Kashmiri Marsiya-Evolution and Transition: The Sustainment of Grief

Mirza Sharafat Ali Baig

Kashmiri  elegy natively known as Marsya is a well known historical genre in Kashmir’s literary culture sustaining grief from centuries old authentic traditions relating to Battle of Karbala.

Marsiya has originally evolved from an Arabic word Rasa means to mourn. Marsiya in Kashmir is recited by a group of mourners mostly in the month of Muharram led by an elder elegy vocalist called Zakir to commemorate the martyrdom of Husayn-Ibn-Ali. It is based on a title, which determines a larger motif of all separate elements in a Marsiya specially revolving in accordance with the tragedies that befell last Islamic Prophet’s household called Ahlul Bayt.

Before rise of Islam in Arabia, when battles took place, every brave combatant was praised with Qasida and every warrior killed in action was glorified with elegies. Origin of Marsiya involves much earlier period when Abel was killed by Cain, that anguished Adam resulting in his pain which is historically expressed by couplets today translated into Arabic on the tomb of Abel. Hazrat Hamzah-ibn-Abdul Muttalib, a companion and paternal uncle of Prophet of Islam (Pbuh) was martyred in the Battle of Uhud in 3rd hijri/ 625 CE, his martyrdom broke the heart of prophet (Pbuh) as none mourned over his body. As soon Prophet’s sigh reached to Muslims, they thronged over Hamza’s body leaving behind their martyred kin. This prompted poets to glorify the martyr thus kindled the genre of Marsiya where poets lamented over the personal loss of Prophet (Pbuh). Then following Prophet’s demise, Caliph’s grief over loss of Prophet encouraged poets to write more pieces of lamentation. This continued till Rashidun Caliphs were themselves lamented through poems by noted poets of the time. Yet Marsiya was bound to individuals as they were dedicated and had no standard and established concrete form till gruesome battle took place in 680CE known as Battle of Karbala. When Yazid I ruthlessly massacred Prophet’s favourite grandson Husayn-Ibn-Ali along with his family and closest aides including his six months old baby Ali Al-Asghar. Yezid’s army unleashed brutality by blocking the source of water to tents of Prophet’s family and slitting the menfolk hungry and thirsty and imprisoned the womenfolk. History noted the parched throats of martyrs as same exemplifies the utmost oppression in human history.

“The graph of Marsiya is itself drawn from Battle of Karbala, when Husayn-ibn-ali mourns the death of 18 year old son Ali Al-Akbar, and defines the death of his brother as back breaking for him” according to Ali Mohammad Qasimi, one among noted Kashmiri elegy reciters and a former lecturer. It is said, all sighs and emphatic calls in battle of Karbala were remembered and that became part of elegies later translated into various languages from Persian into many South Asian languages including Kashmiri.

Ja’far al Sadiq, the sixth Shia Imam is widely believed to have promoted Marsiya in eighth century by encouraging writers to compose elegies and their recital in order to keep the tragedy of Karbala and supreme sacrifices alive. Author Shibli Nomani states, “If Umayyad and Abassid dynasties had allowed poets to write elegies on Karbala, hearts would have blazed with fire of utmost melancholy”. Debal Al Khazai is remembered as acclaimed elegist by all elegy researchers who used to draw tears from eyes of Ali Al-Raza, the eight Shia Imam by his irresistible compositions.

In Kashmir, elegy emerged with the arrival of Mir Sayyid Ali al Hussaini Hamadani and earlier to him Syed Sharafudin Musavi alias Bulbul Shah in 14th century whose missionary caravan brought mixture of Arabic-Persian poetry that mourned martyrdom of Husayn-Ibn-Ali.

Shaam Bibi a lady disciple of Nund Rishi writes elegy in memory of his master Baba Nasr in 15th century, concurrently to earlier development in genre, is believed to be first elegy in Kashmir dedicated to specific person as per opinion of scholars. All such formation till this period was beginning of evolution of Kashmiri elegy called waan yet having no established structure. An earliest waan’ attributed to Hassi Bhat (1389 CE) is still being recited in modern congregations in Kashmir, whose first couplet reads Tche bouztam bhe wanyy ras ras maleyn.e / Dapaan chas zinde paan.e qabre was.e maleyne.”

In 1393 CE Sikandar Shah Miri’s regime laid a soft end for propagation of waan. In 1518 CE Kaji Chak a Kashmiri ruler, built Imambargah Zadibal, a place in old city of Srinagar for mourners reciting Kashmiri elegies. Following 1541 CE Mirza Haider Dughlat banned recitation of waan as per Tareekh-e-Hassan. However, period of Chak dynasty beginning from 1553 CE in Kashmir is widely known as Golden Age for Kashmiri Marsiya being promoted as rulers themselves belonged to Shia school of thought. This was the period, Habba Khatoon’s rhyming of romance and sighs of separation were at peak. Unfortunately, era of Mughal and Afghan rule till 1819 CE suppressed many writers and silenced recitation of Marsiya.

Last phase of Afghan rule in Kashmir, under Sukhjivan; advised by Shia Governors Amir Khan and Kifayat Khan saw again a tolerant period for Marsiya. Sectarian bias subsided and waan over decades gradually started to develop into a concrete shape. This deveopled form of standardized subject oriented elegy is surprisingly being recited in Muharram congregations nowadays.

From this period advancing through Sikh and Dogra rule, prominent elegy writers like Khwaja Hassan Mir, Hakim Azim till Munshi Muhammad Sadiq besides Mirza Abul Qasim introduced elegy with multiple internal elements viz Hamd, (Praise of God) Naat, (Epithet in the name of Prophet) Manqabat (Figurative praise for Ali ibn Abi Talib) transiting through lessons of history, Quranic teachings and relevant facts culminating at descriptive lyrical verses mourning tragedy of Karbala which are recited for most of the duration in any congregation. Since Marsiya uses intense figurative language, simile, symbolism, metaphor, and rhyming scheme accompanied by favorable rhythm suiting a strictly fixed mourning tone is adorned with syllables of fixed-stress, intonation and most of the elements and techniques that comprise the prosody. Each element in Marsiya has its own sub theme revolving within a dominant motif directly relevant to the title of Marsiya. 

In popular culture, Kashmiri Marsiya has never been challenged by any disruptive genre. However, Mehdi Beigh from Sonwar Srinagar, in mid of 20th century, after Indian Independence started openly reciting his old written scripts as “Nauha” a Kashmiri short lyrical lament. His recitation is yet remembered and his composition are still recited with Zuljanah procession given equal time span as of Marsiya. One of his popular verse  reads “Aye Gul-e-gulzar Ali Akbaram.” Since, Nauha being extensively repeated in parallel with Marsiya has not invaded former to any substantial extent. Marsiya is recited in indoor-congregations to massive Zuljanah contingent on the day of Ashura. Its conduct remains same as rhythm is nevertheless  maintained  by Zakir and following tone is conducted by quorum of seven members who form a chorus, following this any available number of mourners can join the congregation and recite a Marsiya and mourn the martyrs of Karbala.

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