No Hindu Could Venture into the Streets during Muharram in Jahangir's Agra!

No Hindu Could Venture into the Streets during Muharram in Jahangir's Agra!

Pelsaert paints a vivid and graphic description of how the chief Muslim festivals, Id and Muharram were celebrated in Agra.

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No Hindu Could Venture into the Streets during Muharram in Jahangir's Agra!
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No Hindu Could Venture into the Streets during Muharram in Jahangir's Agra!

The consequences that followed the demolition of Khusru’s shrine at the orders of Jahangir are interesting to read in some detail. Three classes of the people were affected.

First there were the mendicants, who on the day of worship used to gather on the road in thousands and swarm like flies, so that no one could walk a yard without molestation. They earned enough in that day to provide them with food for the week.

Next there were the confectioners, who used to line the whole road in great numbers with stalls of sweet-stuffs, and sold great quantities, together with the hawkers of toys (like the pedlars at our fairs), for no one would return without having bought something for the children. The roads and open places were full of jugglers, dancers, players, and such rabble, the noise was deafening, and the crowd made it even more impossible to see, or find room to move.

Lastly, and the greatest sufferers of all, were the class of secluded ladies (women in the Zenana). Under pretext of a pilgrimage, they used to come without fear to see, and perhaps even speak to their lovers. Rendezvouses were made in the gardens, which are numerous in and around Agra, and there, lust was given the food for which it hungered. In many cases, no opportunity could be found on any other day. On such occasions, new passions were aroused by the sight of a handsome youth, who captured the lady's fancy, and she would ogle at him without him noticing it. Thus, nobody more regrets these gardens, or is more grieved than these pitiable little female creatures of Agra. Such festivals still continue in Burhanpur, Sironj and other places on the road.

All these Moslem saints and pirs which I have described have dabbled largely in magic. The Moslems count their Muhammad superior to all the prophets who have been sent by God, with the exception of Christ. But they hold that on Muhammad’s advent, the Christian faith was killed or annihilated, just as Judaism was by the coming of Christ. The only title they give to Muhammad is the Messenger of God. They attribute to him superhuman or fabulous gifts during his life on earth. For instance, a cloud or shadow always rested above his head; that his body cast no shadow; that flies never settled on it; that a long journey was shortened for him, and the road contracted; and that no one ever saw his excrement, which the earth opened and absorbed. There are many similar absurdities, which I will omit.

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No Hindu Could Venture into the Streets during Muharram in Jahangir's Agra!

Now I will come to to the two great festivals, called Id, which they keep very strictly. The dates depend upon the moon; I remember when the fast came in August, but this year it began in June. This fast is kept very strictly for a whole lunar month; they neither eat nor drink throughout the whole day, or until the stars appear or have become visible in the evening, and in the intolerable heat, the prolonged abstinence from water is very trying; but food, be it fish or meat, is not prohibited at night. They sleep apart from their wives for the whole month, and they drink no wine, which, though it is described as unclean in their scriptures, they learn to drink in large quantities, neglecting the prohibition, and explain it away after our fashion.

At the end of this month of fasting comes the great Id of which I have spoken, and which they keep as devoutly as we do Easter. In the morning they go to the great mosques named Idgah, which are usually outside the city, where the Kazis, who are their lawyers, offer prayers; people of all classes gather there, and return home in great joy, the great men in full stately clothes, the poor in clean white clothes. Friends send each other food accompanied by good wishes, and everyone is very gay because the heavy burden of fasting or abstinence is over, and nobody is bound or compelled to fast for longer than he chooses or wishes.

The other Id comes 70 days later, and during the interval no marriages are allowed to take place. This feast commemorates God's mercy to Abraham, when he was about to sacrifice his only son Isaac, who was obedient to him, relying on his compassion. He prepared to make a worthy burnt-offering, even to slay his son; but an angel held back the knife, and the sacrifice was remitted, and he offered instead a goat which was standing behind a hedge. On that day therefore everyone who is able, will sacrifice a goat in his house, and keep the day as a great festival. A month later comes the commemoration of Hasan and Husain, two brothers, sons of Ali, who was married to Bibi Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad. From these two, namely Muhammad and Ali, arose after their death a schism in the new faith. For Persians, Uzbeks, and Tartars swear by Ali rather than Muhammad, while Turks, Arabs, and Hindustanis [i.e., Indian Muslims], swear only by Muhammad, and not at all by Ali. Thus, there is a great distinction, the sects calling each other kafirs or infidels, and hating each other as bitterly as the papists hate our religion [i.e., Protestantism].

Those who follow Muhammad are called sunnis, and those who follow Ali are called rawafiz [i.e. shias]. At first, the new-found faith was introduced in a deceitfully attractive form, and men were given remarkable latitude, and a broad ladder by which they could climb to heaven without difficulty, thus offering pleasant allurements for the innocent. However, when they became powerful, and found their wings strong enough for flight, they adopted forcible methods to spread their creed, and waged war against those who did not accept it. In a battle against a heathen king, Raja Bickhanhaar, Hasan and Husain were killed.

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In commemoration of this slaughter, the Shias make a great noise all night for a period of ten days; the men sleep apart from their wives, and fast by day; the women sing lamentations, and make a display of mourning. In the chief streets of the city the men make two coffins, adorn them as richly as they can, and carry them round in the evening with many lights and large crowds attending, with great cries of mourning and noise. The chief celebration is on the last night, when it seems from the great mourning as if God had plagued the whole country as in the time of Pharaoh's obstinacy, when all the first-born were slain in one day. The outcry lasts till the first quarter of the day; the coffins are brought to the river, and if two parties meet carrying their biers (it is worst on that day), and one will not give place to the other, then, if they are evenly matched, they may kill each other as if they were enemies at open war, for they run with naked swords like madmen.

No Hindus can venture into the streets before midday. If they do, they may perchance escape with their life, but their arms and legs would be broken to pieces. This continues till at last, they have thrown the coffins into the river. Then they bathe, return home finely dressed, and each goes to the graves of his deceased parents or friends, which have been newly whitewashed and decorated for the occasion, bringing food and flowers, and, after due mourning, giving the food to the poor.

They believe that all good deeds or charities performed on that day on behalf of the dead, will benefit them whether they are in heaven or in hell. This is a fable which resembles the papist doctrine of purgatory; and the festival may fairly be compared to All Souls' Day, when they read the seven psalms in the churches, or pay a penny to have them read, in order that the souls in purgatory may be given some respite or relief from the prescribed period, or occasionally may even be released and taken to heaven.

To be continued

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