First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 1 October 1887
Sussex Scrapbooks 28/3, p.148
(From a Correspondent)
Two years ago, Lahore at the end of the hot weather was enlivened by a small Mohurrum fight in the City, and the outcries of many bunniahs (shop-keepers). A British regiment, to the extent of four companies, was dug out of its bed at Mian Mir, the 14th B [engal]. L[ancers]. smote with their lance-butts on the toes of the peace-breakers and Lahore Fort was crowded with riotous subalterns, while most of the high officials in the station mounted horses and ran hither and thither. In the dearth of other news, down-country papers called the scuffle ‘Riots’ and the ‘Lahore Riots’ it has remained in the memory of man ever since. Forty-one years ago, it may be mentioned incidentally, when an over-zealous sword-maker was hanged outside the Delhi gate in the early morning, the night’s work in which he had taken a leading part was dignified with no loftier title than that of ‘a disturbance’.
This year’s Mohurrum has passed with a peace that was almost dullness. No one threw bricks into the tinselled tazias (images of the tombs of the Imams), and none except the police excited their neighbours with lathis (iron-bound bamboo batons). A ‘processional’ conflict in one of the narrow gullies, when all are so tightly packed that they can do nothing save shout abuse, is worth seeing, and still more impressive is the rush that follows, on a rumour that the gorah-log (white men) are coming. But Lahore has given up these dissipations under the benign influence of a native municipality and the education of the University. Because many hundreds of years ago Yezid, son of Mowwajib, first of the Ommeiad Caliphs of Damascus, met, on the plains of Kerbela, west of the Euphrates, and slew Hossain and Hussan, sons of Ali, First or Fourth (as you are Shiah or Sunni) of the Caliphs, and of Fatima, his wife, it is now necessary for every Deputy Commissioner in the Province, once a year, to spend half the night in a native city while the representations of the tombs of the butchered and Blessed Imams stagger up and down the ways. The consequences of any act, some moralists hold, are infinite and eternal; and this instance backs the theory.
On Wednesday as soon as the darkness fell, the drums began throbbing in the heart of the city though the three and twenty tazias were not to begin moving till half-past eleven. This year, as in previous ones, there did not seem to be the slightest attempt towards a massing of spectular effect. As in the famous 'Caucus race', witnessed by 'Alice in Wonderland', the tazias began where they liked and left off as seemed good to them. A little trouble on the part of the owners, a little foresight and a careful disposition of torches would have done great things.
The City by night, and by moonlight more particularly, supplies one of the most fascinating, if least savoury, walks in the station. The yard-wide gullies into which the moonlight cannot struggle are full of mystery, stories of life and death and intrigue of which we, the Mall abiding, open-windowed, purdah-less English know nothing and believe less. The open square, under the great front of Wazir Khan’s mosque where any man may find a bed and remarkably good kababs, if he knows where to go, is full of beauty even when the noonday heat silences the voices of men and puts the pigeons of the mosque to sleep.
Properly exploited, our City, from the Taksali to the Delhi Gate, and from the wrestling-ground to the Badami Bagh would yield a store of novels to which the City of Sunshine would be as ‘water unto wine’. However, until some one lifts its name into the light of a new fame Lahore is only a fraction of a Deputy Commissioner’s charge, to be watched, drained, coaxed, and scolded as such. From the Delhi Gate to the Soneri Musjid — was it the founder or the architect of this mosque who, ignoble end, was slippered to death by a too powerful mistress? — runs the main artery of the city, the Road of Globe Trotters and inferior folk of their kidney. At the Golden Musjid, a little beyond the cloth-seller’s shops, the first tazia, a gorgeous arrangement in tin and tinselry was reeling and plunging like a ship in a heavy sea. It is the proud privilege of all the little boys who can, by any means, lay hands upon them to carry the torches of rolled rag dipped in oil. The boys were prancing and squealing with impatience, occasionally chasing each other across the road, and under the legs of the mounted policeman’s horse who was a patient beast and went to sleep when the drums were beating under his venerable nose. As the hour of the general move forward to the Shalmi Gate drew nearer, the din increased; tazia answering tazia and the gullies holding the roll of the drums as the hills hold thunder. The Mochi Darwaza tazias were some four or five in number and had packed themselves into an especially narrow street which they did their best to choke. Seen from the safe shelter of a well-curb the movement was picturesque; but after a few years the eye of the dweller in this country becomes scared and his heart hardens, so that the finest effects of red light and black shadow, seas of turbans, upturned faces and arms tossed aloft, fail to impress him as anything new or startling. The heat, and the heat in the City even on a September night was inconvenient, the smells and the noise touch him as keenly as ever; but it is impossible to wax enthusiastic over these things.
