MUHARRAM / Mumbai / 2010


For my ritual project I had compiled a list of religious processions, ceremonies and festivals in Asia. While researching for this rather extensive list, I came across the description of Muharram. After reading the vivid description of this very ecstatic Islamic tradition, it was clear that I had to see and photograph a Shiite Ashura procession on Muharram.

Ashura (which means ‘tenth’) falls on the tenth of Muharram, the first month of the Islamic lunar calendar. For Shia Muslims, however, Ashura is a major religious festival commemorating the martyrdom of Husayn ibn Ali (حسين بن علي بن أﺑﻲ طالب), a grandson of the Islamic prophet Mohammad at the Battle of Karbala.

As Muharram approaches, they put on black clothes as a symbol of their mourning. Every day during the first nine days of Muharram majalis (assemblies) are held where Shia orators describe the Battle of Karbala, where Husain and all his supporters were killed. Those very detailed descriptions of the Battle of Karbala underline the historical significance of this martyrdom and emphasize the importance of the values for which Husayn sacrificed himself, his family, and his followers.

On the 10th day of Muharram, large processions are formed and the devoted followers parade the streets holding banners, carrying taziyas (bamboo and paper replicas of the saint’s tomb) and green alams (standards of Imam Husayn’s army, decorated with silver, gold and brass). They show their grief and sorrow by flagellating themselves with knives, inflicting wounds on their own bodies by beating their breasts with sharp razor blades and/or cutting their foreheads with knives or swords. This is done in order to depict the sufferings of the martyrs. It is a sad occasion and everyone in the procession chants “Ya Husayn “, with loud wails of lamentation.

In 2010, the opportunity arose to witness the Shiite mourning in Bombay, following a first contact with some local Muslims. After I had confirmed the date for Ashura I was on my way to India at the beginning of Muharram.

Being a non-Muslim I was warned not to go out into the streets to shoot among people thought of as religious fanatics. But as I had already collected first impressions in the area of Imamwada Road several days before Ashura, I was able to make some acquaintances who convinced me that this bloody procession was not a demonstration of fanatics but a religious festival. It was certainly one of the most bloody rituals I have ever seen and photographed, but participants of the procession were helpful, friendly and never gave me the impression, that this mood could tilt. So, I arrived back at the hotel blood-splattered but unharmed.