I have been working on a research project on Muharram in the Deccan as part of the Sarai Student stipendship. In this posting I have given a description of the rituals and practices involved in Muharram as collected from oral accounts. I am making this posting to give a brief overview of the Muharram practices and would soon make a posting that would look at issues of the origin and links with migratory patterns that Muharram has. This study mainly concerns regions of northern Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka.
Every year, in the month of Muharram, the mourning period of Aisurah (the first ten days of the month) is celebrated as Pirla Panduga or the festival of the Pirs. The tabuts or panjahs known locally as the Pirla devullu (The Pir gods) are usually installed outside the mosque as well as at kattes (one such Baramappana Katte), which are resting spots under banyan trees at various localities of the town. These panjahs represent the martyrs Hasan and Hussein and in some cases also the Prophet, his daughter Fatimah and Ali. The two prominent panjahs are known as Pedda devudu (Big God) and Sanna devudu (Small God) that represent Hasan and Hussein respectively.
The panjahs are a foot long bronze or brass installations, which are either three or five in number and are usually in the form of an isi and gurani (sword and shield) symbolising the brothers and their valour. Bamboo shoots are attached and the entire thing is tied with a red cloth. These installations are wrapped in a cloth and tied to tree tops near the mosque and only removed during the month of Muharram and are owned by specific families of the Muslim community. Usually the Hindus give some money to the prominent Muslim households that own panjahs and hence get a share in their ownership (perukistaru). This fact is interesting from the point of view as to how roles of different groups participating are clearly demarcated, in spite of common worship. This is perhaps an explicit recognition of the Islamic origin of this ritual.
In spite of the demarcations, the rituals involve a syncretic character as well. The practice of tying the Panjahs (which resemble weapons) is strikingly similar to Arjuna's act of hiding the weapons of the five brothers on a Sami or the Banyan before their hide out for a year in the kingdom of Virata. Further, the weapons were brought down by Arjuna only on the day of the war with the Kauravas who had come to capture the cows. The frequent reference to the Pandavas and Kauravas and the relation of the Karbala war with that in the Mahabharata in the songs (as will be seen later) strengthens the possibility of the tying of panjah to have evolved from these Hindu myths.
Usually, the elder members from the family give offerings to the deities, which includes atukulu (a variety of rice or Poha), chakkara or Bellamu (Sugar or Jaggery), poppulu (Fried gram), and udu kadlu (Incense sticks). These offerings can be made on any of the ten days when the panjahs are on display. The Islamic practice of Fatihah (reading of a few Surahs from the Quran) is performed and the offerings are returned back. While some of it is distributed, the rest is taken home. This process of offering is known as cakkara cadivincadamu.
Although most communities (excluding those who consume pork) offer prayers to the Pirs, active participation in the carnival is mainly by the weaving castes such as Padmasalis, Togataveerulu and also other lower castes such as Bestallu (fishermen) and Madigollu (scheduled castes). The practice is popular among artisans such as weavers, potters, goldsmiths, and blacksmiths. Of course all Muslims participate, most of who in this region are traders, merchants or artisans such as black smiths, cotton cleaners and dye-makers. Most of the Muslims here are Sunnis. While the primary ownership of the panjahs and the agency of worship remains with some Muslims, the ritual gathers a Hindu colour with the sheer size of the Hindu castes participating in it. Probably, the closely-knit economic ties between traders and artisans in the rural economy explain the possibility of common ritual beliefs. In the pre-colonial as well as the early colonial period, a strong network of merchandise and trading links is visible all over the region of Deccan. While the agricultural labour remained confined to the local economy, evidence of the constant flux of migration and interaction is visible amongst artisans, prominently the weavers.
The male members actively involve themselves in the procession that takes place on the day on which the deities were sent off. This ritual resembles the immersion of the Durga and Ganesha idols during Durga Puja and Ganesha Chaturthi respectively. The men wear ladis or red coloured sacred threads that are tied to the panjahs and are turned to Fakirs. During this period they are supposed to abstain from pleasures such as alcohol, chewing betel leaves and conjugation. This practice relates to the mourning of Hasan and Hussein's death by their followers.
On the tenth day, people gather around the place where the panjahs are installed and offer a panakamu (juice) made of bellamu (jaggery), yalakki (elaichi), and sonthi (ginger). The womenfolk prepare this mixture and the ritual has to be observed with nista (honesty and sanctity). Hence, the house is mopped well during daybreak and women who are muttu (in their menstrual periods) are not allowed to participate. These relate to the prevalence of hinduised beliefs and notions of purity. This juice is poured into a dutti (a mud vessel) and kamageggiri leaves are tied around it. These leaves are twisted and swirled in a particular fashion in pairs and this is known as molakalesi kadutaaru.
These vessels are carried by men only to the Pirla devulla gudi (The temple of the Pir gods), which is situated in the outskirts of the village and it is important to note that this is separate from the mosque. In the evening, the people collect near the temple where around 15-20 panjahs collected from all over the village are placed. The people surround an altar of embers known as the gundamu, which is dug on the first day as mentioned earlier. The men carrying the vessels during the procession, circulate the altar thrice (Mudu suttlu tirigi) and pour some panakamu into the fire and give some to the Muslims and the left over is taken home and consumed by all family members.After this ritual, a prasad is prepared that includes Rottlu,(Rotis) kuraaku,(mutton curry) and buvva (rice) and covered and taken as offering to the Gods.
Before daybreak, the panjahs are taken to a nearby river, pond or other water body and immersed to symbolically quench their thirst. This day known as the nillo badenadu, represents the martyrdom of Hasan and Hussein. The men take a dip in the water to purify them selves. All those turned fakirs, remove their ladis and are purified to enter their houses. The procession ends with the cleansing of the Panjahs, which are tied back to the treetops.
There also seems to be a reverence towards the Pirla devullu, similar to that towards the local deities such as the Gramadevata (the presiding deity of the village) and the mother goddess. Hasan and Hussein are considered to be powerful to not only grant the boons asked for, but would also show their wrath when not venerated during the Muharram period. This is the reason that whenever an omission occurs, the people offer their apologies to the deities.
It is usually the women belonging to the village who had committed themselves for a social cause and sacrificed their lives that are worshipped as the presiding village deities. Thus married women who gave up their lives for the well being of their husbands are revered in the form of Masti kallu or the grave of the Great Sati. Valorous acts of saving people's during epidemics or curing them are glorified in the myths that surround the mother goddess. One such popular myth is that of Iralaccamma, an ordinary housewife who sacrificed her life by drowning in the well. This act was done to please the Gods whose wrath had caused an epidemic in the region. Similarly, the Pirla devullu are also humans who are respected for their divine acts or acts of sacrifice and morality that please God. It shows how the idea of divinity is formed as an elevation of human nature and hence the transformation of humans to God. Probably, people are able to associate themselves more closely with those who are supposed to have sacrificed their lives for a just cause for a larger good.
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