Observations on the Mussulmauns of India
By Meer Hassan Ali
Public Domain Books
The Fast of Rumzaun.–Motives for its strict observance.–Its commencement and duration.–Sentiments of Meer Hadjee Shaah on the duty of fasting.–Adherence of the females to the observing this fast.–How first broken.–Devout persons extend the term to forty days.–Children permitted to try their zeal.–Calamitous effects of the experiment.–Exemptions from this duty.–Joyful termination of the fast.–Celebration of Eade on the last day.–The Nuzza.–Nautchwomen and Domenie.–Surprise of the Natives at European dancing.–Remarks on their Music.–Anecdotes of Fatima.–The Chuckee.
’The poor man fasts, because he wanteth meat; The sick man fasts, because he cannot eat. The miser fasts, with greedy mind, to spare; The glutton fasts, to eat a greater share. The hypocrite, he fasts to seem more holy; The righteous man, to punish sinful folly.’
The secret motive of the heart, man cannot fathom in his neighbour’s deeds. There are some actions so praiseworthy in themselves, that the charitably disposed will pass over the probable actuating motive, when looking only to the fair example. I have, however, reason to think that the Mussulmauns generally, in fulfilling the commanded fast of Rumzaun, have an unexceptionable motive. They are taught by their Lawgiver, that the due performance of this rigid fast is an acceptable service to God the Creator, from man the creature: they believe this, and therefore they fast?
Amongst the well-informed it is persevered in as a duty delightful to be permitted to perform; the ignorant take some merit to themselves in having faithfully observed the command; yet all the fasting population are actuated more or less by the same motive,–-the desire to please God by fulfilling His commands, delivered to them by their acknowledged Prophet.
The severity of a Mussulmaun’s fast can alone be understood by those who have made the trial, as I frequently have, of the strict rules of abstinence which they observe; and with the additional privations to be endured at the period of the hottest months and the longest days in the same climate, as will sometimes be the case with all their movable fasts.
The Mussulmaun fast commences when the first streak of light borders the Eastern horizon, and continues until the stars are clearly discerned in the heavens. During this period not the slightest particle of food, not one single drop of water, or any other liquid, passes the lips; the hookha, even, is disallowed during the continuance of the fast, which of itself forms not only a luxury of great value, but an excellent antidote to hunger.
Amongst the really religious Mussulmauns the day is passed in occasional prayer, besides the usual Namaaz, reading the Khoraun, or the Lives of the Prophets. I have witnessed some, in their happy employment of these fatiguing days, who evinced even greater animation in their conversation than at other times; towards the decline of a day, when the thermometer has stood at eighty-nine in the shade of a closed house, they have looked a little anxious for the stars appearing, but,–to their credit be it told,–without the slightest symptom of impatience or fretfulness at the tardy approach of evening.
My revered friend, Meer Hadjee Shaah, always told me that the great secret of a fast, to be beneficial, was to employ time well, which benefited both soul and body; employment suited to the object of the fast being the best possible alleviation to the fatigue of fasting. He adds, if the temper be soured either by the abstinence or the petty ills of life, the good effects of the fast are gone with the ruffled spirit, and that the person thus disturbed had much better break his fast, since it ceases to be of any value in the sight of Him to whom the service is dedicated; the institution of the fast having for its object to render men more humble, more obedient to their God; all dissensions must be forgotten; all vicious pursuits abandoned, to render the service of a fast an acceptable offering to God.
In the zeenahnah, the females fast with zealous rigidness; and those who have not the happiness to possess a knowledge of books, or a husband or father disposed to read to them, will still find the benefit of employment in their gold embroidery of bags and trimmings, or other ornamental needle-work; some will listen to the Khaaunie (tales), related by their attendants; others will overlook, and even assist in the preparations going forward for opening the fast. Ladies of the first quality do not think it a degradation to assist in the cooking of choice dishes. It is one of the highest favours a lady can confer on her friends, when she sends a tray of delicate viands cooked by her own hands. So that with the prayers, usual and occasional, the daily nap of two hours, indulged in throughout the year, occupation is made to fill up the day between dawn and evening; and they bear the fatigue with praiseworthy fortitude. Those who are acquainted with letters, or can afford to maintain hired readers, pass this month of trials in the happiest manner.
