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Tears to Heaven: Remembrance of Karbala in Kashmiri Marsiya (Elegy)

The paper traces the origin of the Kashmiri marsiya (elegy) and its role in enshrining the memory of Karbala in Kashmiri Shia community.

The term marthia (also marsiya) a derivative of the Arabic word ritha[ii] is translated as a song of lamentation or elegy. Traditionally the Arabic marthia used to be a short poetical lament expressing the poet’s sense of grief on the loss of a friend or a tribal hero. With the tragedy of Karbala, it acquired a spiritual content which became the central defining theme, transforming a short personalized and somewhat secular genre into an elegiac epic representing the religious out pouring of grief for a whole community. Thus the marthia was no longer a poem of pensive melancholy alone but rather a dramatic saga of everlasting conflict between good and evil, a definitive story with a set pattern of characters and happenings which had to be respected. The phenomenon of political upheavals and instability in the Muslim world, particularly after the invasion of the Mongols and the fall of Baghdad gave a further impetus to this art form[iii]. This was also true of Sufi thought and poetry which also started acquiring a wider audience in the aftermath of the devastation left in the wake of the Mongol onslaught. This is the reason why some writers have complained about the marthia for being too over brooding and tearful, too full of pathos and laid a large of quietism against it – a charge that has interestingly been made by many against the Sufi thought and expression also[iv].


As the marthia traveled from Arabia to Persia and then on to India it also started acquiring regional flavor. The advent of Islam into Kashmir in the early part of the 14th century also resulted in the introduction of marthia into this region. The earlier marthias traces of which have mostly been lost closely followed the Persian format as most of the Muslim missionaries hailed from Iran or areas with heavy Iranian influences[v]. One of the extant marthia dating back to this period has its first stanza in Persian followed by another in Kashmiri, almost serving as a virtual translation[vi]. Though these early marthias showed an understandable stamp of the established Persian format, but soon local influences and ideas also got assimilated because though the subject matter was alien to Kashmir- the notion of lamenting a loss was not. Lyrical expression of grief has been a universal phenomenon pervading diverse cultures and times. In Kashmir too the Pandits (Hindus) had a tradition of wann or reinth[vii] to bemoan the loss of a near one, which was gradually adapted in the marthia.


The Kashmiri marthia very soon set a distinct tone for itself by departing from the Arabic, Persian or Indian mode of recitation. Whereas in these places the rendering of marthia was in form of a solo recital, in Kashmiri marthias came to be recited collectively by the audience[viii]. This mode of recitation was also a representation of the indigenous Kashmiri culture. For in Kashmir the local folk song known as “roff” was and is still sung collectively. A collective recitation had to be independent from individual nuances; in fact the very model of recital demanded a set uniform tone and tenor-wazn which had to be respected[ix].

In another major departure from the Persian or Indian mode of marthia recitation, the Kashmiri poet (musanif) never recites the marthia himself[x]. Once the marthia is written it was handed over to the zakir for public recital. The profession of zakirs was hereditary and no zakir could recite a marthia that had been given to members of a different family[xi]. The zakir would also receive monetary rewards from the poet for reciting his work-the hadiyya[xii].

It’s worthwhile to remember that due to the communal or more precisely-the collective mode of recitation, Kashmiri marthia were far more adaptable to the change in language and as such some of the older and archaic words were continuously rooted out as and when their usage in common speech became outdated. Thus we find that even in case of marthia written only a century back- the current “in vogue” form with the audience involves a subtle deviation from the written form-dictated mostly by the spirit of the audience and the zakirs modifications. Hence one usually finds a certain “modernity of form and diction” in some of the older, medieval marthia that could otherwise indicate a more recent date for these works. The periodic adaptations that many of the marthias have gone through have over the years helped in bridging the gap between the written and spoken language. This has resulted in bringing the verses of the poet nearer to the time –period and language of the audience, a unique feature of the Kashmiri marthia.


The evolution of Kashmiri marthia has been divided by scholars into three distinct periods, Early (1389-1558AD), Medieval (1588-1819AD) and Classic (1819-onwards), while from 1945 onwards a new trend could also be seen in this genre drawing influences from contemporary modern literary movements[xiii].

