The Muharram Procession of Mumbai
The Muharram Procession of Mumbai
From Seafront to Cemetery
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the Muharram procession of Mumbai as part of the process of urbanization that transformed Mumbai into a cosmopolitan city. Over the last two centuries, the Muharram ritual has been constantly changed and reinvented in Mumbai. The ritual, as practiced today, is constituted through an intensive interaction and tension between diverse social and religious groups that have come to Mumbai. The main procession was directed toward seafronts in the eighteenth century, but now goes toward Rahmetabad Cemetery in Mazgan. This chapter considers how religious diversity among urban communities in Mumbai contributed to the Muharram ritual and its changes, giving rise to a complex social organization that cannot be simplified based on Muslim-Hindu or Shi'a-Sunni divisions.
The Muharram ritual has been constantly changed and reinvented in Mumbai over the past two centuries.1 This chapter investigates the ritual as part of the cosmopolitan process through which Mumbai has been forged. The ritual, as practiced today, is constituted through an intensive interaction and tension between diverse social and religious groups that have come to Mumbai. The main procession of Muharram, which is a symbolic funeral of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, was directed toward seafronts in the eighteenth century. Today the procession goes toward Rahmetabad Cemetery in Mazgan. The shift from seafront to cemetery is the result of diverse ethnic and religious groups encountering one another and the colonial authorities. Although the commemoration of Muharram is known as a Shi‘i Muslim ritual, it was limited neither to Shi‘as nor to Muslims, as other socioreligious groups were directly or indirectly engaged.
This chapter investigates the Muharram ritual as part of the process of urbanization that formed Mumbai as a cosmopolitan city. Mumbai has evolved and been fundamentally shaped through local, regional, and international migration. Urbanization is not only about the migration of people to a city; it is intrinsically about the formation of an urban society and its dynamics. It is about encountering the diverse ethnic, religious, and political groups that cohabit in a place and negotiate social and political relations through different forms, including rituals. In the nineteenth century, Mumbai emerged as “the cosmopolis of the Indian Ocean” (Green 2011, 3) and brought together linguistically and ethnically diverse Muslim groups to an unprecedented degree. The city was populated by “Arabs and Turks, Iranians and Turanis, Sindis and Hindi, Kabulis and Qandaharis, (p.90) Punjabis and Lahoris, Kashmiris and Multanis, Madrasis and Malabaris, Gujaratis and Dakanis, Baghdadis and Basrawis, Muscatis and Konkonis. These Muslims did not collapse themselves into an indistinguishable and uniform religious community” (ibid:4). All these groups had hardly been in contact with one another elsewhere; therefore they needed to redefine and reinvent their identities. In this landscape, rituals were a crucial social medium for redefining identities; however, this need also intensified the need for invention and reinvention of public rituals. The Muharram ritual, as the most important festival of Mumbai in the nineteenth century, played a significant role in the social dynamics of the city; therefore it was constantly changed during this process, making the ritual in Mumbai unlike Muharram anywhere else. This ritual not only narrates the story of interactions and struggles among diverse groups in the past but also creates a space for encountering and shaping the future of this cosmopolitan city.
Marxist scholars, such as Lefebvre (1991) and Harvey (1973), made splendid contributions to urban studies during the second half of the twentieth century. However, as Peter van der Veer notes in the introduction to this book, Marxist academics focused too much on economic resistance, neglecting urban practices that were not directly related to the notion of class or the economy. Lefebvre and other Marxist scholars have focused heavily on everyday life as a practice to resist capitalism (e.g., Lefebvre 2002; Bayat 2010) and on neglected rituals (non–everyday practices) as part of urbanization processes. The case of Mumbai provides evidence that rituals are some of the most significant means by which urban societies are constituted.
Religious rituals including the Muharram ritual cannot be reduced to just a religious practice. Such rituals often aim at practicing and representing social realities alongside different religious notions. They are intrinsically multipurpose collective actions and discursively entwine paradoxical notions such as social division and intimacy, violence and conciliation (see, e.g., Masoudi Nejad 2013). Mumbai Muharram particularly exists as much as a nonreligious collective practice as a religious ritual.
The dynamics of the Muharram ritual have mainly been studied by examining British colonial policies and the Hindu-Muslim conflict in India (Edwardes 1912; Edwardes 1923; Kidambi 2007; Masselos 1982). While I do not neglect the significance of these studies, I pay closer attention to the diversification among urban communities in Mumbai that were involved in the ritual and its changes. The religious diversity is multiplied by the ethnic diversity in the city, creating a complex social organization that cannot be simplified based on Muslim-Hindu or Shi‘a-Sunni divisions. Therefore this chapter emphasizes a shift from political to anthropological attention in studying the dynamics of the Muharram ritual as constitutive of a changing urban society.
The Ashura Tragedy and the Mumbai Muharram in the Nineteenth Century
The Muharram ritual constitutes a number of annual rites and ceremonies to observe the tragic martyrdom of Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Mohammad, on Ashura in (p.91) the year 680. Ashura is the name of the tenth of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar. The dispute over the legitimacy of Umayyad authority led to the Battle of Karbala (in modern-day Iraq) on this day, when Hussein and his few companions were killed.
Shi‘a Muslims have developed diverse rituals, including processions, majlises (mourning service sessions), and passion plays, to observe the tragedy of Ashura. In the Middle East, the Muharram commemoration is associated with Shi‘a communities and signifies the division of the Shi‘a and the Sunni. However, the Muharram ritual metamorphosed into a non-Shi‘i festival in India. Hasnain (1988) has mentioned that in India, not only Shi‘as but also Sunnis, especially those of the liberal Hanafi school, commemorate the Karbala tragedy. Hindu communities were also involved in the commemoration in rural areas. Hasnain has particularly noted that some of the Hindu rulers of Gwalior and Jaipur were patrons of the ritual for the purpose of encouraging harmony between their Muslim and Hindu subjects (48).