The fast is first broken by a cooling draught called tundhie; the same draught is usually resorted to in attacks of fever. The tundhie is composed of the seeds of lettuce, cucumber, and melon, with coriander, all well pounded and diluted with cold water, and then strained through muslin, to which is added rose-water, sugar, syrup of pomegranate, and kurah (a pleasant-flavoured distilled water from the blossom of a species of aloe). This cooling draught is drank by basins’ full amongst the Rozedhaars (fasters), and it is generally prepared in the zeenahnah apartments for the whole establishment, male and female. Some of the aged and more delicate people break their fast with the juice of spinach only, others choose a cup of boiling water to sip from. My aged friend, Meer Hadjee Shaah, has acquired a taste for tea, by partaking of it so often with me; and with this he has broken his fast for several years, as he says, with the most comforting sensations to himself. I have seen some people take a small quantity of salt in the first instance, preparatory to a draught of any kind of liquid. Without some such prelude to a meal, after the day’s fast, the most serious consequences are to be apprehended.
After indulging freely in the simple liquids, and deriving great benefit and comfort from a hookha, the appetite for food is generally stayed for some time: many persons prefer a rest of two hours before they can conveniently touch the food prepared for them, and even then, seldom eat in the same proportion as they do at other meals. Many suffice themselves with the one meal, and indulge in that very sparingly. The servants and labouring classes, however, find a second meal urgently necessary, which they are careful to take before the dawning day advances. In most families, cold rice-milk is eaten at that early hour. Meer Hadjee Shaah, I have before noticed, found tea to be the best antidote to extreme thirst, and many are the times I have had the honour to present him with this beverage at the third watch of the night, which he could enjoy without fear of the first streaks of light on the horizon arriving before he had benefited by this luxury.
The good things provided for dinner after the fast are (according to the means of the party) of the best, and in all varieties; and from the abundance prepared, a looker-on would pronounce a feast at hand; and so it is, if to feed the hungry be a feast to the liberal-hearted bestower, which with these people I have found to be a part and parcel of their nature. They are instructed from their infancy to know all men as brothers who are in any strait for food; and they are taught by the same code, that for every gift of charity they dispense with a free good will, they shall have the blessing and favour of their Creator abundantly in return. On the present occasion, they cook choice viands to be distributed to the poor, their fellow-labourers in the harvest; and in proportion to the number fed, so are their expectations of blessings from the great Giver of all good, in whose service it is performed. In my postscript you will find several anecdotes of the daughter of Mahumud on the subject of charity.
When any one is prevented fulfilling the fast of Rumzaun in his own person he is instructed to consider himself bound to provide food for opening the fast of a certain number of poor men who are Rozedhaars. The general food of the peasantry and lower orders of the people–bread and dhall–is deemed sufficient, if unable to afford anything better.
When any one dies without having duly observed the fast, pious relatives engage some devout person to perform a month’s fast, which they believe will be accepted for the neglectful person. Many devout Mussulmauns extend the fast from thirty to full forty days, by the example of Mahumud and his family; and it is no unusual thing to meet with others who, in addition to this month, fast every Thursday through the year; some very rigid persons even fast the month preceding and the following month, as well as the month of Rumzaun.
Some very young people (children we should call them in happy England) are permitted to try their fasting powers, perhaps for a day or two during the month of Rumzaun. The first fast of the noviciate is an event of no small moment to the mother, and gives rise to a little festival in the zeenahnah; the females of the family use every sort of encouragement to induce the young zealot to persevere in the trial when once commenced, and many are the preparations for the opening last with due éclat in their circle–sending trays of the young person’s good things to intimate friends, in remembrance of the interesting event; and generally with a parade of servants and music, when the child (I must have it so) belongs to the nobility, or persons of consequence, who at the same time distribute money and food to the poor.
These first fasts of the young must be severe trials, particularly in the hot season. I have heard, it is no uncommon thing for the young sufferers to sink under the fatigue, rather than break the fast they have had courage to commence. The consolation to the parents in such a case would be, that their child was the willing sacrifice, and had died ’in the road of God’, as all deaths occurring under performances of a known duty are termed.
