Sunday, March 26, 2006

Paint it black

Holiday in Karbala
New Delhi

During my recent luxrious entrapment in the suburbs of Delhi, I did manage one afternoon of urban freedom in order to see Jantar Mantar, the 17th century open-air observatory, which made for some very cool photos. On the way I saw some real live naked Jain saints marching down MG Road. There are 2 main schools of Jainism, the Swetambar (white-clad) and Digambar (sky-clad) and this procession featured both. I was disappointed that the only Digambar seem to be wrinkly old men carrying peacock feather fans. (Where are all the young, good-looking naked Jain saints?) All the ladies were swathed in white. They continued on their non-violent way toward a Jain temple in Green Park neighborhood.

Coming out of Jantar Mantar at around 6.30 I got the opposite end of the spectrum of religious observance. There was a noisy procession down Janpath, with marchers, banners and truckbeds full of participants. I asked the policeman, and it turned out to be a parade of Shi'a Muslims. It was the final day of Moharram (commemoration of a Shia martyr, Hossain, in Karbala, Iraq some 1500 years ago) and they were all headed for the Dargah in order to whip themselves bloody with knives. How could I possibly resist? So I jumped into the back of a truck, making sure it was one carrying women and children, and rode with them to the Dargah.

How to describe the difference between Hindu and Muslim India? first of all, you realize, something is missing. The colour. Everyone is wearing black. It's like a black and white movie of Hindu India, or like The Wizard of Oz when Dorothy is still in Kansas. Everything is kind of a pale reflection. The flowers in the place of worship are dried up, the tableaux are drab colours, and even the prasad is dry and flavourless, like they can't allow themselves to enjoy anything. There seems to be little rejoicing (all their holidays are about celebrating someone's martyrdom - they even re-enact the funerals, carry in the coffin and so on).

What else is missing? The women. Sure, traditional Hindu women don't exactly live a liberated lifestyle but their exuberant beauty is there, peeping out at you from beneath heavy jewellry or little peeks between the sari folds and blouses; shy smiles, long luxurious braids and tinkling bangles. And they can express themselves with colour, and flowers in their hair. Muslim women do have a certain elegant dignity in their black burquas. But...something is missing. Like, their hair, their bodies and their faces. (I know that in Malaysia the Muslim women wear colourful burqas.)

I visited the Purdah house along with my new friend Fatima, a physics lecturer at Jamiah Millaid University here in Delhi. Fatima brought along her 2 children, Maryam and 6 month old infant Ibrahim, and their elderly maid who was looking after Ibrahim. Fatima's husband Abbas is a merchant of hiking and sporting gear; he sells things like parasails for adventure sports. Upon finding that I was from the US, Abbas assured me that Shias, unlike Sunnis, do not believe in Jihad, or as he put it, Jihad is only with the tongue and the pen, not with the sword. I would like to know more about this particular aspect. They were surprised that I had heard of Sunni and Shi'as and the 2 different caliphs. I told them that not only had I learned of it in Asian history class, but it's all in the news now.

Purdah house is where all the women go to hang out with each other and the kids, and get away from the men. Strangely there were a couple men in the purdah house and I wondered why they were the exception. (they didnj't look like eunuchs!) There was a big padded mat on the floor where everyone just rolled around with their kids chatting. One of the only English expressions I understood was "short skirt!" with definite disapproval. I asked if they were discussing their kids' school uniforms. No, they said, they were just disapproving of the general clothes girls wore these days in public.

It turned out Fatima's girl Maryam goes to Jesus and Mary Convent school along with some of the other Muslim kids. "Convent educated" has long been a synonym for well-educated here in India, but I wondered how this worked as Muslims. The Muslim and other non Christian kids are not required to do Bible studies or prayer there; when it's scripture study time instead they get a general "moral training" class.

Also missing are the lively visuals. Most of India (not just Hindu but Christian, Buddhist, Sikh etc) is just dripping with iconography, flowers, and all manner of doo dads. All this was missing from the cars, rooms, and places of worship I saw. but it didn't feel austere and elegant in a minimalist sense, but like...something is missing. It's missing the usual feeling of celebration, festivity and general life-enhancing energy that Asian festivals normally have.

