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Tuesday, 06 December 2011 10:00

Muharram/Ashoura/Yamsé Festival

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The battle of Karbala fought in 680 A.D, is regarded as one of the most horrifying events in the history of Islam.  This event is commemorated the world over by Muslims during the first ten days of the first month of (Muharram) of the Islamic calendar. Hussein, may Allah be pleased with him, Grandson of Prophet Muhammad (P.b.u.h), shines in the galaxy of such heroic souls as Socrates and Jesus who safeguarded the honour of humanity by sacrificing their own lives. The blood that Hussein shed on the battlefield immortalized his name.
In Mauritius, too, the commemoration of Imam Hussein’s martyrdom is observed with great solemnity during the first ten days of this month in several mosques and other circles. The Imam of the Jummah mosque as well as other luminaries pontificate on the essence of the sacrifice of Imam Hussein from their pulpits.  In some  gatherings “mehfils” across the island, Muslims recite elegies (Masiyas) and narrate the event leading to the martyrdom of Hussein.

At Magon and Pagoda streets in Plaine Verte, some Muslims have since the French period always marked this event in their own way by the organization of the Yamsé festival popularly known as  “Goon” by taking part in lamenting rituals, flagellation and “tazia” processions.  Usually Magon and its adjacent streets are decorated with green and red flags. 

There have been some attempts by Moomtaz Emrith author of the “History of the Muslims of Mauritius” and Dr Ameena Jahangeer Chojoo author of “La Rose et le Henné” to probably unearth the cultural dimensions of this festival.

However, if we go down in history, the Yamsé festival in Mauritius can trace its roots in India. It is probably a legacy bequeathed to us by our forefathers.  In fact the most striking aspect about the observances of the month of Muharram is that it is celebrated in various parts of India not only by Muslims but by Hindus also.  In several towns and villages, Hindus join Muslims in lamenting the death of Hussein by sponsoring or taking part in tazia processions.

In Lucknow, seat of the shia Nawabs of Awadh, prominent noble men like Raja Tikat Rai and Raja Bilas Rai erected “Imam Baras” standard representing the Karbala event.  The Hindu Lambadi community in Andhra Pradesh have their own genre of Muharram lamentation songs in Telugu. Among certain Hindu communities in the state of Rajasthan, the epic of Karbala is recounted by staging plays in which the death of Imam Hussein is enacted, after which women of the village come out in procession crying and cursing Yazid for his cruelty.

According to Yoginder Sikand  the most intriguing  case of Hindu veneration of Imam Hussein is to be found among the small Husseini Brahmin sect also called Dutts and Mohiyals who are found mainly in  the Punjab.  These Husseini  Brahmins have had a long martial tradition which they trace back to the event of Karbala.  They believe that an ancestor by the name of Rahab Sidh Dutt travelled all the way from Punjab to Arabia where he became a disciple of Imam Hussein.  In the battle of Karbala, Rahab fought in the army of Imam Hussein against Yazid.  His sons too, joined him and most of them were killed. 

The Imam, on seeing Rahab’s love for him, bestowed upon him the title of sultan or king.  It is because of the close bond between Rahab and Imam Hussein that the Husseini  Brahmins derive their names.  After Rahab and his sons who had survived the battle of Karbala reached India, they settled in Western Punjab and gradually a community grew around them.  The Husseini Brahmins practised an intriguing blend of Islamic and Hindu traditions.  A popular saying refers to the Husseini Brahmins or Dutts as follows

Wah! Dutt sultan
Hindu ka Dharm
Musalman ka Iman
Adha Hindu Adha Musalman

Oh! Dutt the king
Professing  Hindu religion
Having the faith of Muslim
Half Hindu, half Muslim
The above provides an impeccable evidence about the pragmatic role played by Rahab in the catastrophe of Karbala. There are more than a dozen ballads composed centuries ago which  vividly and with great passion describe the scenario of this historic event.

Ahmad Ramtally
Senior Lecturer

Le Défi Quotidien

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