Observations on the Mussulmauns of India
By Meer Hassan Ali

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Letter III

Continuation of Mahurrum.–Consecration of Banners.–Durgah at Lucknow.–Its origin explained.–Regarded with peculiar veneration.–The Nuwaub vows to build a new one.–Its description.–Procession to the Durgah.–Najoomies.–Influence possessed and practised by them.–Eunuchs.–Anecdotes of some having attained great honours and wealth.–Presents bestowed upon them generally revert to the donor.–Rich attire of male and female slaves.

After the Tazia is brought home (as the temporary ones are from the bazaar on the eve of Mahurrum, attended by a ceremonious display of persons, music, flags, flambeaux, &c.), there is little to remark of out-door parade beyond the continual activity of the multitude making the sacred visits to their several Emaum-baarahs, until the fifth day, when the banners are conveyed from each of them in solemn procession, to be consecrated at the Durgah[1] (literally translated, ’The threshold’ or ’Entrance to a sanctified place’).

This custom is perhaps exclusively observed by the inhabitants of Lucknow, where I have had the privilege of acquiring a knowledge of the motives which guide most of their proceedings; and as there is a story attached to the Durgah, not generally known to European visitors, I propose relating it here, as it particularly tends to explain the reasons for the Mussulmauns conveying their banners for consecration to that celebrated shrine.

’A native of India–I forget his name–remarkable for his devotion and holy life, undertook the pilgrimage to Mecca; whilst engaged in these duties at the “holy house”, he was visited with a prophetic dream. Abass Ali (the standard-bearer and relation of Hosein) appeared to him in his dream, commanding him, that as soon as his duties at Mecca were fulfilled he should, without delay, proceed to Kraabaallah, to the tomb of Hosein; directing him, with great precision, how he was to find the exact spot of earth where was deposited the very Allum[2] (banner) of Hosein, which he (Abass Ali) had, on the great day of Kraabaallah, carried to the field. The man was further instructed to possess himself of this relic secretly, and convey it about his person until he should reach his native country, when he would be more fully directed by the orderings of Providence how the relic should be disposed of.

’The Hadjee followed all the injunctions he had received punctually; the exact spot was easily discovered, by the impressions from his dream; and, fearing the jealousy of the Arabs, he used the utmost precaution, working by night, to secure to himself the possession of so inestimable a prize, without exciting their suspicion, or attracting the notice of the numerous pilgrims who thronged the shrine by day. After several nights of severe labour he discovered, to his great joy, the metal crest of the banner; and concluding the banner and staff to have mouldered away, from their having been so long entombed in the earth, he cautiously secreted the crest about his person, and after enduring the many vicissitudes and privations, attendant on the long journey from Arabia to India, he finally succeeded in reaching Lucknow in safety with his prize.

’The Nuwaub Asof ood Duolah[3] ruled at this period in Oude; the pilgrim made his adventures known to him, narrating his dream, and the circumstances which led to his gaining possession of the crest. The Nuwaub gave full credence to his story, and became the holder of the relic himself, rewarding the Hadjee handsomely for his trouble, and gave immediate orders for a small building to be erected under the denomination of “Huzerut Abass Ali Ke Durgah”,[4] in which the crest was safely deposited with due honours, and the fortunate pilgrim was appointed guardian with a liberal salary.

’In the course of time, this Durgah grew into great repute amongst the general classes of the Mussulmaun population, who, venerating their Emaum Hosein, had more than common respect for this trifle, which they believed had been used in his personal service. Here the public were permitted to offer their sacrifices and oblations to God, on occasions of importance to themselves; as after the performance of the rite of circumcision in particular, grand processions were formed conveying the youthful Mussulmaun, richly attired, attended by music, &c. and offering presents of money and sweetmeats at the shrine which contains their Emaum’s sacred relic. On these occasions the beggars of every denomination were benefited by the liberality of the grateful father, and the offerings at the shrine became the property of the guardian of the Durgah, who, it was expected, would deal out from his receipts to the necessitous as occasions served.’

This custom is still observed, with equal veneration for the shrine and its deposit; and when a lady recovers from the perils attendant on giving to her husband’s house a desired heir, she is conveyed, with all the pomp and parade due to her rank in life, to this Durgah, attended by her female relatives, friends, domestics, eunuchs, and slaves, in covered conveyances; in her train are gentlemen on horseback, in palkies, or on elephants, to do honour to the joyful event; the Guardian’s wife having charge on these occasions of the ladies’ visits; and the Guardian, with the gentlemen and all the males, guarding the sanctuary outside; for they are not permitted to enter whilst it is occupied by the ladies, the eunuchs alone having that privilege where females congregate.

