Keeping the Faith
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Mahdi Bagh, a Shia commune in Nagpur, has managed to preserve a 126-year-old tradition.
In a corner of Nagpur, a walled commune rises early to bow to its spiritual head and commemorate his ascendance to the seat. Men in white kurta-pyjama and embroidered sherwani, and women in ghagras, ghunghats and jewellery, gather inside a sprawling hall.
The hall is inside a white building that looks more like a museum, unless told it's a mosque — the dome is conspicuous by its absence. The two-storey hall with a carved, high ceiling is partitioned by netted curtains flowing down to the floor. While men occupy their places in the main hall, women gather behind the curtains. The second in command in the spiritual hierarchy is a woman, Molaitena Saheba. She sits on a high pedestal in the women's section and men too are supposed to bow to her from behind the curtains.
Around 8 am, a small commotion signals the arrival of a man, who walks diagonally across the hall to reach the high seat, accepting bows and greetings from the people standing up in his honour. After a brief silence, the hymn singers, alternately men and women, render holy verses and preachings of the sect's spiritual leaders, translated into Gujarati, Urdu and Hindi, followed by paeans to the holy chief, tuned uninhibitedly to old Hindi film songs. When the ladies sing "Hame chhe Atba Malak Badar na, vasaye chhe jahan ke amano chaman chhe" (We are the followers of Malak and Badar, we live where there is brotherhood and peace), the message of sobriety is too clear to be missed.
After the hymns are rendered, the gathering is sprinkled with itar (perfume) and gulabpani (rose water) — similar to what Maharashtrian Hindus do on such occasions — and sherbet is served. The chief then rises and leaves — he has nothing to say on this occasion. His sermons are reserved for special occasions such as the Ashura, the 10th day of the Muslim holy month of Moharram.