The impact of the tragedy of Karbala on the cultural ethos of most Muslim communities in the subcontinent has been immense. In fact the word Karbala itself has become a byword for both suffering and courage in our cultural context.
In Pakistan and India, various symbols serve as a reminder of the events that transpired in the Iraqi desert 14 centuries ago. Among the most potent symbols that have emerged to represent Karbala is the alam.
In its most basic translation, alam in Arabic means flag or standard. Where Karbala and the events of Ashura are concerned, the alam represents the banner held aloft by Hazrat Abbas bin Ali, the alamdar or standard-bearer of Imam Hussain.
In this context, the alam is seen as much more than a flag: when associated with Hazrat Abbas, it serves as a powerful symbol of defiance to tyranny, and a testament to the valour and bravery of Imam Hussain and his companions in Karbala.
Flags, standards and banners have been used since time immemorial by armies across the world. The use of the alam can also be traced back to the earliest days of Islam. The Holy Prophet (PBUH) gave the standard to Hazrat Ali when the latter proceeded to conquer Khyber. Hazrat Jaffar bin Abi Talib, better known as Jaffar-i-Tayyar, also carried the alam before he was martyred in the Battle of Mu’tah.
These examples prove that in the Islamic context, the bearer of the alam on the battlefield bore a great responsibility and hence, the flag could only be entrusted to the most skilled of campaigners.
Crossing boundaries of culture, time and space, the alam remains symbolic of love and devotion
In Karbala, Hazrat Abbas held the alam aloft until he was mercilessly martyred near the banks of the Euphrates by the Syrian horde. Today, centuries after the fact, to commemorate his heroic stand the alam of Hazrat Abbas flutters throughout the globe. In fact one of the most soul-stirring scenes is that of the changing of the alam over the mausoleum of Imam Hussain: while the colour of the flag is red for most of the year, as soon as Muharram approaches, the black banner of mourning is unfurled.
In Karachi, and indeed across Pakistan, alams of all shapes and sizes can be found. From giant banners installed in mosques and Imambargahs to flags fluttering atop apartment buildings, the alam has become a symbol of faith. What is interesting is that it has crossed sectarian boundaries, especially in Sindh. A drive through the interior of this province will show that many — if not most — houses have an alam fluttering from the rooftop, regardless of the fiqh of the inhabitants.
There are many components to the alam: the flag itself comes in various colours, though black and green seem to be the most popular. Inscribed on the flag can be two simple words — Ya Hussain or Ya Abbas; more intricate flags can have the names of Panjatan Pak, Quranic verses or elaborate calligraphy. On top of the flag is the punja, which usually features an outstretched hand; this symbol is interpreted in various ways.
For example it can either represent the hands of Hazrat Abbas, which were mercilessly cut as he sought to fetch water for the Hussaini camp; or it can be seen as representing Imam Hussain’s hand, refusing to offer fealty to Yazid.
Raza Anwar Ali, who runs a shop of religious items in Soldier Bazaar near the Mehfil-i-Shah-i-Khorasan mosque, explains the costs involved in purchasing an alam. “An alam [can cost] from Rs30 to over Rs100,000. Depends on what type of design you want, what type of material you want — silver, gold, steel. It [also] depends on the workmanship. The hadiya [gift] is set accordingly.
“Everyone has their own way of decorating the alam. The more you spend the more you make it beautiful. A complete alam consists of a punja, also known as Ghazi Abbas’s nishan. Then there is the pharera or patka, which is the cloth. There is a mushk [water flask] which symbolises mushk-i-Sakeena.”
Asked what is the best place to procure an alam, he says that “wherever there is an Imambargah you will find stalls and stores of tabarrukat [religious items]. Some shopkeepers operate all 12 months. Some operate other businesses and as soon as Muharram approaches, they start [stocking] alams.”
Qamar Raza, who runs a small store selling religious items in Ancholi near the Khairul Amal mosque, pinpoints the exact places alams are made in Karachi.
“This work takes place in Golimar, Lalukhet, Ancholi etc. In Lalukhet people belonging to Ahl-i-Sunnat [community] also do this work. Some do great work, such as Imamuddin, Sheroo Bhai, Laique Bhai — they work on zareehs, alam, punjay.”
He adds that it takes around four to five days to complete a big alam while a patka can be prepared in a day.
Indeed the art of making alams is not new. Exquisitely decorated alams and punjas exist from the Safavid era, as well as from the Shia kingdoms of 17th century India. Modern Iranian alams are just as elaborate. In the dusty, congested lanes of Karachi this ancient art lives on, especially during Ayyam-i-Aza — Muharram and Safar — when one can see artisans working on religious items in Ancholi, Rizvia and other areas by hand.
The alam and azadari, or mourning for Imam Hussain, are inseparable. Wherever mourning assemblies are taking place, the alam is present. In mourning processions, the alams are front and centre. Some of the most memorable nauhas or elegies of the modern age feature the alam as a central motif. These include ‘Abbas Alamdar’, ‘Ooncha rahay apna alam’ and ‘Alamdar nayamad’, among others.
It would not be wrong to say that the alam as a symbol speaks of the events of Karbala louder than words. It is a banner of defiance, of devotion and of victory. But above all, as it has crossed the bounds of time and space, as well as cultures — Arab; Iranian; Turkic; Indo-Pakistani — the alam is a symbol of love.
The writer is Dawn’s City Editor in Karachi
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 1st, 2017