EARLY PERIOD (1389-1558AD)

Of the Early period which also serves as the formative period of Kashmiri marthia only few isolated fragments are available. Of the poets belonging to this period the names that have survived, are of Ahmed[xiv], Mir Sayyid Husain[xv], Qasim bin Yusuf Deen[xvi] and his nephew Hakim bin Musa[xvii]. An old manuscript containing collection of these early marthias also dates some of these elegies to the rule of Sultan Zain-ul-Abideen ( r.1420-72) , a king who is still fondly remembered by Kashmiris’ as “Budshah” –“the Great King[xviii]” on account of his promotion of art, crafts and learning. The post script written in Persian at the end of one the marthia states,

een marthia dar zaman budshah goft amad ba dast Hakim ibn Musa ibn Yusuf-deen Shah

(trans: “this elegy has been written during the reign of Budshah byHakim the son of Musa, son of Yusuf-deen Shah”)[xix].

Similarly the Research Library of the J&K government possesses a manuscript which dates an anonymous marthia to 812AH/1409AD[xx].


The conquest of Kashmir by the Mughals in 1588AD proved detrimental to the overall development of Kashmiri language as they and thereafter the Afghans adopted Persian as the language of the court[xxi]. In this period the Kashmiri elegy continued on the older established pattern and did not show any major literary innovation.

The Kashmiri marthias’ written during this period are also representative of the political upheavals that tore Kashmir into warring sectarian factions under an alien rule. This strife traces its roots in the struggle of the Chak Padshahs (kings) for the defence of the land of Kashmir against the neighbouring Mughal Empire. As the Chaks were Shi’as, so the Mughals and after them the Afghans found it easy to quench Kashmiri struggle for freedom by raising division between the erstwhile Shi’a rulers and their Sunni subjects. This was especially true of the Afghan Rule which lasted from 1770 to 1819AD. During most of their rule in Kashmir the Afghan subedars (governors) banned the Muharram ceremonies and closed the Imambara in the Srinagar city[xxii]. In fact from its construction in 1527 the Imambara(at Zadibal) was burnt down 10 times as a result of prevailing sectarian strife[xxiii]. The difficulties and dangers that the Shi’a populace of Kashmir faced in mourning the martyrdom of the Prophets grandson is graphically depicted in the laments of a 19th century marthia writer, Khawja Hassi(Hussein?) Bhat;

“who can bemoan the martyrdom of Imam Hussein here

Alas! Those who dared are gone,

their houses and matam sarais (imambara) burnt…………”[xxiv]

A contemporary of Khawja Hussain, Ustad Mohammed Jaffer in one of his marthia, bemoans the tyranny of Afghan rule and the malice of the their governors towards the Prophets progeny in a similar vein,

“Oh! Men, four years have passed, since we were allowed inside an Imambara,

Come let’s pray for atonement…this phase might pass by

Tell the mourners, the elegist where can we cry?

Where alas can we shed tears for Imam Hussain?

………for should we but utter his name

Death and mayhem becomes our fate”[xxv]

The repressive nature of the Afghan regime is also recorded by Hakim Mulla Azeem-ud-din a prominent 19th century elegist, physician, and courtier in the Dogra durbar in a letter written to Moulvi Rajab Ali Khan. He writes about the rule of Afghan subedar, Sardar Abdullah Khan (r.1210AH/1796AD-1221AH/1806),

“……. Abdullah Khan Afghan attempted more and more that the remembrance of Imam Hussein (zikr-i-Sayeed-u-Shuda) and the practice (or belief) of mourning should be wiped out and was of the opinion that the custom of mourning has been wiped from our nation (i.e., in Kashmir due to his actions). It is said that stopping from crying on the remembrance of Hussein is an act of a stranger……”[xxvi].



