[NORTHERN INDIA / ISLAM IN ASIA / INTERESTING MUHARRAM DESCRIPTIONS OF THE SHIITE COMMUNITIES OF UTTAR PRADESH] A small archive of historical letters and photographs from Muslim Northern India by...

[NORTHERN INDIA / ISLAM IN ASIA / INTERESTING MUHARRAM DESCRIPTIONS OF THE SHIITE COMMUNITIES OF UTTAR PRADESH] A small archive of historical letters and photographs from Muslim Northern India by...

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Typescript & Gelatine Silver Prints, India, 1942-1944 (and one photo dated 1924).

COMPLETE TITLE: [NORTHERN INDIA / ISLAM IN ASIA / INTERESTING MUHARRAM DESCRIPTIONS OF THE SHIITE COMMUNITIES OF UTTAR PRADESH] A small archive of historical letters and photographs from Muslim Northern India by Canadian missionaries in the mid-20th century during WWII, dated 1942 & 1944.

Two typescript letters and seven gelatine silver photographs. These seven photos, varying sizes ranging from 15,5x10 cm (three), 11x8 cm (one), 10,5x7,5 cm (one), 11x7 cm one), and 9x7 cm (one). Letters sent by “American Export Lines” are folded, one is signed in blue ink. A cut envelope is censored (stamped “passed by censor”). 

Letters include approx. 1300 words total. The sending address is “Utraula, Gonda Dist[rict], U[ttar] P[radesh], India”. All very good condition. Both are addressed to Mr. and Mrs. Edward Rogers of Pennsylvania by Jones, Ruth Helen van Heer, and Jones, Rev. Everard Keith. Ruth (1916-2006) and Keith Jones (1911-2006) were Canadian missionaries in India, Pakistan, and Iran between 1936-1979, in Ceylon and India with the Ceylan and India General Mission (later the Sudan Interior Mission) and Iran with the Anglican Church. Rev. Jones also served with the Fellowship of Faith for Muslims. They had a son named Rodney.

Historically interesting small but content-rich archive includes seven photographs and two interesting typescript letters. Both letters from the missionaries’ time in India, likely during their service with the Fellowship of Faith for Muslims in Northern India, in Uttar Pradesh Province, one dated 1942 and one 1944. The first letter is a personal hand-signed by Ruth discussing the difficulties of living in India, mentioning the lack of much success in their work and fears that cost and the war would disrupt plans for a homestay in 1945. Also, she writes about their son Rodney, how surprised when they arrived in India first by indicating “So far as the Gospel goes, this is one of the most illiterate provinces, and therefore one of the most difficult to work in”. She goes on with their camera and photograph shoots, supplying the material of such things is very difficult in the region, etc.

The second letter is a long one that describes a visit to a large home for five wealthy Shiite Bhatti Khanzada (Khanzada Muslim Rajputs) families on the Ashura, the tenth of Muharram, the Islamic New Year, a day of mourning for Shia Muslims, who annually commemorate the death of Husayn ibn Ali who was killed, alongside most of his relatives and his small retinue in the Battle of Karbala in 680 CE against the army of the Umayyad caliph Yazid b. Mu'awiya, grandson of the Islamic prophet Muhammad and the third Shia imam. This is one of the most sacred holidays for Muslims in the Uttar Pradesh region and is marked by fasting, prayer, chest-beating, and (according to the letter) scary enactments that involve roping a boy and a baby by the foot and neck as a sort of homage to Imam Husayn. The letter also describes the set-up of the house that allows women to pass from one area to another without breaking “purdah” [i.e., the practice in certain Muslim and Hindu societies of screening women from men or strangers, especially by means of a curtain]. This long, content-rich, and historically informative typescript letter includes an invaluable account of the Shiite Muslim communities in India in the modern mid-20th century:

“Ceylon & India General Mission.

Utraula, Gonda Dist., U.P., North India, January 1942.

Dear friends in Christ;

As we neared the Muharram celebration this year, about which I wrote you a year ago, we had an invitation from a wealthy Mohammedan’s house to come and see what goes on at that time in the purdah quarters. You’ll remember that this is in commemoration of the martyrdom of Husayn, and how the people put on their mourning colours of green, white and black, take off all jewellery, eat simple food, and some fast and sleep on the floor on straw for ten days. You will also perhaps remember that on the seventh night they take their banners, the blood-stained, garbed horse and the funeral bed, around to each Shia house, going from house to house all night, and the women weep for hours.

The house to which we were invited I really made up of five complete houses, and more than five families, all related by intermarriage. They are attached by their courtyards in such a manner that all of the women can pass from house to house without breaking their purdah by going outside. About nine-thirty we slipped through the entrance and heard singing, and knew the majilis (singing and ceremony) had begun. We slipped our shoes off and stepped into the room. How different from the usual visits to speak to them about Christ, when they greet us with salaams and set out chairs for us to sit: This time several edged nearer the wall to give us room and we sat on the floor with the others and looked about. Without their usual jewelry, their hair undone and hanging, and tears streaming down their faces, they were a sorry group. Before us the tazias were placed. You’ll remember they’re replicas of Husayn’s tomb, done up in all lovely coloured paper. Before them were plates of sweets. Several young girls stood in the centre of the room leading the singing and the chest beating which accompanies all of their majilis meetings. They sang several songs about the story of Husayn’s death, and then they sang about a slave, and the smallest boy of the largest house was tied with a rope and anklet placed on his foot, and he was made a slave before God (only figuratively, of course) mostly to insure that he would grow up. Next came a sad looking, hollow-eyed, tear-stained young girl, in whose arms was a lovely baby. We were told that she had her first husband, and when remarried, lost two children within two days. This was her new and only baby, and she too clamped the anklet on his foot and allowed the rope to be tied around his neck. Then the singing got louder and louder, beating their breasts frantically and crying “Husayn! Husayn! Husayn!” and it swelled louder and louder, and ended in voilent [sic.] weeping.