Within my recollection a distressing calamity of this nature occurred at Lucknow, in a very respectable family. I did not know the party personally, but it was the topic in all the houses I visited at that period. I made a memorandum of the circumstance at the time, from which the following is copied:
’Two children, a son and daughter of respectable parents, the eldest thirteen and the youngest eleven years of age, were permitted to prove their faith by the fast, on one of the days of Rumzaun; the parents, anxious to honour their fidelity, expended a considerable sum of money in the preparations for celebrating the event amongst their circle of friends. Every delicacy was provided for opening their fast, and all sorts of dainties prepared to suit the Epicurean palates of the Asiatics, who when receiving the trays at night would know that this was the testimony of the children’s perseverance in that duty they all hold sacred.
’The children bore the trial well throughout the morning, and even until the third watch of the day had passed, their firmness would have reflected credit on people twice their age, making their first fast. After the third watch, the day was oppressively hot, and the children evinced symptoms of weariness and fatigue; they were advised to try and compose themselves to sleep; this lulled them for a short time, but their thirst was more acute when they awoke than before. The mother and her friends endeavoured to divert their attention by amusing stories, praising their perseverance, &c. The poor weak lady was anxious that they should persevere; as the day was now so far gone, she did not like her children to lose the benefit of their fast, nor the credit due to them for their forbearance. The children endeavoured to support with patience the agony that bowed them down–they fainted, and then the mother was almost frantic, blaming herself for having encouraged them to prolong their fast against their strength. Cold water was thrown over them; attempts were made to force water into their mouths; but, alas! their tender throats were so swollen, that not a drop passed beyond their mouths. They died within a few minutes of each other; and the poor wretched parents were left childless through their own weakness and mistaken zeal. The costly viands destined for the testimony of these children’s faith, it may be supposed, were served out to the hungry mendicants as the first offerings dedicated to the now happy spirits of immortality.’
This is a sad picture of the distressing event, but I have not clothed it in the exaggerated garb some versions bore at the time the circumstance happened.
There are some few who are exempt from the actual necessity of fasting during Rumzaun; the sick, the aged, women giving nourishment to infants, and those in expectation of adding to the members of the family, and very young children, these are all commanded not to fast. There is a latitude granted to travellers also; but many a weary pilgrim whose heart is bent heavenward will be found taking his rank amongst the Rozedhaars of the time, without deeming he has any merit in refraining from the privileges his code has conferred upon him; such men will fast whilst their strength permits them to pursue their way.
Towards the last week of Rumzaun the haggard countenances and less cheerful manners of the fasting multitude seem to increase, but they seldom relax unless their health is likely to be much endangered by its continuance.
The conclusion of the month Rumzaun is celebrated as an Eade (festival), and, if not more splendid than any other in the Mussulmaun calendar, it is one of the greatest heart-rejoicing days. It is a sort of thanksgiving day amongst the devout people who have been permitted to accomplish the task; and with the vulgar and ignorant, it is hailed with delight as the season of merriment and good living–a sort of reward for their month’s severe abstinence.
The namaaz of the morning, and the prayer for Eade, commence with the dawn; after which the early meal of Eade is looked forward to with some anxiety. In every house the same dainties are provided with great exactness (for they adhere to custom as to a law): plain boiled rice, with dhie (sour curd) and sugar, forms the first morning repast of this Eade; dried dates are eaten with it (in remembrance of the Prophet’s family, whose greatest luxury was supposed to be the dates of Arabia). A preparation of flour (similar to our vermicelli) eaten with cold milk and sugar, is amongst the good things of this day, and trifling as it may appear, the indulgence is so great to the native population, that they would consider themselves unfortunate Rozedhaars, if they were not gratified, on this occasion, with these simple emblems of long-used custom. The very same articles are in request in Mussulmaun society, by this custom, from the King to the meanest of his subjects.
The ladies’ assemblies, on this Eade, are marked by all the amusements and indulgences they can possibly invent or enjoy, in their secluded state. Some receiving, others paying visits in covered conveyances; all doing honour to the day by wearing their best jewellery and splendid dresses. The zeenahnah rings with the festive songs and loud music, the cheerful meeting of friends, the distribution of presents to dependants, and remembrances to the poor; all is life and joy, cheerful bustle and amusement, on this happy day of Eade, when the good lady of the mansion sits in state to receive nuzzas from inferiors, and granting proofs of her favour to others.
