Islam. The chivalrous Hussain and his followers were surrounded like Abhimanyu was, surrounded in the chakravyuh during the Battle of Kurukshetra. Their water supply from the Euphrates was cut off by 6,000 soldiers. 30,000 of Yazid’s soldiers fell on Hussain’s small group of two hundred, which included women and 72 of Hussain’s relatives. They were butchered mercilessly in their weak, parched state for the lineage and values that they represented. By sunset on Ashura, they were all dead, including a four-year-old girl, Sakina, and a six-month-old baby, Ali Asghar. This battle led to the split in Islam between the followers of Hazrat Ali, the Shias, and the opposing party, the Sunnis.
Many will know this already but it is worth recalling that a brahmin of the gotra of Rishi Bharadwaja, father of Dronacharya and grandfather of Ashvatthama in the Mahabharata, is believed to have fought with Imam Hussain in this physically unequal battle that was remembered ever after as a moral victory. This was Rahab Siddha Datt of the north-west, who sacrificed his seven sons at Karbala in defense of the Prophet’s grandson. He had already been entrusted with the public funds by Hazrat Ali himself at the Battle of Jamal fought earlier at Basra. Rahab Datt came of fighting stock, from an ancient tradition of Hindu warrior priests, and was greatly attached to Hazrat Ali for his nobility of character. He rallied his troops when it was too late to save Imam Hussain and by combining forces with another follower of Hazrat Ali, captured and razed Kufa. Yazid did not rule longer than 40 days. Rahab Datt’s family eventually returned to India from Arabia and was known thereafter as ‘Hussaini Brahmins’ for their adherence to Imam Hussain. They belonged to an endogamous sect of brahmins called ‘Mohyal’, which had seven clan names: Bali, Bhimwal, Chibber, Datt, Lau, Mohan and Vaid, all of whom were affiliated to the gotras of Vedic rishis.
Ten centuries later, Bhai Mati Das and Bhai Sati Das, Chibber brothers devoted to the Sikh Gurus, were executed along with Guru Tegh Bahadur by Aurangzeb in November 1675. The military tradition of this brave community continues with a number of Mohyals in the Indian armed forces. Such are our entwined histories and many Hindus today would feel entitled to say ‘Ya Ali’ as scattered descendants of those ancient clans.