Marking the culmination of 10 days of mourning, Ashura is observed across the country with solemnity every year to pay homage to Imam Hussain and other martyrs of Karbala. Processions with elaborate tazias (replications of shrines) are carried out in various cities as thousands of security personnel protect the mourners. The procession routes are dotted with sabeel (drinking) stalls, which are especially set up to provide cold drinks and milk to participants, and the general public, after they have walked long distances in the blazing sun. Local administrations all over the country place hospitals and ambulance services on high alert. But while many of these procession routes have existed since before Partition, there are some interesting stories about how they came about ...
The markazi juloos-i-aza, or central mourning procession, marks the climax of the azadari (mourning) period in Karachi, particularly on the ninth of Muharram and Ashura, the 10th of the month. The procession on both days emerges after a majlis (congregation) in Nishtar Park just off M.A. Jinnah Road and culminates at Imambargah Hussainian Iranian in Kharadar.
However, the route has changed over the decades. While there were azadari activities in Karachi during the pre-Partition days and the Bara Imambara Kharadar is said to date back to the mid-19th century, after the creation of Pakistan the Pak Moharram Association started organising the main mourning processions for Muharram 9 and 10, and for observance of Hazrat Ali’s martyrdom on Ramazan 21 etc.
Eos looks at the origin of the routes followed by Ashura processions in the major cities across Pakistan
The Pak Moharram Association was formed in 1948. The then commissioner of Karachi, A.T. Naqvi, issued to them the licence for the mourning procession. In the post-Independence period, the main majlis was held in Jehangir Park and was, for many years, addressed by the outstanding orator and scholar Allama Rasheed Turabi.
From Jehangir Park, the procession would move via Saddar, Radio Pakistan, Lighthouse, etc., eventually culminating at Hussainian Iranian. However, as the city expanded, as did its population, the venue of the central majlis was shifted to Nishtar Park sometime in the 1970s.
Today, the procession practically follows the same route, starting from Nishtar Park and on to M.A. Jinnah Road (with mourners offering Zohrain prayers en route) and works its way through Saddar back to M.A. Jinnah Road and culminates in Kharadar.
Due to the ongoing construction work on the Green Line bus project, the route has been slightly altered to avoid congestion and for the safety of the mourners.
Every year, on Muharram 9, as the sun sets, the central Ashura procession of Lahore departs from Nisar Haveli, Mochi Gate. After crossing some of the city’s prominent mosques, imambargahs and bazaars, such as Mohalla Chehl Bibian, Imambargah Syed Wajid Ali Shah, Koocha Qazi Khana, Imambargah Maulvi Feroz Ali, Mohalla Pir Gilanian, Imambargah Syed Rajab Ali Shah, Chauhatta Mufti Baqir, Chowk Kotwali, Kashmiri Bazaar, Sunehri Masjid, Dabbi Bazaar, Gumti Bazaar, Tehsil Bazaar, Ucchi Masjid and Bhaati Chowk, it culminates at the historic Karbala Gamay Shah on Muharram 10.
A lot may have changed, but the route that was first adopted more than 200 years ago has not.
Agha Shah Hussain Qazalbash, organiser of Lahore’s main Zuljinah procession for 35 years, tells Eos that over 200 years ago, on the 10th of Muharram, Syed Ghulam Ali Shah, a dervish, picked up a wooden tazia over his head and started walking from his place of meditation, Gamay Shah, chanting “Ya Hussain, Ya Hussain”.
“At Kucha Pir Gilanian, he met Mai Aghaan who was crying and mourning. Both continued their mourning procession together to Mochi Gate. On their way, they were heckled and pelted with stones by children, but the two did not stop,” he adds.
“My ancestors liked this route and after Ghulam Ali Shah’s death, they formally introduced a Zuljinah procession in his remembrance, which is followed till date. Shah was buried inside Gamay Shah, which my elders later bought and converted into an imambargah.” Some sources say that Gamay Shah was purchased from Maharaja Ranjit Singh and the imambargah was built in 1877. The renowned Nisar Haveli is named after Qazalbash’s great grandfather, Nawab Nisar Ali Khan.
In Islamabad, the markazi (main) Muharram jaloos is held on Muharram 9 as there is no procession on Muharram 10. Emerging from the Markazi Imambargah G-6/2, Islamabad, the procession circles around sector G-6/2, thus completing its route. The procession was initiated in 1960 by Anjuman Saadat-i-Amroha and the late Khawaja Murtaza, a former bureaucrat.
