KARACHI: Just a day before the Muharram moon was officially sighted in Pakistan, the roads in Saddar were crowded with men, women and children of the Dawoodi Bohra community. They were all headed towards one direction, the Taheri Masjid.
The buses, cars and motorcycles all had men in crisp white clothes and women distinctly dressed in those pretty and colourful Bohra burqas called rida.
Karachi this year is hosting some 40,000 Bohras from all over the world for their annual congregation, or Ashra Mubaraka, which takes place in different cities every year. There are visitors from India, Sri Lanka, Iraq, UAE, the rest of the Gulf region and the Far East, Malaysia, UK, Canada and the US. The hotels are full as are many Bohra homes who have welcomed members of their community with open arms.
“It is after about 21 years that we have so many people from our community visiting. It is the first time also that head of the Dawoodi Bohras Dr Syedna Mufaddal Saifuddin is holding the Muharram majlis series. When the gathering was held 21 years ago here the sermons were conducted by [the late 52nd leader or dai] Dr Syedna Mohammed Burhanuddin,” said Mustafa Tawawala, a senior member of the community in Karachi.
‘Our surnames say a lot about our family businesses’
Since the Bohras follow the Egyptian calendar, the Muslim year for them commenced a day before everyone else in Pakistan. And the first day was marked with the birthday of the thaal or the huge stainless steel serving platter placed on a kundli or wooden stool around which some eight people can sit cross-legged to enjoy the dishes.
Usually, there are about 53 dishes on each thaal. Fifty-three because the present leader of the community happens to be the 53rd one. But that’s not all, the variety in dishes is according to the concept of sakhan, which is a wish to be blessed in as big a variety of ways are there are dishes on the thaal. The more the dishes the more the blessings.
There is all kinds of food including the popular Bohra khitchra, a rice and meat dish, chicken, fish, vegetables, pickles, salads, raita, savoury dishes, deserts and fruit on the thaal. Every meal begins and ends with the tasting of salt but on the birthday of the thaal on Muharram 1, it is customary to first pass a coconut over the thaal seven times in clockwise motion. Then after the tasting of salt it is time to have the sweetened rice. As a shukrana or thanksgiving every happy occasion within the community begins by having the sweet dish first.
On Sunday, Sakina Bookwala and family, who crossed over to Pakistan from India by train a few days ago, were on their way for the majlis in Saddar. “We are travelling from Mumbai in a group. We first arrived in Lahore before coming to Karachi,” said Sakina, surrounded by her immediate family which includes her little daughter Sarah, who is wearing a very pretty cap with sail boats, steering wheels, anchors and lifebuoys embroidered on it.
The family is also accompanied by the extended family comprising cousins, aunts and uncles. All could be spotted from afar in their traditional attire. The women are wearing different coloured rida and the men the three-piece white kurta, pajama and saya, a long matching coat worn over the kurta. On their heads they are wearing white caps with golden embroidery. Some also wear golden caps with white embroidery.
When asked if she suggested the design on her cap, Sarah smiled shyly before nodding. And how many caps did she have? “Three,” she said. “This and two more, one decorated with lace and the other with ribbons,” she added.
“The caps serve as training headgear for when they are old enough to adorn the rida. They also prove as encouragement to dress decently,” explained Sakina. All the little girls going to attend majlis wear similar caps. One girl has different colour fish on her cap, another has beads on hers. The caps match the clothes. “We have plenty of cap makers within our community. They are experts in their craft,” said the mother.
Some of those experts can be found at the nearby Najmi Market, too. There are shops there catering specifically to the Bohra community as they are also owned by Bohras. Unstitched rida sellers, rida tailors, shops selling lace for the borders of the pleated rida capes with hoods and the long skirts and shops which sell Bohra menswear. There are also shops selling other things of daily use such as the wooden slippers, or kharawein, as they are called, attar, bukhur, the short, fat incense sticks, thaal, kundli, etc.
The visitors to Pakistan though don’t really have time to shop. Sakina and her family said that they would be leaving around the 12th of Muharram. “Wish we could stay longer but the children would miss too much of school then,” she pointed out.
With so many Dawoodi Bohras around all of sudden others want to know more about them, which is not easy to do as they are a very peace-loving, quiet community who keep to themselves and don’t like to fuss or attract attention towards themselves. “We are commonly known as ‘Bohri’ here, which is a distortion of Bohra. We don’t even call the bazaar, commonly known as the Bohri Bazaar that. We call it Bohra Bazaar,” Mr Tawawala said.
“The word ‘Bohra’ means traders, by the way,” he said. “Our community has been associated with various trades,” he added.
“For instance, if you come across a Bandukwala, you can be certain that he is a progeny of someone who traded in hunting rifles. Similarly, up in the family tree of a Sadriwala there must have been someone involved in the trade of selling or making umbrellas. So our surnames say a lot about our family businesses,” he said, adding that such names are common in Gujaratis, who happen to be business-minded people.
Coming back to their attire, one wondered if it could also be an issue as it sets them apart. “It gives us an identity, too,” says Mr Tawawala. But what if that identity makes them a target for troublemakers? “We are a peaceful, non-political community. Why would anyone target us?” He wondered aloud upon which he was reminded about the bomb blast outside Saleh Mosque in 2015 and the worst of all attack on Bohri Bazaar in 1987.
“If we become afraid of some isolated incidents that happened over the years and don’t wear our traditional clothes or stop going to our mosques, or jamatkhana, then we also lose our culture and out identity,” he concluded.
Published in Dawn, September 25th, 2017