There were at least 100,000 people there, every single one (with 2 or 3 very visible exceptions) dressed fully in black. People were gathered in the courtyard as a preacher screamed a sermon through a loudspeaker (and I mean, he was yelling himself hoarse constantly, for at least an hour). A big banner hung outside reading, in English,"We know that US forces are behind destruction of the Iraqi shrine." I was genuinely curious about this because I don't put it past my govt. to do such things. Another banner read "live like Hossain, die like Ali." I realized this was what the little kids in the truck had been yelling to passersby in Arabic (or maybe in Urdu). it seemed like a weird thing for little girls and boys to enjoy yelling. They were yelling it the same way we would yell "Hixson, Hixson!" on the way to our high school football games.

Whip It Good
When the screaming preacher finally stopped (maybe from laryngitis) the funeral of Hossain was reenacted, with men carrying a mock coffin draped in black with gold decor into the Dargah itself where it was lain in state just like a normal funeral. Then the chest-beating began. At first I thought it was drumming, the beating was so loud and consistent. It was the men beating their left chest with their right fists in unison. Once they set up a rhythm they began chanting to it. The chanting was not necessarily mournful sounding, but more military.

Then the women began ritual weeping for the martyr's death (they also performed a modified chest beating). I felt kind of guilty just being there to observe them, sort of like going to a funeral for someone you don't know and ogling everyone's grief, so I covered my head with my dupatta and tried to look depressed and sorrowful.

One lady seated next to me on the crowded marble steps explained a few things to me in English. Then the younger men came out of the inner dargah and into the courtyard (because blood can't be shed in the building itself), took off their shirts and started whipping themselves with the knives on chains. I got some video of this and at one point my hands and camera were coverd in blood splatters - it was that bloody. Blood was flying! The woman explained to me, "because we were not there, we now are sharing in his bloodshed. Because his blood was shed now we share in the suffering." Of course this is not unique to Islam, some Christians and Hindus do self-mortification too. The Hindus seem to have a lot more fun with it and I have never seen the Kavadi shed blood (not even when they pierce their tongue with the vel, or ritual spear). Don't know about the Christians....I know they do crucifixion re-enactments in the Philippines, for instance. Maybe one difference is the martyrdom aspect: in the Hindu instances there is no martyrdom to re-enact, they are just offering their energy and effort toward accumulating merit. But what would a crucifixion (or other martyrdom) be without actual bloodshed?

The floor of the white marble courtyard was red with the blood. Some of them whipped their left shoulders while holding the knives with their right hands; others had a more advanced 2-fisted technique whereby they lashed from left to right shoulder. These were no ordinary knives, it was obviously an apparatus made just for this purpose (imagine the thought process, "let's see, we need a good strong handle, and chains just long enough to reach over our shoulders..."). The handle is a sort of wooden grip with four or five chains extending several feet to the curved knives dangling from the other end.

Some of the guys had backsfull of raised scars from years of doing this. Several people explained to me the 'miracle' - that no one ever gets infected and they use no medication or disinfectant the following day. They did rinse it off with water, a guy came around with a hose pipe and another with a water bottle.

I was then invited to go into the dargah and see the coffin. I had to take off my shoes and really, really did not want to walk barefoot through all the fresh blood so I found the one foot-wide pathway that led beyond the blood and tiptoed in.

Inside the dimly lit hall my mind struggled to find comparisons. I realized it was like nothing so much as a funeral parlour - which, basically, it is. Low lighting, weird smell of dead flowers, grimy offerings, people in black weeping and a coffin people touched lovingly at one end. Some women had hymnbooks and began chanting in small groups toward the door. Really, I was almost surprised they didn't completely re-enact the martyrdom and choose one lucky fellow to be the new Hossain, be slain and have the honour of lying in the coffin.

I was very glad to have experienced this phenomenon but somewhat glad when it was over. Again, unlike any other religious celebration I've been to (and you knoooowwww I've damn-near seen it all, from Southern Baptist dunkings to the Tamil Nadu Hindus piercing their skin with hooks) - the vibe was not welcoming, though no one was rude to me at all. Next time I would wear a burqa, because no one would be able to differentiate me then till I open my mouth.

