The story of Bakrid

From Abraham to Independence and beyond, a history of the festival

Bakrid traces its history to 4,000 years ago, when the Prophet Abraham saw God in a dream, commanding him to sacrifice what he loved the most. He is said to have had an only son, Ismail (until another was born to Sarah, when he and she were long past the age of reproduction). After much thought, he decided to sacrifice Ismail.

The next morning, he told his son that they were going to offer a sacrifice to God on Mount Morea. They took fuel-wood and a fire-pot and embarked on the long trek. There, both father and son set up an altar, and when the son asked where the animal for sacrifice was, Abraham replied “God will provide it”.

He then bound his son, put him on the stone altar, and took out a knife to sacrifice him. Just as he was aboutto do so, an angel is said to have appeared, telling him to desist, for God was convinced that he loved Him more than even his son. Suddenly a ram emerged, caught by its horns in a bush. Abraham unbound his son and sacrificed the ram instead. This is celebrated as Bakrid, now better known as Id-uz-Zuha or Id-al-Adah, on which the Haj pilgrimage also culminates at Kabah.

In pre-partition days

Bakrid was then marked by sacrifices in nearly every well-to-do home. Those who couldn’t afford to do it individually pooled money and offered a combined sacrifice. Some even sacrificed camels, like court bailiff Usman sahib.

Nawab’s kothi, that existed at Noor Manzil in Old Delhi, was the place where the largest number of “qurbanis” took place.The butcher Qayam divided goat and sheep parts, keeping the best portions for the household of Nawab F.Z. Sherwani and the entrails and others for distribution to the poor. Qayam is long dead and so also the Nawab Sahib, and his children and the kothi is now a divided property. A part of it has become a school and another occupied by the servants and the resident dhoban and her family. The building and its vast compound were declared evacuee property post-1947, with the nawabzadas migrating to Karachi, Lahore and Rawalpindi after their parents’ death.

The last years of reign

Bahadur Shah Zafar had imposed a complete ban on cow-slaughter, in keeping with the tradition set by his ancestor Akbar the Great. In the year preceding 1857, the ban was strictly enforced in the urban area to strengthen communal harmony. Zafar may have heard rumours about the gathering storm that was to strike North India, but his subjects knew more about it even before the lotus and chappati (the signal) began to make their rounds over hundreds of miles. It was Hakim Ahsanullah Khan who had cautioned the emperor that things were not as calm as they appeared.

When the British regained control over Delhi, they were told by their spies during Bakrid 157 years ago (when Zafar was being sent into exile) that though the prominent Muslim families had been banished from the city, the rural areas where they had found shelter, were still seething with unrest — it would be better if only sheep and goat slaughter was allowed, to prevent communal clashes, which may have repercussions in Delhi, where the big Hindu families had been allowed to remain.

Ghalib, says former history professor Dr. Narayani Gupta lamented that upto 1869 there were mostly Hindu “Sahokars” or Seths, and the Muslim merchants who could be compared to them were not more than three. Bakrid was not as gay then as it used to be, although the Parsi and other shops were well stocked with goodies. The main celebrations were, according to contemporary accounts, limited to areas like Nizamuddin, Qutub Minar and the Purana Qila. The Punjabi Muslim katra, demolished to make way for the Old Delhi railway station, was virtually relocated in Kishenganj.

The writer is veteran chronicler of Delhi

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