Rituals and Emotions: Notes from the Muharram procession at Kashmere Gate

As the first semester draws to a close, I was taking a stock of events and experiences that I’ve had since I first moved to the city of Delhi in August. The one striking experience that had me moved and thinking was when I attended the Muharram procession, just across our university campus on Hamilton Road, as a part of our history and historiography course. The question that was posed to us by our teacher and which still continues to bother me is how do we approach writing about rituals like Ashura? This one question has opened up some more questions and possibilities and in this essay I will try to address some of them.


Muharram processions is not an easy sight to be a part of. The self-flagellating Shia men and kids injuring their bodies and unescapable sight of blood is an uncomforting spectacle. Also, one would find herself or himself between those gathered to participate the procession, often weeping and crying as they mourn the death of Hussain and martyrs of the battle of Karbala.

There is no one particular way of approaching & engaging with rituals like Muharram. There are various nodes which can be picked up as an entry point of engagement. One could look at bodies, spectatorship, emotions, temporality and elements of the ritual such as space, time, aural and visual features. I will particularly focus on the element of emotion in Muharram as my point of departure and its connection with the aural and visual elements of the procession as well as the problem of temporality and history. The underlying line of inquiry in this exercise is to locate the factors that prompt the emotional display during Muharram.

History of Muharram and Ashura

Muharram commemorates the pitched battle (680 C.E.) of Karbala, in present day Iraq, which many now understand to have been a struggle over the political and spiritual leadership of Islam. […] To simplify, Husain, grandson of the Prophet, was slain by the henchmen of the Ummayad ruler Yazid, who’s [..] lavish and imperialist style of governance was, in the opinion of Husain and his followers, contrary to the egalitarian spirit of Islam. Shi’ahs dwell on the tragic martyrdom of a number of characters in their redactions of the story, including Ali Asghar and Ali Akbar, Husain’s sons; Abbas, Husain’s half-brother; Hur, who defected from the Ummayad army; and Qasim, son of Husain’s brother Hasan. Many believe that the Imams (spiritual leaders and successors to Muhammad) and martyrs of Karbala are present during Muharram and, like Sufi saints, intervene on behalf of the devout. Part of the ambivalence over Muharram stems from the fact that Husain’s martyrdom is considered a moral victory. Thus, for Shi’as Muslims, both mourning and celebration are deeply embedded in Muharram’s emotional fabric. (Wolf, 2000)

To show their allegiance to the slain martyrs, and to the principle of success ship that Hussain embodied, Shi’as retell the story of Husain’s martyrdom. They recall scenes from the battle using a variety of dramatic verbal genres, and participate in processions, carrying battle standards, tomb replicas and other icons of the Karbala story. (Wolf, 2003)

At the Muharram procession we were witness to, we saw three different groups, mourning the martyrdom in different styles. The first group involved middle aged men and some kids hitting their backs with sharp tools like blades, chains and knives. The second group had men hitting their forehead and loudly thumping their chest. The third group was a community of Shi’a students from Ladakh based in Delhi. They mourned by beating their chest and singing Nohas in chorus. Nohas are melancholic poems written to commemorate the martyrdom and valour of Hussain ibn Ali and his comrades of the Karbala.

Performing the pain

Self Flagellating men as a part of mourning on Muharram Muharram (Kashmere Gate, Delhi 2014)
Self Flagellating men as a part of mourning on Muharram Muharram (Kashmere Gate, Delhi 2014)

Men and women of all ages wept and cried to mourn the deaths of martyrs of the battle. The grief was apparent on the faces of men participating in the mourning display as well as those who had gathered to watch the procession. Observing this, one is confronted with a question what factors are stimulating these emotions? Weeping or crying is believed to be a very personal emotion and usually displayed in public. Also, crying for someone’s death also implies a personal connect between the person who is weeping and the deceased, perhaps shared time and space. But apart from a spiritual connect to Hussain, the ones present there had no direct connection in terms of shared time and space with him. How then the spectators could so profoundly express an emotion in memory of a figure whom they haven’t shared physical time and space or about an incident to which they themselves were not part of? It is not to say that it is impossible to cry or weep thinking about a person you have never met. In case of Muharram, the mediated affect could manifest through the aural and visual ambiance as well its temporal transcend and historical specificity which I shall discuss it later in this paper.

As I was interacting with a Shia friend of mine about the Muharram, she mentioned one important thing about the Shia community that the sentiment of mourning is much central to the Shia discourse for its historical significance. The identity of the Shia community is much strongly linked to the battle of Karbala and the events thereafter. All Shias believe that they are direct descendants of Husain and hence of Prophet Muhammad. Considering this, it almost becomes dutiful for devout Shias to express their grief during Muharram. It is with this sense of “duty” the performative aspect of mourning seeps in. But as discussed earlier, weeping would also need a personal stimulus. At this juncture, one is confronted with the idea of emotions during Ritual and ritualised emotions. In a paper titled “Performative tears– Emotions in Ritual and Ritualised emotions” by Axel Michaels, he distinguishes between the ritual crying and crying during the ritual.