A large number of reports published in the Times of India (TOI) remark that not only Sunnis but also Hindus of lower orders participated in the Muharram processions in Mumbai (see, e.g., TOI, December 14, 1880, 2).2 Masselos (1982) explains that the Sunni community of Konkonis not only dominated the Muslim communities of Mumbai but also claimed authority over the Muharram processions in the nineteenth century. These included tolis processions and the taboot (also written tabut) procession. The procession of tolis, or street bands, took place for three to five nights, usually during the fifth through the tenth of Muharram. Each moholla (residential quarter) had its own band, ready to parade through the various quarters of the city and fight with the bands of rival neighborhoods. However, the Ashura tragedy was mainly observed by the taboot procession on Ashura. The procession was named after a word for “coffin,” since it is a symbolic funeral and participants carried symbolic coffins of Karbala martyrs. The taboot procession was the greatest festival of Mumbai during the nineteenth century (Birdwood 1915). Influenced by Hindu culture, this symbolic funeral had been directed toward a seafront in Mumbai. An article in the TOI even argues that the taboot procession “has been resorted to in India in imitation of the ostentatious processions of Hindus” (TOI, October 11, 1955, 6).
Although diverse religious and ethnic groups have observed the Ashura tragedy in Mumbai, this does not imply a kind of social integrity. Rather, the ritual has been a practice that channels urban contestations, competitions, and negotiations. As van der Veer argues, a religious ritual is a “construction of self that not only integrates the believers but also places a symbolic boundary between them and ‘outsiders’ ” (1994, 11).
The colonial authorities, in their best efforts, usually simplified the complexity of Mumbai’s Muslim society into Shi‘a and Sunni communities. However, the city was a great magnet for immigrants from everywhere; this multiplied ethnic diversities by religious diversities, creating a complex urban society. There was an awareness of this complexity even at the height of the colonial period. Rafiuddin Ahmed, in his appeal against Muharram regulations in 1908, argued that:
(p.92) The most essential fact to be learnt about the Mahomedan [i.e., Muslim] community of Bombay is that there is no such community. There are various communities in this city which profess the Mahomedan religious and which may broadly be classified under the two great sects of Islam, Sunni and Shi‘a. The Shi‘as, who are in a minority, are themselves sub-divided into no less than five sections, viz, Borahs, Khojas, the Moghals, the Hindustani Asna Asharis, and the Sulamnis. All these differ from each other not only in minor dogmas but also in language, dress, and other essentials of a common nationality. … The Sunni again, though they do not differ much in dogma, are roughly divided into four sections, namely, the Memons, the Kokanis [Konkonis], the Deccanis, and the miscellaneous Mahomedans of Upper India.
(TOI, February 18, 1908, 7)
All of the aforementioned groups insisted on their own distinct identities, and Mumbai as a cosmopolitan city intensified this desire. Although all these groups observed Muharram, that does not mean they were solidified through the ritual. The ritual was the manifestation of the complex social relationships among all these groups.
The Ashura tragedy was predominately observed with the taboot procession and the tolis processions, but the Shi‘a communities of Mumbai did not often join these, as these processions were not aimed at solemnizing. Instead, the processions were more involved with joy, drinking, and dancing. The following narration well depicts the atmosphere of the processions:
The streets in Native Town became gradually filled with a miscellaneous influx of human being of all kinds, and denominations. Brilliant cavalcades and corteges, bands of merry dancers, groups of counterfeit Ethiopians, knots of clowns—embellished with the conical cap and countless little bells, which tinkled at every step—saints, faqueers, dervishes, and itinerant preachers enacting absurd pantomimes, men painted to resemble the tiger, with long bushy tails, engaged in mime battles, fictitious riders, seated on imitation horses and camels, prancing and dancing around you, and ragamuffin mobs, under the especial eye of our picturesque Mounted Police—the whole a vast and animated masquerade, passed and repassed athwart the bewildered gaze of the spectator, and innumerable illuminated shows and pageants completed his confusion.
(TOI, August 25, 1858, 6)
The Iranian community initiated a horse procession (known as shabih in Iran) to represent the Battle of Karbala and its aftermath. However, as Masselos (1982, 51–52) reports, the police banned this procession in the 1830s. Another report (TOI, January 25, 1845, 64) indicates that the Iranians then held a passion play (resembling a typical play) in an open space adjacent to their mosque. This article shortly describes the play and explains that, in contrast to the taboot procession, the Iranian ritual is about grief. An article three decades later vividly describes the passion play at an Iranian gathering:
On the morning of the 10th of Muharram they resort to the open court of the Imambara [a religious community place dedicated to Shi‘i rituals]. A Mulla reads the story of the (p.93) martyrdom, and as he becomes eloquent the auditors beat their bared breasts and weep aloud, every now and then giving utterance to cries of lamentation—“Wai! Wai Hussain Kush ta Shud!” A kind of ring is meanwhile cleared among the devotees for the passage of a procession, and then, amid intense excitement, three horses are led in. Little children, representing the children of Husain, with blood-stained cloths, are mounted on these horses, surrounded by a large number of mourners, wailing and chanting, and as the procession moves forward headed by six banners—among which is the green standard of Ali—the riders of the horses throw ashes over their heads. A figure borne on a bier, representing the decapitated body of Husain covered with blood and wounds, is brought in, from which broken arrows stick out, with a white dove hovering above it. The profoundest grief is now exhibited by spectators.