Recovery from sickness, preservation from any grievous calamity, danger, or other event which excites grateful feelings, are the usual inducements to visiting the Durgah, with both males and females, amongst the Mussulmaun population of Lucknow. These recurrences yield ample stores of cash, clothes, &c. left at the disposal of the Guardian, who, if a good man, disperses these charitable donations amongst the indigent with a liberality equal to that of the donors in their various offerings.

The Durgah had grown into general respect, when a certain reigning Nuwaub was afflicted by a severe and tedious illness, which baffled the skill of his physicians, and resisted the power of the medicine resorted to for his recovery. A confidential Najoom[5] (astrologer), in the service of his Highness, of great repute in his profession, advised his master to make a vow, that ’If in the wisdom of Divine Providence his health should be restored, he would build a new Durgah on the site of the old one, to be dedicated to Abass Ali, and to be the shrine for the sacred deposit of the crest of Hosein’. The Nuwaub, it appears, recovered rapidly after the vow had been made, and he went in great pomp and state to return thanks to God in this Durgah, surrounded by the nobles and officers of his Court, and the whole strength of his establishment accompanied him on the occasion. So grand was the spectacle, that the old people of the city talk of it at this day as a scene never equalled in the annals of Lucknow, for splendour and magnificence; immense sums of money were distributed on the road to the populace, and at the Durgah; the multitude, of all classes, hailing his emancipation from the couch of sickness with deafening cheers of vociferous exultation.

In fulfilment of his vow, the Nuwaub gave immediate orders for erecting the magnificent edifice, which now graces the suburbs of Lucknow, about five miles from that part of the city usually occupied by the Sovereign Ruler of the province of Oude. By virtue of the Nuwaub’s vow and recovery, the before-respected Durgah has, thus newly built, increased in favour with the public; and, on account of the veneration they have for all that concerns their Emaums, the banners which adorn the Tazias of Hosein must be consecrated by being brought to this sacred edifice; where, by the condescending permission of the Sovereign, both the rich and the poor are with equal favour admitted, at that interesting period of Mahurrum, to view the crest of their Leader, and present their own banners to be touched and thus hallowed by the, to them, sacred relic. The crest is fixed to a staff, but no banner attached to it; this is placed within a high railing, supported by a platform, in the centre of the building; on either side splendid banners are exhibited on these occasions.

The Durgah is a square building, entered by flights of steps from the court-yard; the banner of each person is conveyed through the right entrance, opposite the platform, where it is immediately presented to touch the revered crest; this is only the work of a few seconds; that party walks on, and moves out to the left again into the court-yard; the next follows in rapid succession, and so on till all have performed this duty: by this arrangement, confusion is obviated; and, in the course of the day, perhaps forty or fifty thousand banners[6] may have touched the Emaum’s consecrated crest. On these occasions, the vast population of Lucknow may be imagined by the almost countless multitude, of every rank, who visit this Durgah: there is no tax levied on the people, but the sums collected must be immense, since every one conscientiously offers something, according to his inclination or his means, out of pure respect to the memory of Hosein.

The order of procession, appointed by each noble proprietor of banners, to be consecrated at the Durgah, forms a grand spectacle. There is no material difference in their countless numbers; the most wealthy and the meanest subjects of the province make displays commensurate with their ability, whilst those persons who make the most costly exhibitions enjoy the greatest share of popular favour, as it is considered a proof of their desire to do honour to the memory of Hosein and Hasan, their venerated Emaums.

A description of one, just passing my house, will give you a general idea of these processions,–it belongs to a rich man of the city:–A guard of soldiers surrounds four elephants on which several men are seated, on pads or cushions, supporting the banners; the staffs of several are of silver,–the spread hand, and other crests, are formed of the same metal, set with precious stones. Each banner–they all resemble–is in the shape of a long scarf of rich silk, of bright florid colours, embroidered very deep at the ends, which are finished with gold and silver bullion fringes; it is caught together near the middle, and tied with rich gold and silver cords and tassels to the top of the staff, just under the hand or crest. The silks, I observe, are of many different colours, forming an agreeable variety, some blue, purple, green, yellow, &c. Red is not used; being the Soonies’ distinguishing colour at Mahurrum it is carefully avoided by the zealous Sheahs–the Soonies are violently opposed to the celebration of this festival. After the elephants, a band of music follows, composed of every variety of Native instruments, with drums and fifes; the trumpets strike me as the greatest novelty in their band; some of them are very long and powerful in their effect.