A tazia advanced, swayed, shook, retreated, was driven back, dived forward and passed with a yell, a shout, a patter of hundreds of feet, a blaze of torches and a rain of lighted tow, to be succeeded by another tazia, another mob and occasionally a brass band of terrible quality. In the pauses of the processions the gutkas (gutka is a powerful intoxicating drug) leapt into the middle of the way and fought with lath swords carrying arm guards to the elbow. With the best will in the world, and all possible desire to recover ‘the first fine careless rapture’ of the griffin who gazes on the gaudier aspects of the East, the attention wandered from the crowd to the watch, and interest was swallowed up in a yawn. There had been no trouble, the City was quiet and another Mohurrum had been safely tided over. Beyond the city walls lay civilization in the shape of iced drinks and spacious roads.
But one feature of the last night of the Mohurrum cannot be overlooked. In the broader streets, surrounded by the faithful, sat Maulvis (scholars) reading the story of the death of the Blessed Imams. Their mimbars (pulpits) were of the rudest, but the walls behind them were in most cases gay, with glass lamps, cuckoo-clocks, vile ‘export’ trinketry, wax flowers and kindred atrocities. A Normandy shrine could hardly have been in worse taste, but, looking at the men who listened, one forgot the surroundings. They seemed so desperately in earnest, as they rocked to and fro, and lamented. The manner of the Maulvis’ preaching varied as much as their audiences. One man, austere, rugged-featured, and filthily clad, had sat down upon a shop-board in a side-alley and his small congregation were almost entirely provincial. He preached literally, as the spirit moved him, and whatever Power may have come upon him held, and shook his body. The jats (Jats are a peasant farming people) made no sign. Only one small child ran up and put his hand upon the preacher’s knee, unterrified by the working face and the torrent of words. Elsewhere, five massive wooden bedsteads had been piled one above the other to make a mimbar for one who read from a book. He was a strikingly handsome man, level in his speech and philosophical, it seemed, in his arguments. A dirty sheet had been thrown over the uppermost bedstead and by some sport of chance had draped itself ‘into great laps and folds of sculptor’s work’ perfect and solid, so that the preacher looked as though he had been newly taken out of a fresco in a certain palace by the water. In the lowest bedstead several children wearied with the weight of their turbans and ornaments slept peacefully, turning a little in their sleep as the voice of the preacher rose above its normal pitch.
Yet another chabil (courtyard/ alley ?) was filled by quite a different sort of person — a smiling, smooth-featured Hajii who moved his hands gently and persuasively, to beckon people up the path of good living. He was evidently the local Talmage (the reference is to the celebrated American preacher Thomas de Witt Talmage). He sat in a flower and pot-plant decorated verandah, on a handsome carpet, with stretched cloths above his head. All classes had come to hear him, from the chaprassi (messenger) to the native gentlemen who owned a horse. Just across the road, Jezebel, in all the insolent affluence of beauty bedecked with lon and tikkah (power and paint) looked out of the window to listen, and into a recess below the window the chaprassi hoisted his blear-eyed shrivelled mother, old and hideous as Gagool (the ancient witch-woman in King Solomon's Mines, by Rider Haggard), that she might be clear of the crowd. Jezebel dropped the hand that supported her chin and as it fell, it touched the head of the chaprassi’s mother and there rested.
It was a curious picture, one that remained longest in the mind after the crush and smother and blaze of the last night of the Mohurrum.