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History of Mersia

Syed Masood Hasan Rizvi Adeeb
Sahir Lucknawi
Safdar Hamadani
Ashoor Kazmi
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The Urdu Marsiya

The marsiya, an elegy on the death of a family member or close friend, has its roots in Arabic and Persian literature. By 1830 the genre had emerged in Lucknow, at the hands of Mir Babar Ali Anis and Mirza Salamat Ali Dabir, in a form distinct from its earlier literary antecedents. Most Urdu marsiyas commemorate the death of the third Shi‘i Imam, and pay tribute to the sufferings of his family and followers at the battle of Karbala. This narrative form is characterized by six-line bands (verses) in an aaaabb rhyme-scheme. They are traditionally either recited by marsiya-khwans or sung by a marsiya-soz at Shi‘i mourning assemblies held during the month of Muharram. A classical Urdu marsiya, usually includes most of the following sections: a prelude (chehrah) of poems of praise, descriptions of the morning or night before the battle, or a general introduction to the hardships faced by Husain; a description (literally “head-to-toe,” sarapa) of the poem’s hero – whether Husain or one of his companions – and his virtues; the leave-taking or departure for the battlefield (rukhsat); the entry onto the field (aamad); a declaration of the hero’s martial prowess (rajaz); the battle (jang); the martyrdom (shahadat); and finally, the lament (bain). To this one could add the topical focus (maajrah) and the prayer (du‘a).

Though its language draws heavily on Arabic and Persian vocabulary, the Urdu marsiya is imbued with the color and flavor of the Indian subcontinent. The best of verses are exquisite cameos composed of images of local flora and fauna, drawing on local custom and tradition. In terms of emotional range the marsiya swings between heroic displays of martial skill and tender descriptions of affection and bereavement; between the high moral virtue of the people of the House of the Prophet and their ultimate vulnerability in the face of death and loss. It is perhaps the innate irony of the godly heroes’ circumstance which is the dramatic force behind the Urdu marsiya’s power to move its audience.

The Battle of Karbala

Marsiya commemorates the events surrounding the battle of Karbala near the Iraqi city of Kufa on the 10th of Muharram AH 61 (680 CE). The historical record provides some information regarding the sequence of events that led to this battle between a contingent of the Umayyad forces and the caravan of Husain Ibn ‘Ali en route to the city of Kufa.  Husain’s caravan was detained by the Umayyad forces due to his failure to pledge allegiance to Yazid Ibn Mu‘awiya as the new Caliph.  Husain was first approached and pressured to swear his oath to the new Caliph in Madinah and unwilling to give his pledge to a known drunkard and profligate, he decided to accept the invitation of the Kufan populace and lead a revolt against the Caliph. Husain set out for Kufa with approximately 50 armed men and his women and children.  Yazid perceived Husain’s departure for Kufa, without giving him his oath of allegiance, to be an act of rebellion and ordered ‘Ubaidallah Ibn Ziyad to quell the Kufan revolt and prevent Husain from reaching Kufa. Husain’s caravan was intercepted by Hurr’s  force of 1000 men  who accompanied him to the plain of Karbala where Hurr’s contingent  was augmented by ‘Umar Ibn Sa‘d’s 4000 additional men. ‘Umar cut off access to the river for Husain’s encampment and demanded Husain sign an oath of allegiance to Yazid.  Husain refused and asked to be allowed to retreat to Arabia. Negotiations broke down, and Husain on the 9th of Muharram prepared for battle as the Umayyad force moved closer to the caravan’s encampment. 

On the morning of the 10th of Muharram, Husain made a final appeal to the Umayyad forces to spare his caravan.  The plea failed to sway the commanders and the battle began with the companions and relatives of Husain joining the battle singly or in small groups throughout the morning. Gradually, every one of his 72 companions and relatives perished on the field and lastly he was killed by early afternoon. The encampment was looted, the survivors largely women, children and the last surviving son of Husain, the invalid Zain al‘Abidin were bound and taken captive to Kufa where they were mocked and humiliated by ‘Ubaidallah.  The captives were imprisoned in Kufa and later sent to Damascus, where they along with the severed head of Husain were presented to Yazid.  Yazid imprisoned them and eventually released them.  Though the historical record provides us with the general sequence of events leading up to and following the Battle of Karbala, the repercussions of this event resonated powerfully in the formation of Shi’i Islam.  The martyrdom of Husain and his companions became the central focus of devotion for the supporters of the descendants of Muhammad as the legitimate leaders of the Muslim community.

