As we discussed in the previous article, the month of Muharram is commemorated by the Bohras in numerous ways. Muharram rituals among Bohras extend for a total of forty days—the prescribed period of mourning. The first ten days are characterized by intense piety, with a tapering off for the remaining period. The Bohri mahalleh and the adjoining Muslim neighborhood become energized with the numerous comings and goings of people. The forms of popular piety include the sermon (w’aaz), lamentation assemblies (majales, singular majles), ritual meal tray (hajari), and setting up of temporary water stalls (sabils). Barring the first day of this month, for the next nine days the sayyedna holds the sermons for the community at the main mosque in a selected city, which is announced in advance. Colombo, Nairobi, Karachi, Surat, and Bombay have been popular centers in the past. Bohras from all over India and the rest of the world make an effort, for a few if not all ten days, to reach the center and hear and see (didar) their religious leader.
A second form of popular devotion and by far the most pervasive Muharram ritual among Bohras in this forty-day period are the lamentation assemblies, or majales. The assemblies held at this time are referred to as Hosayn’s majales (Hosayn ni majales) or gham ni majales.
Moharram majales, or lamentation assemblies, are exclusively devoted to the martyrdom of Hosayn, and they may be privately or group sponsored, held in the domestic or community space, and they are not vow related.
A less common ritual is the hajari, or ritual meal tray. This is a gathering scheduled on the seventh day (sixth night, to be precise) to commemorate the sacrifices of Abbas Alam Dar, the half-brother of Imam Hosayn.
The distribution of water, a common Shia practice, is related to the thirst of the martyrs of Karbala. For this purpose, temporary stalls (sabils) are erected in the Bohri mahallehs and are operative for ten days. These sabils may be decorated with large mirrors and chandeliers, and on special nights are festooned with mini-lights and flowers, giving the enclave a festive atmosphere at night. Each sabil has its own managing committee which is responsible for putting up and dismantling stalls. During these ten days, participants abstain from all forms of entertainment, such as watching television, going to the cinema, picnics, and so forth. Despite the overall mourning atmosphere, Moharram rituals bring together both sorrowful and festive features.
The main ingredient of the Muharram rituals among Bohras is marasya recitation, which retells the stories of Hosayn and his companions, male and female, at Karbala. The purpose is to refresh one’s memory, demonstrate allegiance, and evoke grief. Recitation is accompanied by sobbing and, for men, vigorous beating of the chest with both hands, and for women a gentler beating with one hand, and calling out “Ya Hosayn, Ya Hosayn” ‘Ya Ali Mowla, Ya Ali Mowla.’’
A short prayer is said for the living da’i for his health and long life and to invoke his blessing for the flock. The congregation then stands up and recites the wazifo, described as the equivalent of the community’s anthem. It is a prayer of thanksgiving that marks the end of every majles.
Taken from The Women of Karbala by Kamran Scot Aghaie