(TOI, February 20, 1874, 3A)
By the 1870s, the Muharram commemoration had a third component—rituals that were sponsored by Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Khojas. Aga Khan took refuge in Mumbai after his failed rebellion against the Iranian monarchy in 1846. As Daftary (2007, 463–74) explains, he had already developed a good relationship with the British when he was in Iran, so he enjoyed their support in India. When Aga Khan arrived in India, he had a direct connection with his wealthy followers, the Khojas, a group of Sindi and Gujarati traders that had begun to settle in Mumbai in the nineteenth century. In order to stress the Shi‘i aspect of the Khojas’ faith, Aga Khan promoted the Muharram ritual. Apart from a majlis, he had arranged a passion play at his residence and invited a number of Europeans to be spectators. The observance of Muharram (as described here) has been drastically changed throughout the process of interactions among different social, religious, and political groups.
Cosmopolitan Urbanization and the Dynamics of Muharram Rituals
Reports during the 1840s and 1850s show that the Muharram commemoration in Mumbai was generally peaceful. Nonetheless, the tolis and taboot processions particularly caused major disturbances to the everyday life of the city. As they became more popular and increased in size, a tendency appears in official announcements to regulate the festival of tiger-men and half-naked people who play tom-toms and frighten other people (TOI, January 25, 1845, 64). By the late 1860s, there was a significant drive to limit the tolis processions to the native town and keep them out of the Fort, which was the European and administrative part of the city. In 1871, the brigadier general in command of the city announced the first significant regulation, “bann[ing] entering of taboots into the Fort” (TOI, March 31, 1871, 3).
The Shi‘a communities of Mumbai in the mid-nineteenth century were the Iranians (often called Moghuls), the Bohras, and the Khojas. Sunni communities, which dominated the taboot and tolis processions, suppressed the Iranians’ horse procession, keeping it away (p.94) from public streets; moreover, the Khoja (followers of Aga Khan) were not allowed to carry their taboots beyond their private grounds (TOI, April 14, 1871, 3). Therefore, tension between Sunni and Shi‘a communities built up in the city. In 1872, this sparked conflict between the Memons (a Sunni community) and Shi‘a communities of Iranians and Bohras in the Bhendi Bazaar area (see, e.g., the 1872 TOIs for March 20, 2; March 21, 3; March 22, 2; March 25, 3). One report mentions that the Bohras were peaceful, a “lily-livered” race who would remain at home after receiving a few beatings, but that the Moghuls were ready to fight (TOI, March 23, 1872, 2). It seems that the tension reappeared in 1873, when rioters targeted even Parsees’ places, after which all processions were banned in 1874. Frank Souter, the governor of Mumbai, announced that “it has become necessary for the preservation of the public peace to prohibit all religious processions until the public tranquility is restored. … No assemblies or procession is allowed,. . . and all licenses that have been granted are hereby cancelled” (TOI, February 18, 1874, 2).
Although the governor received some objections, he imposed the order. Nevertheless, part of a letter to the governor signed by Ahmed Mahomed is worth quoting here:
Sir,—Doubtless the “f. . . m policy” [illegible] of the Government in suppressing this time the taboot procession in public has the approval of most persons who are of the Christian faith and superficial observers of the present disturbances in this city, while Zoroastrians [Parsees] particularly exult in the promulgation of an Order, the harshness of which is but little understood by them. … The political mind of His Excellency. . . cannot grasp the subject in its religious aspect. It is quite plain that His Excellency has only one point in view—the safety of the public—and that in his estimation the only one he has to consider apparently.
(TOI, February 25, 1874, 3)
This letter singles out the problematic logic behind the policy of colonial power. More interestingly, it shows that negotiation and contestation over the Muharram occurred among not only those who observed the ritual but also those who did not (the Parsees and the colonial authorities). In fact, based on Queen Victoria’s famous 1858 proclamation, the British guaranteed that they would not interfere with religious customs. However, the governor did interfere, in the name of keeping the peace and public safety. A year later he announced the first significant Muharram regulation (published in the TOI, January 22, 1875, 3). It aimed at spatially and temporally controlling the Muharram processions in public streets. The regulation stated that the police had to license the taking of a taboot or a panja (a symbolic metal palm, attached to the top of a flag, that signifies the Prophet and four members of his family, including Hussein) into a procession. Moreover, it permitted the tolis processions only after the fifth of Muharram, between 1:00 and 3:00 a.m., and the final procession, the taboot procession, on Ashura only after 1:00 p.m. The taboot procession route was announced as heading toward Cooly Bunder in Mody Bay (also written as Moody Bay).3 Beginning in the 1870s, police regulations and reports gave the details of procession routes. For example, as an 1884 report describes, (p.95) “the taboots and punjahs from the several divisions will move in procession by the usual route through Bhendy Bazaar, Kalbadavle Road, along the Esplanade Cross Road, across the Cararnao Bunder railway, over [the] bridge, to the seashore at Cooly Bunder, where the taboots will be finally immersed” (TOI, October 31, 1884, 3).
I have compared a large number of police regulations and reports with historic maps (on which roads are often differently named) to identify the procession route; figure 5.1 shows the result. This route remained the same until 1912, when the procession was discontinued in the south of Mumbai.
Beginning in the 1870s, the police regulations for Muharram were announced every year, and the policing discourse gradually came to dominate the language of newspaper articles about the ritual. Nonetheless, there are still many articles and letters which demonstrate that the police reports exaggerated the levels of tension and violence during Muharram. For example, an article published in 1879 argues that the taboot procession passed peacefully in Mumbai with a “smaller number of casualties than happen in London at every Lord Mayor’s Show” (TOI, January 6, 1979, 8; originally published in 1879).
As the commemoration during these two decades was relatively peaceful, the author of an article that calls the Muharram ritual “the noisiest Indian festival” thankfully mentioned that “happily we are free from the unseemly riots between Hindoos and Mohamedans, which so frequently occur in the Northern districts” (TOI, October 11, 1886, 3). Europeans were commonly present at the Aga Khan’s and Iranians’ places as spectators of the passion play. They also usually occupied every balcony in Crawford Market, from which they enjoyed picturesque scenes of the procession passing along the Esplanade Cross Road.