Since November 1947, the markazi jaloos of Muharram 10 emerges in Rawalpindi from Imambargah Colonel Maqbool Hussain in the old city, on the busy Gordon College Road. Colonel Maqbool Hussain converted a large haveli, with a spacious hall on its ground floor, into an imambargah which is named after him.
The procession route was finalised in coordination with the local administration at the time. The imambargah was the first to conduct organised majalis and introduced mourning processions in the city.
After exiting Imambargah Colonel Maqbool Hussain, the procession moves towards College Road and, passing through Iqbal Road, Fawara Chowk, Raja Bazaar and Old Fort Bazaar, culminates at Imambargah Qadeemi in Bani area — referred to as qadeemi (ancient) as it is an old Kashmiri-style wooden building. This imambargah — or ‘imamkot’ as it is locally known — was founded well before 1947 by people who moved here from Kashmir.
The licence for this procession was issued in the name of Colonel Maqbool but currently it is in the name of his eldest son Syed Mehdi Alamdar. “The route was finalised considering incorporation of smaller processions coming from adjoining localities,” says Syed Bashir Zaidi, one of the main organisers of the procession and son-in-law of the late colonel.
“The route covers the city in such a way that it allows people from all over Rawalpindi to participate in the procession,” he adds.
Although 486 mourning processions are taken out in the city from Muharram 5 to 10, the routes for these processions remain fixed as defined before Partition.
“There are two major Muharram processions in the city — one by Sunnis and the other by Shias,” says renowned writer and scholar Shakir Hussain Shakir. “Both the processions start from the walled city. The procession whose licence holders are Sunni Muslims emerges from Chowk Pak Gate and concludes at the shrine of Shah Risaal, while the procession whose licence holders are Shia Asna Asheri emerges from the shrine of Shah Yousaf Gardez and concludes at the shrine of Shah Shams Sabzwari
Shakir says that the Sunni Muslims of the city had applied for the licence after a clash erupted between Shia Muslims and the Hindus in Multan before Partition. In 1860, the British government had given the first licence to the city for Muharram processions for the Tazia of Ustad, a master craftsman of the area. Since then, for generations, the Sunni Muslims have acquired licences for the tazias and procession route. Two of the oldest tazias of the city, including the processions of the Tazia of Ustad (teacher) and Tazia of Shagird (student), are taken out on Muharram 10 every year, with thousands of devotees participating from various Sunni Muslim sects.
“Every year, the tazias of Sunni licence holders line up at Chowk Pak Gate and the seven-storeyed, 27-feet-high Tazia of Ustad leads the procession, says Shakir. “This is followed by the Tazia of Shagird which is 32 feet tall. Although the Tazia of Shagird is larger than Tazia of Ustad, to pay respect to the teacher, it follows the Tazia of Ustad,” he adds.
Presently, compared to Shias, more Sunnis own licences for the symbolic horse Zuljinah and tazias.
The central mourning procession of Ashura in Hyderabad is one of the oldest in the history of the city. The jaloos or procession emerges at 10am from Qadam Gah Maula Ali, a sacred place in the old city area off Station Road, passing through Kohinoor Chowk, Khokar Mohallah, Lajpat Road, St Mary Chowk and Universal Chowk to reach Karbala Dadan Shah, where it ends at around 4am.
Although a number of organisations participate in this procession every year, the route permit for the procession was issued in 1948 to Anjuman-i-Hyderi. “Since then, we hold licences for Ashura, Chehlum, Chup Tazia and Yaum-i-Ali (RA) processions,” says Nawaz Bhutto, president of Anjuman-i-Hyderi. “After an understanding between the Anjuman-i-Hyderi and Anjuman-i-Imamiya Sindh, the latter was entrusted with the task of organising Chehlum and Yaum-i-Ali processions,” says Bhutto.
“Earlier, the Anjuman-i-Hyderi comprised mostly of people who migrated to Pakistan from upper and central provinces in India through the Khokhrapar route in Tharparkar,” recalls Raza Irani of Anjuman-i-Hyderi. “Dr Syed Manzoor Hyder led the procession in 1949, followed by Dadan Shah the next year,” he adds.
Hazara community participants lead the procession amidst strict security arrangements. Police and Rangers are deployed across the route which is sealed from start to end, while Station Road, which is linked to several streets, is completely cordoned off. Before the proceedings end at 4pm inside Karbala Dadan Shah, a majlis is held along the route and Zohrain prayers are offered at St Mary Chowk.
Although the exact date of the beginning of Ashura procession in Peshawar is not known, a book Tareekh Azadari Peshawar by the well-known actor and zaakir (narrator) late Mukhtar Ali Nayyar mentions that the first procession of Zuljinah on Muharram 10 was taken out in 1890.