We came away from that place deeply moved, with the prayer on our hearts that we might be used to lead those women out of their bondage and superstitious ideas of God, into the marvellous light that is ours.

The next day we witnessed the procession of taking the tazias out of the town to the burial ground to bury them. In the shadow of the big Mosque the procession halted and a circle of young men shed their shirts, and while the leader sang, they furiously beat their backs with a chain full of knives time and time again. One lad, of about 14, looked very weak and frail, and we could see his whole body trembling as he faced the ordeal, and the look on his face as he braced himself for the impact of the knives made us turn our faces away. This is done five or six time before they reach the burial ground, and I am sure that poor boy didn’t stand it until the end.

Such are the people amongst whom we’ve come to work – people under the power of fanaticism, which is of Satan, to be sure. We praised the Lord for the privilege of making Him known to these who know Him not – to these who do not desire to know our Saviour. God is able by His Spirit to turn them to Himself. Do you believe this? Are you praying with us faithfully for a mighty manifestation of His power in this heathen land?

“God reigneth over the heathen: God sitteth upon the throne of His holiness.”

With greetings to all in His precious name,

Ruth H. Van Leer.”

The seven original gelatine silver photographs (sizes: three 16x11 cm with a stamp of “H. R. Fercer Jhansi, U. P. verso, others approx. 10x8 cm). Two of them are captioned on versos, but could be mistaken, one of them is dated 1924. One photo shows a holy bathing site with a local resting on the riverbank, likely Varanasi, which is also in Uttar Pradesh; another shows Ruth and her son Rodney with a local man carrying their luggage. A third shows a Tibetan noble woman with a band around her chest and arms indicating that, as she was noble, she had no use for her hands. Others show a seated Indian local smoking a snake-shaped local tobacco stick and holding a rosary in his hand with no caption, a tiger lying down, a Ganesha figurine or statuette, and a wonderful and attractive view of a coastal town apparently located in Uttar Pradesh, at Benades, showing a burning Ghat on the Ganges, with the locals on the stairs leading down to the shore, the boats on the shore and the local architectural buildings.

Overall, a historically significant and very collectible small archive providing invaluable insight into the Shiite Muslim communities in northern India.


The Bhatti Khanzada of Awadh is a Muslim Rajput community found mainly in the Barabanki district of Uttar Pradesh in India. There is also a distinct community of Bhattis found in the village of Yahiapur in Pratapgarh district. The Awadh region covers most of the eastern areas of Uttar Pradesh and is home to a distinct culture. A small number of Bhatti Muslims are also found in the districts of Bahraich and Balrampur. They are a sub-group within the larger Khanzada community of eastern Uttar Pradesh.

Other than the Taluqdar families, the majority of the Barabanki Bhatti are small to medium-sized farmers. The abolishment of the zamindari system of feudal ownership has had a strong impact on the large landowning families, as much of their land has been redistributed. They are Shia Muslims, The Bhatti have always been more orthodox than the Khanzada, a neighbouring Muslim Rajput community. Like other communities in Awadh, they are largely endogamous, marrying close kin. They have no connection with the Ranghar Bhatti of western Uttar Pradesh or those of Punjab.


U.P. is a state in northern India. With over 241 million inhabitants, it is the most populated state in India as well as the most populous country subdivision in the world -more populous than all but four other countries outside of India - and accounting for 16.5 percent of the total population of India. It was established in 1950 after India had become a republic. It is a successor to the United Provinces, established in 1935 by renaming the United Provinces of Agra and Oudh, in turn, established in 1902 from the North-Western Provinces and the Oudh Province. Lucknow serves as the state capital, with Prayagraj being the judicial capital. The state is divided into 18 divisions and 75 districts.

The earliest traces of Islam in Uttar Pradesh can be traced back to the early 11th century (1000-1030CE), when the religion was introduced to the region through various Ghurid and Ghaznavid attacks and incursions. However, the first consolidated Muslim rule over much of Uttar Pradesh began after 1205 CE, when the region formed part of the various sultanates and was ruled from their capital, Delhi; as a result, there arose a community in what is now Uttar Pradesh, referred to as Hindustani Musalmans. The term Hindustani Musalman was applied to Muslims who either converted to Islam or who had settled for a long time in India. They did not form a unified community as they were divided by ethnic, linguistic, and economic differences. When the Mongols rose to power under Genghis Khan, there was an influx of Muslim refugees into North India, many of whom settled in the provincial kasbahs and brought administrators from Iran; painters from China; theologians from Samarkand, Nishapur, and Bukhara. In Azamgharh, Mubarakpur, Mau, and Vanaras, a number of cultural norms arose over time which typified many Uttar Pradesh Muslim traditions.[5] The Turkic Sultans of Delhi and their Mughal successors patronized the émigré Muslim culture: Islamic jurists of the Sunni Hanafi school, Persian literati who were Shia Ithnā‘ashariyyah, and Sufis of several orders, including the Chishti, Qadiri and Naqshbandi.


The Khanzada or Khan Zadeh are a cluster community of Muslim Rajputs found in the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. A notable community is the Khanzadas of Mewat, the descendants of Raja Nahar Khan, who are a sub-clan of Jadaun. They refer to themselves as Muslim Rajputs. After the Partition of India in 1947, many members of this community migrated to Pakistan.


Utraula is a city and a municipal board in Balrampur district in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. It is approximately 90 kilometres from the border with Nepal and 175 km in northeast of Lucknow. Utraula is situated near the West Rapti River. The Muslim Khanzada form a large part of the rural population.