On a lazy Sunday afternoon, most of the residents Narayan Pura, Ranchor Lines appeared to be outside their homes. The women gossiped on charpoys while the children played board games on the street. It was a place where the children are skinny and the street cats are fat. The men were missing.
The street passed through a dilapidated building, the front railing wall of which was crumbling in several places. There were open gutters every few feet with sewerage water spilling out and trash everywhere. The stench was unbearable.
Huddled in a room, all together, the men were decorating a wooden horse, which they did every year for the Muharram procession. They are part of the local Hindu community and most work as sweepers. They call themselves khaak-roab.
“My grandfather, Dhanji Jai Tha, made Zuljinnah in 1933 and we have been taking it out and redecorating it every year,” said Vikram, one of the chief decorators. The children also participate; they cut out coloured paper and glue glitter on it.
“My family has been involved with decorating and keeping this statue safe for as long as I can remember,” said Vikram. “It takes about five or six men to lift it.” They take it out on the urs of Satti Jamial Shah Girnari on Muharram 7, 9 and 10.
Not far away, at a Hindu temple in Karachi, sits a very old Mai Mahmooda. She takes out one of the most well known tazias in the neighbourhood — known simply as Mai Jannat ka tazia. It was time for ‘lowan batti’ — the lighting of the diyas — at the temple but she agreed to have a quick chat.
“Seven generations of my family have been involved in taking care of this tazia,” she said, unveiling it to reveal one stripped of all its fine adornments. “Mai Jannat (after whom the tazia is named) was my mother and teacher. My children and grandchildren will continue this tradition after me,” she added. “You’re here early. We’re going to start decorating it in a couple of days.” I was meeting Mai Mahmooda on the third of Moharram.
The decorating would include taking it out of its dusty resting place, cleaning it up, adding newer lights, jewellery and other trinkets. An Alamdar Abbas will be placed right in the middle of the throne in the centre of the structure. This tazia had a intricate mirror work on its walls and pillars compared to the coloured paper cut-outs that adorn most of the others.
Mai Mahmooda is the caretaker of a temple as well as a tazia. How does she reconcile both religions at once? “Praying through namaz is what they do,” she said, “going to the temple is mine. I’m going to bless and pray for everyone irrespective of what religion they belong to.” With that she got up, refusing to say anything more.
“I’m will only speak to my Takht-i-Abbas now,” said Mai Mahmooda as she lifted a pail of burning coal and blessed the tazia with its fumes.
“We move here at the start of every Moharram so we can start rebuilding the tazia, around Moharram 7,” said Rukhsana, Mai’s daughter. “When it’s completed, so many people will be ready to take it into the procession that you will find it hard to come inside.”
Is she planning to continue her family’s tradition and take over as caretaker of the tazia after her mother? “Yes. Only if I am the chosen one,” she responded shyly, “I’m the youngest of five siblings. My mother will decide which one of us to entrust this responsibility with — when it’s the right time.”