The period lasted in all for more than two centuries from 1586 till 1819AD. Some of the poets from this period include:

Mulla Abul Hakim, Sayyed Jaffar Najafi, Aqa Mahmood Tabrizi, Mohammed Yahya ibn Ahmed Khan, Hassan Khan ibn Mohammed Taqi, Mir Saif (pisar-i-Mulla Khaleel),Mulla Ibrahim Munjim, Mir Ahmed Ali, Mirza Jawad Ali, Ustad Mohammed Jaffar, Khawja Mohammed Tabrizi, Sayyed Mir Mohammed Abbas, Mirza Jaza-ul-lah, Sayyed Mir Arab Shah, Sayyed Mir Sharf-ud-din Rizvi, Mulla Abdul Rehman, Khawaja Mohammed Fazil, Khawja Hassi Bhat Nadan, Sayyed Saleh Rizvi, Baba Mohammed Jawad, Qazi Ahmed Ali[xxvii].


With the passing of the Afghan rule and the establishment of the Sikh and later the Dogra dynasty in the mid 19th century, this suffocating atmosphere changed. It was in this period of relative religious freedom that martyrdom of the Prophets family at Karbala could once again be mourned openly in Kashmir[xxviii]. It is therefore no surprise that the final structure of the marthia as it is practiced today evolved during this period, a period which is known as the Classical Age of Kashmiri marthia.

A major innovation that took place in this period in the Kashmiri marthia, changing the vary treatment of the subject. The Kashmiri marthia as it evolved in this period is seen as a poetic rendition of an elaborate, highly scholastic prose which unfortunately looses almost all of its “poetic spirit” in any attempt at translation. The Kashmiri marthia as opposed to marthias written elsewhere are theme based-a theme which, is related to the very name of the marthia. This departure transforms the Kashmiri marthia into a unique poetical synthesis of prose and poem. The success of a marthia lies in unifying the theme (i.e, the name of the elegy) with the religious content in sublime lyrics. The act of naming the marthia is probably the most important aspect for a poet[xxix]. Because once a marthia has been named it becomes incumbent for the poet to fulfil the traditional obligations of lamenting the loss of Karbala with successfully integrating all the literary motifs relating to the name of marthia with it. Thus what dictates the poets’ choice of words is not only the consideration of sound but also the intended fusion of the words with the themes of the marthia-its name. This results in a figure of speech wherein words, idioms, metaphors, similes, hyperbole juxtaposition together in a lyrical style so as to create a lasting emotional impact while as maintaining the unity of the form. This experimentation with a theme widened not only the scope of individual artistic expression but also the potential of marthia, which was basically limited by the elegiac and religious temper of its origin. And all this was done in a manner so as to heighten the key element of a pathos linked with the elegy while as maintaining the historical correctness vis-à-vis the representation of the character, events and traditions[xxx].

The format of marthia also made it an unrivalled medium of sermonizing and with the wide audiences it attracted; it became one of the widest dissimulator of religious teachings in medieval Kashmir[xxxi]. Additionally, because of the scholarly nature of the poets engaged in writing these elegies (especially in the 19th century) the Kashmiri marthia emerged as a living repository of mediaeval sciences, philosophy and thought. As the marthia writers were not only poets but also members of an elite intellectual group who were well versed with traditional Islamic knowledge, therefore their elegies also became a medium for them to celebrate their learning and understanding of the prevalent science and other associated subjects.


The structure of the Kashmiri marthia as it evolved in this period comprised of four essential parts:

Hamd: The introductory stanza or tcheer as it is called, in praise of Allah, his glorification and seeking of his mercy.

Naat: In praise of Prophet Mohammad and seeking his intercession for securing Allah’s mercy.

Madaah: In praise of the family of the Prophet Mohammad, their character, nobility, grace and miracles associated with them.

Dardh: The elegy proper it deals with the events of Karbala.

The term tcheer is actually derived from a similar Kashmiri word used for the stick that carpet weavers use to separate two layers of threads. Similarly in a marthia, the tcheer separates the upper and the lower stanza. Each tcheer or stanza is then divided on the basis of metre, which delineates the structural format of the marthia.

The new style of marthia that evolved in this period coincided with a period of political stability and relative religious freedom for the Shi’a community of Kashmir[xxxii]. That this evolutionary process was delayed for a long period is reflective of the extreme duress and constrained conditions of the Shi’a community in the preceding centuries.


Some other features that can be linked to the new style of Kashmiri marthia are[xxxiii]:

The Kashmiri marthia is essentially for use in assemblies, yet the form that evolved in this period is highly elitist in nature, especially in sections comprising hamd and naat. The driving force in these sections being intellectual rather than emotional as is manifest in the last section of the marthia, dardh.

