The Shared and Distinct: Muharram Mourning Rituals in Iranian Cities
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Mourners are so distressed that they lose consciousness and pour mud and soil over themselves, then beat their heads and chests. This depicts the mourners of Imam Hussain (AS) during the month of Muharram, especially on the days of Tasu’a and Ashura. This symbolic ceremony starts on the seventh day of Muharram. Men go to the bathhouse in the morning, and after grooming their heads and faces and dressed in clean clothes, they begin mourning. On the other hand, in the pools around the Tekyehs (traditional venues for mourning ceremonies) and mourning places, they prepare the mud. Then they smear the dirt all over themselves, from head to toe. Some even fully immerse themselves in the pools. After they are covered in mud, they continue with chest-beating and lamentations. When the mourning days coincide with the cold months of the year, fires are lit for the mourners, and they form circles around the fire. Therefore, from the seventh day, some mourners roam the alleys and recite poetry loudly; the theme of their poems is to request firewood to light the fire. The main center for the mud rubbing ceremony is in Khorramabad and other cities of Lorestan province. However, this ritual has also reached cities in Kermanshah and Ilam provinces. Mud rubbing symbolizes sorrow, reflected in the customs and traditions of Muharram in Khorramabad.
In Ilam, there are captivating symbolic rituals held during the mourning ceremonies. One of these rituals is Chamr. Besides the days of the month of Muharram, Chamr is also stored in memory of the passing of prominent and significant individuals. The time and place for the Chamr ceremony are announced to the public a few days in advance. Everyone gathers at the specified time. During this period, the women of Ilam began their unique mourning rituals. As they hit their heads and faces, they loudly recite special lamentations. These harmonious chants by the women showcase the customs and traditions of Muharram distinctly.
Next, a horse adorned with a dagger and rifle is brought into the field. Upon seeing this horse, the women intensify their lamentations. If people have made a vow, they prepare food and distribute it among the mourners after the ceremony.
However, in Ilam, there’s another very unique and exclusive ceremony held. It is a tradition for mourning, yet intricately tied to the fabric of the people’s culture. This ritual is known as Chayineh and is mainly for women. Chayineh is held on several days of the month of Muharram for several companions of Imam Hussain (PBUH) and the Imam himself. Chayineh for Qasim, Chayineh for Ali Akbar, Chayineh for Abbas, and Chayineh for Imam Hussain (PBUH) have distinct rituals.
The Chayineh for Qasim is one of the most exceptional and enchanting ceremonies. This event is a brilliant blend of sorrow and joy. In Chayineh for Qasim, a young unmarried girl wears white attire and a green overcoat. Women bring candles, confections, henna, and incense. Then, women called “Chayineh singers” come into the field and start eulogizing. However, during the ceremony, someone brings a bloodstained shroud and announces the martyrdom of Qasim, the groom of this gathering. At this moment, everything changes. The celebration turns into mourning. A black veil is placed over the bride, and they beat their heads and faces. The candles are extinguished, and instead of eulogies, laments are sung.
Another grand ceremony held during the mourning of Imam Hussain (PBUH) in Iran is the “Shah Hussein” ceremony in Tabriz. This ritual, locally called “Shakhsi,” starts a few days before Muharram and continues until noon on Ashura.
In this ceremony, mourners dressed in black stand beside each other. By placing one hand behind the other’s back, they form a human chain. They then move a specific wooden piece from their heads to their feet with their other hand. These movements are accompanied by the chants “Shah Hussein” (Shakhsi) and “Woe Hussein” (Wakhsi). The Shah Hussein ritual is symbolic as if the mourners are heading to Karbala to stand by the companions of Imam Hussain (PBUH).
In recent years, the use of cymbals, drums, and other religious musical instruments has become prevalent in this ceremony. However, it seems that the traditional way of Muharram customs in Tabriz, guided by the voice of the mourners, is more heartwarming.
