By Ali Fraz Rezvi
“Hussain! Hussain!” Echo the streets of Patna as thousands of people come out of their houses and march to Ashok Rajpath barefoot, dressed in black, beating their chests. They move towards the Karbala Shah Baqer, mourning the martyrdom of the man centuries ago. The chants grow louder “Hussain! Hussain!”. The Ashok Rajpath and the lanes of Patna seem to be engulfed in an ocean of black.They have ceased to be what they were yesterday. They now belong to Hussain’s memory and his memory alone. Their being is now mourning.
This is the present image of ‘Ashura’ (the 10th of Muharram) in Patna. This symbolises the commemoration of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the grandson of prophet Muhammad and his comrades in the battle field of Karbala. Ashura is part of a larger tradition called Azadari. Azadari comes from the words Aza (mourn) and dari (to do). It literally means to mourn.
Azadari in India started taking shape with the arrival of Mughals. Taimur Lang (the great grandfather of Emperor Babar) himself was an azadar and visited Karbala (the shrine of Imam Hussain) almost every year. Another incident that fortified the tradition was when Humayun regained the throne of Delhi. He was accompanied by a number of Persian Nobles who mostly belonged to the Shia sect.
Azeemabad (the present city of Patna) is home to one of the grandest traditions of Azadari in Bihar. Azadari in Patna began with the arrival of a sufi mystic Shah Arzan. His death in 1629 AD halted the commemoration of Muharram for a few years. They were then restarted by Shahzada Meerza Nauzar Ali Safavi who constructed a palace which had a mosque and a taziakhana (a place where replica of the holy shrine of Imam Hussain is kept), compactly for the members of his family and the people associated with the palace.
It was only with the arrival of Nawab Syed Ahmad Ali Khan Bahadur ‘Qayamat’ in Azeemabad, in 1722 AD, after spending a period of seven years in Najaf Al-Ashraf (A city in the modern day Iraq where Imam Ali is buried) that Azadari became a constant in Azeemabad.
Ahmad Ali was the eldest son of Shah Syed Asadullah who is also known by his royal title Sa’adat Ali Khan. He belonged to the family of Shah Syed Shams-ad-Deen Faryad Ras Awadhi, the Caliph of Hazrat Ashraf Jahangir Semnani in Awadh and the grandson of Shah Syed Mohammad Al-Makki Al-Rumi Al-Chishti who served as the Seljuq governor of Rum (modern day Turkey) in the early 13th century, and the maternal grandson of Sultan Qilij Arsalan IV.
Ahmad Ali Khan was born in a family of nobles. Mir Mozaffar Husain alias Nawab Azim Khan Koka – Mughal Governor of Lahore, Kabul, Bengal, and Bihar; Mir Muhammad Saleh alias Nawab Fedai Khan – Mughal Governor of Bihar; Lahore and Awadh,Syed Mohammad Rafi alias Nawab Shoaeb Khan – commander in Aurangzeb’s army, Mulla Mohammad Naseer – Ambassador to the Safavid Court of Iran, are the most prominent ones among his numerous illustrious ancestors.
Ahmad Ali, was a sufi in nature and thus left for the city of Mecca at an early age, after performing the rituals of Hajj he travelled to the holy shrines of Medina, Karbala and finally settled in Najaf. He remained there for a period of seven years with a number of sufis and mystics in the city. When he returned back to Azeemabad, he brought three replicas of the holy shrine of Imam Hussain (Zareeh). He constructed an Imambara at Doolighat, another at Sangidalan for keeping the Zareeh and gifted the third one to another sufi mystic and his friend Shah Abdul Lateef at Gauri Sthan in Patna.
From the 1st to the 10th of Muharram, he organised Majalis at the Imambara of Doolighat, 20th of each month was marked for the Majlis at Sangidalan, 21st for the same at the Imambara of Shah Abdul Lateef and the 9th at Takia Shah Baqer. This marks the official establishment of azadari in Azeemabad.
When Shah Alam II was crowned the Emperor of India he invited his friend Haji Ahmad Ali who stood by his side during his conquests in Patna to his court and awarded him with Khalat-e-Fakhra and Sanad-e-Lakheraj as well as the titles of Nawab, Khan and Khan Bahadur along with the Jageers of Pargana Haweli Azeemabad, Hajipore, Tirhut, Tirsath, Masoomnagar, Shahabad, Premnagar, Saleemabad and the Mughal Palace of Bagh Haweli at Doolighat.
Nawab Haji Syed Ahmad Ali Khan Bahadur ‘Qayamat’ returned back to Azeemabad and established Madrasa-e-Deenia, a College at Doolighat where he himself taught the students till the end of his life. This institution at Doolighat eventually turned out as the Abbasia College and existed till the year 1934, when the earthquake destroyed it along with other buildings of the Estate..