In the sections comprising hamd and naat, the reader finds the need for poetry to be interpreted. This is indicative of “a relation of association” between the primary and secondary meanings to understand which one needs to have a complete grasp of not only the subtleties of sound and grammar but also the overall context, moulded in the socio-religious vocabulary of the Islamic world.

Many a times the expressed meaning may be addressed to one character while the suggested meaning to another, this is more true of sections wherein the poet while relating the woes of Karbala also addresses issue near to home both in terms of place as well as time or the poet is drawing upon his own personal experiences.

Certain marthia writers also employed an image that portrayed a degree of abstractness verging into a subtle level of ambiguity. The best example of this being the works of Mulla Hakim Abdullah, especially the marthia Nargis (narcissus).

A play of words based on various figures of speech remained an essentially metaphorical device, favourite of all marthia writers virtually in all sections of the marthia. This resulted in subtleties which are special to Kashmiri marthia writers. Probably some of the best examples can be seen in the hamd and naat of the marthias, Sheer(milk) of Mulla Hakim Azeem and nakhun(nail) of Munshi Mustafa Ali. This imagery helped the poets in relieving themselves from the danger of monotony, as different poets found different themes on which to base and expand their creative skills. The appropriateness of word to theme insured an unparalleled richness of language and expression.

Along with imagery great attention was paid to eloquence of diction, this was also essential in fixing the wazn of a marthia. In fact many marthias are no longer recited because their wazn is lost. The fixing of wazn was a task in which the poet was assisted by the zakir. There is an anecdote wherein the famous 19th century poet Mirza Abul Qasim complained to his father-in-law, the zakir, Khawja Akbar for regularly visiting the poets of the Mulla family in Srinagar in this regard rather than asking his assistance.

Lofty ideals and high thoughts expressive of noble life and extraordinary character permeate throughout the marthia as witnessed in the life of the Prophet his progeny and close associates. These include the spirit of forgiveness, mercy, sacrifice that is traditionally associated with the ahl-i-bait, “the Prophets family”. The poets have also liberally drawn from the life of the Prophet and his family wherein their miraculous powers used for the benefit of humanity is clearly manifest. This “divine power” is subtly contrasted with the actual events of Karbala- an event of heroic human proportion devoid of any supernatural act. In a way this contrast is used to highlight the pinnacle of human devotion to the decree of the Almighty-an embodiment of “ridha”-human submission to the divine decree.

Over all the majority of marthia convey the feelings of impermanence of the human world, the greed, and the tyranny, emotions that marks the everlasting human conflict of good and evil. Yet the background for the poetic canvas remains the idea of the Ahl-i-bait serving as the saviours’ of humanity (najat dehandan) through their act of sacrifice. Given the importance of the sacrifice offered by the martyrs at Karbala it also translates into a promise of “the other worldly reward” for acts of piety and faith. If the marthias are evaluated within the prevailing socio-political conditions, one would see in them an assurance to the aggrieved and powerless Shi’a community that their sufferings are a reflection of those at Karbala and the reward of faith lies in the hereafter. Within the repeated bouts of communal violence targeted at the Shi’a community of Kashmir this also in a way provided the community with a “reason” on the basis of which to navigate within the turbulent waters of death and destruction, so as not to lose hope.

The marthia especially in the dardh convey the sense of pain, loss and grief in a highly visual imagery, whose word often evoke a level of creativity that is rare in any other form of Kashmiri poetry. To a large extent this remains the zenith of Kashmiri marthia writing.

Vocabulary is mostly drawn from the language of the urban elite (shehar-i-zaban) that is of the Srinagar city. This was also unconsciously followed by writers from the countryside. In fact many rural poets were even ridiculed by the city elite at the onset of their career.

Because the language used lacked “purity” comprising as it did of words, phrases, idioms etc drawn from Arabic, Persian, Kashmir as well as Sanskrit, the poets were able to compose new expressions that had not existed before.