Many reports describe the participation of Hindus of lower orders, who acted as man-tigers and fools, creating a striking contrast between them and Muslim participants. Gradually, some letters and articles called for excluding Hindus from the processions to keep this noisy ritual quiet. They usually claimed that “these classes of people who play the part of tigers. . . give the greatest amount of trouble both to our over-worked energetic police and the public” (TOI, August 27, 1889, 4). Another article, signed by S.D., argues that
your correspondent “X” very wisely draws the attention of the police to the fact that Hindoos erected taboots under a permit in the name of a Mahomedan. This practice should be put a stop to at once, and it is to the taboots of the Hindoos are mostly to be seen attached those long processions of tigers, mulkhumbees, and buffoons, &c., which make them so attractive to the multitude. From all accounts I hear that the Mahmodans are averse to these things, which throw their religion into ridicule. … The police should prosecute all those buffoons, sayaboots, and tigers who insult men and try to outrage the modesty of women on the public streets during the ten days of the Mohurrum.
(TOI, August 31, 1889, 5)
Ganpati, or Ganesh, is the elephant-headed deity known as the remover of obstacles and the god of auspiciousness. Hansen (2001, 29) notes that his celebration became a family-based festival among higher castes during the nineteenth century; it concluded with the immersion of a small Ganesh idol in a nearby river. The modern history of the Ganpati festival, however, dates back to 1893, when Tilak gave it a distinctly political face. The riot of that year provided the immediate cause for reshaping the domestic festival of Ganesh into a public manifestation of Hindu culture and the Hindu community (Krishnaswamy 1966, 214).
It is not a coincidence that Tilak initiated the modern Ganpati festival after the riot (1893). Muharram was always an opportunity to challenge the British authority. The Hindus had participated in Muharram, but they had not been influential enough to make the ritual an annual Hindu antigovernment demonstration. Therefore, by reinventing the Ganpati festival, Tilak gave the Hindu community its own public ritual with which to challenge both the British authority and the Muslim community.
The 1893 riot did not interrupt the Muharram processions, but it did cause a shift in the regulations. In 1895, Commissioner of Police R. H. Vincent announced that “the license will be granted to Mahomedans only” (TOI, June 25, 1895, 3). The rise of Hindu nationalism and new regulations sharply reduced the number of licenses granted for taboots and panjas: 169 for taboots and 860 for panjas in 1893, then 132 and 619, respectively, in 1897 (TOI, July 4, 1895, 5; June 12, 1897, 3). These numbers declined to 105 for taboots and 598 for panjas by 1908. Nevertheless, the police reports show that Muharram passed peacefully until 1908 in Mumbai, and Europeans were greatly attracted to viewing the taboot processions and other such rituals.
Mumbai was like a boiling pot, with the different mohollas, which comprised different ethnic groups, constantly competing with one another; the Muharram processions were an important medium of this competition. It particularly manifested in tolis processions during the fifth through the tenth of Muharram, when each moholla ran its procession through other localities and fought with the bands of rival neighborhoods. According to (p.98) an article signed by Etonensis, this “recalls the free-fighting which used once to take place between the various quarters of Gujarat and Kathiawar towns during the Holi festival” (TOI, February 17, 1908, 6).
The competition among different localities during Muharram should not be considered a sectarian matter. Instead, this was a natural social negotiation, part of the process of urbanization, whose tension and violence the Muharram rituals channeled. This kind of social tension was also common in Iranian cities, where all people followed the same school of Islam; however, there has always been tension between the hayat (equivalent of toli; also called dasteh, meaning “group” or “team”) of the Haydari and Nemati quarters (Masoudi Nejad 2013; Mirjafari 1979). These cases recall the violence among people in medieval Italian cities (Herlihy 1972; Hyde 1972) or football crowd riots between supporters of the Glasgow Rangers and the Celtics in 1909 (Buford 1993). As Perry has explained, “the common factor in all of these bodies is, of course, the bonding of young males in common warlike activities” (1999, 60).
The fast growth of Mumbai intensified the negotiations among its increasingly diverse groups. During the second half of the first decade of the 1900s, tension developed between Sunni communities and the Shi‘a Bohras. In 1908, a fight erupted between the Iranians and Sunnis during Muharram; the violence expanded to target Bohras in particular. The police intervention resulted in the loss of five lives (see the 1908 TOIs for February 13, 5; February 14, 7; February 15, 8; February 18, 7; February 21, 8). In the following year the governor of Mumbai initiated a conciliation committee that included fifty influential members of Muslim communities and was able to control the tension during Muharram that year.
Despite its success in 1909, the conciliation committee was not called in following years. Instead, Edwardes, the commissioner of police, introduced new borders for the tolis processions in 1910. He particularly wanted to close Doctor Street, the heart of the Bohra area, to these processions, as it had been a site of tension in the previous years. He permitted only the passing of silent processions through Doctor Street. However, as he explained later, the mohollas were angry with this policy and refused to bring out their taboots. Therefore, while procession was not banned, no moholla carried out even the taboot procession on Ashura (TOI, January 24, 1910, 8). Their alleged grievance was the fact “that the Bohras had been openly boasting that they had got Doctor Street closed and that they had won a victory over the Sunnis” (TOI, March 9, 1911, 7).
The police changed the balance of power among the communities, causing dissatisfaction. In protest, no one applied for a license and there were no processions in the city for the 1911 Muharram. However, violence erupted nonetheless, and the police killed forty-two people in an attempt to control the riot. The police report says that the mob was a “mixed collection of lower class Mahomedans, mostly young as it seemed, with a strong mixture of Hindus of the lower orders” (TOI, January 13, 1911, 7). While the governor and the commissioner of police did not call the conciliation committee, the official reports blamed the influential Konkonis members, who did not step in to control the violence.