Nuzza is an offering of money from inferiors to those who rank in society above the person presenting; there is so much of etiquette observed in Native manners, that a first visit to a superior is never made without presenting a nuzza. When we arrived in India, an old servant of my husband’s family, named Muckabeg, was sent to meet us at Patna to escort us to Lucknow; on entering our budgerow he presented fourteen rupees to me, which were laid on a folded handkerchief. I did not then understand what was intended, and looked to the Meer for explanation; he told me to accept Muckabeg’s ’Nuzza’. I hesitated, remarking that it seemed a great deal more than a man in his situation could afford to give away. My husband silenced my scruples by observing, ’You will learn in good time that these offerings are made to do you honour, together with the certain anticipation of greater benefits in return; Muckabeg tenders this nuzza to you, perhaps it is all the money he possesses, but he feels assured it will be more than doubly repaid to him in the value of a khillaut (dress of honour) he expects from your hands to-day. He would have behaved himself disrespectfully in appearing before you without a nuzza, and had you declined accepting it, he would have thought that you were either displeased with him, or did not approve of his coming.’ This little incident will perhaps explain the general nature of all the nuzzas better than any other description I could offer.
Kings and Nuwaubs keep the festival in due form, seated on the throne or musnud, to receive the congratulations and nuzzas of courtiers and dependants, and presenting khillauts to ministers, officers of state, and favourites. The gentlemen manage to pass the day in receiving and paying visits, all in their several grades having some inferiors to honour them in the presentation of offerings, and on whom they can confer favours and benefits; feasting, music, and dancing-women, filling up the measure of their enjoyments without even thinking of wine, or any substitute stronger than such pure liquids as graced the feasts of the first inhabitants of the world.
The Nautchwomen in the apartments of the gentlemen, and the Domenie in the zeenahnahs are in great request on this day of festivity, in every house where the pleasures and the follies of this world are not banished by hearts devoted solely to the service of God. ’The Nautch’ has been, so often described that it would here be superfluous to add to the description, feeling as I do an utter dislike both to the amusement and the performers. The nautchunies are entirely excluded from the female apartments of the better sort of people; no respectable Mussulmaun would allow these impudent women to perform before their wives and daughters.
But I must speak of the Domenie, who are the singers and dancers admitted within the pale of zeenahnah life; these, on the contrary, are women of good character, and their songs are of the most chaste description, chiefly in the Hindoostaunie tongue. They are instructed in Native music and play on the instruments in common use with some taste,–as the saattarah (guitar), with three wire strings; the surringhee (rude-shaped violin); the dhome or dholle (drum), in many varieties, beaten with the fingers, never with sticks. The harmony produced is melancholy and not unpleasing, but at best all who form the several classes of professors in Native societies are indifferent musicians.
Amateur performers are very rare amongst the Mussulmauns; indeed, it is considered indecorous in either sex to practise music, singing, or dancing; and such is the prejudice on their minds against this happy resource amongst genteel people of other climates, that they never can reconcile themselves to the propriety of ’The Sahib Logue’,–a term in general use for the English people visiting India,–figuring away in a quadrille or country dance. The nobles and gentlemen are frequently invited to witness a ’station-ball’; they look with surprise at the dancers, and I have often been asked why I did not persuade my countrywomen that they were doing wrong. ’Why do the people fatigue themselves, who can so well afford to hire dancers for their amusement?’ Such is the difference between people of opposite views in their modes of pleasing themselves: a Native gentleman would consider himself disgraced or insulted by the simple inquiry, ’Can you dance, sing, or play?’
The female slaves are sometimes taught to sing for their ladies’ amusement, and amongst the many Hindoostanie airs there are some that would please even the most scientific ear; although, perhaps, they are as old as the country in which they were invented, since here there are neither composers of modern music, nor competitors for fame to bring the amusement to a science. Prejudice will be a continual barrier to improvement in music with the natives of India; the most homely of their national airs are preferred at the present day to the finest composition of modern Europe.
