I was wandering in the crowded streets of Chandni Chowk, the heart of purani Dilli or Old Delhi. Until India gained independence in 1947 and a new Delhi came up, it was the ‘only’ Delhi. For close to 300 years, it had been the seat of Mughal power and culture, especially when it came to cuisine. And that is what drew me to that place!

I had taken the day off to savour Chandni Chowk’s famous parathas and the juicy sweet jalebi at the famous 200-year-old sweet shop, Ghantewala.

But, once there, food wasn’t the only thing that crossed my mind. I was tempted to check out the stores selling silver, imitation jewellery, stationary and other knick-knacks that abound in the place.

The Taziyas of Old Delhi
The Taziyas of Old Delhi [Illustration by Shinod AP]

Suddenly some big colourful structures caught my attention. A closer look showed that they were made of transparent coloured paper wrapped around four bamboo sticks. What could it be?

“Ise taziya kahte hain (This is called taziya),” said a voice behind me. Seeing my puzzled look, the man explained patiently.

Taziyas are replicas of the tomb of Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad who was killed in the battle of Karbala, on the tenth day of Muharram month, which is the first month of the Islamic calendar.

It is to remember the martyrs killed in the battle of Karbala that believers take out processions of mourning. It is as if they are enacting the battle and the subsequent grief during the procession. And the taziya becomes an important symbol of remembrance.

That is why so much care is taken in the making of the taziya, which is seen as an honour. Only a few chosen families are involved in making taziyas and the art has been passed down the generations.

The making of the taziyas starts almost a month-and-a-half before Muharram. Taziyas come in different shapes and sizes. Three dimensional bamboo frames are erected and covered with sheets of transparent, butter, glossy or opaque paper.

These frames are mounted on top of each other to give height and shape. One common design is a square base with a dome on top. The bamboo and paper is embellished with gilt and mica.

On Muharram, Muslims take out a procession bearing a large number of taziyas and alams (pennants of Hussain’s army). The mourners beat their chests with grief over the murder of Imam Hussain and cry “Hussain! Hussain!” in collective sorrow.

The taziyas are taken to the imambara, a place symbolic of Karbala, where they are broken and buried.

Happy with what I had seen and learnt, I thanked the gentleman and decided to make a move. But then, an aroma drew me to a roadside stall…