With the arrival of Muharram, the unlevelled streets of Chiniot present sombre scenes as the local Shias mourn the death of the Prophet’s (pbuh) grandson.
The Shia community constitute only 28 per cent of population for the district but the reverence spreads farther than the census figures indicate. Chiniot is in fact home to the oldest and finest tazias in Indo-Pak subcontinent. A total of nine tazias are produced at the commencement of the holy month and are eventually assembled at Maidan, the city centre, on the tenth day of Muharram –the Youm-e-Ashur.
Be it the picturesque Florence or alleys of Chiniot, intertwined streets seem to attract creative minds and skilful artisans. Pirjah is one such family of artisans that migrated to Chiniot in the 17th century when Saadullah Khan, a confidante of the Mughal Emperor Shah Jehan, decided to construct another Badhshahi mosque in the city.
In one of these intertwined lanes, down a beaten track, stands a gate to the workshop of Akhtar Pirjah. The heir apparent to the Pirjah family, Akhtar is a sleek man in his early 50s with a hawkish Janjua nose and signature fingers of artisans and a respected authority on the evolution of tazias. Akhtar’s mastery of woodcraft has its fans spread across the world, from Royal Colleges to art universities.
The first tazia arrived in India with Timur, but the art of tazia-making actually flourished during the Mughal rule when replicas of the shrines were developed for members of the Mughal family, who were unable to visit holy sites.
Tazias, however, took their present form when Akhtar’s great grandfather Ilahi Bux Pirjah created the replicas that are now seen during the month of Muharram.
When an Indian raja commissioned Ilahi Bux to design a palace, he wanted the artisan to travel across India to observe contemporary artwork and building trends. Ilahi Bux began his travels from Rajputana, across the districts of Jodhpur, Jaisalmer, Bikaner, Barmer and Jaipur.
The extensive journey through the historic cities introduced Ilahi Bux to buildings and palaces bearing exquisite woodwork and carvings (now referred to as manabat kari). These patterns can be seen in Jaipur’s Hawa Mahal, Jodhpur’s Mehran Garh Fort and the Bada Bagh in Jaisalmer.
With the death of the Raja, work on the palace never commenced but Ilahi Bux used these observations and replicated the patterns when he was employed by Sheikh Umar Hayat to design Gulzar Mahal – a Chinioti icon.
Inspired by the multi-storied palaces and facades, imposing staircases, jharoka-laden walls and the fusion of Eastern temple-like structures; Ilahi Bux decided to design the tazia.
The first and the oldest tazia, which now rests in Shadi Malang Imambargah was created in the year 1934. It was a multi-storied structure, with a dome and a crescent atop, was an expensive piece of art. While constructing the upper stories, Ilahi Bux shifted to a place now famous as taal and only saw daylight when the tazia was brought to Maidan.
Being a complex artefact, the tazia is carried out in parts on different dates in the first ten days of Muharram. The takht (base of tazia) is the first piece to be carried out on day one, followed by the palanquin and finally, the jhoola. The tazia is then reconstructed on the tenth day. When completely assembled, the tazia reaches up to 42 feet and weighs one and a half ton. Sixteen men are deployed to lift the enormous artefact
Tazias used in other parts of the country are also manufactured in Chiniot. Among these are the famous tazias of Multan, Jhang and Faisalabad.
Although the art of making tazias has become a commercial profession, a great deal of history remains embedded therein.
The mastery of Ilahi Bux’s craftsmanship was not restricted to tazias alone and he was commissioned with decorating a portion of the Buckingham Palace. His great grandson Akhtar Pirjah, meanwhile, was trusted with constructing the wooden interior of the royal family mansions in Qatar. Global appreciation aside, Akhtar now works with the serenity of knowing he has done justice to preserving the legacy of his family.