My promised postscript is a translation from the Persian, extracted from ’The Hyaatool Kaaloob’. The author is detailing the manner of living habitual to Mahumud and his family, and gives the following anecdotes ’hudeeth’  (to be relied on), which occurred at the season of Rumzaun; the writer says:–
’It is well known that they (Mahumud’s family) were poor in worldly wealth; that they set no other value on temporal riches (which occasionally passed through their hands) but as loans from the great Giver of all good, to be by them distributed amongst the poor, and this was done faithfully; they kept not in their hands the gifts due to the necessitous. The members of Mahumud’s family invariably lived on the most simple diet, even when they could have commanded luxuries.
’At one season of Rumzaun,–it was in the lifetime of Mahumud,–Fatima, her husband Ali, and their two sons, Hasan and Hosein, had fasted two days and nights, not having, at that period, the means of procuring the smallest quantity of food to break their fast with. Habitually and from, principle, they disguised from the world or their friends all such temporal trials as it seemed good in the wisdom of Divine Providence to place in their chequered path; preferring under any circumstances of need, to fix their sole trust in the mercy and goodness of God for relief, rather than by seeking aid from their fellow-creatures lessening their dependence on Him.
’On the evening above mentioned, Mahumud went to the cottage of Fatima, and said, “Daughter, I am come to open my fast with thee."–"In the name of the most merciful God, be it so,” was the reply of Fatima; yet secretly she sorrowed, that the poverty of her house must now be exposed to her beloved father.
’Fatima spread the dustha-khawn (a large square of calico) on the floor of the room near her father, placed empty plates before him, then retired to her station for prayers; spreading her mat in the direction of Kaabah, she prostrated herself to the earth before God in the humblest attitude, imploring His merciful aid, in this her moment of trial. Fatima’s fervent prayer was scarcely finished, when a savoury smell of food attracted her attention; raising her head from the earth, her anxious eye was greeted with the view of a large bowl or basin filled with sulleed (the Arabian food of that period). Fatima again bowed down her head, and poured out in humble strains that gratitude to God with which her heart overflowed. Then rising from her devotions, she took up the savoury food and hurried with it to her father’s presence, and summoned her husband and the children to partake of this joyous meal, without even hinting her thoughts that it was the gift of Heaven.
’Ali had been some time seated at the meal, when he, knowing they had no means of procuring it, looked steadily on Fatima, and inquired where she had secreted this delicious food; at the same time recurring to the two days’ fast they had endured. “Rebuke her not, my son,” said Mahumud; “Fatima is the favoured of Heaven, as was Myriam (Mary), the mother of Esaee (Jesus), who, living in her uncle Zechareah’s (Zachariah’s) house, was provided by God with the choicest of fruits. Zechareah was poor, and oft he hungered for a meal; but when he entered Myriam’s apartment, a fresh supply of rare fruits was wont to greet his eye. Zechareah asked, Whence had ye these precious gifts? Myriam answered, An angel from God places the fruit before me; eat, my uncle, and be satisfied."’
The writer thus leaves the story of the miraculous food to Fatima’s prayer, and goes on as follows:–
’At another season of the fast, this family of charity endured a severe trial, which was miraculously and graciously rewarded. Fatima had a female slave, who shared with her equally the comforts and the toils of life.
’The food allotted to every member of Ali’s family was two small barley cakes for each day; none had more or less throughout the family. The labour of domestic affairs was shared by Fatima with her female slave, and each took their day for grinding the barley at the chuckee, with which the cakes were made.
’On the–day of Rumzaun, the corn was ground as usual, the cakes made, and the moment for opening the fast anxiously anticipated, by this abstemious family. The evening arrived, and when the family had fulfilled their prayer-duty, the party assembled round the homely dustha-khawn with thankful hearts, and countenances beaming with perfect content. All had their allotted portions, but none had yet tasted of their cakes, when the voice of distress caught their ears. “Give me, oh, give me, for the love of God! something to relieve my hunger and save my famishing family from perishing.” Fatima caught up her barley cakes, and ran out to the supplicant, followed by her husband, the two children, and the slave. The cakes were given to the distressed creature, and as they comprised their whole stock, no further supply awaited their returning steps, nor even a substitute within the bare walls of their cottage; a few grains of salt had been left from cooking the barley cakes, and each took a little of the small quantity, to give a relish to the water they now partook of freely; and then retired to sleep away the remembrance of hunger.
