Lucknow’s 21st Ramazan Hasan Mirza sahib ka Taboot and lockdown
Can technology provide safe solutions for such a major tradition?
This is the sublime azadari experience a Shia Muslim in Lucknow will want to partake of on the 21st of Ramazan each year when the Hasan Mirza sahib ka Taboot emerges on a sea of believers after the morning prayers from Najaf in Rustam Nagar. But under the lockdown due to the COVID-19 outbreak this year, perhaps for the first time since 1998, the procession will not be held.
The holy month of Ramazan is one for fasting and contemplation, but for Shia Muslims it is also one for mourning. For three days, from the 19th to the 21st, they pay homage to and mourn the loss of the cousin and son-in-law of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), the first Shia Imam, Hazrat Imam Ali (may Allah be pleased with him), who was martyred two days after he was attacked on the 19th in the mosque of Kufa, in what is present-day Iraq.
The Lucknow commemorations consist of two processions—the first being the 19th Ramazan Gileem ka Taboot, which re-enacts how he was taken home in a blanket from the mosque and not in a bier borne on the shoulders of men. It marks the tragic night of the attack described as Shab-e-Zarbat.
As for the 21st Ramazan procession, a symbolic replica of a Taboot weighing roughly 200kg, made entirely of bamboo and draped with sheets and flowers, is prepared ahead of time and for two days receives ziarat from men and women. It was started by Hasan Mirza in 1870 in Rassi Batan, Moulviganj. After three years, the procession moved to his Rustam Nagar house and since the completion of Najaf Rauza in Rustam Nagar this legendary procession starts from here under waqf Sheikh Qazi Afzal Husain Masooma Shabih e Najaf, shares Rafiq Husain.
The procession begins after morning prayers and the coffin is taken to Karbala Talkatora for the burial ceremonies to which even people from other communities come to pay their respects.
The last time this procession faced any kind of restraint was in the historical period from 1977 to 1997 when a Shia-Sunni conflict emerged. There were certain restrictions on public processions and Shia community leaders decided to voluntarily withhold all their processions as a symbol of protest.
Since lockdowns have been imposed across the world due to Covid-19, followers of different religions have shown some resistance to being restricted to congregational gatherings. Certain sections of both Muslim and Hindu communities in India violated the most basic precaution of avoiding public gatherings. The media selectively focused on a few and left out others as if nothing had happened, which had an incendiary effect.
With Ramazan upon us, leaders have been appealing to followers to worship in self-isolation. Mosques will remain closed and all public iftars to break the fast will be suspended. Now the subject of focus will be how the Shia community reacts with the decision on processions. Many majlises, processions and cultural gatherings were overlooked. It is important to mention that on the other hand, the community has been doing a great amount of charity work during the lockdown.
The geography and history of the community centres associated with these processions need to be considered. The administration will want to avoid any kind of conflict breaking out and their control in majority Muslim areas is questionable. People in many such parts are not practicing social distancing. So with such an important event, for which attendance is considered mandatory, not happening could be disheartening to people.
“Once the news of the Taboot being prepared is out, it will become very difficult for the administration and organizers to stop people from coming,” says Rafiq Hussain. The area around Najaf Rauza has a large Shia majority population.
It will be especially hard to dissuade the young men who yearn to shoulder the Taboot as it is considered a blessing to be able to embrace it. The sea of people is so tightly packed that in order to make one’s way to even just touch it fleetingly or offer a shoulder is nothing less than warrior-like. Young men wait the entire night to get the right spot.
It is important to mention that while many people will be disappointed, there is also an understanding in the community that we are confronted with an extraordinary set of circumstances. Masooma Rizvi, a psychology student who visits the Karbala Talkatora on 21st Ramazan, for example, said that she will miss the burial ceremony the most, but in the middle of this pandemic, in her opinion the procession should not take place.
Ali Haider of Kashmiri Mohalla said that in his opinion processions were just means of mourning. There are amaals, prayers and ziarat which should be performed in complete self-isolation in light of the coronavirus outbreak.
Each year Imroz Abidi and her family find a spot from which to watch the Taboot. She said that since their supreme leaders have made it clear they will not organise gatherings, then the processions should not be held.
Other people such as Mahvish Zaidi of Rustam Nagar are diverting their focus. She said that she has been visiting Karbala Talkatora since childhood and will miss the entire event this year. But she added, that instead, they “will be organizing distribution of necessities for people in need to remember how Imam Ali used to help others.”
And, so yes, the streets will now be empty, there would be no sabeels, no tabaruk, no majalis but digital solutions can come to the rescue. This would, of course, not be a new phenomenon as people who come for ziarat already usually take photos, pray and mourn. They then share these photos on social media which is greatly appreciated by people who are away from Lucknow and scattered across the globe or cannot attend for any other reason.
Additionally, the administration can come up with solutions but only if it takes into confidence and discusses them with the religious leaders of the community. Any decision regarding the 21st procession depends on how the administration consults Imam-e-Juma of Lucknow as per its Waqf Nama. They will perhaps find that they will be open to dialogue.
“We are with the administration, if they say there will be no procession this time,” said Rafiq Husain, the former mutawalli or caretaker of Najaf Rauza and a senior person from the family of Hasan Mirza sahib. “We will follow the rule. We understand the seriousness of this Covid-19.”
The organizers could prepare the coffin privately at the same site in Najaf Rauza at Kashmiri Mohalla. Photos and videos could be shared through anjumans in the city so that people can still offer ziarat. Even the media can play a role since local cable channels telecast all azadari processions in Lucknow.
An even more significant gesture would be for the Uttar Pradesh government to share photos and messages from its official social media pages. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has at times quoted Imam Hussain (may Allah be pleased with him).
Regardless of what is decided this year, this much is clear, it will set a precedent. As Mohammad Abbas, an MBA student who is spending the lockdown in the UK, said, any misstep could affect other processions.
As for the procession, the government can permit transporting the Taboot on a vehicle to Talkatora. The main burial ceremony is done discreetly under the covers with a limited number of men. However, taking such decisions could be viewed as the administration being lenient towards Shia Muslims in a time of crisis, which has happened in the past. Of course, in the end, despite these suggestions, it may be deemed entirely impractical and the only solution is to skip this year’s event entirely.
In the end, it has to be realized that these processions and ritualistic mourning are not religiously mandatory. They have even evolved with time and at the hands of mortal and fallible humans. They are vehicles for emotion and ways to keep the memory of holy figures alive. However, change can be adopted and accepted if the health of people at large is at stake.
The writer is based in Lucknow and tweets @aounaqvi