The Persian Blue has held me in fascination from long. There is no single reason I can attribute to it yet the genesis of this interest goes back to the mid- 1990s when I was a PhD student working on a medieval port site on Odisha coast. In a trial pit we had unearthed a Persian turquoise glazed pottery piece, the first of its kind found on Odisha coast revealing an evidence of contact with the Persian Gulf. My interest grew towards understanding India’s global connection throughout her history. In this process, I discovered the palette of magnificent glazed ceramics that adorned a number of monuments across India – from Agra to Bidar and from Gwalior to Hyderabad.
Magnificent Persian Tile Work in South Asia
One such monument is the Badshahi Ashurkhana that I came across while leafing through the book ‘Architecture and Art of the Deccan Sultanates’ by George Michell and Mark Zebrowsky.
In 2015, I landed in Hyderabad and visiting the Ashurkhana was on the top of my list of things-to-do. Though at that time my purpose was to appreciate its Persian inlaid tile work but later what moved me was its deep spiritual connection with a branch of Islam that played a considerable role in shaping the history of Medieval India.
Badshahi Asurkhana in Hyderabad
Badshahi Ashurkhana is a Shia shrine commemorating the martyrdom of Imam Husain at Karbala in Iraq. The shrine was erected in 1593-96 CE with tiles added in 1611 CE.
Built under the patronage of Quli Qutb Shah, the building is famous for its large fine cut tile mosaic decoration particularly the tear shaped medallions in a distinct Deccani palette covering its outer walls.
Tomb of Quli Qutb Shah near Golkonda Fort
Ashura is the 10th day of the first month of Islamic calendar, Muharram. On that day, Imam Hussain and his 72 followers including his sons, brothers, cousins and companions were cruelly put to death. After being surrounded for ten days by enemy forces and cut off from food and water supply, they died fighting on the sands of the scorched plain of Karbala.
In 632 CE, Prophet Muhammad’s last year of life ended in crisis. None his sons had survived to adulthood. So a broad consensus of those present at Medina nominated his uncle Abu Bakr as his successor. But a number of others felt that the selection of the first caliph was inappropriate. For them Ali ibn Talib, who was both the Prophet’s first cousin as well as son-in-law was the natural choice. In 656 CE, Ali was raised to the position of caliph.
However, this decision was not well-received by all Muslims. Ali’s main opponent was the Muslim Governor of Syria, and a member of the Umayyad clan (founder of Umayyad dynasty), Muawiya. Ali was murdered by one of his supporters, a Kharijites in 661 CE because of his mutual agreement with Mu’awiya for attribution.
Mu’awiya became the next caliph in Islam, but his leadership was not accepted by all Muslims, especially in Iraq who hoped for return of Ali’s lineage. In 680 CE, Imam Hussain, Prophet’s grandson was made the third caliph by the Shiites of Iraq. At the same time Yazid I had succeeded his father Muawiya as the caliph among Sunnis. Yazid having learnt of the rebellious attitude of Shiites sent his army to restore order.
Imam Hussain had set out from Mecca with 72 members of his family and followers for Kufa, a city in Iraq with an expectation to be received by the citizens of the city. However, on his arrival at Karbala, west of the Euphrates River, he was confronted by a large army. Imam Hussain and his people fought bravely but were defeated. They were all killed hungry and thirsty on the 10th day of Muharram.
Battle of Karbala (Source – Wiki)
Shiites observe this day as Ashura, a day of public mourning.
Shia Islam and India:
India’s Shia population is second to only Iran in the entire world. According to Al-Shaykh-Al-Mutid, the Shia theologian of 10th-11th century CE, before the battle of Karbala, Imam Hussain and Umar ibn Saad, the commander of the enemy force had discussed in length about the former’s willingness to go to one of the border outposts of the rapidly expanding Muslim empire. Some historians believe that the border outpost was Al Hind or India. According to some Shia historians, Imam Hussain’s wife Shehr E Banu was a relative of Hindu king, Chandragupta. They further claim that a band of Indian soldiers known as ‘Mohyal Brahmins’ had gone to Iraq to help Imam Hussain at Karbala but reached late. They still fough with Yazid’s army and exacted revenge of Imam Hussain’s defeat. The Mohyal Brahmins mourn Imam Hussain’s martyrdom till today and thus are known as Hussaini Brahmins.
Even though Imam Hussain did not reach India, some of the Shias did migrate fleeing from Umayyad or Abbasid persecution. These refugees brought with them rituals which kept alive the memory and narrative of Karbala.
Interestingly, the martyrdom of Imam Hussain became an integral part of Indian belief. For centuries, the neighbouring Hindu communities have repetitively been drawn to the ceremony in honour of the beheading of Imam Hussain, venerating him as if he were an Indian ‘god’.
Muharram Procession in Hyderabad (Images 2, 3 and 4 – Source: Flickr – Rajesh Pamnani 2012)
In Hyderabad, where sizeable populations of Shias live, Muharram employs rituals and iconography reflecting Indic influence.
Qutub Shahis were the founding dynasty of Hyderabad in the 16th century. They were staunch Shia Muslims. During their rule, the Qutub Shahis sponsored public Muharram processions and built a number of Ashurkhanas wherein people gathered to mourn Karbala. The Shia Safavid government of Iran cultivated good relations with the Qutub Shahis. As a result there was cross-cultural flow of ideas strengthening the Deccani culture and civilization.
During the rule of the Qutub Shahis, Hyderabad had a number of splendid Ashurkhanas, replete with high exterior walls, spacious courtyards, carpets, tile work, chandeliers, and glass lamps. Inside each Ashurkhana are placed sacred objects that represent the battle standards used by Imam Hussain and his companions. However, in spite of its rich enamel tile decoration and strong historical connection, the best preserved Badshahi Asurkhana, is hardly visited by tourists.
The Badshahi Ashurkhana stands on the High Court Road of the old city of Hyderabad.
Author – Jitu Mishra
He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org