’The next day found them all in health, and with hearts at peace; the day was passed in useful occupation, and when evening drew nigh, the same humble fare was ready for the fasting family, whose appetites were doubly keen by the lengthened abstinence. Again they meet to partake in gratitude the great gift of Divine goodness, wholesome sustenance; when, lo! the sound of sorrowing distress, petitioning in the holy name adored by these pious souls,–"For the Love of God!"–arrested their attention. An appeal so urgently made carried with it a command to their devout hearts, and the meal so long delayed to their own necessities was again surrendered to the beggar’s prayers.
’This family of charity had returned to their empty hut, and were seated in pious conversation to beguile their sufferings; not a murmuring word or sigh escaped their sanctified mouths. As the evening advanced thus occupied, a pleasing joy seemed to fill the heart of Fatima, who secretly had sorrowed for her good dear children’s privations; presently a bright and powerful light filled the room, an angel stood before them; his appearance gave them no alarm;–they beheld his presence with humility. “Thy good deeds”, said the angel (Gabriel), “are acceptable to God, the All Merciful! by whose command I come to satisfy the demands of mortal nature; this fruit (dates) is the gift of Him you serve; eat and be at peace.” The meal was ample which the angel brought to this virtuous family, and having placed it before them, he vanished from their sight.’
The Chuckee, before mentioned, is two flat circular stones (resembling grindstones in England), the upper stone has a peg or handle fixed in it, near the edge, with which it is forced round, by the person grinding, who is seated on the floor; the corn is thrown in through a circular hole on the upper stone, and the flour works out at the edges between the two stones. This is the only method of grinding corn for the immense population throughout Oude, and most other parts of Hindoostaun even to the present day. The late King of Oude, Ghauzieood deen Hyder, was at one time much pressed by some English friends of his, to introduce water-mills, for the purpose of grinding corn; he often spoke of the proposed plan to the Meer, and declared his sole motive for declining the improvement was the consideration he had for the poor women, who by this employment made an excellent living in every town and village, and who must, by the introduction of mills, be distressed for the means of support. ’My poor women’, he would often say, ’shall never have cause to reproach me, for depriving them of the use and benefit of their chuckee.’
I have before said it is not my intention to offer opinions on the character of the Mussulmaun people, my business being merely to relate such things as I have heard and seen amongst them. The several translations and anecdotes I take the opportunity of placing in these letters, are from authorities the Mussulmauns style, hudeeth (authentic),–that are not, cannot, be doubted, as they have been handed down either by Mahumud or by the Emaums, whose words are equally to be relied on. When any passages in their sacred writings are commented on by different authors, they give their authority for the opinion offered, as Emaum Such-a-one explains it thus. You understand, therefore, that the Mussulmauns believe these miracles to have occurred to the members of their Prophet’s family as firmly as we believe in the truth of our Holy Scripture.
 See p. 13.
 Rozadar, ’one who keeps fast’ (roza).
 Spinacea oleracea, or Basella alba.
 Dhall [dal] is a sort of pea, sometimes cooked in a savoury way with garlic, salt, ghee, pepper and herbs. It is about the consistence of thick pea-soup–but without meat. [Author.]
 But it is directed that infirm people, unable to fast, should feed a poor person when the fast is over. Women in child and those suckling children are advised to fast at some other more convenient season.
 ’Idu’l-fitr, ’the Festival of the Breaking of the Fast’.
 The Ajwah date is never sold in Arabia, because the Prophet advised that whosoever break the fast every day with, six or seven of those fruits need fear neither poison nor magic.–Burton, Pilgrimage, i. 401 f.
 Known as siwayan, which Musalman servants present on this day to their European masters in India.
 Nazr, nazar.
 A lumbering, keelless barge, formerly much used by Europeans travelling on the Ganges and its tributaries: bajra meaning ’heavy’.
 Khil’at.  Domni, a woman of the Dom or singer class.
 Sitara, ’three-stringed’, but often possessing four or more strings of steel and brass wire, played with a steel wire frame.
 Dhol: ’dhome’ is a mistake.
 Hadis, the sayings of the Prophet, not of an uninspired divine or teacher.
 Dastarkhwan, a modification of the Arab leathern table-spread (sufra).
 Tharid, bread moistened with broth and mixed with scraps of meat.
 Zakariya (Koran, iii. 32, vi. 85, xix. 1-12, xxi. 89).