Art/ Collection/ Art Object

Fragment of a Processional Standard ('Alam)

Object Name:
late 16th century
Country of Origin India, probably Hyderabad, Deccan
Brass with relief and pierced decoration
H. 40 in (101.6 cm) W. 24 in (61 cm)
Credit Line:
Gift of Terence McInerney, 2012
Accession Number:
2012.207.2a, b
Not on view
Although it has lost its surrounding edge and crest of splayed finials, the heart of this monumental ‘alam still remains. Pious inscriptions in thuluth relief and mirrored arrangements provide the beginning of a prayer for Shi’a imams, and mention names of the Prophet Muhammad and his family. Delicately pierced designs allow pinpricks of light to decorate the surface of the standard and also its shadow.

Three Brass 'Alams: MMA nos. 2012.207.2a, b and 2013.37, Virginia Museum of Fine Arts no. 1981.87

Among the most evocative descriptions of the Golconda court are those concerning the religious observations of Muharram, the month of mourning for the deaths of the Prophet’s descendants Hasan and Husain at the Battle of Karbala in 680. As soon as the moon that marked the start of the month was sighted, a somber atmosphere prevailed: music and dance came to a halt, meat was eschewed, and the people dressed in black. ‘Alams representing the standards carried in the seventh-century battle were installed in ashurkhanas (meetinghouses used for the recitation of dirges and prayers), where they were raised on poles that were garlanded with rich cloths. Muharram is an event that the Hindus of Golconda have historically observed, and it remains a major part of the religious calendar of Hyderabad to the present day.[1]

During the Qutb Shahi period, the Badshahi Ashurkhana was the focus of a beautiful Qutb Shahi ritual enacted during Ashura, the ten-day period at the start of Muharram. Each night the sultan would light a row of one thousand lamps, so that on the final night a full ten thousand lamps blazed forth. The ‘alams were then taken out of the building in procession.[2] The earliest ‘alam of this group, MMA no. 2012.207.2a, b, has lost its surrounding edge and crest of splayed finials, but the heart of the monumental standard still remains. Its thuluth relief inscriptions would have stood out against the surrounding delicately pierced designs, through which pinpricks of light would have passed, decorating both the surface and the shadow of the ‘alam. The other two examples are more similar: pierced inscriptions at their centers read "Allah, Muhammad, ‘Ali," and in the Metropolitan Museum example, no. 2013.37, these names are repeated in roundels surrounding the main inscription. Dragons encircle the central section of each standard, which they grasp with their feet while their tails intertwine at the bottom. The dragons’ bodies are pierced, and they have rounded scales on their backs.[3] These unusual features are also found on a sixteenth-century ‘alam that is now in the Shrine of Safi in Ardabil.[4] All of these types of ‘alams are depicted in the tile representations in the Badshahi Ashurkhana.[5]

Marika Sardar and Courtney Stewart in (Haidar and Sardar 2015)


1- Sadiq Naqvi and Krishan Rao, "The Muhrram Ceremonies among the Non-Muslims of Andhra Pradesh", Hyderabad: Bab-ul-Ilm Society, 2004.

2- The Hadiqat al-Salatin of Mirza Nizamuddin gives a lengthy description of observances during the reign of ‘Abdullah; see the English translation of pp. 45–53 in Rizvi 1986, vol. 2, pp. 335–38.

3- The tips of the projections on the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts ‘alam are replacements, and the head of the proper-left dragon has been cast from the proper-right dragon, likely to replace a missing feature. Dye, Joseph M. III, "The Arts of India: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts" Richmond: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, in association with Philip Wilson. 2001, pp. 418, 521–22, no. 193.

4- J. W. Allan, The Art and Architecture of Twelver Shi’ism: Iraq, Iran and the Indian Sub Continent. London: Azimuth Editions, 2012, p. 132.

5- Tile ‘Alams, Badshahi Ashurkhana (Royal Mourning House), Hyderabad, 1611.
Inscription: On the handle in Nasta’liq script:
بسم الله الرحمن الرحیم
The start of the inscriptions is from center and then goes around.
It is in thuluth script and is the beginning of the prayer for Shi’a Imams but it mixed with other text which is not clear but the word المرتضی is seen among the words:
اللهم صل علی محمد و المرتضی
Around the alam in Thuluth script:
و علی فاطمة الزهراء/ و علی الحسن المجتبی/ و علی الحسین شهید بکربلا / و علی السجاد زین العابدین/ امام محمد الباقر/ و علی امام جعفر الصادق/ و علی امام موسی الکاظم/ و علی امام علي بن موسی الرضا/ و علی امام محمد التقي/ و علی امام علي النقِ/ و علی امام حسن العسکري/ و علی امام محمد المهدي

[ Art market, England]; Howard Hodgkin, London (ca. 1982); Terence McInerney Fine Arts Ltd., New York (until 2012; gifted to MMA)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Sultans of Deccan India, 1500-1700: Opulence and Fantasy," April 20, 2015–July 26, 2015, no. 108.

Haidar, Navina, and Marika Sardar. "Opulence and Fantasy." In Sultans of Deccan India 1500–1700. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015. no. 108, pp. 215-216, ill. pl. 108.

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