Kashmiri marthias have been named after objects, materials pertaining to nature or human creation or crafts like Koh(mountain), Chasm(eye), Sangh(stone), Kakazgari(paper making), Khyati(tailoring), Kitab(book), Kishti(boat), Nargis (narcissus), Hameesh-i-Bahar(sweet william), Gulaab(rose), Aab(water); historical or religious personalities Sikander(Alexander), Musa(Moses), Essa(Jesus); human acts or emotions Duzhdi(theft), Hasad(envy); themes like Roza(fast), Hajj(pilgrimage), Usul-i-Deen(fundamentals of religion) etc, names which with their multiple adaptations and interpretations resonate throughout the marthia, whether it be the characterization of a person, event or emotion[xxxiv]. The marthias so written were collected in manuscript form known as biyaz (lit. clear page). These biyaz contain hundreds of marthias ascribed to different poets and spread over centuries.


The foremost families of elegy writers are the Mullahs’ of Srinagar[xxxv]. The prominent elegy writer of the family include Hakim Mulla Mohammed Azeem-ud-din, Munshi Mohammed Yosuf, Munshi Shah Mohammed, Munshi Qasim, Hakim Mulla Abdullah, Munshi Mustafa Ali, Munshi Mohammed Ali, Hakim Hassan Ali, Hakim Habib-ul-lah, Munshi Mohammed Abbas, Munshi Hussain Ali, Hakim Mohammed Jawad, Munshi Mohammed Sadiq.

Some of the other leading elegy writers of this period include Khawja Mohammed Baqir, Khawja Daeem, Mirza Aboul Qasim, Khawja Abdullah, Moulvi Abdullah Ansari, Munshi Safdar, Munshi Ahmed Ali Ghazi etc. Amongst these Mirza Aboul Qasim and Munshi Safdar stand out for the range and depth of their poetical compositions.

It is worthwhile to remember that a number of Kashmiri elegy writers from this period had migrated to the Shi’ite court of the Nawab of Awadh, many of them holding high position in the court. The Kashmiri connection to the Awadh court was strengthened by the fact that two of the Prime ministers were of Kashmiri descent, Hakim Mehdi Khan Kashmiri and Nawab Tafazul Khan[xxxvi]. Some of the poets who made Awadh their home include Munshi (Mulla) Shah Mohammed, Khawja Abdullah, Munshi Safdar and Mirza Aboul Qasim. Munshi Safdar was highly regarded by the Nawab Wajid Ali Shah and was rewarded with the title of “lisan-ul-mulk” and “mahmud-u-dawla” by the Nawab. All these poets continued to compose their composition in Awadh before sending the manuscripts back home to various zakirs for reciting in the majalis. Additionally the elegies were also awarded to zakirs in Awadh and Amritsar who would recite these elegies to Kashmiri migrants residing in these cities.


Given some of the critique that some contemporary observers have levelled against marthia, it seems rather timely to remember the educative or the propagating effect of this literary genre in medieval Kashmir[xxxvii]. In an environment wherein access to knowledge was the privilege of a chosen few,  Kashmiri marthia remained the most popular as well as widespread medium for disseminating elements linked to the knowledge of Islam in all its essential components whether it be that of the essence of the Muslim faith, its hadith, history etc.



Manuscripts of Kashmir elegies written in Kabul, Amritsar, Calcutta and Lucknow in the 19th century are clear indicators of the wide sway of the Kashmiri marthia in the pre-modern age something that continues unabated even today. Thousands of mourners continue to attend assemblies held throughout the year in various parts of Kashmir to mourn the loss of Karbala wherein these marthia’s are recited in a tradition that evolved six centuries back.

Rooted in the local language of death and mourning, the Kashmiri marthia marks a high degree of synthesis between a historical event that took place in Arabia and its manifestation as a popular folk event in different geographical and cultural settings that is Kashmir.



[i] http://www.aford.org/thehamdanis.org/kashmiri-elegy1.html.

[ii] Shahid Badgami, Kashir Marsy Hund Tawareekh, (Delhi: Taj Printing Sarvice, 3rd ed.,2014),25. Also see Maqbool Sajjid, Kashir Marthiauk Safar, (Srinagar: J&K Academy of Art, Culture and Languages, 2013)14-20 and Anees Kazmi, Kashir Marthiya hunz Tarikh, (Badgam:Gulshan-i-Adab,1975).

