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Beautifully decorated chauk of different alams. (Right) Mourners play elegiac tunes on Shehnais outside Aliabad Imambargah.—Dawn

Talpur-era alams — a part of Hyderabad’s cultural identity

For Nisar Ahmed Bhatti working on alam is not a job but labour of love and deep religious passion.
Updated Sep 10, 2019 08:23am

HYDERABAD: 52-years-old Nisar Ahmed Bhatti, a carpenter, always feels deeply passionate when working on alam of the city’s oldest Imambargahs ahead of Muharram.

For him, working on alam is not a job but labour of love and deep religious passion. “Ye mera ishq hai (it’s my love),” remarks Bhatti. Besides his routine work, he takes care of the alam at over 100-year-old Imambargah Anjuman Safina-i-Hussaini (1909) in Hyderabad’s oldest locality Tando Agha where he worked on a 82-foot alam in 2009. It still exists there.

A view of alam in Chutthi ka Pir in the city. Erected this year, it is tied by ropes in different directions. Two large pieces of wood are used in it. — Umair Ali
A view of alam in Chutthi ka Pir in the city. Erected this year, it is tied by ropes in different directions. Two large pieces of wood are used in it. — Umair Ali

“Maalik sanbhalte hain warna ye mere bus ki baat nahi (The master himself takes cares of it. He has no power to do that),” Bhatti adds pouring out his deep love and respect for Hazrat Ghazi Abbas (RA), Imam Hussain (RA)’s brother, who carried alam until he breathed his last during battle on 8th of Muharram in Karbala, according to traditions.

Bhatti gets emotional when he explains process of alam making. He charges remuneration for other alam related work elsewhere but he has not fixed any fee for these Imambargahs and accepts what is given to him as nazrana by custodians.

Bhatti prepared two alams, 93ft and 82ft, respectively for over 150-year-old Aliabad Imambargah (1863) in Tando Agha and Anjuman Safina-i-Hussaini (Jamaitian Jo Pir).

The skyline in Hyderabad is dotted by alams. In Tando Agha area, an alam is erected on every second house. — Umair Ali
The skyline in Hyderabad is dotted by alams. In Tando Agha area, an alam is erected on every second house. — Umair Ali

“We used poonam wood for Safina-i-Hussaini alam in 2009 while height of Aliabad’s alam has now been raised from 60ft to 93ft,” he says.

Alams dot skyline of Hyderabad city – named after the tile attributed to Hazrat Ali (RA) – especially areas located in the vicinity of Pucca Qilla (fort), established by Mian Ghulam Shah Kalhoro whose dynasty later fell to Talpurs in 1783 in battle of Halani.

Talpurs shifted Sindh’s capital from Khudabad (Dadu) to Hyderabad at Pucca Qilla and ruled Sindh until they were overthrown by British colonialists in 1843.

“Mir Fateh Talpur got Imambargah built and tazia with replica of Imam Hussain’s (RA) grave designed in Pishori Mohalla of Fakir Jo Pir. It is considered Talpurs’ first tazia which is now preserved in Aliabad,” says Mirza Imam Ali Baig, author of books Sindh ki azadari and Sindh aur Ahle Bait.

Mir Fateh had ordered his chief Faqir Mohammad Junejo to get the tazia designed and that was how the area was still known as Fakir jo Pir later inhabited by thousands of families who migrated from India.

A view of the alam at Qadam Gah Maula Ali. — Umair Ali
A view of the alam at Qadam Gah Maula Ali. — Umair Ali

“All four Mir brothers used to perform azadari in the morning on Ashura in that Imambargah,” Baig says. Talpurs were ousted by British colonialists who kept Mir Naseer along with his 16-year-old son Mir Hassan Talpur in captivity for 20 years.

“When 36-year-old Mir Hassan Talpur returned from Calcutta in 1863 our forefathers Mirza Fateh Baig requested him to hand over tazia and kept it at Aliabad in 1863,” he says.

He adds that Mirs used to dole out money as nazrana to people for distributing food in Muharram and to promote alam culture.

Usually alam is fixed in an onion shaped ornate concrete structure locally called dikki. Amidst decorative images of pigeons, peacocks, flowers’ petals etc two long pieces of woods are used to erect it. They all engraved on wood and consume plenty of time to beautify it, making it eye-catching as alams are illuminated with colourful lights.

A view of the recently renovated illuminating alam of *Jhandi Wadhu jo Pir*, showing upper portion of alam called chauk, kuls and kalangi in alam's parlance. It is one of the oldest alams in Wadhan jo Pir locality of the city. — Umair Ali
A view of the recently renovated illuminating alam of Jhandi Wadhu jo Pir, showing upper portion of alam called chauk, kuls and kalangi in alam's parlance. It is one of the oldest alams in Wadhan jo Pir locality of the city. — Umair Ali

Alam’s maintenance or replacement is a typical job. Only those handle the job who are adept at it. A circle shaped wooden structure called chauk is connected with a wooden piece known as dilli in alam making jargon. It holds shama daan. And then finally kals – made of pipe or wood where rests a human palm attributed to Hazrat Ghazi Abbas (RA).