Anis and Dabir

Mir Babar Ali Anis (1802-74 C.E.) was born in Faizabad.  He lived in Lucknow, Patna, Banaras and Hyderabad at different times of his life.  In Lucknow he achieved fame for the eloquence of his marsiyas, which he frequently recited from the pulpit himself.  His style is known for its simplicity, originality, eloquence, and fluency.  Anis came from a very distinguished family of poets.  His great grandfather was Mir Zahik, about whom Sauda wrote famous satirical verse.  His grandfather was Mir Hasan, who is well-known for his masnavi, Sihr ul- Bayan (“The Enchanting Story”) and his father was Mir Khaliq, himself a composer of marsiyas. 

Mirza Salamat ‘Ali Dabir (1803-75 C.E.) came from a less distinguished family and was the pupil of Mir Zamir.  Dabir was born in Delhi and lived in Lucknow.  Dabir is characterized by the word grandeur as opposed to Anis's eloquence and the two were often portrayed as great poetic rivals.  However, Dabir composed a chronogram on Anis's death, demonstrating the respect they had for each other.  In this chronogram Anis said that Mt. Sinai was without Moses and the pulpit was without Anis.  Dabir's diction was often described as grand and ornate while Anis was portrayed as possessing a "God-given, simple direct expression."  Dabir and Anis were the most skilled poets in Lucknow’s marsiya world.

Yavar Abbas

Yavar Abbas, writer, broadcaster, journalist, film-maker comes from the home of Urdu - Lucknow in U.P. India.  A love of classical Urdu literature was second nature to him, having been exposed to the poetry of one of one of the greatest practitioners of that art, Mir Babar Ali Anis, whose epic Marsiyas were part of his staple diet from a very early age.  Brought up in a devout and cultured Shi‘i family Yavar heard his father recite Anis with passion and panache every year during the month of Muharram.  Having learnt to appreciate and recite Anis as part of his inheritance, Yavar has augmented and fine-tuned his own practice of the art of dramatic recitation (Taht-ul-lafz) over the years with his skills as a broadcaster and film-maker.

This Evening’s Marsiyas

(1)                                           “When the sun had traversed the distance of the night, The dawn revealed her glorious, veil-less face”

“Jab qita’ ki masafat-e shab aftab ne, Jalvah kiya sahar ke rukh-e be hijab ne”

This marsiya, which is one of Anis’s most famous, starts off powerfully with a description of the scene surrounding the time of the morning prayers on that day in which Husain and his companions would depart this world.  As Husain and his companions rise from their sleep to greet the morning, Anis hints at what will come in describing this most terrible day.  As the time for prayers comes, Anis describes the clothes they put on.  They comb their hair and perfume emanates from their clothes.  One finds that the desert surroundings have taken on a very Indian appearance as the birds sing their songs amongst swaying trees covered with red blossoms.  The nightingale sits atop the date palm, communing with a thousand flowers.  The deer and lion give praise in their respective ways to God.  All facets of God’s creation are present in Anis’s description.  The radiance and brilliance of Husain and his companions are compared to stars and Husain’s light puts the sun to shame.    In his description of the prayers, Anis contrasts the piety of Husain’s camp with the oppression, cruelty and wickedness of Yazid’s camp.  Anis portrays the dire situation of the camp of Husain, emphasizing the plight of the children who are weak from thirst and hunger.  Husain begins to put on his battle clothes and armor and kisses the hilt of the mighty sword, “Zulfiqar.”  Zainab’s sons, despite their ages of nine and ten, demonstrate amazing bravery in their request to carry the standard out to battle.  In Zainab’s response, Anis captures the language that a typical South Asian mother would use in answering a ridiculous request from her children.  After her sons are denied their request, Zainab chooses ‘Abbas for the task and Husain alongside his companions depart for battle.

