February Issue 2008
Marking Ashura in Lahore, Pakistan
Children overlook Nisar Haveli in the old, walled city of Lahore. Photo: Talib Qizilbash
Men sit and listen to a majlis on the eve of Ashura in Nasir Haveli in Lahore. Photo: Talib Qizilbash
A young boy sits on a balcony in Nisar Haveli as a majlis takes place below. Photo: Talib Qizilbash
Men stand, exclaim and throw their arms in the air as the Zuljinnah enters Nisar Haveli at the end of the majlis on the eve of Ashura. Photo: Talib Qizilbash
Ash fills the air in Nisar Haveli, in Lahore, Pakistan, as the Zuljinnah enters the courtyard at the end of the majlis. Photo: Talib Qizilbash
Men perform mataam at Nisar Haveli in Lahore's walled city. Photo: Talib Qizilbash
A group of boys overlook a first-aid area from the roof of a mosque in Illaqa Nawab Sahib in the south end of Lahore on Ashura day. Photo: Talib Qizilbash
A man grimaces as a team of medics tend to his injuries in Illaqa Nawab Sahib. Photo: Talib Qizilbash
A team of men attend to the wounds on a man's back after he performed the traditional zanjir ka mataam on Ashura day. Photo: Talib Qizilbash
A young man takes a sip of water and as he recovers after performing a self-flagellation ritual with knives, also known as zanjir ka mataam. Photo: Talib Qizilbash
A boy carries an alam, or flag, during an Ashura procession. Photo: Talib Qizilbash
A man stands guard outside Masjid-e-Mariam, South of Lahore, on Ashura. Photo: Talib Qizilbash
Women sit and drink hot Kasmiri tea before an Ashura-day majlis. Photo: Talib Qizilbash
The route hasn’t changed in over 150 years. Every year, as the sun descends on the ninth of Muharram, thousands of Shias make their way towards Mochi Gate in Lahore. From here, they walk through the maze of narrow streets in the walled city and reach Nisar Haveli. The Mughal-era building is not only the spot for an emotionally charged majlis on the eve of the tenth of the month it is, on that very same night, the starting point for the largest Ashura procession in the city.
Since the 1850s, Lahore’s most important Zuljinnah procession has originated from here and travelled the same route around the walled city. And each year the procession, which is observed, joined and dutifully followed by legions of mourners, culminates at Karbala Gamay Shah just as the Azaan for maghrib prayers rings out on the following day. It is said the route mimics the one Saint Gamay Shah himself initiated to commemorate the martyrdom of Imam Hussain and his followers.
But some things have changed since then. One is the crowds. For decades now, there has hardly been room to breathe inside Nisar Haveli on the most revered night of the Shia calendar. Combine the densely packed space with the explosive passions of thousands of devout mourners and the annual scene is beyond dramatic: it borders on overwhelming. The stories of death and sacrifice from the pulpit cause men, women and young children alike to sob and wail uncontrollably. Shaking with grief, some hold their heads while others use both hands to slap the top of their heads repeatedly with a force that makes the uninitiated uneasy.
It is in this atmosphere of supercharged fervour that the majlis comes to an end, and on some mystical cue, the mass of black-clad mourners jump to their feet in unison as the Zuljinnah, festooned with flowers, is released from behind its colourful purdah. Men with outstretched arms press against each other as they swarm the Zuljinnah. Ash, thrown in the air, hangs low in small clouds, covering the shifting crowd as it is magnetically pulled to the exit by the symbol of sacrifice and loyalty that they long to touch. This is how it is every year. Just as the ninth day fades into the tenth night, the transition from majlis to procession is seamless and immediate — done with uncanny, divine precision.
The family that started this procession from Nisar Haveli generations ago also continues to hold majlises and processions on their ancestral lands on the outskirts of Lahore: Illaqa Nawab Sahib. This is what it looked like in both these places on Ashura in 1429 AH (January 19-20, 2008).