Wearing black clothes, the men were beating their seena (chest) in the middle of the road. Mothers, sisters and wives, robed in black, lined the streets. They, too, were doing seene-zani. Soon, everyone burst out crying for Hussain, Zainub, Ali and other shaheeds (martyrs).
On Friday morning, we attended the maatam (mourning) in the Muharram procession at Kashmere Gate, one of the principal events in Delhi’s cultural calendar. Muharram is a month that marks the beginning of the Islamic New Year. However, its historical and religious significance is defined by the martyrdom of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Hussain, who was killed in a battle at Karbala, in modern-day Iraq.
Friday was the anniversary of the day he and his family members were martyred. The Muharram procession is a remembrance of this sacrifice and the moral victory of Hussain. Feeling the loss that took place more than 1,300 years ago in the deserts of Arabia, the mourners walked slowly down the alley of Kashmere Gate.
Shops, sky, madrasas, minarets, dhabas, drains, and the nearby old Delhi railway station seemed to dissolve into the battleground of Karbala. The ancient grief was still fresh. The hearts choked and eyes brimmed with tears. The all-encompassing wailing of mourners give a sense of togetherness. The rhythmic hum of Ya Hussain Ya Hussain was comforting. The roadside stalls offered rose sherbet.
In this dignified gathering of the defeated, mourners recited lamentations in Arabic, Urdu, and Punjabi, to recall a defeat that revived the true spirit of their religion. Ahead of them walked a procession of Ladakhi Muslims. Dressed in jeans, tees and black bandanas, they, too were in maatam. A few men took off shirts to lash themselves with knives and chains. Blood trickled from their back, head and eyes. The moist-eyed mullah, who was exhorting the crowd to cry for Hussain, had his crisp white kurta stained with a drop of blood — not his, but somebody else’s.
The procession continued, broken hearted. Hours later, it ended at an Imambara in Jorbagh.