(p.99) Prior to the Muharram of 1912, Edwardes introduced yet another regulation. This one stipulated that the number of persons accompanying a procession should not exceed thirty, all tolis processions were totally prohibited, and “the lifting and circulation of tabuts and tazias on the tenth night shall be strictly confined to the limits of the respective mohollas in which each tabut or tazia is standing” (TOI, October 23, 1911, 7). This order particularly targeted the processions as a source of violence, as Edwardes argued in a lecture: “There is no question of religion or religious fervor here. The tolis are irreligious rascality let loose for five days and nights, to play intolerable mischief in the streets and terrorise the peaceful house-holder” (TOI, March 10, 1911, 6).
Despite campaigns against the regulation,4 it was imposed. While it did not ban the procession, its conditions were such that people refused to apply for licenses, effectively ending the tolis and taboot processions for good in the south of Mumbai. A report published on Ashura of 1912 explains that “the last night of celebration passed off the city in a peaceful way and even traffic was in normal condition last night” (TOI, December 20, 1912, 5). A short report from the next day mentions that “Friday was the last day of the Mohurram festival and it passed off in Bombay without any hitch whatsoever. No tabut procession took place, as there was no tabut to be taken out so far as the Mahomedan localities of native town were concerned” (TOI, December 21, 1912, 9). The 1912 regulation stopped all processions and reduced the commemoration to majlises, mainly held at Iranian places. For years following, in reporting on the Muharram, outlets like the TOI spoke of how “the ceremonies passed off peacefully.”
The ritual in Mumbai underwent another major change in the early 1910s, as Aga Khan III introduced a fundamental reform of the creed and rituals of the Khojas, who follow the Shi‘a Nizari-Isma‘ili school. This occurred at almost the same time as, but was unrelated to, the consequential regulatory changes of 1912. To understand the significance of the reform for the discussion at hand, it is necessary to review the background of the Aga Khans in Mumbai.
As already mentioned, the first Aga Khan fled Iran for Mumbai in 1846. On arrival, he had a direct connection with his wealthy followers, the Khojas, a group of Sindi and Gujarati traders who had begun to settle in Mumbai in the nineteenth century. Aga Khan’s presence affected the social organizations of the Khoja community, which had been constituted over centuries, so some members challenged his authority. They basically denied that the Khojas were Shi‘a, claiming instead that the community had a Sunni background. A court case in Mumbai challenged Aga Khan’s authority, which, however, he succeeded in establishing by the hand of the Bombay High Court in 1866. Consequently, he officially affirmed and legally registered the Khoja community as “Shi‘a Imami Isma‘ili” (Daftary 2007, 476). As Devji (2009, xi) has mentioned, even Aga Khan III deferred the legitimacy of his authority over the Khojas as the living imam to the judgment of the Bombay High Court in the 1860s.
To stress the Shi‘i aspect of the Khojas’ faith, Aga Khan emphasized and promoted the mourning service sessions of Muharram. As mentioned above, his rituals were (p.100) indeed considered an important segment of the Muharram commemoration in Mumbai. The TOI often reported a large assemblage of high-ranked Europeans officials in the compound of Aga Khan’s home at Mazagon, where the mourning rituals and passion play were performed (see, e.g., TOI, September 29, 1887, 4; August 17, 1891, 3). Aga Khan came to India from Qajarid Iran, where Muharram rituals shaped social life and public culture. In fact, Qajar kings (who ruled from the eighteenth to the twentieth century) used the Muharram rituals as a medium to shape, influence, and control Iranian society (Aghaie 2005). Therefore, unsurprisingly, Aga Khan used that policy too; he promoted commemorating Muharram to fulfill his political and religious authority. Boivin (2008, 156–57) even argues that Aga Khan introduced the Ithna-Ashari Muhrarram rituals to the Khojas on his arrival in India to counter the influence of Sufi leaders (sayyids and pirs) and establish his authority.
After the short era of Aga Khan II, which lasted only a few months, Aga Khan III became the Nizari imam in 1885. During his reign, some of the Iranian Shi‘a clergy in Mumbai were trying to convert the Khojas to Ithna-Ashari. Therefore the Khoja community was divided into Isma‘ili and Ithna-Ashari parts, often respectively referred to as Bardi (majority) and Chori jamat (minority group). Aga Khan III also faced a major court case filed against him by members of his family in Mumbai because of a dispute over the heritage of Aga Khan. It is often called the Haji Bibi case, in reference to the woman who led it. It was decided in favor of Aga Khan III in 1908 and established that “the Nizari Khojas were distinct from the Shi‘as of the Ithna-Ashari school, since the plaintiffs had claimed adherence to Twelver Shiism” (Daftary 2007, 481). Thereafter, Aga Khan III, who had already started a reform, emphasized the differentiation of his followers from the Ithna-Ashari Shi‘as, based on a fundamental change of the creed and rituals of the Nizari sect. In 1910 he discouraged his followers from joining the Muharram commemoration, arguing that the Nizaris had a living and present imam and did not need to commemorate any of the dead ones (ibid, 492). Although forbidding the commemoration of Ashura was part of a much larger reform (see Boivin 2008, 170), this was a major shift, as the tragedy plays a central role in Shi‘i theology and culture.5 Therefore this sharply demarcated Nizari Isma‘ilis from all other Shi‘as, including the Musta‘ali Isma‘ilis (Bohras) in Mumbai. Nowadays during Muharram, the Khoja Ithna-Ashari Jame Masjid in Dongri is crowded and vibrant; however, literally right next to the mosque, the Nazaris’ Jamat Khaneh (religious community center), with its beautiful clock tower, is quiet and looks like an empty colonial building whose time has passed.
The shift of the Aga Khans’ policy on the Muharram rituals was particularly a result of the cosmopolitan context of Mumbai, where different Shi‘a groups interacted with and challenged each other. In such a diverse context, the communities encountered each other and needed to constantly reinvent their identities over time. The policy shift of the Aga Khans from promoting to banning the Muharram ritual is a good example of the need to reinvent the community identity in the rapidly changing context of Mumbai.