[Crying during ritual] is perhaps evoked by rituals or given space within them as weeping is very often emotionally contagious, but remains subject to the individual’s choice or psychic disposition whether it happens or not. The ritual crying, on the other hand, […] follows […] five criteria of rituals; it is dependent on causal change (the death), it is stipulated, performed or staged in a prescribed form, publicly performed and staged, irrevocably marking the loss of the deceased. [..] [T]he weeping is not a spontaneous reaction to death and subject to individual feelings. It is a must and part of a symbolic performance in which solidarity is expressed. (Michaels, 2010)

But in a ritual like Muharram, it is hardly possible to differentiate whether the tears are real or not because often ritualised weeping may end in “real” weeping due to the stimulating effect of the situation. In spite of this fluid nature of emotional display, Michaels argues that the distinction between real tears and performative tears is not useless. He mentions

[R]itualized tears are as real as tears shed as an emotional response to an event. Assuming that they are not “real” presupposes a Western individualism and emotionalism that places individual and spontaneous emotions higher than formalised and ritualised emotions. […] [A] ritual is framed by the intentio solemnis (formally marking the beginning and end of emotional display) and other formal criteria. Tears within this frame are performative tears since their “intention” or cause is laid down or prearranged. They can be formally […] allowed by the community [and] nobody will then ask why a participant starts crying if tears are a “normal reaction” in this part of the ritual (Michaels, 2010).

Thus it can be hypothesised that though the tears are shed in the name of Hussain, there is a varying level of personal engagement and subjectivity involved within the participants of this ritual. This subjectivity can emerge from various points. To understand this subjective position in collective outburst of emotions, we could invoke Schechner’s idea of ritual where he says

Rituals are collective memories encoded into actions. Rituals help people deal with difficult transitions, ambivalent relationships, hierarchies, and desires that trouble, exceed, or violate the norms of daily life.

In the context of Shia community, the fact that being a minority sect within Islam could also have possibly resulted in some bitter experiences they might have had in finding space for their sectarian pride in larger discourse of Islam. Especially in a country like India, where Muslim population itself is in minority, being a minority within a larger minority would mean being confronted with the added insecurities of the minority community. Mourning at Muharram could then as well can be looked at as a ritual in which these collective memories, experiences and insecurities get encoded into action i.e. mourning and act as a sort of catharsis for the Shia followers.

Affect during Ashura Procession

The affect infliction in Ashura procession happens through the aural and visual elements of the Ashura ritual. These elements of the performance are equally important to invoke the grief within the participants. By aural and visual elements, I am referring to the Nohas that are sung by the chorus, the sound produced by thumping the chest, the flagellated, weeping and bleeding bodies, the presence of blood etc. These could be considered as agencies that create the mediated affect as mentioned earlier.

Nohas, poetry of lament describe the aftermaths of battle of Karbala and different episodes about it. Written in soulful Urdu, Nohas are set to mournful tunes and sung in a metronome like beat produced by loudly beating on chest, which is called maatam. A large chorus singing Nohas to this beat does sound haunting. This way of mourning i.e. beating the chest is interesting in the sense that the meaning generation in this form is embodied and converges in, on and through the body. It happens through performing the chest beating in conjunction with poetic recitation of Nohas and its virtual aestheticization to the point of becoming an art form. Maatam embodies the rhythmic character of the lament poetry and translates verbal performance into a type of a movement (Wolf, 2000).

The men inflicting injuries upon themselves could be looked at as devices used to invoke the motif of blood that was shed at the battle of Karbala. This could have deeper impact on the subconscious of the spectator and could be considered as one of the stimulus that is imperative to invoke grief. But this is a very primary hypothesis and the performance should be looked at in more focused to put forth some solid evidence for the same. 

Performing History and temporality

The commemorations of Muharram begin on day one of Muharram and culminate on the tenth day which is known as Ashura. During this time, pious Shias observe mourning practices, dress and behave sombrely, and attend during gatherings at which the history of the Battle of Karbala is retold, often in conjunction with sermons teaching lessons to be learned from this history. Tenth day commemorations may include a passion play, processions, and various forms of lamentation, such as self-flagellation, the singing of nohas, the recitation of marsiyas and a ritualized form of mourning ie Maatam.

Though I have limited my observations to the processions on the tenth day ie Ashura, one needs to also look at the events that happen for the first nine days and lead up to the day of Ashura. These gatherings are called Majalis where the narrators reciteMarsiyas. Marsiya is form of prose poetry which is recited (as opposed to Noha which are usually sung, though both are forms of elegiac poetry) to narrate incidents about Karbala battle. They are narrated in a heightened manner to make the attendees feel the pain and suffering that the martyrs of Karbala and their families went through.

