An interesting vignette of my clan’s history

Sometimes history throws up surprising episodes as this particular case proves. I was told this particular episode many times and sometimes I was reminded of it by so many people who I never thought knew about it but it was really interesting to find it in various places – a good account is in Partap Sharma’s Days of the Turban which is a must read for anyone who wants to know the genesis of terrorism in Punjab in the early 1980s and how it impacted on the people- but okay, this later and so many web references – and I thought I will share it with the wider world. Read it for yourself, the interesting parts are italicised.

One of the most important events in early Muslim history was the battle of Karbala fought in 680 AD in which Imam Hussain, grandson of the Prophet (PBUH) through his daughter Fatima and her husband Imam Ali, was slaughtered along with a small band of disciples in a bloody battle against the reigning Caliph, Yazid ibn Muawiyah – a battle which eventually led to the great schism in Islam between the Sunnis and the Shias. This event occurred in the Islamic month of Muharram, which – specially the first ten days culminating in Ashu’ra – is observed with mourning in many parts of the Muslim world.

What is particularly striking about the observances of the month of Muharram in large parts of India is the prominent participation of Hindus in the ritual mourning. In several towns and villages, Hindus join Muslims in lamenting the death of Imam Hussain, by sponsoring or taking part in lamentation rituals and tazia processions. In Lucknow, seat of the Shia nawabs of Awadh, prominent Hindu noblemen like Raja Tikait Rai and Raja Bilas Rai built Imambaras to house alams, standards representing the Karbala battle. (Lucknow has to figure in acoounts of all interesting incidents…but then) The Hindu Lambadi community in Andhra Pradesh have their own genre of Muharram lamentation songs in Telugu. Among certain Hindu castes in Rajasthan, the Karbala battle is recounted by staging plays in which the death of Imam Hussain is enacted, after which the women of the village come out in a procession, crying and cursing Yazid for his cruelty.

Perhaps the most intriguing case of Hindu veneration of Imam Hussain is to be found among the small Hussaini Brahmin sect, also called Dutts or Datts and are a subsect of the Mohyal Brahmins, who are found mainly in Punjab. The Hussaini Brahmins have had a long martial tradition, which they trace back to Karbala. They believe that an ancestor named Rahab traveled all the way from Punjab to Arabia, where he became a disciple of Imam Hussain. In the battle of Karbala, Rahab fought in the army of the Imam against Yazid. His sons, too, joined him, and most of them were killed. The Imam, seeing Rahab’s love for him, bestowed upon him the title of Sultan or king, and told him to go back to India. It is because from this close bond between Rahab and Imam Hussain that the Hussaini Brahmins derive their name.

After Rahab and those of his sons who survived the battle of Karbala reached India, they settled down in the western Punjab and gradually a community grew around them. The Hussaini Brahmins practised an intriguing blend of Islamic and Hindu traditions. A popular saying refers to the Hussaini Brahmins or Dutts as:

Wah Re Dutt Sultan,
Hindu ka Dharm, Musalman ka Iman

(Well Done! Dutt, the king
[Who follows] the religion of the Hindu and the faith of the Muslim)

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