Husain mounts his horse and Anis gives a physical description (sarapa) of him, comparing his face to that of a veiled bride and his neck to be that which




the fairies’ hands desire to caress.  When Husain and his companions enter the battle with their cries, the earth begins to shake and a description of the battle ensues. Through skillful wordplay, Anis describes Zainab’s sons as creating fear in the enemy bowmen. They are called lions (shir), who show the strength of her milk (shir). Looking for his son Asghar, Husain brings back the corpses of the family of the prophet.  As he embraces his infant son, an arrow hits Asghar’s neck and Husain cries out.  As he goes back out to battle, Anis describes the heat as so oppressive that all of creation seems to be in hiding.  The heat has taken the crimson from the flowers and the green from the grass.‘Ali’s sword “Zulfiqar” and the havoc it wreaks on the enemies of Husain is described in detail by Anis.  The battle seems Husain’s to win, as he routs his enemies, but when his time comes, he puts his sword in his sheath and ten thousand arrows rain down upon his chest.  After a thorough description of the pains that Husain bears, Zainab goes to her brother’s side and speaks to him asking what she should do.  The grief and sorrow that Anis is able to communicate in his description of this final conversation between Zainab and Husain is enough to elicit a response from even the hardest of hearts.  Anis finishes off his marsiya with a reference to the beauty of his own work using a great play on the word band.  He describes the weakness of every joint (band band) of his limbs, and the greatness of his marsiya using chand band (few stanzas), buland band (height and greatness), and pasand band (pleasing).

(2)                                                                                        “My eloquence is the salt of the table of speech”

“Namak-e khwan-e takallum hai fasahat meri”

Mir Anis composed this marsiya to present to his son Mir Hasan Askari, the fifth generation of marsiya-khwans in his family. Written in the classical style, the hero of this marsiya is none other than Imam Husain. The following key sections of this marsiya stand out quite clearly: a prelude (chehrah), detailed below; an invocation to God (du‘a); praise of the Imam’s virtues (sarapa); the Imam’s leave-taking (rukhsat) with Zainab, Husain’s sister, and Sakina , the four-year old much-loved youngest daughter of Husain, playing a poignant role; Husain’s entry onto the battleground (amad); praise of his military skills (rajaz); and the lament (bain) in which Zainab once again plays a central role.

This otherwise rather formulaic marsiya has an unusual prelude, important enough to elaborate here. Three of the verses from this marsiya (text and translation) are to be found on the back of the brochure. Anis begins the chehrah with the praise of his ancestors and descendants, all adepts at the art of marsiya composition and recitation. In his prayer (du‘a), Anis asks God for his blessings to execute the marsiya skillfully. His wish-list provides us with clues to the central elements of the marsiya. The words were to be drawn from the aristocratic Lucknow zaban, yet appropriate, full of pathos; the topic elevated; the descriptions of events life-like, painted so skillfully, that even the great Persian painters Behzad and Mani would be struck with awe. He asks for the ability to follow in the footsteps of his illustrious forebears, and finally, he asks to be blessed with the eloquence of word and phrase that has the power to move to tears.

(3)                                                                                    “There is frenzy in the prison because Hind comes”

Qaid khane men talatum hai ke Hind ati hai

Mirza Salamat Ali Dabir set this marsiya in the prison of Damascus and the narrative focuses on the conditions of the survivors after the Battle of Karbala.  The hardships and humiliations of this group are poignantly recounted through dialogues between Zainab and her fellow captives as she hears that Yazid’s wife, Hind is coming to the prison.   In the first section the poet inserts imagined dialogues between Zainab, Hind, and Husain, and this conversational style is maintained throughout the marsiya.  The dialogues are intimate exchanges between the survivors that allow the listener a glimpse of the love and devotion of these people toward one another and to Islam’s ideals.  Zainab regrets that she does not even have a cloak and asks the others to hide her so she will not be seen.   Zainab bemoans her powerlessness. She cannot go to Karbala and takes her niece onto her lap and admonishes her to remain silent when Hind comes.  Sakina  promises she will only ask for a burial shroud for her father.  Meanwhile, as the aunt and niece are talking, Fiza, the devoted handmaid of Zainab and Fatima, announces the arrival of Hind at the prison gates with great pomp and ceremony.  Hind now speaks in the marsiya for the first time and says how she fears that the news she has heard of the martyrdom of Husain might be true.  She wants to see the captives herself to determine if they are indeed of the Prophet’s family. 