Next in the order of procession I observe a man in deep mourning, supporting a black pole, on which two swords are suspended from a bow reversed–the swords unsheathed glittering in the sun. The person who owns the banners, or his deputy, follows next on foot, attended by readers of the Musseeah, and a large party of friends in mourning. The readers select such passages as are particularly applicable to the part Abass Ali took in the affair at Kraabaallah, which is chanted at intervals, the procession pausing for that purpose.

Then comes Dhull Dhull,[7]–the name of Hosein’s horse at Kraabaallah;–that selected for the present purpose is a handsome white Arab, caparisoned according to the olden style of Arabia: due care is taken to represent the probable sufferings of both animal and rider, by the bloody horsecloth–the red-stained legs–and the arrows apparently sticking in several parts of his body; on the saddle is fixed a turban in the Arabian style, with the bow and arrows;–the bridle, &c. are of very rich embroidery; the stirrups and mountings of solid silver. The horse and all its attire are given after Mahurrum, in charity, to a poor Syaad. Footmen, with the afthaadah[8] and chowrie[9]–peculiar emblems of royalty in India–attend Dhull Dhull. The friends of the family walk near the horse; then servants of all classes, to fill up the parade, and many foot-soldiers, who occasionally fire singly, giving to the whole description a military effect.

I have seen many other processions on these fifth days of Mahurrum–they all partake of one style,–some more splendid than others; and the very poor people parade their banners, with, perhaps, no other accompaniment than a single drum and fife, and the owner supporting his own banner.

My next letter will contain the procession of Mayndhie, which forms a grand feature of Mahurrum display on the seventh night.

P.S.–The Najoomee are men generally with some learning, who, for their supposed skill in astrology, have, in all ages since Mahumud’s death, been more or less courted and venerated by the Mussulmaun people;–I should say, with those who have not the fear of God stronger in their hearts than the love of the world and its vanities;–the really religious people discountenance the whole system and pretended art of the astrologer.

It is wonderful the influence a Najoom acquires in the houses of many great men in India;–wherever one of these idlers is entertained he is the oracle to be consulted on all occasions, whether the required solution be of the utmost importance, or the merest trifling subject. I know those who submit, with a childlike docility, to the Najoom’s opinion, when their better reason, if allowed to sway, would decide against the astrologer’s prediction. If Najoom says it is not proper for Nuwaub Sahib, or his Begum, to eat, to drink, to sleep, to take medicine, to go from home, to give away or accept a gift, or any other action which human reason is the best guide to decide upon, Najoom has said it,–and Najoom must be right. Najoom can make peace or war, in the family he overrules, at his pleasure; and many are the houses divided against themselves by the wicked influence of a bad man, thus exercising his crafty wiles over the weakness of his credulous master.–So much for Najoomee; and now for my second notice of the Eunuchs:–[10]

They are in great request among the highest order of people, and from their long sojourn in a family, this class of beings are generally faithfully attached to the interest and welfare of their employer; they are much in the confidence of their master and mistress, and very seldom betray their trust. Being frequently purchased, whilst children, from the base wretches who have stolen them in infancy from the parental roof, they often grow up to a good old age with the family by whom they are adopted; they enjoy many privileges denied to other classes of slaves;–are admitted at all hours and seasons to the zeenahnahs; and often, by the liberality of their patrons, become rich and honourable;–still ’he is but a slave’, and when he dies, his property reverts to his owner.

In Oude there have been many instances of Eunuchs arriving to great honour, distinctions, and vast possessions. Al Mauss Ali Khaun[11] was of the number, within the recollection of many who survive him; he was the favoured Eunuch of the House of Oude; a person of great attainments, and gifted with a remarkably superior mind, he was appointed Collector over an immense tract of country, by the then reigning Nuwaub, whose councils he benefited by his great judgment. He lived to a good old age, in the unlimited confidence of his prince, and enjoyed the good will and affection of all who could appreciate what is valuable in honest integrity. He died as he had lived, in the most perfect resignation to whatever was the will of God, in whose mercy he trusted through time, and for eternity. Many of the old inhabitants speak of him with veneration and respect, declaring he was the perfect pattern for good Mussulmauns to imitate.

Another remarkable Eunuch, Affrine Khaun,[12] of the Court of Oude, is well remembered in the present generation also,–the poor having lost a kind benefactor, and the rich a sensible companion, by his death. His vast property he had willed to others than the sovereign ruler of Oude (whose property he actually was), who sent, as is usual in these cases, to take possession of his estate, immediately after his death; the gates were barred, and the heirs the Eunuch had chosen to his immense wealth had taken possession; which I am not aware was disputed afterwards by the reigning Nuwaub, although by right of the Mussulmaun law, the Nuwaub owned both the slave and the slave’s wealth.