Although the Muharram commemoration has undergone constant changes over the past two centuries, the most important have unfolded since 1912. I will articulate these by looking at two important cases: the processions in Bandra and the revival of the procession as a Shi‘i ritual in the old city of Mumbai.
Bandra, a northern suburb of the city, was officially outside Mumbai and not under the Mumbai governor. It was initially a Christian locality until some Muslims, including the Khojas and the Iranians, settled there in the early twentieth century. The Khoja Ithna-Ashari Jame Masjid, built in 1901, highlights the background of this community in Bandra.
There are reports indicating that Muharram was observed in Bandra in the late nineteenth century (TOI, June 2, 1898, 5; June 25, 1898, 5). When the Muharram processions were stopped in Mumbai, Bandra became the main place for them, attracting large crowds of Muslims in the early 1920s (see, e.g., TOI, August 25, 1923, 13). The first photograph of a crowded Muharram procession in Bandra was published in 1926 (TOI, July 24, 1926, 16). The caption of a photo published in 1929 reads,
Although the Taboot procession, that is one of the most impressive features of the great Mahomedan festival of Mohurrum, is forbidden in the City of Bombay owing to the violent disturbances that invariably marred the peace of Bombay when it was allowed in former years, the prohibition does not extend to Bandra, one of the city’s suburbs, where is held annually. Thousands participate in the processions at Bandra, which are viewed by crowds of Hindus and Christians. The picture shows a procession in Bandra on Wednesday, taking a “taboot” for immersion.
(TOI, June 21, 1929, 10)
There were three major processions every year in Bandra in the 1930s (TOI, April 2, 1936, 6), when “every suburban train leaving for Bandra carried crowds of devotees from the City” (TOI, March 3, 1939, 5). The scale of the processions there grew until, in 1943, “special arrangements were made by the police for regulating the traffic” (TOI, January 18, 1943, 4). Moreover, we learn that since 1933 there was also a procession in Andhari, another Muslim locality in the suburbs of Mumbai (TOI, May 6, 1933, 12; April 16, 1935, 6). Fast-growing cities like Mumbai have always produced suburbs and urban villages; the migration of ritual to these places particularly exhibits how they were part of a resilient mechanism that Muslims used to maintain their socioreligious practices.
The Iranians were not a significant community in terms of population size, but they made a major contribution to the establishment of Shi‘a religious places in Mumbai. More notably, this community played a crucial role in keeping and reviving the Muharram commemoration in Mumbai. Since 1912, the religious places associated with Iranians, including the Shushtari, Amin, and Namazi Imambaras, as well as Moghul Masjid, were the main hosts of the crowded majlises. Sayyed Safar-Ali Hussini, who was born in Mumbai and whom I interviewed in April and December 2010, is the senior member of (p.102) an influential Iranian family that has served as a patron of the Muharram ritual in Mumbai for generations. He mentioned that the British were nice to the Iranians and gave them permission to hold the rituals in the imambaras but did not allow the procession through the streets. Therefore the Iranians made a silent procession that moved between the Namazi, Shushtari, and Amin Imambaras.
Supporting Hussini’s narration, the TOI reported in 1925 that “the Moghuls celebrated their Katal-ki-Raat [the night of Hussein’s martyrdom] at the Shustari [Shushtari] Imambara in Jail Road, where the crowd this year was an unusually large one. They came in a procession to the Imambara from the Babar Ali’s [Namazi] Imambara, in Pakmodia Street. … They then went to the Zainul-Abidin’s [Amin] Imambara, also at the end of Jail Road, where the ceremonies were brought to a close” (TOI, August 1, 1925, 25). Another report says that “the ceremonies at the Nemazee’s Imambara in Pacmodia Street began at 8:00 p.m. and closed half an hour later when a procession was formed and went under police escort to Shustry’s Imambara at Sandhurst Road. The Moghuls who participated in the ceremonies later went to the Zainul Abedin’s Imambara in Mirza Ali Street, Bombay. The Consul for Persia attended the ceremonies” (TOI, May 6, 1933, 12).
Hussini also stated that the Iranians gradually changed the silent procession into a more typical one. He and Dr. Jafar Najafi, whom I also interviewed in April 2010, noted that initially, the Iranian procession began at the Namazi Imambara, came to the Shushtari Imambara, then passed by Moghul Masjid and terminated at Amin Imambara (see figure 5.2). They mentioned that this procession was small and limited to the Iranian community.
Although Mumbai’s Shi‘i populations decreased after Indian independence, they expanded again because of immigration from Utter Pradesh (UP), Lucknow, and Bihar. Hussini pointed out that this particularly happened after the abolition of zamindari (landlordism) in India in the 1960s, when many Shi‘a navabs and zamindars—influential social classes that owned or leased and managed agricultural lands in India—came to Mumbai from Lucknow. On their arrival, the Mumbai Shi‘i population increased and gained confidence, and the Iranians’ procession became the core driver of expansion for the Muharram processions during the 1960s and 1970s in the south of the city. But although the Iranians initiated the procession in the south of Mumbai in Dongri, it was mainly Ithna-Ashari Shi‘as who expanded it, in or around the initial Iranian places. Nonetheless, Iranians do not participate in the expanded processions, preferring to stage their own shorter ones.