According to Javed Hussain Vighio, a carpenter from Jhandi Wadhan jo Pir area, diyar and bolao wood that is used in ships is used in alams. “Gold is also used in our alam. We don’t care for cost when it comes to decoration”.

Larger, images of peacocks are carved on alams. “It is fast growing trend to make alam look attractive,” he says. “I’ve worked on such alam made of tali wood and 4,500 bulbs are used in it near Hala which cost landowner Rs6.5 million and it was erected in fields by a landowner with eye-catching view,” he says.

Their sizes and expenditures vary. Big or small alams are seen at houses and balconies even by people from Ahle Sunnat sect. Centuries old traditions in the historic city makes it distinctive among other cities of Sindh.

A view of around 90 feet high alam at Qadam Gah Maula Ali. Qadam Gah Maula Ali is a place where the *musallah* (prayer mat of stone with imprints of Hazrat Ali’s (RA) forehead, hands, knees and feet in the position of prostration) is kept. It was said to be gifted to Talpur dynasty ruler Ghulam Ali by Iranian king Shah Kachaar in 1803, according to Zawar Sattar Dars. — Umair Ali
A view of around 90 feet high alam at Qadam Gah Maula Ali. Qadam Gah Maula Ali is a place where the musallah (prayer mat of stone with imprints of Hazrat Ali’s (RA) forehead, hands, knees and feet in the position of prostration) is kept. It was said to be gifted to Talpur dynasty ruler Ghulam Ali by Iranian king Shah Kachaar in 1803, according to Zawar Sattar Dars. — Umair Ali

Hyderabad owes almost exclusively its Muharram culture to Sindh’s past rulers Talpurs, who promoted azadari and nazar-o-niaz in their rule and that is why their influence is more evident in areas like Faqir Ka Pir, Tando Agha, Tando Mir Mehmood, Shahi Bazaar (real name Tahir Bazaar and a cultural heritage), etc that were located near Pucca Qilla than Latifabad or Qasimabad.

Every 7th Muharram, the oldest pir called Jamaitian jo Pir that emerges from Imambargah Anjuman Safina-i-Hussaini ends up in Fakir ka Pir. “It emerges from a narrow lane outside the Imambargah to proceed along its fixed route,” says Anjuman’s general secretary Abdul Ghani Leghari.

Mourners collect mehndi from Gul Shah jo Pir in Khokhar Mohalla to take it to Qadam Gah. “It culminates at the Imambargah almost after 24 hours next day,” adds Leghari.

This pir grows in length as mourners keep joining it before it reaches Fakir ka Pir along with the largest number of zuljanah – around 38 – and replica of cradle of Ali Aghar (RA), Imam Hussain’s son. Many people of Ahle Sunnat sect including women also attend it in belief that it will help their prayers answered.

“Pir – a Talpur era legacy – refers in Sindhi language to a circle or ground specified for azadari or where alam is erected. Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai had used this word in sur ‘Kedharo’ that depicts Karbala’s battlefield,” remarks Zawwar Abdul Sattar Dars, who has written books and booklets on history of azadari in Sindh.

Another view of the alam at Qadam Gah Maula Ali. — Umair Ali
Another view of the alam at Qadam Gah Maula Ali. — Umair Ali

He subscribes to Baig’s view that Talpurs promoted azadari. “Talpur had settled communities in Hyderabad and got alams erected, that’s why those localities became synonymous with pir like Wadhan jo Pir, Chutti ka Pir, Tando Agha etc,” he said.

Today pirs have become Hyderabad’s identity. Nowadays, pir is also used for a procession of mourners, zuljanah, replicas of shrine (roza) of Imam Hussain and alam. They have a code and something akin to war bugle called naqara (drum) -- that was used in battles among Arabs -- to herald departure of pir from its starting point. As it moves from one point to the other, the naqara known as ‘tao’ alerts mourners to head further.

A pir without shehnaee, a small wooden musical device, is incomplete. “Shehnaee travelled from Iran to India and then came to Sindh. It is called ‘nafeer’ in Persian language. And there is evidence that like naqara, nafeer was used in Karbala. Nafeer is used in Mashhad even today,” remarks Mirza.

Different tunes are played on shehnaee to express sorrow, grief and pain endured by Imam Hussain and his small band of 72. The tunes mark mersias and nohas (elegy).

Khadim Hussain and his brother Ghulam Asghar are keeping shehnaee’s tradition alive after inheriting the art from their elders. “Qafla kis ka elegy is the most commonly played tune on shehnaee and then comes Haye haye rin main Bibi Bano sir te khak wasaye thi, says Ghulam Asghar.

Khadim Hussain points out that shehnaee used in Muharram is not used on other occasions. “It is wrapped in a piece of cloth sprinkled with fragrance and preserved only to be taken out again in Muharram the next year,” he says.

Published in Dawn, September 9th, 2019