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Mourning in the ancient imambargahs of Lahore

Meandering through the narrow alleyways of the walled city, I arrived at some of the oldest imambargahs in the city.
Updated 23 Oct, 2015 02:07pm

Lahore, one of the most flamboyant and pulsating cities of Pakistan, hosts a few iconic buildings of Shia Islam. Nestled in the midst of the walled city's network of narrow and bustling streets are the old and distinctive imambargahs: Nisar haveli, Mubarak haveli and Maatam Siraai.

In search of these imambargahs, I entered the vibrant and crowded street of Mochi gate, leading to 'Mohallah Shia’an Kashmirian'. The area is known for its imambargahs and Shia community and culture.

The streets are lined with shops displaying alams and shabeehs (pictures) of Shia Imams. Dressed in black, men, women and children can be seen going to these many imambargahs and places for majalis.

The clanging of big sabeel cauldrons is heard at every corner, where flavoured milk and sherbets are served round the clock. These sabeels are decorated with flowers and alams to mark the occasion.

Mochi gate entrance. —Taimur Shamil
Mochi gate entrance. —Taimur Shamil
Balconies with wooden work in Mohalla Shian Kashmirian. —Photo by Abdullah Khan
Balconies with wooden work in Mohalla Shian Kashmirian. —Photo by Abdullah Khan
Stalls with 'alams' and relics for Moharram processions. —Taimur Shamil
Stalls with 'alams' and relics for Moharram processions. —Taimur Shamil

Tahir Malik, my friend and a senior journalist had grown up in the walled city, and offered to show me all the renowned imambargahs, including Mubarak haveli and Nisar haveli, both of which are located in the same 'Mohallah Shia’an Kashmirian'.

Walking through narrow alleyways, we approached Mubarak haveli's large, wooden and green front gate, from where, a tapered corridor with whitewashed brick walls led us to the inner courtyard.

Inside Mubarak 'haveli' imambargah. —Taimur Shamil
Inside Mubarak 'haveli' imambargah. —Taimur Shamil
The passage way leading to the courtyard in Mubarak 'haveli'. —Taimur Shamil
The passage way leading to the courtyard in Mubarak 'haveli'. —Taimur Shamil
Mubarik 'haveli' Imambargah. —Photo by Abdullah Khan
Mubarik 'haveli' Imambargah. —Photo by Abdullah Khan
The minaret of the Mubarik haveli from the courtyard. —Photo by Abdullah Khan
The minaret of the Mubarik haveli from the courtyard. —Photo by Abdullah Khan

It was a big courtyard, and had the feel of a timeworn lifestyle about it. The floor was covered with rectangular stone tiles. On the other side, the courtyard opened into a heavily incensed living area. The walls were painted brick red. The top floor had wooden arches while the ground floor had vaulted wooden windows. Green ivies and bushy shrubs dangled on the red wall.

From that area, we were led into a huge open area by our host Mr Mansoor Ali Qazalbash. This place had white marble walls and lofty arches, with a small square clean water pond having lampposts around it. It had black alams lining the wall on one side, and a four feet silver ta’zia with intricate engravings.

A wooden pulpit at Nisar 'haveli' where the 'Zakir' (scholar/orator) sits and addresses the mourners. —Taimur Shamil
A wooden pulpit at Nisar 'haveli' where the 'Zakir' (scholar/orator) sits and addresses the mourners. —Taimur Shamil
The wooden green balconies where the caretakers of Nisar 'haveli' live. —Taimur Shamil
The wooden green balconies where the caretakers of Nisar 'haveli' live. —Taimur Shamil
Silver and gold coated Alams at the Nisar haveli. —Photo by Abdullah Khan
Silver and gold coated Alams at the Nisar haveli. —Photo by Abdullah Khan
Inside the Nisar haveli ImamBargah. —Photo by Abdullah Khan
Inside the Nisar haveli ImamBargah. —Photo by Abdullah Khan

Even though Mubarak haveli and Nisar haveli lie adjacent to each other and were once owned by a single family, they are now under the ownership of two separate members of the same family.

Mubarak haveli was constructed by Nawab Ali Raza in 1863. Today, the haveli is looked after by Mr Mansoor Ali Qazalbash, his great grandson.

Mr Qazalbash told us, “Nawab sahab had come from Azerbaijan to Lahore through Afghanistan and settled here. At that time, Mohalla Shia’an Kashmirian was already a predominantly Shia community, but gradually, this haveli attained the status of the main gathering place for all of them.”

In his ancestors’ times, there was an ardent ritual of frequent pilgrimages to Najaf, and some of his forefathers had breathed their last in Najaf.

In my search for another renowned imambargah, I discovered the Maatam Siraai Imambargah, where the custodian, Mr Jafar Ali Shah, received and greeted me. He told us that his forefathers were Syeds from Kashmir and had migrated to Lahore.

Maatam Siraai is 500 years old, which makes it the oldest imambargah in Lahore. Shia devotees coming from Kashmir to Najaf used to stay here on their way, thus giving it the name Maatam Siraai.

While in Mohallah Shia’an Kashmirian, I couldn’t help notice the cleanliness in the streets, which is an uncommon thing in the old city. I was told that it was made possible by the combined efforts of the local government and people, who wanted a clean area for Moharram gatherings.

Agha Zulfiqar, an elderly man of the area, told me, “Shias and Sunnis have always lived peacefully in this area”.

When I asked if there had been any change in that culture, he replied, “There has not been any change of the slightest kind. Shias and Sunnis attend majalis together. Sunnis used to bring the ta’zia and still do, as the martyrdom and sacrifice of Hazrat Imam Hussain is revered by all.”

Security has never been an issue here, as all the people live in complete harmony. The streets are divided in the middle by a rope, one side for the men and the other for women mourners. Many imambargahs are managed by women, where women and children are the attendees of the majalis.

A busy street in the walled city. —Photo by Abdullah Khan
A busy street in the walled city. —Photo by Abdullah Khan
Balconies with wooden work in Mohalla Shian Kashmirian. —Photo by Abdullah Khan
Balconies with wooden work in Mohalla Shian Kashmirian. —Photo by Abdullah Khan
Inside the Vazir Khan mosque. The water is used for ablution by the worshipers. —Photo by Abdullah Khan
Inside the Vazir Khan mosque. The water is used for ablution by the worshipers. —Photo by Abdullah Khan
Delhi Gate, one the 12 gates of Lahore. —Photo by Abdullah Khan
Delhi Gate, one the 12 gates of Lahore. —Photo by Abdullah Khan

All majalis have a culture of cooking special dishes (Niaz) for Moharram. Shias and Sunnis alike make special dishes like saag biryani, daal chawal, koonday and zarda. Free food and fruits are also distributed among the mourners.

The art of making ta’zias and shabeehs, flourishes in the Sooa Bazaar during Muharram. The cost of a ta’zia ranges from as low as a few thousands to as high as a crore. 'Zuljinna', the horse, which symbolises the horse of Imam Hussain, is taken care of by well-to-do Shia families throughout the year.

As the ninth and tenth of Moharram approaches, these imambargahs receive Shias from all over Lahore and other places. They become the beacon of Shia spirituality; the guardians of Shia tradition, standing as a symbol of the unparalleled sacrifice and historic martyrdom of Hazrat Imam Hussain.

It reverberates and resonates in the symbolic alams, shabeehs and sorrowful chants of the mourners.

This culture is the proud ownership of the people of Lahore. As important cultural and religious monuments, the imambargahs are in need of upkeep. The residents of the walled city would like to preserve them and need the government's support for that.

This diversity, which is the hallmark of Lahore, should be upheld and promoted.