My grandfather, Zaigham Husain, would seat me and my sister in his tiny room and talk about Moharram rituals, cry listening to marsiyas and exalt the wonderful spread of sweetmeats on Nauroz. Sitting on his prickly, woollen blanket, the crying at the martyrdom of Hazrat Husain seemed unreal to us but we were caught up with fabled Nauroz dishes, colours and celebrations.
Even as little girls we knew that it was impossible to celebrate Nauroz in our house because our mother was a staunch Sunni Muslim and Papa had given up his Shiah religious practices when he got married, much to the angst of our grandfather. But Dada gave us the alternate Shiah reality that our lives could slip into, valiantly trying to bring us back to the true faith. He even gave us Shiah names. Mine was Nargis and, as I was born on Nauroz, it became my favourite imaginary festival which I “celebrated” in the persona of the elegant Nargis, my younger sister, in her Shiah identity of Shirin, assisting me in laying out the sweets and welcoming the new year.
Nauroz (lit: New Day) is celebrated on the 20th or 21st of March as the sun enters into Aries marking the beginning of the Persian New Year, a traditional spring festival that got integrated in the Indian socio-cultural milieu with religious overtones. It heralds new beginnings and spiritual regeneration with prayers recited over new fruits and grains. The Shiah community in Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Turkey celebrate it with rich symbolism of life in the form of mirrors, newly sprouted wheat, candles etc. It is also celebrated by the Zoroastrians all over the world as the beginning of a new year.
Nauroz in Rampur. PC: Tarana Khan
The Nawab of Rampur, Hamid Ali Khan, a deeply flawed, gifted and complex character, was the first Nawab to declare himself a Shiah at the turn of the last century under the influence of his foster mother, Janab Aliya, who belonged to Jansath near Lucknow. Thereafter, the Nawab set himself to the task of emulating all the practices of his new faith.
A glorious imambara was established inside the Rampur fort and the Nawab observed Moharram rituals to mourn the martyrdom of the grandsons of Prophet Muhammad. This adherence to 40 days of mourning during and after the lunar month of Moharram is the cornerstone of faith for the Shiah sect of Muslims.
Rampur was a princely state in the north of India, established by the Rohilla Pathans from Afghanistan who belonged to the Sunni sect of Muslims. This change of faith by the Nawab caused a lot of consternation among the Pathan chieftains but the Nawab was all powerful and supported by the legitimacy granted by the British colonial powers.
As Rampur had remained aloof during the uprising of 1857, the British had amply rewarded the Nawabs of Rampur by giving them titles and the status of a 15 gun salute - a bit lavish for a small state that Rampur had shrunk into.
After the abolition of the court of Oudh (Lucknow), post the revolt of 1857, a number of singers, dancers and poets were invited to the Rampur court and it had become a centre of fine arts with Nawab Hamid Ali Khan as a trained dhrupad singer and poet. The Nawab stunned all with the sheer grandeur of his court and tried to emulate the Lucknow culture in all things from food to entertainment with a distinct “Rampuri” touch.
The nouveau Shiah Nawab started celebrating the Persian new year, “Nauroz” with great fanfare at the imambara. New fruits, sweetmeats and grains were kept in silver qaabs or serving dishes. At the centre of the dining table were seven grains ground and displayed in seven silver dishes. A rose floated on water in one of the silver bowls. According to an oft repeated story, the Nawab stood with the Shiah maulvi and other Shiah dignitaries of the court and prayed with them requesting Hazrat Ali to accept the offering and grant peace and prosperity to his domain.
He then asked the gathering to leave the room and the door was locked for some time. When they re-entered the room, they found that the ground grain had marks of a hand, as if someone had picked up the flour. This signified the acceptance of the offering by Hazrat Ali himself.
The eyewitness account was narrated by a gentleman and penned by his granddaughter in her memoir which is under publication.
The Nawab’s Begums were ostensibly free to follow their faith but the strict court etiquettes enforced by the Nawab through his lady guard, the Daroghan, made it almost impossible for them to avoid the various rituals of the Shiah faith. A few Begums “converted” to Shiah faith to please the Nawab.
One such Begum was Munawwar Dulhan Begum, a title given to her after her practically forced marriage to the Nawab. We do not know her real name which, as her original persona, became redundant after marriage. Munawwar Begum belonged to a Pathan noble family. Her father was one of the chief critics of the Nawab’s new faith and was often reported voicing his censure indiscreetly. He looked down upon all Shiahs as fabricators who mutilated the true religion followed by Sunnis. Even today, the Pathans believe that Nawab Hamid Ali Khan became a Shiah to clothe his debauchery with the permissiveness of Shiah customs.
The Nawab promptly sent a proposal to marry his daughter. When the gentleman dithered, he was faced with threats and was finally forced to bow down and accept the proposal on conditions laid down by other Pathan nobles, who acted as mediators, that the Nawab would wed the girl in an honourable way and the Nikah would be performed. The Nawab, being a Shiah, could also indulge in temporary marriage called mutah.
The poor girl was thrust into the harem of the Nawab bearing the brunt of her father’s undiplomatic prejudice.
The Nawab kept his new Begum in a separate palace - mahalsara - guarded by the inimitable Daroghan and a posse of eunuchs and female guards. The Begum followed her Sunni faith but had to maintain an imambara room and observe the mourning rituals during Moharram. She employed some ladies of the noble Sayed descent to perform the rituals, attended the gatherings but drew a line at the violent ritual of maatam. The Shiahs perform the maatam by beating their chests in grief at the martyrdom of Hazrat Husain. She was said to be arrogant and did not mix around with other Begums at various events and occasions, a trait that she inherited from her proud Pathan lineage.