As discussed above, the Mumbai taboot procession on Ashura began as a Sunni-dominated ritual directed toward Mody Bay, where the immersion took place. However, the main procession (of Ashura afternoon) no longer ended with an immersion. Moreover, the current procession of Ashura afternoon (i.e., the taboot procession) moved toward the Rahmat-abad Cemetery (associated with Iranians) in Mazgan and not toward a seafront (see figure 5.2). But the most important shift is that the revived processions are mourning rituals. Although immersion is not part of Mumbai’s main procession, in (p.103)
Mumbai Muharram Rituals Today
Mumbai’s Shi‘i population was concentrated in the Dongri area in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It gradually scattered all over Greater Mumbai, in Bandra, (p.104) Mira Road, Malard, Korla, and Govandi and up to Jogeshwari, Andheri, and Mumbra. Dongri is no longer the main Shi‘i settlement; Lotus Colony in Govandi and even Mumbra, where Shi‘as from UP mainly settle, appear to be more important today.6 Muharram processions are practiced in all the aforementioned areas; however, Dongri (often called Bhendi Bazaar) remains the center for these processions. In December 2009, I asked Baqir Balaghi, a Shi‘a from Kashmir whose family moved to Mumbai in the early 1990s, the reason for this. He explained that “Bhendi Bazaar is the center of the city; Muslims used to be here, then later gradually scattered into the suburbs. Initially, the procession was carried out here, and when people moved out [to the suburbs], they [would] practice [the procession] there as well, but they keep the center at Bhendi Bazaar.” He emphasized that “if somebody asks you, ‘Have you seen Bombay’s Ashura?,’ that means ‘Have you seen Ashura in Bhendi Bazaar?’ ”
What particularly differentiates Dongri from other Shi‘i areas is that in a short walk around it, you can experience the diverse cultural backgrounds of Mumbai’s Shi‘a communities through the architecture of their religious places. Moghul Masjid, arguably the oldest Shi‘i building in the city, is a wonderful example of Iranian Qajarid architecture. Khoja Masjid clearly addresses Moghul Islamic architecture. The Rowzat al-Tahera of the Bohras celebrates the Fatimid architecture of Egypt. The other major Shi‘i places in Dongri, including the Namazi Imambara, Shushtari Imambara, Amin Imambara, Anjuman-i Fotowat-i Yazdian, Imamiyeh Masjid, and Kaisar Baug are all also within walking distance (see figure 5.2). The concentration of all these places makes Dongri a ritual arena during Muharram.
The Muharram commemoration became a Shi‘a event; however, this does not mean that all Shi‘a communities are integrated during Muharram. For example, the Bohras’ majlises are community-exclusive events and their sole commemoration of the Ashura tragedy: unlike other Shi‘a communities, they do not run processions during Muharram. As the Bohra community is hierarchical, an outsider who wishes to attend a majlis must be invited and accompanied by an influential member. In 2010, I had the privilege of attending the main Bohra majlis, at which there was not a single outsider in the whole crowd.7 The Bohra community, however, is not self-segregated. I saw many individual Bohras at majlises at Ithna-Ashari places, especially Moghul Masjid. Its manager, Ali Namazi told me in December 2010 that the sermons delivered in the evenings of Muharram by Molana Saheb Athar, a popular orator, attract a lot of Bohras. Nevertheless, this is not an organized attendance and is based on individual preference.
One post-1912 phenomenon is the erection of shamianas and mandaps in public spaces to hold public lectures during Muharram (see, e.g., TOI, March 14, 1938, 10). This is a minor connection that Sunni communities have kept to the Muharram in Mumbai. Although there are few shamianas in Dongri during Muharram, recently emerged groups of Wahhabi (an offshoot Sunni sect) set up shamianas close to Iranian places on Jail Road during Muharram, which is very busy then. In fact, this is a kind of counter-ritual to interrupt Shi‘a rituals, since Wahhabi teachings refuse commemorating the (p.105) death of people. While the Sunni community builds white shamianas, the Wahhabis’ are distinguished by their red color, which ironically signifies the enemy of Hussein in Shi‘i passion plays. The Wahhabis are a new social group in Mumbai, mainly constituting Indian Muslim workers returned from Arab countries. Although they do not observe the tragedy of Ashura, they opportunely employ the Muharram to be part of an urban negotiation by claiming their authority over some public spaces in Dongri.
During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, new cultural and religious ideas came to Mumbai along with the waves of immigrants from other parts of India and the globe. For example, the immigration of the Parsees, the Marwaris, the Bohras, the Khojas, and the Iranians to Mumbai brought new ethnic and religious dimensions to the urban fabric. Recent years have seen a new phenomenon—the flow of ideas and ideologies. This has happened as Indian workers in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries have brought Salafi and Wahhabi ideas to Mumbai. Mumbai, like other global cities, has a religious dynamic based on national and transnational flows of ideas and people.
Conclusion: Muharram Rituals as Part of Cosmopolitan Urbanization Processes
The Mumbai rituals during Muharram are religious practices that address the tragedy of Ashura. However, the dynamics of this observance have a great deal to do with the social dynamics of the city. The rituals have created a space for an intensive social negotiation among the ever-increasing number of segments of this complex urban society. Throughout the past two centuries, the socioreligious groups at the heart of these Muharram events have constantly changed: they were the Konkonis, then the Memons, then the Iranians, and nowadays the Shi‘as from UP. In fact, not only Sunni and Shi‘a communities but also the Parsees, the Hindus, and the Brits have been involved in the dynamic of the rituals. The fast growth of this cosmopolitan city has intensified the need for constant social negotiation, in which the Muharram ritual has played a crucial role. The ritual not only has been part of the process of urbanism in an ever-changing city but has also itself metamorphosed over time. As I have shown, this metamorphosis changed the Muharram ritual and led to new rituals based on the idea of Muharram processions.
This chapter shows that the rituals during Muharram are neither strictly religious nor strictly secular. In fact, the issue is no longer their definitions along these lines but rather how they affect the process of urbanization as they are in turn inspired and changed by a cosmopolitan process.
Articles in the Times of India (TOI), By Date of Publication
From its founding in 1838 to 1860, the TOI was published as the Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce. It became the TOI in 1861.