Nawab Ahmad Ali Khan Bahadur wrote extensively in persian under the nom de plume of Qayamat.He is considered an important marsiya-nigar (monodist) of his time. He remained a practicing mystic and a devotee of Hazrat Ali. This is reflected in his poetry. He wrote arbout 1291 ghazals in total, and compiled them in the form of a diwan and named it ‘Haydernameh’. He wrote :
kam az nasir ali na bood qayamat shayar e hayder
Ze dargaah e khuda dar hashr nazm o nasr e maddahan
Kunam bar pusht e deewan darj bait e intekhabash
Laqab kardand haydernameh deewan e qayamat ra
(Qayamat isn’t any less than Nasir Ali Sirhindi in his love for Ali, as when on the doomsday the writings in his praise were presented in front of the lord, it was written at the back of a deewan, that Qayamat dedicated his poetry to Ali and named his deewan after his name.)
Nawab Ahmad Ali Khan ‘Qayamat’ died in 1778 after establishing Azadari with its base at Doolighat along with Sangidalan. This was carried on by his son Nawab Khadim Hussain Khan ‘Khadim’ in Azeemabad and his son in law Nawab Mohammad Yahya Khan in Hussainabad. Within 20 years of his death other important spots of azadari were established by Colonel Kalbe Ali Khan at Nauzar Katra and Sultan ganj in the city itself.
In 1843, the great-grandsons of Nawab Ahmad Ali Khan ‘Qayamat’, Nawab Nejat Hussain Khan ‘Ashki’ and Nawab Jaffer Hassan Khan ‘Faiz’ fascinated by the glamour of Azadari in Awadh visited Lucknow during the reign of Nawab Amjad Ali Shah. Nejat Hussain Khan recorded this visit in the form of a persian travelogue named ‘sawanah-e-lucknow’ which includes the details of his meetings with the prominent writers in the genre of marsiya (elegy) such as Mir Babbar Ali ‘Anees’ and Mirza Salamat Ali ‘Dabeer’.
After the revolt of 1857, english forces almost destroyed the city of Lucknow. This led to the depletion of its cultural heritage and thus a number of poets and nobles from Lucknow moved to the still blooming city of Azeemabad. Azeemabad at this moment emerged as a hub of literature, and a city that provided patronage to a number of poets from Lucknow and Delhi. it is important to quote a rubayi by Mirza Dabeer :
in shaher ba khatir e maloolan shaad ast
mamoora e khulq o hilm o adal o daad ast
har fard e bashar daftar e khulq ast ‘dabeer’
in shaher ze akhlaq e azeem-aabad ast.
(this city is a paradise for the miserable, a place of civility, serenity and justice. Each and every person is an archive of politeness and culture, that’s why this city is named azeem-aabad in literary terms, inhabited by great people.)
In 1859, a news ran in the city that Mir Anees, Mirza Dabeer along with Mir Monis arrived in the city on the same steamer. Mir Anees, firstly at the call of Nawab Qasim Ali Khan and Mirza Dabeer at the instance of Nawab Jaffer Hassan Khan ‘Faiz’ and Nawab Nejat Hussain Khan ‘Ashki’. Mir Anees continuously visited Azeemabad for three years while Imam Bandi Begum, the wife of Nawab Sa’adat Ali Khan ‘Tamkeen’ (a great-grandson of Nawab Ahmad Ali Khan ‘Qayamat’), of Doolighat insisted Mirza Dabeer to visit the city again and thus he did.
Mirza Dabeer visited the city for about 12 years until his death. The last marsiya of his life was delivered on the 9th of Muharram at Gulzarbagh. After his death his son Mirza Mohammad Jaffer ‘Auj’ retained his father’s position and when he died in 1916, his son Mirza Mohammad Tahir ‘Rafi’ was already designated for the same purpose in Rampur by the Nawab Hamid Ali Khan. He resigned from his position and was seen sitting at his father’s place in Azeemabad.
This chronology came to an end with the death of Mirza Mohammad Sadiq, the great grandson of Mirza Dabeer in 1984.
Nawab Ali Mohammad Khan ‘Shad’ Azeemabadi in his book ‘Fikr-e-Baleegh’ while narrating the scene of a majlis at Doolighat, writes that the narrow lanes of Doolighat were filled with a thousand of people to hear the ‘soz’ (elegy that involves the use of raag) that was to be performed by the notable musicians of the city Mir Banda Hassan and Mir Ali Hassan, the students of Mir Ahmad. It is important to mention that a large number of the audience belonged to the Hindu Community.
This fact implies that involvement of the Hindu community in the rituals of Azadari wasn’t an odd thing. Digging a bit further the tale of Rai Sultan Bahadur from the family of Maharaja Shetab Rai was a resident of Doolighat where on a daily basis, Nawab Nejat Hussain Khan carried Gangajal every evening to his kothi where Rai Sultan Bahadur used to make a sherbet from it as an offering to Imam Hussain and his family. On the 7th of Muharram he used to wear shackles in the memory of Imam Zainul Abedin who was taken as a prisoner after the martyrdom of his father Imam Hussain. Similar practices were carried on by Rai Badshah Bahadur throughout his life.
It is said that Maharaja Ram Narain ‘Mauzun’ too participated in the rituals of Azadari.
The traditional form of azadari in Azeemabad, was very Persianised, and a few such sites are still seen in the commemoration of Muharram. With time as more and more people started settling in the city, changes happened in the earlier form. Today, the azadari represents an Indianised form of muharram with the involvement of other communities (Hindus and Sunnis) along the Shia community.
S. N. Ali Fraz Rezvi is a theatre artist and a student of Social Work in the University of Delhi.