The marsiya moves to its poignant end gradually and introduces a heart-wrenching full sarapa of Zain al-‘Abidin as he sits constrained and shackles.  Dabir uses beautiful imagery to describe the Imam’s exalted nature which he contrasts with the miserable conditions of the prison.  The servant girls of Hind’s retinue see his state and beg to alleviate his suffering.   In the dialogue with Zain al-‘Abidin, Hind discerns the eloquence of his grandfather, ‘Ali and begins to realize that these are indeed the survivors of Karbala.  Hind turns to the women and attempts to console them, but Zainab still wants to save them and herself from Hind’s scrutiny.  Hind tells how she learned of the tragedy of Karbala as the loot that was taken from Karbala was presented for her inspection.  Hind now consoles each woman in turn and urges them to not be ashamed of their circumstances.   She has a ring that she collected from the loot she thought was Husain’s and presents it to the women.  Zainab faints upon seeing this memento of her brother. While Fiza attempts to revive her, Fatima’s voice is heard in the prison accusing the looters of chopping off Husain’s finger for the ring.  Zainab revives at the sound of Fatima’s voice only to see the head of Husain displayed on the walls.  Hind attempts to console Zainab and wants to give her a cloak, but Fatima’s voice calls down from the heavens and reproaches her daughter for accepting a cloak while Husain is without a burial shroud.  Hind failing to console Zainab, asks Rubab for the baby ‘Ali Asghar’s fate by looking at Rubab’s empty cradled arms.

Anis’s Ideal Marsiya

qalam-e fikr se khincuun jo kisii bazm kaa rang                   With thought’s pen, when I paint the colors of an assembly

shama‘-e tasviir peh girne lagen aa aa ke patang                                 May moths repeatedly dive into the picture’s flame.

saaf hairat-zadeh Mani ho to Behzaad ho dang                     May Mani be bewildered quite, and Behzaad struck dumb!

khuun barastaa nazar aaye jo dikhaauun saf-e jang             It rains blood when I show them the line of battle.

razm aisii ho keh dil sab ke pharak jaayen                                    May the war be so described  that people’s hearts tremble,

bijliyaan teghon kii aankhon men camak jaayen                            May the sparkling of swords flash in the eye


roz marrah shurafaa kaa ho salaasat ho vahii                      Let the daily speech be that of the nobility, with the same ease

lab o lahjah vahii saaraa ho mataanat ho vahii                     That very tone and idiom, that same intelligence.

saama‘iin jald samajh len jise sana‘t ho vahii                       Only those literary devices should be used which listeners can understand easily.

ya‘ni mauqa’ ho jahaan jis kaa voh ‘ibaarat ho vahii           In other words, every figure of speech should be used only at the right occasion

lafz bhii chust hon mazmun bhii ‘alii hove                                     May the words be appropriate, the topic exalted,

marsiya dard kii baaton se nah khaalii hove                                 May the marsiya not be empty of pathos.


bazm kaa rang judaa rang kaa maidaan hai judaa               The assembly has a different mood, the battle-ground another;

yeh caman aur hai zakhmon kaa gulistaan hai judaa            This garden is one, the rose-garden of wounds another.

fahm-e kaamil ho to har naame kaa ‘unvaan hai judaa        If one has perfect understanding, each story has a different heading.

mu­khtasar parh ke rulaa dene kaa saamaan hai judaa         The ability to read in brief  and make others cry is another art.

dabdabah bhii ho masaa’ib bhii hon tausiif bhii ho                       A  marsiya should have grandeur, ordeals, and descriptions.

dil bhii mahzuz hon riqqat bhii ho ta‘riif bhii ho                            The heart should be made happy, and sad, and full of praise.

Urdu Mersia Ki Baqa zaban aur saqafat ki hifazat hai !