This accounts, perhaps, for the common practice in the higher circles of the Mussulmaun population, of heaping ornaments and riches on favourite slaves; the wealth thus expended at one time, is but a loan in the hands of safe keepers, to revert again to the original proprietor whenever required by the master, or no longer of service to the slave, who has neither power to bestow, nor heirs to benefit from the property he may leave when he dies.

I have frequently observed, among the most exalted ladies, that their female slaves are very often superbly dressed; and, on occasions of marriage ceremonies, or other scenes of festivity, they seem proud of taking them in their suite, handsomely dressed, and richly adorned with the precious metals, in armlets, bangles, chains, &c.; the lady thus adding to her own consequence by the display of her attendant slaves. The same may be observed with regard to gentlemen, who have men-slaves attending them, and who are very frequently attired in costly dresses, expensive shawls, and gold ornaments.

[1] Dargah, ’(sacred) door-place’.

[2] ’Alam. For illustrations of those banners see Hughes,
    Dictionary of Islam, 408 ff.; Mrs. Parks, Wanderings of a
    Pilgrim, ii. 18.

[3] Asaf-ud-daula, eldest son of Nawab Shuja’-ud-daula, on whose
    death in 1775 he succeeded. He changed the seat of government
    from Faizabad to Lucknow, where he died in 1797, and was
    buried in the Imambara. He is principally remembered for
    his liberality. The merchants, on opening their shops, used to

      Jisko na de Maula,
      Tisko de Asaf-ud-daula.
      Who from Heaven nought receiveth,
      To him Asaf-ud-daula giveth.

[4] Mr. H.C. Irwin informs me that the Dargah is situated on the
    Crommelin Road, rather more than a mile south-west of the
    Machhi Bhawan fort. It was here that Nawab Sa’adat
    ’Al’i, on his accession, vowed that he would reform his
    ways–an intention which was not realized.

[5] Nujumi, ’an astrologer’; ’ilm-i-nujum, ’astrology, astronomy’.

[6] The numbers are greatly exaggerated.

[7] Duldul was the name of the Prophet’s mule which he gave to
    ’Ali. It is often confounded with Buraq, the
    Assyrian-looking gryphon on which he alleged that he flew to

[8] Aftabgir, ’a sun-screen’; see p. 47.

[9] Chaunri, the bushy tail of the yak, used as a fly-flapper.

[10] Writing in 1849, General Sleeman remarks that Dom singers and eunuchs
    are the virtual rulers of Oudh.–A Journey through Oudh, i, introd.
    lxi, 178.

[11] Almas [’the diamond’] ’Ali Khan, known as Miyan [’Master’]
    Almas, according to General Sleeman, was ’the greatest and best man
    of any note that Oude has produced. He held for about forty years
    Miyanganj and other districts, yielding to the Oude  Government an
    annual revenue of more than eighty lacs of rupees [about 850,000].
    During this time he kept the people secure in life and property, and
    as happy as people in such a state of society can be; and the whole
    country under his charge was during his lifetime a garden. He lived
    here in great magnificence, and was often visited by his sovereign.’
    (Ibid., i. 320 f.). Lord Valentia more than once speaks highly of him
    (Travels, i. 136, 241). He also notes that the Nawab was
    anxiously watching for his death, because, being a slave, under
    Muhammadan law his estates reverted to the Crown.–See N.B.E. Baillie,
    Digest of Moohummudan Law (1875), 367 f.

[12] Afrin Khan, ’lord of praise’, Mr. Irwin informs me, is
    mentioned in the Tarikh Farahbakhsh (tr. W. Hoey, 129) as
    engaged in negotiations when Nawab Asaf-ud-daula, at the
    instigation of Warren Hastings and Haidar Beg, was attempting to
    extort money from the Nawab Begam.


Introductory Notes  •  Preface to the Second Edition  •  Introduction  •  Introductory Letter  •  Letter I  •  Letter II  •  Letter III  •  Letter IV  •  Letter V  •  Letter VI  •  Letter VII  •  Letter VIII  •  Letter IX  •  Letter X  •  Letter XI  •  Letter XII  •  Letter XIII  •  Letter XIV  •  Letter XV  •  Letter XVI  •  Letter XVII  •  Letter XVIII  •  Letter XIX  •  Letter XX  •  Letter XXI  •  Letter XXII  •  Letter XXIII  •  Letter XXIV  •  Letter XXV  •  Letter XXVI  •  Letter XXVII  •  Bibliography of Works

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