[iii]  HG Safdar Hamdani, Aush ti Aab: An anthology of Kashmiri maarthia from the Sultanate period to Dogra rule,(New Delhi: Skyline Publications, 2nd ed.,2009), 37.

[iv] Safdar Hamdani’s introduction to Marthia Nigari, Hakim Ghulam Safdar Hamdani, Tarikh-i-Shiyan-i-Kashmir(urdu), Srinagar: Imam Husain Research Centre, 3rd ed., 2013), 301.

[v] For details see Khawja Azam Deedhmari, Waqat-i-Kashmir , (Srinagar: Gulshan Publishers,2003).

[vi]  Hamdani, Aush, 79-82.

[vii] Hamdani, Aush, 38., Badgami, Kashir, 121-130., Sajjid, Kashir, 120. Also see Manzoor Hashmi, Hussainiyat, (Srinagar: Super Deluxe Printing Press, 1994).

[viii] Hamdani, Aush, 38-40.

[ix] Badgami, Kashir,200-229.

[x] Hamdani, Aush, 189.

[xi] Hamdani, Tarikh, 305., Hashmi, Hussainiyat,188-197. The leading zakir families include the Khawja’s of Gund Khawja Qasim, Faqir’s of Budibog, Sufi’s of Magam, Rather’s of Hanjjiyar and Malik’s of Tangmarg, see Sajjid, Kashir,155

[xii] Hamdani, Aush, 195.

[xiii] See Hamdani, Aush., Badgami, Kashir., Sajjid, Kashir., Hashmi, Hussainyat and Kazmi, Kashir.

[xiv] Hamdani, Aush, 65., Budgami, Kashir, 150.,Sajjid, Kashir,167., Hashmi, Hussainiyat, 102.

[xv] Kazmi, Kashir, 21-23 and Budgami, Tarikh, 144-47.Both Kazmi and Badgami mention Sayyid Husain’s year of death as 814AH/1411AD, while Sajjid questions the very existence of the poet, see Sajjid, Kashir, 476.

[xvi] Sajjid, Kashir, 476-77.

[xvii] Hamdani, Aush, 52-54., Hashmi, Husaniyat, 103-4.

[xviii] For an account of Zain-ul-Abideens reign see, GMD Sufi, Kashir, vol.i,(Srinagar: Kashmir Book Depot,3rd ed., 2008).

[xix]  Hamdani, Aush, 52.

[xx]  Biyaz (manuscript), Accession no:1658, Research library, Srinagar, Kashmir.

[xxi] Hamdani, Aush, 87.

[xxii] Hamdani, Tarikh, 288-89.

[xxiii] Hamdani, Tarikh, 288-89. Also see Mohammed Yusuf Teng, ed., Kashur Encyclopedia, vol. I (Srinagar: J&K Academy of Art, Culture & Languages, 1986), 35-36 and Hassan Shah, Tarikh-i-Hassan, vol.i, (Srinagar: J&K Academy of Art, Culture & Languages, 1998), 579-96.

[xxiv] Hamdani, Aush, 91.

[xxv] Hamdani, Aush, 90-91.

[xxvi] Hamdani, Tarikh, 424.

[xxvii]  See Hamdani, Aush; Badgami, Kashir and Sajjid, Kashir.

[xxviii]  Hamdani, Tarikh, 255 and Aush, 184, 193.

[xxix]  Hamdani, Aush, 194.

[xxx]  Hamdani, Aush, 194-96.

[xxxi]  Hamdani, Aush, 15.

[xxxii] Hamdani, Aush, 193.

[xxxiii][xxxiii] Hamdani, Aush,194-96.

[xxxiv]  Hamdani, Tarikh,302 and Badgami, Kashir,224-26.

[xxxv][xxxv]  Hamdani, Aush,27.Hashmi, Hussainiyat,128.

[xxxvi]  For an account of Kashmiri Shi’a Diaspora at Awadh see See Jaun Cole, Roots of North Indian Shi’ism in Iran and Iraq: Religion and State in Awadh, 1722-1859 (Berkley and Los Angles: University of California Press, 1989).

[xxxvii]  Ghulam Mohammed Matto, Shiyan-i-Kashmir, (Shalina: Idara Imam Zaman,2010) 645-47.

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