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Maratha rulers mourned Muharram like Muslims

Saquib Salim

“Muharram is a general mourning observed by the Moohumedans to commemorate the death of Imam Hussain, the grandson of the Prophet: and the universal ardour with which the Marathas, who are Hindus, participate in its ceremonies is curious enough. Everyone turns Fuqeer: that is he wears some green rags: with a string of green and red cotton yarn, tied up like beads, across his shoulders; and goes about begging from such of his acquaintance as are foolish enough to give him anything; the term Fuqeer implying a religious beggar. Groups of such grotesque figures are to be seen in all directions wandering about the camp asking for alms and calling upon the names of Muhammad, Ali, and Hussain. The Maharaj (Daulat Rao Sindhia) himself even gives into this ridiculous custom, and is a Fuqeer during the whole of the Muharram.” 

This was written by Thomas Duer Broughton, an English officer at the court of Maharaj Daulat Rao Sindhia, in a letter to his brother in 1809. More than anything else these letters are a window into the syncretic culture of India.

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In 1809 Broughton was traveling with Sindhia and his army through Rajasthan where he witnessed Hindu-Muslim unity, which according to him was ‘ridiculous’. A few days before Muharram and Holi he wrote, “two most opposite festivals (Holi and Muharram) happening this year to fall together”. He could not believe that Hindu Marathas respect Muslim sentiments equally.

Broughton witnessed that Sindhia came out wearing green clothes without any other customary ornaments during the month of Muharram. He would visit each Taziya in the camp. Taziyas represented the tomb of Hussain and a person would read Marsiya in front of that. He also witnessed the ceremony of chest-beating which according to him was ‘quite frantic’ and ‘impressive in the highest degree’. 

On the tenth day of Muharram, these Taziyas would be taken to a nearby river. Each procession went through the camp of Sindhia. Broughton wrote, “There were more than a hundred Taziyas, each followed by a long train of Fuqeers, dressed most extravagantly, beating their breasts, and loudly calling upon the prophet and his grandson. The flaming of torches, firing of matchlocks, and the harsh and discordant sounds of Mahratta drums and trumpets united with the strange but animated groups passing on all sides, to produce the most extraordinary scene I ever beheld. Such of the Mahratta Surdars as are not Brahmins frequently construct Taziyas at their tents, and expend large sums of money upon them; many of these were very handsome.” 

Broughton noted how Hindus and Muslims at the Maratha camp arranged Sherbats (drinks) for the mourners in the procession and royal women also took part in these events.

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Allama Saiyyid Sibtul Hasan Fāzil-i Hanswi in his book on Muharram processions points out that Broughton had witnessed Muharram mournings of Marathas when they were on an armed expedition. One can imagine how much grander it had been in their capitals during peace times. 

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