Standards are used in many parts of the Muslim world by the Shi'a community in processions marking the martyrdom of Imam Husain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, who died at the Battle of Karbala in A.D. 680. The pierced inscription at the center of this example reads "Allah, Muhammad, 'Ali," and these names are repeated in roundels surrounding the main inscription. Dragons encircle the central section and grasp it with their feet, while their tails intertwine at the bottom. Their bodies are pierced, and they have rounded scales on their backs, with nub-like legs.
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Title:Processional Standard ('Alam)
Date:late 17th–early 18th century
Geography:Made in India, probably Hyderabad, Deccan
Dimensions:H. 38 in. (96.5 cm) W. 12 in. (30.5 cm)
Credit Line:Purchase, Friends of Islamic Art Gifts, 2013
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.
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. The earliest ‘alam of this group 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, 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. These unusual features are also found on a sixteenth-century ‘alam that is now in the Shrine of Safi in Ardabil. All of these types of ‘alams are depicted in the tile representations in the Badshahi Ashurkhana.
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, Saiyid Athat Abbas. A Socio-Intellectual History of the Isna 'Ashari Shi'is in India. New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharial Publishers, 1986, vol. 2, pp. 335–38.
3- Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection, object number 2012.207.2a, b.
4- Metropolitan Museum of Art Collection, object number 2013.37.
5- 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.
6- J. W. Allan, The Art and Architecture of Twelver Shi’ism: Iraq, Iran and the Indian Sub Continent. London: Azimuth Editions, 2012, p. 132.
Inscription: On central panel and roundels: Allah, Muhammad, 'Ali
sale, Sotheby's, London, November 22, 1976, no. 126; Private collection, London (1976–1980s); Mohammed Said Farsi, London (1980s–2010; his sale, Christie's, London, October 5,2010, no. 41); Hamid Atighechi, London (until 2013; sold to MMA through Brendan Lynch, London)
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Sultans of Deccan India, 1500–1700: Opulence and Fantasy," April 20–July 26, 2015, no. 110.
"22 November 1976." In Islamic Works of Art, Part II. London: Sotheby's, London, 1976. no. 126, ill. (b/w).
"5 October 2010." In Art of the Islamic and Indian Works Including from the Collection of Dr. Mohammed Said Fars. London: Christie's, London, October 5 2010. no. 41, p. 44, ill. (color).
Haidar, Navina, and Marika Sardar. "Opulence and Fantasy." In Sultans of Deccan India 1500–1700. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2015. no. 110, pp. 215–16, ill. (color).
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