Memories of a Muharram

June 3, 2010

What will make a lasting impression on your mind, you never know. When I hear the word Muharram, I remember the events related to it in my early childhood.

The Muharram in our town was quite famous in the nearby region. It used to be celebrated on a grand scale. No sooner than we used to come to know of the onset of this 10 day festival, the evenings would be booked for viewing the Sawaries, Panjas and Tajiyas.

Sawari used to be something like a bamboo T figure, with flowing fine fabric in a number of layers as if clothes, a small silver umbrella where the head of the figure should have been and the crescent and star symbol at the top. The Sawaries that had decades of tradition did not change their appearance every year. They were the same white or blue each year.


Tajia used to be a well embellished replica of the Minar in wood and cardboard. The Panjas were bamboo and metallic paper lookalike of the palm of a hand, sometimes with two thumbs, six fingers. All used to have green colour as the main theme. For reasons unknown, I liked Sawaries more than Panjas and Tajias.

In Muharram, many a devotees used to ask blessings for good fortune or for Hajj pilgrimage from the Sawaries. If there was a child birth or completed Hajj pilgrimage or something like it because of the blessings of Sawari, then you had to pay back whatever you had promised to do in return.

Some promised and installed Sawaries in their homes as repayment, irrespective of their religion.

Some benefiters impersonated as Tigers for ten days, complete with face paint or mask, standing ears and whiskers too, yellow and white stripes all over their body, as also the tail. Some became Siddies with jet black paint all over the body and played Maracas made of cocoanut kernels. These tigers and siddies roamed for ten days in the city. And they used to have a percussion drum band with them who had a signature beat which used to sound like Dhuyyak…. Ruddama… Dhuyyak…Ruddama…. mixed with Maracas fillers. The beat used to start at a slow pace and then raced as the five minute dance reached to a pinnacle. The tigers used to look real and ferocious, courtesy the artists specialized in this task.

While acting as tigers and siddies, it was the impersonator’s normal pursuit to terrorize children that gathered around them to watch them dance. May be it was the catharsis of their own fear and shame that people will recognize them in this funny outfit although well camouflaged.

During one of the Muharrams, I had gone to the market place in the morning to purchase something. A well known sweetmeat shop had a Sawari installed. I stopped there for a minute when one of these tigers jumped at me. I was surprised and petrified stiff. When I came home, I was already running fever and my nose was runny.

Concerned, everybody in the house was around me throughout the day. I started having difficulty in breathing in addition to fever and nose run.

That night, one more tiger jumped at me. This was our neighbor Sunam Sing uncle. He came to us wearing a tiger mask and tried to scare me, while everybody else was telling him not to. The fever had no limits during the night. It hovered around 104-105F and I was delirious. Sunam uncle sat with me for the entire night and apologized a hundred times. What he said was that our Rikshawalla Hassan was to become a Tiger in the festival and had asked Sunam uncle to keep his mask for the day. As he did not know that I was already fever struck, he thought he will play a prank and amuse me.

The fever did not recede. Next morning, I heard the tiger band play very near. Grandpa made me sit up and walk and we came outside. There was this same tiger again who had jumped at me yesterday in the market place. However, his time he told the band to stop playing, came to me and apologized for what had happened the other day. He was accompanied by a twin tiger, who I could recognize from voice was our Rikshawalla Hassan.

The fever did not recede. The doctor was called in that night. He said, more than fear, these appear to be diphtheria symptoms. The medication was given, but he said the correct antibiotics he will get early morning.

Grandma inquired aloud if she should ask the blessing of the Sawari where I was mauled by the tiger. Grandpa told her to keep quiet.

My condition did not improve till morning. Instead, the throat was completely choked now and I was finding it hard to breathe. Grandpa sat near me, asked me to open my mouth, viewed inside, asked grandma to bring a spoon. Then without paying attention to my screams, he scratched clean my windpipe with the spoon, took out half a saucer full of grey black material. He stopped only when blood started staining the spoon. I could breathe easily after some time and went to sleep fine. Our Doctor arrived, injected the correct antibiotic when I was asleep and left. Later he rebuked at the clinical procedure Grandpa had adopted but also praised Grandpa.

I was well within a few days although I felt drained. As remuneration for his prank, I asked Sunam uncle if we could go watch the tenth day procession. He said, why not and accompanied me. We watched the dancing horse, the acrobats wielding swords, the blood ridden bare chests of some beating themselves with a hunter or bare hands. We also had the famous khus sherbet they used to distribute to everybody.

Friends used to disparage about my tryst with Muharram tiger, but I had a solid reason of Diphtheria to fight back.

I very much doubt that Grandma indeed secretly sought blessings and paid back something to the Sawari. She refused to talk on this subject. Come to think of it, it was good she did not make me dance as a tiger cub.

I enjoyed witnessing the Muharram festivities all the more as I grew up and I acquired Muslim friends. However, I came to know that it is a festival of mourning much later- from my drawing teacher Noor Khan.

(Picture credits and the background information on Muharram- kindly click here: ; )


3 Responses to “Memories of a Muharram”

  1. Wonderful anecdote.. well now we’ve come to expect that of you! I liked the idea that the spirit of the Muharram occasion was so well shared by people from all religions.

    Must say that the experience you had was definitely of the ‘long-lasting’ types! I guess that you dancing as a Tiger cub would have been perfect for removing whatever fear had lingered on! 🙂

    How does this experience compare with the Muharram processions you might have seen during your stint in the Middle-East?

  2. rajeevelkunchwar Says:

    The public Muharram processions these days are taken out in very few countries. There are two basic streams in Muslims. Shia and Sunni. Sunnies do not observe Muharram. Whereever the rule is Shias’, the public ceremony is allowed, otherwise the 10 day mourning is observed indoors, much like Ramadhan with fasts and all, to avoid tensions. Suggest you read the history of Karabala War (Iraq) in Prophet Mohammed’s time.
    We are fortunate to have all the festivals at one place in our country because everybody honours other’s sentiments and Gods.
    Do watch the procession if you get a chance.

    • Yes.. we really are fortunate that we live in a country where such a large number of religions are practiced.. and we get to see their unique festivities. I will definitely try and catch the Muharram procession whenever and wherever I get a chance. I knew about the two sects among Muslims.. but didn’t know that they have such differing ways of marking the same occasion. History always seems interesting! I’ll surely read up more on the Karabala war and the general times of Prophet Mohammad.

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