Nayyar writes that in 1890, the Iranian ambassador en route to Afghanistan visited the Imambargah on Muharram 10 and attended a majlis conducted in Persian. Impressed, he asked Akhunzada Akbar Khan, a notable Shia, if there was anything he could do for him.
Khan requested the ambassador to ask the then government of India to allow the Muslims to take out a Zuljinah procession in the city. The first procession was thus taken out from Imambargah Agha Syed Alam Shah Awal and continues to date.
The main Ashura procession emerges from Imambargah Sain Zareen, Imamia Colony, Gulbahar at 4pm on Muharram 9. Dozens of small and big alam and tazia processions converge into the main procession at various points.
After passing through its traditional route inside the walled city and adjacent the Grand Trunk Road, the main procession returns to Imamia Colony at 4am on Muharram 10. The Zuljinah, tazia and alam processions emerge from different imambargahs of the city after Zohar prayer.
On Ashura, 14 processions emerge from different imambargahs in the old city and pass through Qissa Khwani Bazaar, Karimpura, Jehangirpura, Gunj, Shaheen Bazaar, Debgiri Bazaar, Church Road, Chowk Yadgar, Kohati Chowk, Ashraf Road and other narrow streets.
Pashto, Seraiki and Dari-speaking migrants from other parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Afghan refugees who live in Peshawar conduct the majlis in their native languages. They have their own imambargahs and Ashura processions.
Akhunzada Muzafar Ali, secretary of the Muharram committee, says that Peshawar has 93 imambargahs, majority of which were established before Partition, with 63 of these still operational. He says that the oldest imambargah is Babul Hawaij in Jehangirpura.
A unique aspect of Ashura in Peshawar is that the majlis are conducted in six different languages: Urdu, Pashto, Hindko, Persian, Punjabi and Seraiki. Multilingualism and cultural diversity are also reflected in Ashura processions and majalis. “One can see Iranian, Afghan and Indian influence in the majlis and azadari processions in Peshawar,” says Ali. “This is because most of the zaakireen or narrators who conduct majalis have studied in Lucknow, Iran and Iraq.”
Ashura processions were started in Quetta by the Shia community, comprising mostly Hazaras who came to Quetta as British government employees. They began a Muharram congregation in a small house in Mission Road area in 1850. This led to an informal Ashura procession which continued for several decades. The Balochistan Shia Conference was registered in Khairpur district as the office of the British Deputy Commissioner was located there. Meanwhile, the local administration at the time formally issued an Ashura licence in the name of Baba Abdul and until 1931, Ashura processions continued without a prescribed route.
With a growing Shia population, in time, the first imambargah known as Imambargah Kalan was established in the main city. According to Syed Dawood Agha, the president of Balochistan Shia Conference, it also provided shelter to thousands of earthquake victims in May 1935.
In 1931, the route permit for the main Ashura procession was issued by the British administration in the name of Punjabi Imambargah, which also became the starting point of the procession. Since then, the route has been Alamdar Road, Mission Chowk, Meezan Chowk, Liaquat Bazaar, Prince Road and Mecongi Road. It culminates at Imambargah Nasir-ul-Aza and Imambargah Kalan, while the smaller processions return to the imambargahs they emerged from.
According to Zareef Haider, the general secretary of Imambargah Nasir-ul-Aza, after the creation of Pakistan, Muhammad Ali Jinnah formally approved the routes of the Ashura processions across the country including Quetta. “No changes were made in the Ashura processions in Quetta and other cities of Pakistan,” he says. “For security reasons, the local administration suggested a change in the route of the Ashura procession but the Balochistan Shia Conference and elders of the community rejected the suggestion. In 2004, the Ashura procession was attacked by terrorists in Liaquat Road area, claiming over 60 lives,” he adds.
Ashura processions with allocated routes are also taken out from other towns and cities of Balochistan including Sibi, Gandawah, Dera Murad Jamali, Dera Allah Yar, Usta Muhammad, Khuzdar, Loralai, Mach and Kandakha.
Presently, 56 imambargahs exist in Quetta, out of which 46 are registered. Some 48 small and big processions known as maatmi dastay emerge from different imambargahs and join the main Ashura procession in the Alamdar Road area. Thousands of security forces personnel are deployed in and around the procession and all link roads are sealed.
Reporting by QAM in Karachi, Sheharyar Rizwan in Lahore, Kalbe Ali in Islamabad,
Shakeel Ahmed in Multan, Mohammad Hussain Khan in Hyderabad, Zulfiqar Ali in Peshawar and Saleem Shahid in Quetta
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 8th, 2019