After three years in Asia, you somehow develop a radar for isolating English speakers.My radar led me to Ali, a tall young man in mod clothes with the Nordic features and hazel eyes of a Kashmiri. Bingo - he turned out to be a Kashimiri student here learning engineering. Ali spoke English well and guided me to the nearest payphone so I could call my worried Indian chaperones (note: there is no other sort of Indian chaperone. They come in 2 speeds - worried and hysterically melodramatic), but we were delayed by Ali's stopping to flirt with one young lady in a black and white bandhani print headscarf (after a very discreet chat, which was mostly nuanced eye contact, he slipped her his phone number). I had to admit that despite the headscarf you could see this young lady was a real looker - tall and slim with razorsharp cheekbones. In fact the headscarf gave her a bit of mystique. So behind all the ritualized mourning, everyone is socializing and flirting as at any community function.

The Martaam (self flagellation) continued outside the mosque with groups of men proceeding down the street lashing themselves in a frenzy, then stopping for a breather after a minute or 2. Then they'd move on and start up again.

Good Grief
In a way, Moharram was just another version of the classic Indian guilt trip. I (and a number of foreign fellow travellers) am still wondering what is derived from this game, which awaited me upon return from my field work ("where were you?" or better yet, "I was waiting for you," which has become a humourous refrain in the foreign community). Multicultural certainly, but nothing we can't get from any Jewish mother worth her matzohs. I did get the feeling my host would have felt justified in lashing me (or my lashing myself) with knives and chains in retaltiation for the unforgiveable sin of not planning my every move a day in advance. I got away with 48 hours of the silent treatment, which, by that time, was fine with me.

The most fun was really drinking rum with Uncle Jeet and watching the news every night. Uncle Jeet is a 65-year-old retired Indian Air Force navigator. Recently widowed, he says "time hangs on" him unless he keeps busy by driving his baby-blue 1960 Austin Minor to the golf course ever day for a few rounds with his ex-military buddies. Then he comes home and naps till it's time for the news. From 7pm till 11pm (dinner time) we drank Ballantine's XXX Rum cocktails and made cynical comments about BBC, CNN-IBN, NDTV and Travel & Lifestyle channel. I loved it.


little rock said...

Hey, Indologist At Large!

Thanks for visiting my blog! Saw you on sitemeter too. You're not the first from India but darn, now I want someone to visit from Egypt too!

I love your blog!


PS. I'll be visiting Nepal, etc next month, so come back to my blog for more.

Shinu Mathew said...

THanks for the two items you send to my mail.
I read about the happenings around the Indo-nepal border. Infact it has been going on for for quite a long time but the SSB seems to notice it recently.
Second was an excellent description of your experience. I felt like I am sitting in a truck watching all those self-flagellation and mock-funeral.

did you heard anything latest about the Varanasi bombings?

See you,

QED said...

hi siren! i just found your blog (thank you, blogger homepage for directing me to these gems!) and i love it. i found your post from today particularly fascinating, especially your accounts of hindu vs. muslim india and the martyr ritual. i am of indian descent, and i am thoroughly impressed by the accuracy with with you can capture subcontinental culture on your blog. keep up the great work, and thanks for writing :)

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

Wow, letters I like to receive. Welcome to Little Rock and thanks NGP for your compliments. I am concerned about accuracy and if anyone knows stuff about the Shia ritual that I got wrong please tell me.

Sirensongs: Indologist At Large said...

Letters from home...

Darkhorse in Nashville writes:
Lord, chile, you coulda bin spanked as an infidel, or worse.
I'm sad that continental Indians adopt Arabic names, just like Africans. (Bosnian Muslims usually don't.)... And smiled at your British English use of "hose pipe" for water hose. I wonder what happens if a flagellant ever starts whipping someone else (er, well, isn't that what they do the other 364 days of the year? Or I might be thinking of Sunni).
Glad you got to imbibe, also, with "Uncle Jeet" - you must offer details about him. But I'll check the website when possible.