The tenth day of the Muhammadan month of mohurrum is celebrated by the Shia Muslims as the anniversary of the tragic death of Hussain, the younger son of Ali, who was, according to the Shias, the first, according to the Sunnis, the fourth, Khalifa, or successor of the Prophet. In the year 661 A.D., Hussain, and his family and followers were surrounded near Kerbelah, in Persia, while on their way to Damascus to claim the Khilafat, by the soldiers of his rival Yezid, the Omeyyad; and he, and most of his family and followers, were killed. He is regarded by the Shias as a martyr, and Mohurrum is the time of lamenting his death. During Mohurrum the “Tazia”, or passion-play that represents the tragic story, is acted, and the celebrations culminate in the grand procession on the tenth of the month.
I watched this procession in Lucknow some years ago and was impressed by it. As the streets were crowded at daybreak, it was necessary to go very early into the city to the house of a friend which was on the route. There we sat several hours waiting for the procession, but we found plenty to interest us in watching the growing crowds in the street below, and the people on the housetops opposite, and at every window and door.
At last, we heard the sound of the approaching procession; and presently a group of men, all in black, slowly approached. Their leader was chanting or reciting in a mournful voice, and every now and then the rest responded in a sort of chorus. More groups followed each one more excited than the last; voices were raised, men beat their bare breasts with sounds like the beating of drums, and shouted, “Hussain! Hussain!! Hussain!!!” The excitement became intense when a group passed carrying a water-skin pierced by an arrow, in memory of the way in which Hussain’s enemies had deprived the doomed party of water.
Then came groups of men armed with whips, to which small sharp knives were fastened, beating themselves on the back and breast till the blood poured down, and all shouting in a mad frenzy, “Hussain! Hussain!! Hussain!!!” The crowd became infected with the excitement, and I saw strong men standing with tears flowing down their faces, and many wildly wailing, shouting, and tearing their hair in grief.
Last came the horse, representing Hussain’s horse that galloped riderless into Kerbelah; and the procession ended in a final burst of unrestrained lamentation.