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The Hindu devotees of Imam Hussain

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    The Hindu devotees of Imam Hussain

    The Hindu devotees of Imam Hussain
    A case of cross-veneration

    by Yoginder Sikand

    A Muharram festival: The holiday marks the death of Ali.
    One of the most important events in early Muslim history was the battle of Karbala fought in 680 CE in which Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet through his daughter Fat-ima and her husband Imam Ali, was slaughtered along with a small band of disciples in a bloody battle against Yazid, a tyrant who had usurped the Muslim caliphate. The slaughter of Ali is one of the pivotal events that led to a divide between the ‘mainstream’ Sunni and Shi’ite communities, with the latter ascrib-ing special importance to the family of Ali. This event occurred in the Islamic month of Muharram, and it is for this reason that this month is observed with great solemnity in many parts of the Muslim world.

    What is particularly striking about the observances of the month of Muharram in India is the prom-inent participation of Hindus in the rituals. This has been a feature of popular religion for centuries in large parts of India, and continues even today, albeit on a smaller scale. In towns and villages all over the country, Hindus join Muslims in lamenting the death of Hussain, by sponsoring or taking part in lamen-tation rituals and tazia processions. In Lucknow, seat of the Shia na-wabs of Awadh, prominent Hindu noblemen like Raja Tikait Rai and Raja Bilas Rai built Imambaras to house alams, standards represent-ing the Karbala event. The non-Muslim tribal Lambadi community in Andhra Pradesh have their own genre of Muharram lamentation songs in Telugu. Among certain Hindu castes in Rajasthan, the Karbala battle is recounted by staging plays in which the death of Imam Hussain is enacted, after which the women of the village come out in a procession, crying and cursing Yazid for his cruelty. This custom is known as pitna dalna. In large parts of north India, Hindus believe that if barren women slip under an alam moving in a procession they will be blessed with a child.

    Perhaps the most intriguing case of Hindu veneration of Imam Hus-sain is to be found among the small Hussaini Brahmin sect, located mostly in Punjab, also known as Dutts or Mohiyals. Unlike other Brahmin clans, the Hussaini Brah-mins have had a long martial trad-ition, which they trace back to the event of Karbala. They believe that an ancestor named Rahab traveled all the way from Punjab to Arabia and there developed close relations with Imam Hussain. In the battle of Karbala, Rahab fought in the army of the Imam against Yazid. His sons, too, joined him, and most of them were killed. The Imam, seeing Rahab’s love for him, bestowed upon him the title of sultan or king, and told him to go back to India. It is because of this close bond between their ancestor Rahab and Imam Hussain that the Hussaini Brah-mins got their name.

    After Rahab and those of his sons who survived the battle of Karbala reached India, they settled down in the western Punjab and gradually a community grew aro-und them. This sect, the Hussaini Brahmins, practised an intriguing blend of Islamic and Hindu prac-tices, because of which they were commonly known as ‘half Hindu, half Muslim’. A popular saying about the Hussainis has it thus:

    Wah Dutt Sultan,
    Hindu ka dharm
    Musalman ka iman,
    Adha Hindu adha Musalman
    (Oh! Dutt the king
    With the religion of the Hindu
    And the faith of the Muslim
    Half Hindu, half Muslim)
    Dutt = Hussaini Brahmin

    But there is also another version of how the Dutts of Punjab came to be known as Hussaini Brahmins. One of the wives of Imam Hussain, the Persian princess Shahr Banu, was the sister of Chandra Lekha or Mehr Banu, the wife of an Indian king called Chandragupta. When it became clear that Yazid was adamant on wiping out the Imam, the Imam’s son Ali ibn Hussain rushed off a letter to Chandragupta asking him for help against Yazid. When Chandragupta received the letter, he dispatched a large army to Iraq to assist the Imam. By the time they arrived, however, the Imam had been slain. In the town of Kufa, in present-day Iraq, they met with one Mukhtar Saqaffi, a disciple of the Imam, who arranged for them to stay in a special part of the town, which even today is known by the name of Dair-i-Hindiya or ‘the Indian quarter’.

    Some Dutt Brahmins, under the leadership of one Bhurya Dutt, got together with Mukhtar Saqaffi to avenge the death of the Imam. They stayed behind in Kufa, while the rest returned to India. Here they built up a community of their own, calling themselves Hussaini Brahmins, and although they did not convert to Islam they kept alive the memory of their links with Imam Hussain.

    The Hussaini Brahmins believe that Krishna had foretold the event of the Imam’s death at Karbala in the Gita. According to them, the Kalanki Purana, the last of eighteen Puranas, as well as the Atharva Veda, the fourth Veda, refer to Imam Hussain as the divine incarnation or avatar of the Kali Yug, the present age. They hold Imam Ali, Imam Hussain’s father, and son-in-law and cousin of the Prophet Muham-mad, in particular reverence, refer-ring to him with the honorific title of Om Murti.

    The Hussaini Brahmins, along with other Hindu devotees of the Muslim Imam, are today a rapidly vanishing community. The younger generation abandoning their an-cestral heritage, often now seen as embarrassingly deviant. No longer, it seems, can a comfortable limin-ality be sustained, and ambiguous identities seem crushed under the relentless pressure to conform to the logic of neatly demarcated ‘Hindu’ and ‘Muslim’ communities. And so, these and scores of other religious communities that once straddled the frontier between Hinduism and Islam seem destined for perdition, or else to folkloric curiosities that tell of a bygone age, when it was truly possible to be both Hindu as well as Muslim at the same time.