“Spirit of the Indian Press.” 1845. Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce, January 25.
“Article 19—No Title.” 1858. Bombay Times and Journal of Commerce, August 25.
“Article 2—No Title.” 1861. TOI, July 22.
“The Mohurrum in Bombay.” 1871. TOI, March 31.
“The Mohurrum in Bombay.” 1871. TOI, April 14.
“Mohurrum Disturbances.” 1872. TOI, March 20.
“The Mohurrum.” 1872. TOI, March 21.
“The Mohurrum.” 1872. TOI, March 22.
“The Mohurrum Disturbances.” 1872. TOI, March 23.
“The Mohurrum Disturbances.” 1872. TOI, March 25.
“Suppression of the Mohurrum Procession.” 1874. TOI, February 2.
“Prohibition of Proclamation during the Mohurrum.” 1874. TOI, February 18.
“The Muharram.” 1874. TOI, February 20.
Mahomed, Ahmed, alias Ameer Mahomed Khan. 1874. “A Plea for Taboots.” TOI, February 25.
“The Mohurrum.” 1875. TOI, January 22.
“The Mohurrum Festival.” 1880. TOI, December 14.
“The Mohurrum.” 1884. TOI, October 31.
“The Mohurrum.” 1884. TOI, November 1.
“The Mohurrum.” 1886. TOI, October 11.
“The Mohurrum.” 1887. TOI, September 29.
S.D. 1889. “Mohurrum and Gunputtee.” TOI, August 31.
Pen. 1890. “Odds and Ends.” TOI, September 6.
“The Mohurrum.” 1891. TOI, August 17.
Vincent, R. H., and G. W. Vidal. 1895. “The Police and the Mohurrum.” TOI, June 25.
“The Mohurrum.” 1895. TOI, July 4.
“The Mohurrum.” 1897. TOI, June 12.
“The Mohurrum Disturbance at Bandra.” 1898. TOI, June 2.
“The Taboot Disturb at Bandra.” 1898. TOI, June 25.
“Mohurrum in Bombay.” 1908. TOI, February 13.
“Mohurrum in Bombay, a Serious Disturbance: The Military Called Out, Police Fire on the Mob.” 1908, TOI, February 14.
“The Mohurrum Riot.” 1908. TOI, February 15.
Etonensis. 1908. “The Bombay Mohurrum: Stray Scenes.” TOI, February 17.
Ahmed, Rafiuddin. 1908. “The Mohurrum Riot: An Appeal for Peace, to the Editor of The Times of India.” TOI, February 18.
“The Mohurrum Riot: Coroner’s Inquest.” 1908. TOI, February 21.
“The Mohurrum.” 1909. TOI, January 7.
“The Mohurrum.” 1910. TOI, January 24.
“Mohurrum in Bombay: Firing by the Military, 42 Killed and Injured.” 1911. TOI, January 13.
“Mohurrum Riots: Commissioner’s Report: Resolution of Government.” 1911. TOI, March 9.
“The Mohurrum.” 1911. TOI, March 10.
“The Bombay Muharram: Revised Rules.” 1911. TOI, October 23.
“Mohurrum in Bombay.” 1912. TOI, December 20.
“Mohurrum in Bombay.” 1912. TOI, December 21.
“Mohurrum in Bombay: A Mahomedan Petition.” 1913. TOI, October 22.
“A Quiet Muharram Celebration in Bombay.” 1923. TOI, August 25.
“Muharram Festival: The Katal-ki-Rat.” 1924. TOI, August 12.
“Mohurrum in Bombay: Quiet Celebration.” 1924. TOI, August 13.
“Mohurrum in Bombay, Tenth Night Celebration.” 1925. TOI, August 1.
“Scenes at Bombay and Poona during the Mohurrum Festival.” 1926. TOI, July 24.
“Taboot Procession in a Bombay Suburb.” 1929. TOI, June 21.
“Mohurrum in Bombay: Shahadat Day Ceremonies: Peaceful Celebration.” 1930. TOI, June 9.
“Mohurrum in Bombay: Enormous Crowds Join.” 1933. TOI, May 6.
“Peaceful at Bandra, Police Arrangements.” 1935. TOI, April 16.
“Bandra Muharram Precautions.” 1936. TOI, April 2.
“Bombay Celebration.” 1938. TOI, March 14.
“Moharram in Bombay: Large Crowds at Bandra.” 1939. TOI, March 3.
“Mohurram in Bombay.” 1943. TOI, January 18.
“Muharram Traffic.” 1948. TOI, November 12.
“Hundred Years Ago, from the TOI October 11, 1855: Muslim and Hindu Festival.” 1955. TOI, October 11.
“A Hundred Years Ago: From The Times of India Monday, 6 January 1879, The Mohurrum.” 1979. TOI, January 6.
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(1.) The name of the ritual appears in eight different transliterations, most often Mohurrum, in the archive materials I consulted. However, Muharram is the most common transliteration used in recent times.
(3.) Two reports (TOI, August 25, 1858, 6; July 22, 1861, 3) say that the taboot procession terminated at Back Bay; however, they give no details about its route. From 1861, all reports explain that the procession ended at Mody Bay.
(4.) For example, Badruddin Abdulla Koor argued that a number of its conditions were “undesirable and unworkable,” such as the limitation of thirty people for a procession in a city like Mumbai (TOI, October 22, 1913, 4).
(5.) However, it seems that the Nizari-Ismaʻilis did not suddenly discontinue the commemoration of Ashura. There are reports indicating that at least Lady Ali Shah, the third Aga Khan’s mother, sponsored majlises until the 1930s (see, e.g., TOI, August 12, 1924, 10; June 9, 1930, 10).
(6.) Unfortunately, there are no official figures for the Shiʻa population in India, but this is a common perception about the distribution of Shiʻas in Mumbai. People may give population numbers, but they are not reliable.