The battle of Karbala was fought in the desert of Karbala in central Iraq in 61 AH (680 AD). During the Karbala battle, the Shia leader and Prophet Muhammad’s grandson, Imam Husayn, along with his family and troops, was tortured and killed by the troops of the Sunni leader, the Umayyid caliph, Yazid. The tragic climax of a long-drawn war of inheritance between the prophetic line and the caliphate, the martyrdom of Imam Husayn and his family is commemorated during the first month of the Hijri calendar, Muharram. The Karbala ritual, as this kind of commemoration has come to be called, was first institutionalised by the Buyid dynasty in tenth-century Iran. From there, the ritual has spread far and wide throughout the Islamicate world, including in Bengal, which before the Partition of 1947 was a Shia-minority region.
The textual genre within which this battle is most substantially commemorated is that of the jungnama (battle stories). This genre exists in Arabic, Persian, and a number of linguistic traditions of the Indian subcontinent, such as Bengali and Punjabi. The earliest jungnama written in Bengali was Mohammad Khan’s Maktul Hosayn (The Death of Husayn), published from Chittagong in 1645. Perhaps the best-known jungnama was Hayat Mamud’s Maharamparva (The Muharram Episode), published in 1723. The relatively more ‘modern’ genre of the novel in Bengali also made use of the Karbala theme. Mir Mosharraf Hossain’s Bishad Sindhu (Ocean of Sorrow), printed in three parts in 1885, 1887, and 1895, for instance, found a wide readership in late colonial Bengal. It was also adapted for the stage under the same name, Bishad Sindhu, by Jamil Ahmed in 1991 in Dhaka.
In the latter half of the nineteenth century, Karbala narratives were common in the cheap print titles called pun this produced all over the Battala region of Calcutta. Particularly well-known were Jonab Ali’s and Muhammad Munshi’s texts, both titled Shahid-e-Karbala (The Martyrs of Karbala). This punthi tradition is still a living tradition, with records of Qazi Aminul Hak’s Jung-e-Karbala (The Battle of Karbala), which first came out in 1939, continuing to be printed well into the 1970s.
Textual representation of Karbala came to co-exist with performative representation in Jarijungnama, the title given to Hayat Mamud’s jungnama when a scribe in the eighteenth century supplemented the text with certain structural elements of musical performance, such as taal (beat), raga (melodic framework), and chhanda (rhyme). This term jarijungnama is a combination of jungnama, battle story, with jarigaan, folk-songs composed in a traditional couplet-form and sung in majlises (assemblies).
Not all jarigaans focus on the battle of Karbala. Elegiac pieces called nawhas and marsiyas form a smaller subset of the jarigaan set and focus specifically on the episode of Imam Husayn’s martyrdom. While marsiyas are more personal in their engagement with grief, both these subgenres are accompanied by the action of mourners beating their chests, referred to as matamdari. Several nawhas and marsiyas commonly recited and sung in Bengal are originally composed in Bengali, while others are translated from Urdu and then performed. Urdu originals are also recited or sung sometimes, though not as commonly as those in Bengali. These pieces have been handed down through generations of pirs or holy men, who wander around and preach to communities of believers all over rural Bengal.
In Bengal, jarigaans imbibe the format of panchali, a rhythmic pattern of recitation. They are performed by a chief singer called a boyati (from the Arabic word bayt, meaning couplet), accompanied by a chorus of dohars, ranging from two to twelve in number. Alongside the beating of chests, and sometimes in lieu of such matamdari, the vocal presentation of jarigaans is accompanied by the music of various instruments, such as dotara (four-stringed lute), sarinda (a vertically-held, viola-like instrument), behala (fiddle), dubki (small hand-tapped drum), harmonium, flute, drums, and cymbals. The famous Bengali Muslim poet, lyricist and composer Jasimuddin (1903-1976) published a collected volume of jarigaans in 1968. In this volume, Jasimuddin emphasizes the performative aspect of the genre by referring to it as jarinaach. The embodied movement referred to here as naach introduces jarigaan to an urban readership as a mode of ritual-theatre. In fact, the above description should make clear how multivalent this genre is; jarigaan is part ritual, part history, part storytelling, and part song-and-dance performance.
In present-day West Bengal, jarigaans are only performed as part of Muharram rituals. Women, too, take part in this kind of performance. In present-day Bangladesh, however, jarigaans are performed in a somewhat larger context, and in a wide range of venues from village fairs to agricultural exhibitions to even Hindu ritual spaces. In this, jarigaans are constitutive of a national performative tradition, as Frances Dunham points out in her study of the same. Recently, CDs and DVDs containing audio-visual performances of Karbala mourning rituals in Urdu and Bengali are sold at roadside stalls all over Dhaka and Kolkata during the month of Muharram. This digital afterlife of Karbala is outlined in Epsita Halder’s project on social media engagement of Shia youth in South Asia.
Karbala narratives first became popular in Bengal as a source of devotion among the rural Shia Muslim community in the absence of Bengali translations of the Quran and the Hadis (records of the words and actions of the Prophet Muhammad), which first appeared in the late nineteenth century. At present, this domain of religiosity still exists as a vibrant performative tradition. Mourning rituals centering the martyrdom of Imam Husayn and his family during the battle of Karbala may have undergone much transformation in their use of modern technologies of dissemination, but their theological value remains undiminished in the Bengali-speaking regions of South Asia even today.