Hall of fame
The historically important Aza Khana-E-Zohra still serves as a congregation hall for Moharrum mourners
AS THE sun sets after draping the city in a cover of unusually oppressive heat during March, hordes of barefoot Shia Muslim men, women and children, dressed in black, head for `ashurkhanas' -- the congregation halls, which are mostly located in the Old City of Hyderabad where they gather during Moharrum, to mourn the martyrdom of Hazrat Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Mohammed, in the battle of Karbala.
Step into one of these `ashurkhanas', during the ten-day Moharrum, one is sure to be swept away by the religious frenzy. The devout beat their chests in a rhythm amid cries of "Ya Hussain" that reach a crescendo around midnight, even as women wail, overtaken by the melancholic rendering of the events leading to the massacre of Imam Hussain and 72 of his followers. Several parts of the Old City wear a mournful look during the ten-day period that concludes with a huge procession of mourners led by the historically important "Bibi Ka Alam" on a caparisoned elephant.
`Ashurkhanas' have a special place in the history of built heritage of Hyderabad, the oldest and the grandest being `Badshahi Ashurkhana', (opposite to Madina Hotel) built by the founder of the city, Hyderabad, Mohammed Quli Qutub Shah in 1594, three years after constructing Charminar. The cult of housing "Alams" (copies of the standards carried by Imam Hussain to the battle) in `ashurkhanas', some of them in gold and studded with diamonds and precious stones, has over 400 year old history, with the first ruler of Golconda becoming an open follower of Shia sect. It became an intrinsic part of Hyderabad culture and it is not uncommon to see Hindus, visiting these `Ashurkhanas', during Moharrum in what has wrongly come to be known as "Peerla Panduga" (festival of alams, though the occasion is one of mourning).
The Asaf Jahis were staunch Sunnis and only a few of them patronised `ashurkhanas'. The Seventh Nizam, Mir Osman Ali Khan was one of them. He loved his mother, Zohra Begum, who belonged to Shia sect, so much that when she died he built a magnificent `ashurkhana', in her memory and named it after her, Aza Khana-e-Zohra (house of mourning devoted to Zohra). The importance he gave to his mother could be gauged from the fact that it was also known as "Madre-e- Deccan (Mother of Deccan) ashurkhana".
Located strategically in Darul Shifa, near Salar Jung Museum and close to Purani Haveli, where his mother stayed, Aza Khana-e-Zohra is an exquisite religious building in Osmanian or City Improvement Board architectural style that evolved during the Seventh Nizam's rule. Easily one of the largest "majlis" (congregation) halls accommodating 10,000 mourners at a time, the elaborate building built in late 1930s, is listed for conservation, for being one of finest examples of Osmanian style, overlooking river Musi. A style marked by onion shaped domes, pointed arches and large rectangular kiosks with domical cupolas or "chattries"(umbrella like) decorating the corners of the parapet.
The architecture apart, the astoundingly large hall (meant for male mourners) with 45 ft high ceiling and no pillar supporting it with a gallery all around it (for "zenana", women mourners) with intricately carved perforated screen in arches, is equally striking. The roof is made of tin but you just cannot make it out from outside, concealed as it were by parapet wall topped by cupolas. The wooden ceiling inside has some intricate work, the sidewalls decorated with Quranic verses in high quality calligraphy and the over all colour scheme chosen for the hall, is green and black, in tune with the sombre mood of the congregation. In the centre of the hall, the "alams" in shimmering gold placed on a platform radiate all through the ten-days of mourning. A police picket is kept in place to guard the "alams".
On other days, it is only the "Alam-e- Mubarak" made from five alloys, that is kept outside, one of which was stolen last year. Other valuable ones are kept in lock and key. Four chandeliers believed to have been brought from Belgium and France and florescent lamps placed equidistantly ensure that the huge hall has no dark area left. It is some of these features that the building got the HUDA -INTACH heritage award in 1999. "The structure is built strongly and there is no sign of any unsightly addition anywhere. It has been conserved well and is in regular use", the citation to the award, said. The "ashurkhana" is managed by a Trust headed by the Nizam's grandson, Prince Muffakham Jah and he along with other family members make it a point to visit the place during Moharrum.
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