The Nawab often organised various festivities in the zenana or female section of the palace, which was attended by his 22 Begums resplendent in their long farshi skirts with their royal jewels on display. Around this time, the Nawab was told that at the court of Lucknow they played with colours to celebrate Nauroz. Nawab Hamid Ali Khan immediately ordered the preparation for a colourful Nauroz. The colour was declared by the clerics in Iran and only that colour was to be used. The venue for the playing of colours was one of the mahalsara called Shahenshah Manzil.
All the Begums and female relatives were instructed to wear white churidar kameez, silver pistons were made for spraying colours and a tank was filled with the prescribed colour. The Shahenshah Manzil had beautiful lawns edged with fruit trees and a large tank for watering the area.
The Nawab entered, dressed in a white angarkha and a coloured, gold embroidered cap called the “Hamid cap”. He was the only male present at the celebration. A Begum from Lucknow was given the honour of squirting colour on the pristine white dress of the Nawab first. After that it was a free-for-all and everyone rushed to fill their pistons with colour and sprayed away. Suddenly, the Nawab paused and asked, “Where is Munawwar Begum?”The Daroghan salaamed and said, “Sarkar, she is unwell and sends her excuses.”
The Nawab understood that the haughty Begum did not want to participate in the festivities which she looked down upon as a Shiah celebration. He immediately asked that the female guards escort her in his presence. The guards and maids went to call the Begum and returned empty-handed saying that the Begum is resting. The enraged Nawab sent them back again to Munawwar Begum’s residence, “Wake her up and bring her here!” he thundered.
All festivities had paused, the other Begums agog at the arrogance of Munawwar Begum and frozen into immobility with the Nawab’s rage. The Nawab was known to be unforgiving and vindictive in his fury.
Once again the maids came back and reported that the Begum was awake but refused to come. By now the Nawab was beside himself with anger at being defied so blatantly.“Bring the Begum with the bed she is lying on!” he commanded.
The maids and the guards ran off again, tried to remonstrate with Begum Munawwar, told her about the command of the Nawab but the Begum covered herself with her sequinned coverlet and held on to the side of the bed, stubbornly refusing to comply.
The female guards were helpless and carried the recalcitrant Begum lying on her bed to Shahenshah Manzil mahalsara, which was practically adjacent to her residence, and set her down on the garden right in the middle of the painted revellers. The Begum still did not get up from her bed, did not even greet the Nawab who towered near the bed.
“Throw her in the tank along with her bed!” shouted the Nawab and stormed out of the palace. The female guards obeyed the order and the Begum was completely immersed in the water along with her bed and bedding with the other wives looking on and no doubt, enjoying the fall of the proud Begum. She had to be fished out of the pool, drenched, humiliated, taken back to her residence dripping and outraged.
It is said that she blamed the Lucknow Begums for her humiliation and never spoke to them again. There is hardly any reference to the Begum after this incident. My guess is that she patched up with her husband. There was no other alternative. She couldn’t divorce or go back home. We do know that Begum Munawwar was childless and the Nawab gave her his third son from another Begum. The boy was brought up under her care. It is reported that the Nawab was kind and caring towards her though he detested her lofty attitude towards other Begums. After his death, a number of Begums went back to live with their relatives and were given pension but Munawwar Begum lived in the new palace “Khas Bagh” with her stepson Nawab Raza Ali Khan, who inherited the throne.
Today, Nauroz is celebrated in Rampur by the Shiah Muslims in their homes and imambaras, toned down drastically from the earlier pomp. It is regarded as more of a womanly affair. The time and colour of the festival is decided by Iranian clerics. This year, the colour declared was red so red was an essential part of the items set out for the nazar.
I visited a Shiah friend’s home to witness the festival, dressed in red. Spread out on the floor rug were dishes (kababs, pulao, qorma, boiled eggs), grains (sattu), fruits (apples, oranges ,bananas) and sweets. The colour of sweets was declared white, so there were milk-based sweetmeats as well as orange zarda. Some follow the system of haft-seen or seven items beginning with the sibilant letter “seen”. So it can include sabzeh (green grains like wheat etc), seer (garlic), seb (apple), sirkeh (vinegar) etc. But for convenience, people stick to sweets and the new fruit of the season symbolising spring. In a crystal bowl, at the centre of the spread, was a red rose floating on water.
It is said that if the rose is put in the water at the exact time of equinox or the time that the sun enters into Aries, it will start floating in a circular path. The lady of the house had inscribed prayers in the form of Arabic numerals with a reed pen dipped in saffron water on three white ceramic plates for prosperity and protection from the evil eye.
The panja emblem of Hazrat Ali, and the banners of Imam Jafar occupied a prominent position on a table with red mannat threads — the wishes of members of the family encircled around hopefully. Red and green candles were lit with a single white candle and, at the prescribed time, when the sun entered the Aries sign, 45 minutes past 9 this year, the members of the family stood reciting prayers.
“The rose moves on its own on its centre and around the bowl if our wishes are granted. But for the past three years it hasn’t stirred. I asked the others - the rose hasn’t moved in any of the houses. It is a bad time for Muslims all over the world,” said our hostess.
We partook of the prayed over food, a saidani of pure descent from the Prophet Muhammad, took the first serving. A bamboo fan was dipped in holy water and sprayed over us. Later, the saffron writing was washed into the rose bowl and water was sprinkled in all corners of the house to ward off the evil eye.
The rose had moved ten degrees towards the right. There is some hope this year.