Tucked away within Devan Devdi, in between lanes lined with bridal shops, sits a sanctum of Shia significance. It takes a painstaking search through the labyrinth of lanes typical to the Old City to locate Chhote Hazrat Ki Durgah, and it's easy to miss if you don't know what you're looking for. But the lifeline of a religious structure is faith. No matter how obscured, devotees find their way.
The durgah is devoted to Hazrat Abbas, the brother of Imams Hassan and Hussain, and is better-known as Hazrat Abbas Ki Durgah. Only a crumbling old wall is left of the original shrine - most of the structure has been rebuilt by generous contributions from pilgrims.
The durgah has three simple spaces: the open courtyard, an inner room containing the actual shrine, and the residences of the caretakers; as well as terraces above. The courtyard is now overshadowed by looming apartment buildings. Many of these buildings used to be private residences of the ruling dynasty, and home to Salar Jung Museum, and have been turned into marriage halls and shopping complexes.
The marble-paved courtyard leads to an inner chamber, whose mirror-studded ceiling is imprinted with the words Ya Ali, Ya Abbas. Inside stand a model of the Imam Abbas Mosque in Iraq and a wooden chest containing a piece of the armor Hazrat Abbas wore when he was martyred in the battle of Karbala in the month of Muharram (of the Islamic lunar calendar), the origin of the Shia faith. It was brought to Hyderabad by the Iranian ancestors of the caretaking family. On this chest is the silver alam, or symbolic palm, representing Hazrat Abbas. A smaller chest contains donations that keep the shrine running.
It is challenging for visitors to find the spirit of the place. The significance of Hazrat Abbas' durgah has drifted towards the saga of the Iranian family that founded it. A fair old woman narrates the historical tale in great detail and reminisces the days of the Nizam, when open-handed donations were made to the shrine. The durgah is owned and looked after by her family, and has its own amazing history, interlinked with the family legacy.
Pilgrims trickle in ones and twos, or families together, to seek the blessings of the Imam. Some wail emotionally while others pray silently. Anybody who has faith is welcomed at Chhote Hazrat Ki Durgah - no dress-code or religious allegiance is required for entry. People of various faiths visit, too, hoping to make a mannath (wish), asking for a child or a daughter’s marriage, making offerings of coconuts and flowers, gold and silver. "No one returns dissatisfied," says the lady. "No one returns with an impure heart." Truly, faith is what keeps the durgah alive.
Every Thursday, the shield from the chest is put on display. Muharrum sees a different facet of pilgrimage; a sense of deep pessimism. Throngs of pilgrims dressed in black turn up on Ashura (the tenth day of Muharrum) to mourn the memory of the martyrs, explicit in their sense of loss, beating their chests (matham) in a collective purging of emotions. The courtyard is filled and the terraces overflow. The floors get drenched in blood. Their devotion has gained momentum over time, and the pain is mourned with more passion each year. This language of suffering is a spectacular staging of the Shia identity. The famous procession with Bibi-ka-Alam passes through this shrine.
The Iranian community, having assimilated into the Hyderabadi lifestyle without letting go of their original culture, plays an active role during Ashura. And as they are stakeholders in the food industry, food is distributed freely.
Among portraits of Hazrat Abbas and battle scenes on the walls of the shrine, are old photographs of the durgah in its yesteryears, when it was a rich heritage structure. It has been a mute witness to time, and seen strange and sad things. It has withstood eight generations of family feuds for its ownership. Now it is rich only in memories of ancient wealth and glory. But beyond frayed images of the past, the spirit of this place may be visible.
If you're not a devout Shia, however, or a history buff, or in search of spiritual deliverance, but just a tourist looking for something especially Hyderabadi, this location can be given a miss. If you are looking for a miracle, the old lady insists you ask.