The affect on the audience parallels the shifts in tone of the reciter, with the lamentation rituals evoking intense crying and weeping. While all majalis include the lamentative narration of the […] the tragic events of Karbala, reciters […] will include as much detail of suffering as possible in this narration, to elicit maximum levels of emotion from the audience. (Deeb, 2005)

This sort of performance and invoking of history makes the Muharram as a site where the participants could experience temporality in terms of time. When the audience assumes an active role in enhancing the emotional feeling through collective mourning, a transcendence towards regret takes place. When participants are placed simultaneously in the performance of Ashura as well as on the plains of Karbala many centuries ago, an altered sense of temporality is experienced; the present is merged with the past in a unified moment of intensity.


The central point in my inquiry of Muharram has been to locate the source or the stimulus of emotions that the Shia attendees go through during the mourning phase of Muharram. It can be only deduced that there isn’t one source but various factor collectively responsible for the display of emotions. Lara Deeb mentions that the emotions surrounding Ashura commemorated express both grief and regret. Tears shed for the martyrs of Karbala are tears that are religiously commendable. It is believed that both evoking these tears and shedding them are acts that bring divine reward and that may increase one’s chances of entering heaven. Blood spilled in memory of the events of Karbala is similarly an embodied demonstration of grief and an empathetic expression of solidarity with the Imam’s pain and sorrow. It can also be an expression of regret or remorse. Some of those who perform the traditional style of maatamexplain that this demonstrates their regret for not being at Karbala with the Imam—a reference to those Shias who originally called on the Imam to come and lead their revolution, but who then failed to arrive at Karbala in time to either protect the Imam or stand and die with him (Deeb, 2005).

The fact that the mourning still continues in various forms and embodiment also highlights the relevance of the ritual for the community in contemporary times. Noted Islamic scholar Hamid Dabashi has argued that the central thematic of these mourning performances is the notion of Mazlummiyat. Mazlummiyat refers to the absence of justice towards Shias that signals the necessity of its presence. He writes

Shi’ism is a religion of protest. It can never succeed politically without failing morally. As a cosmic carnival of a constitutional injustice, taziyeh is the mourning of a loss that must always fail in its stated objective if it is to be successful. No mourning could or should ever be successful. The success of mourning is its failure. Mourning is successful only to the degree that it fails, acknowledging the enormity of the loss, the incomprehensible dimensions of the tragedy. The success of mourning means the eradication of the central trauma that has caused it, and no such eradication of a trauma definitive to a culture is possible-without nullifying that very culture. Shi’is are condemned/blessed forever to remember the central trauma of their history, but never so fully that they can then forget it. The act of remembrance will have to remain always incomplete-like a dream that keeps haunting a people, forcing them to try to remember it, but never successfully. In commemorating the death of a martyr, Shias are seeking to identify with absolute Otherness; with saintliness in the midst of sin and death at the moment of living; with dual, absolutely incongruent, Otherness; with the face and the body, miasmatic memory and creative incantation, of the saintly and the deceased. In that impossibility, mourning choreographed and staged, taziyeh is made possible (Dabashi, 2005).

We need to remember that Dabashi’s argument is rooted in the context of socio-political history of Iran and other Shia countries in Middle East such as Iraq & Lebanon. In Indian context, Shias being the minority within a minority could as well be looked at as a possible reason for denial of justice in an already congested and contested religious space. While Muharram becomes the remembrance of the events of Karbala, the thematic of Mazlummiyat also reflects the binary of oppressed and oppressor. The importance of commemorating it every year is better articulated by a woman Deeb interviewed in Lebanon. She said

In every era there is an oppressor and an oppressed. And this history always repeats itself, throughout all eras. Ashura reminds us of this, so we will never forget that there is a Yazid and a Husayn in every time, in every nation, in every government, and people should always have the spirit of revolution against oppression, in all its faces, no matter what its identity (Deeb, 2008)

Thus, as per the Shi’ite belief, the commemoration of Muharram is not just about mourning and remembrance but that of solidarity and an embodiment of spirit to fight against injustice.

Selected Bibliography

  • Wolf, Richard K. 2000. Embodiment and ambivalence: Emotion in South Asian Muharram drumming. Yearbook for Traditional Music 32: 81-116
  • Wolf, Richard Kent. “Return to Tears: Musical Mourning, Emotion, and Religious Reform in Two South Asian Minority Communities.” (2003).
  • Deeb, Lara. “Emulating and/or embodying the ideal: The gendering of temporal frameworks and Islamic role models in Shi ‘i Lebanon.” American Ethnologist 36.2 (2009): 242-257.
  • Deeb, Lara. “Living Ashura in Lebanon: mourning transformed to sacrifice.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 25.1 (2005): 122-137.
  • Dabashi, Hamid. “Taziyeh as theatre of protest.” TDR/The Drama Review 49.4 (2005): 91-99.
  • Norton, Augustus Richard. “Ritual, Blood, and Shiite Identity: Ashura in Nabatiyya, Lebanon.” TDR/The Drama Review 49.4 (2005): 140-155.
  • Chelkowski, Peter J., ed. Eternal Performance: Taʻziyeh and Other Shiite Rituals. Seagull, 2010.

Reads old newspapers and researches on Goan History.

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