It is August 2021, the holy month of Muharram in Kargil. As you enter the city, your ears perk up to hysterical weeping on the loudspeakers as a sombre mood prevails over the emotional sermons of the Ulama, who recalls the tragedy that befell one of the greatest heroes of Islam, Imam Hussein. This is a ground report from the 10th day of Muharram, called Ashura, when the local community mourns the untimely martyrdom of Iman Hussein ibn Ali, the grandson of Prophet Mohammad, following the Battle of Karbala. What we witnessed at Kargil left us shocked, touched and pensive as the inhabitants of this beautiful valley became one in their collective mourning. This is the photo story of all that came to pass.
The mood is sullen as the cold wind sweeps over this dreamy land and the sun breaks over the mountains. Today is an important day in Kargil during the holy month of Muharram. Ashura is observed on the 10th of Muharram and commemorates the martyrdom of Hazrat Imam Hussein and his faithful companions in the legendary battle of Karbala. The streets of Kargil soon fill with thousands of Shia Muslims, a veritable majority in Kargil who are otherwise a minority elsewhere, as the Ashura processions are taken out to immense religious fervour.
Although Ladakh has observed Muharram for decades, this is the first time after the COVID-19 pandemic that such an observance has been witnessed in the city of Kargil. On August 20, 2021, the local district administration paves the way for this important ritual for its people with complete adherence to the SOPs that defend against the pandemic that ground the world to a halt just a year earlier.
It is around 4.30 am and the mourners first gather at Imambara in Balti Bazaar, where the Ulema offer prayers and recite soul-stirring elegies and hymns. For Shia Muslims, this is a very sad day and a period of intense grief and mourning. At the mosque, the mourners gather for sorrowful, poetic recitations such as marsiya, noha, and soaz, performed in the memory of the martyrdom of Imam Hussein in local dialects. The Ulema recites poetic retellings with themes of Imam Hussein’s personality and the history of the uprising, with a vivid description of the Battle of Karbala.
This massive procession then starts moving through the city with the replica of Imam Hussein’s Mausoleum as grief-stricken mourners try to touch the wooden coffin. Each touch binds the person with the Imam himself. Some mourners release white doves into the air, symbolising peace. A grey stallion representing Zuljanah, the loyal and devoted mount of Imam Hussein ibn Ali, is paraded along with the Mausoleum in all its regalia, reminding the mourners of the historic sacrifice that it made as it shielded the brave warrior in battle.
The air is thick with the smell of blood and emotions pincer through the hearts of all those present. Men, women, and children — everybody is gathered in unity and bereavement. Imam Hussein’s dignified last stand is the symbol of ultimate social justice and has a message of truth prevailing over falsehoods. As chants of “Ya Hussein” ring in the air, the tragic despondency also reflects a message of piety, sacrifice, and perseverance. Ashura is a moment of deep introspection and the mourners enter a trance-like state as they head towards the big grounds at Qatilgaah.
Thousands of people from Kargil's remote villages make their way here from every nook and cranny. People from different Jamaats, people of every hue and background. All are united by their fervour and brotherhood. As they beat their chests and walk together, a few young followers carryout the traditional ritual of Takbir, ceremonious bloodletting through the act of self-flagellation during mourning. A violent and graphic practice, it relives the attacks that were once experienced by the great Imam and his followers in person. Today, a vocal section of the Shia community contests this practice.
As the congregation passes through the streets, people offer water and refreshments, providing a small respite from an onerous journey. As the throng of mourners inches towards the Grand Mosque, their chants grow louder and the religious fervour reaches fever pitch. Crowds of people enter the doorway one by one and take their places at the encampment. The mourners, each under a different Jammat banner but united in action, pray and memorialise the event together. The rhythm of this collective group is hypnotic as even the watcher enters a trance.
Eventually, the people disperse to continue the service as they head home, guided by the values that Imam Hussein held true for millions to this day. Values that symbolise freedom, justice, harmony, love, unity, and courage in the face of tyranny and seemingly insurmountable opposition.
Watch “Ashura — The Mourning of Muharram | TheVibe Originals” that captures the sights and sounds from the day in this exclusive film documentation:
Words by: Kartik Rao
Photos by: Akmal Nazeer
Produced by: TheVibe
Producers: Asad Abid and Suveer Bajaj
Filmed & Edited: Akmal Nazeer
TheVibe Editorial team: Kartik Rao, Prem Kumar, Jahanvi Chopra, Vishal Thomas
Special Thanks: Muzammil Hussain and Abhilaash Sahu
© 2022. Gut and Flow Media Pvt. Ltd.