In recent years, the mourning ceremonies of the people of Zanjan have become more prominent. The city’s traditions are so grand and spiritual that Zanjan is often called the “Capital of Husayni Passion.” From the start of Muharram, customs are observed in the Husayniyya-e A’zam and Zainabiyya-e A’zam. Every night, many of the city’s residents visit these places to mourn. However, the peak of the Zanjanis’ ceremonies begins on the ninth night of Muharram (Tasu’a). Although it’s said that the Husayniyya and Zainabiyya-e A’zam are the main venues, these are merely starting points. Soon after, waves of mourners fill the main squares and streets. Reciters and storytellers sing lamentations in a Turkish accent, with haunting melodies, and most people join them in harmony and beat their chests. The enthusiasm and ambiance of these ceremonies impact every spectator; perhaps that’s why people from various cities visit Zanjan every year.
Palm-bearing is among the most essential and famous Muharram customs performed on Tasu’a and Ashura in various cities. Among all these cities, Yazd’s palm-bearing is the most renowned. The ‘palm’ is a large wooden structure adorned with mirrors and decorated with colorful fabrics and shawls. This ritual symbolizes that the carriers seemingly bear Imam Husayn’s (PBUH) body on Ashura afternoon to bury him. However, all of Yazd’s mourning ceremonies are not limited to palm-bearing. Mourning in the renowned Husayniyyas of the city, accompanied by lamentations and chest-beating, is part of the rituals. Other Muharram traditions in Yazd include passion play performances, rattle-playing, tying ‘kettle’ and the water-carrier procession.
Passion play (or Ta’ziyeh) is one of the most crucial forms of theatrical art in Iran. When discussing theater in Iran, the Ta’ziyeh is often cited as the earliest steps of this art form in the country. Due to its unique characteristics, the Ta’ziyeh has caught the attention of experts worldwide. The fact that spectators know the entire story but remain engaged until the end underlines its importance. Furthermore, the intense emotional connection viewers establish with the Ta’ziyeh is one of its strengths. Among all cities in Iran, Tafresh is particularly renowned for its Ta’ziyeh performances. Some even regard Tafresh as the cradle of Ta’ziyeh in Iran.
Additionally, the oldest records of Ta’ziyeh performances in the country have been found in Tafresh. The city has numerous Husayniyyas and Takias, suitable venues for these spiritual arts. This has led to the nurturing of skilled Ta’ziyeh performers in Tafresh. Besides Tafresh, Ta’ziyeh performances are also grandly executed in many cities of the Isfahan province.
Another region known for its Muharram customs is Abyaneh. Abyaneh is an attraction in its own right. Its mud-brick houses, narrow and ancient alleys, and the traditional atmosphere that permeates the entire village have transformed Abyaneh into one of the most iconic tourist destinations in Iran.
The people of Abyaneh always wear their traditional attire. Even during the days of Muharram and the mourning of Sayyid al-Shuhada (referring to Imam Hussain), they maintain this dress tradition. It is said that close to 4,000 people participate in these ceremonies.
The main mourning rituals in Abyaneh begin on the eve of Tasu’a with the Zakari ceremony, a rite that involves reciting lamentations. The following day, there’s the “Parseh” ceremony. Villagers start their journey from the front of Imamzadeh village and visit the homes of those who have lost loved ones in the past year. The bereaved families hospitably receive the mourners.
Various ceremonies continue on Tasu’a day and until the sunset of Ashura. These include Joghjoghe-zani (clashing of chains), Nakhl-gardani (palm carrying), Shadagardani (singing elegies), Tolou-khani (dawn lamentation), and Sham-e Ghariban (the evening of the strangers). During the ceremonies, visitors are served holy food, tea, dates, and other snacks.
Abyaneh is a small village with limited amenities. If you plan to visit Abyaneh during Tasu’a and Ashura, ensure you have confirmed accommodation. These days, villagers living in other cities return to Abyaneh, making the village crowded. Thus, only visit Abyaneh if you’ve reserved accommodation in advance.
Before the onset of Muharram, the streets and alleys of various cities take on the scent and color of mourning. People from different cities, in line with their culture and traditions, prepare to hold ceremonies and customs related to the mourning of Imam Hussain (PBUH). Although each region has its mourning style, a similar and unified spirit governs all of them. This spirit is the affection and devotion to Imam Hussain (PBUH) and his companions. If you can’t travel to other cities for the mourning rituals, rest assured you’ll find similar customs wherever you are in Iran.