Varanasi or Kashi is known as the ancient city for devout Hindus and also as the city of Lord Shiva. But it is also known for its unique cultural harmony and coexistence which is often referred to as the "Ganga Jamuni tehzib.
Joint observance of Muharram is the most conspicuous example of this cultural and religious harmony which is reflected in Hindus participating in Tazia processions and paying homage to Imam Husain, the martyr of Karbala tragedy.
Muharram is the first month of Hijri era. But, the month is better known for tragedy of Karbala, where Imam Husain, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad, and his 72 companions were martyred during the battle against evil forces of Yazid, the then ruler of Syria who had claimed to be the successor of Islamic spiritual seat.
On the ninth day of Muharram the Tazias, the replicas of Mazar of Imam Husain in Karbala, made of paper and bamboo sticks are kept at Imam Chauks and also on Chabutaras (platforms) of Hindu devotees. The Muslims as well Hindus keep night vigil.
The history of Taziadari or keeping Tazia is traced back to the period of Timur, popularly known as Taimoor Lang who invaded India in 1398 AD. The word Tazia implies weeping and beating chest and expressing grief. It also relates to Taziat which means consoling the relatives who have suffered from a tragedy.
Timur built the first ever Tazia when he returned to Samarkand from a pilgrimage to Karbala. The art of making tazia somewhat retains its original form in India. Tazias made of paper and bamboo are for one time use and buried under the soil, but many of woodcrafted tazias are of permanent nature and some of them are more than a century old. These Tazias are not buried but are covered with white clothing after the procession is over on 10th of Muharram and are returned to their respective places for next year’s rituals.
No country other than India, has the versatile and varied nature of making Tazia. Its making involves workers from almost all communities and religions. The socio-economic facet of Tazia making is also very remarkable. It gives employment to the whole household of an artist during Muharram.
The art of tazia making was picked up several generations ago in Taiyaab Ali’s family. But the rising cost of raw materials and uncertain future of the art has made their living difficult. But, he says, that he is "all set to transfer his skills to future generation and hopes that the art would continue to flourish."
Apart from making Tazias for Moharram the artists like Taiyyab Ali also make effigies of Ravana and other Demons during Ramlila and Dussehra.
Apart from paper made tazias, Varanasi is known for the decorative tazias made of different materials, like Lead, Brass, Copper, wood and precious stones. "Nageeney Ki Tazia" is a masterpiece handicraft and very costly also. These are either put at Imam Chowk or in the houses on the night of 9th Muharram.
The mourning processions begin right from first of the Muharram and continue till the burial of Tazias on Yaum-e-Ashura.
Zuljanah is taken out as the replica of wounded horse of Imam Husain and is decorated with flowers and has arrows and red stains on it. A 36-hour procession of Zuljanah is taken out from Purani Adalat in Dalmandi and takes rounds in Hindu – Muslim localities including ghats of holy Ganga and is welcomed by the members of both the communities.
The Mersias (elegies), Salaam, Taqreer and Nauha are the various forms of recitals that describe the tragedy of Karbala.
The legendary shehnai exponent Bharat Ratna Ustad Bismillah Khan used to lead the mourning procession on 5th of Muharram to Faateman (where he is laid to rest), reciting nauha on his especially earmarked Silver Shehnai. The tradition is still kept alive by his progeny. Interestingly Ustad had started his career as a shehnai player in Naubatkhana of famous Kashi Vishwanath temple.
The Kashi Raj, the age old rulers of Varanasi, always patronised Azadari in Varanasi. Former ruler Chet Narain Singh and his successor late Vibhuti Narain Singh took active part in the observance of the mourning.
There have been several tides and turns from the reigns of ancient Kashi Raj, to the period of Nawabs of Awadh and Britishers. There had been futile attempts to break the Hindu – Muslim unity and closely knit social fabric of Varanasi by the anti-social elements, but till date Hindus and different sects of Muslims observe Azadari in Muharram with devotion and reverence.
Salman Haider, AIR Correspondent, Gorakhpur