By K.Sahadev

The Bara Shahid dargah located on the bank of a lake in Nellore town, Nellore district of Andhra Pradesh springs into prominence every year when the day after Muharram festival a popular festival called ‘Rottela Panduga’ is held. Rotella is the Telugu plural of ‘Roti’.

Several folklore stories are in vogue regarding the origin of Bara Shaheed dargah. According to one version, 12 Islamic preachers from Turkey came to India and went around doing Tablighi (proselytizing or conveying of Islam). When they reached a place called Gandhavaram, the locals opposed the preaching of Islam. A battle ensued and the locals killed the 12 Tablighi. The present dargah is the place where they were killed.

Another version of the origin of Bara Shahid Dargah is that it is built in the memory of 12 Muslim Nawabs from Karnataka who gave their lives who laid down their lives for the sake of peace, communal harmony and goodwill. It is believed that they lost their lives in a war some 1200 years ago and their chopped heads fell at a place at Nellore (the present location of the dargah).

According to another version, the Nawab of Arcot had summoned a regiment from Turkey to fight against the British in the year 1751, a year which marked the siege of Arcot during a series of Carnatic wars. Twelve soldiers in the regiment were highly religious and performed Namaz five times a day and observed all the rules of their faith. Though the regiment won, the 12 warriors were beheaded by the rival forces in the battle at a place called Gandavaram, 15 km from Nellore. The headless bodies were brought back on the horses they were riding to the present Dargah area in Nellore and the place became popular as Bara Shaheed Dargah because they were laid to rest at the place and a Dargah was built thereafter.

Thus, the shrine of the 12 martyrs is named ‘Bara Shaheed Dargah’. ‘Bara’ means twelve and ‘Shaheed’ means martyrs, according to the tale. Word spread about the power of the warriors to grant the desires of the devout after the wife of then Arcot Nawab was cured of a serious illness when she offered prayers at the tombs of the 12 warriors.



As a token of reverence, the queen, along with the Nawab, distributed Rotis among the warriors and later to the locals and devotees throng the Dargah on the 12th day of the Muharram month. Offering rotis during the Muharram month has become a tradition since then.

Based on the desire of the devotees, the rotis are named Sowbhagya (good fortune) roti, Vidya (education) roti, Udyoga (employment) roti, Vivaha (marriage) roti, Santana (children) roti, Dhana (money) roti and even Visa roti. The roti vendors make a fast buck by catering to specific requirements. The exchange of Rotis takes place at the Nellore tank, also known as ‘Swarnala Cheruvu’, located close to the dargah.


The celebration of Roti festival the day after the Moharrum festival, the association of Arcot Nawabs with this shrine and the tradition of 12 martyrs of Shia Islam lend strength to the Shia origins of this shrine. The Arcot Nawabs belonged to three successive and different lineages: Zulfikar Khan and Daud Khan Panni, the original appointees of Aurangzeb, followed by the Nawayati Nawabs. In the 1740s, the Wallajah line of Nawabs came into being. The early Nawabs were followers of Shia branch of Islam and the latter were followers of Sunni Islam.

The history of Muharram:

The Battle of Karbala  was fought on 10 October 680  A.C.E  (10 Muharram in the year 61 AH of the Islamic calendar) between the army of the second Umayyad Caliph Yazid I and a small army led by Husayn ibn Ali, the grandson of the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, at Karbala in modern-day Iraq.

The humiliation of Imam Hussain and others after the Battle of Karbala:

According to Shia chronicles of the battle of Karbala, Hussain fell on the ground face-down and an attacker named Sinan ibn Anas stabbed and then decapitated him. Seventy or seventy-two people died on Husayn’s side,of whom about twenty were descendants of Abu Talib, the father of Ali. This included two of Husayn’s sons, six of his paternal brothers. Following the battle, Husayn’s clothes were stripped, and his sword, shoes and baggage were taken. The bodies of Husayn’s companions were decapitated. The members of the Banu Asad tribe, from the nearby village of Ghadiriya, buried the headless bodies of Husayn’s companions.

The members of the family of Imam Husain were taken as prisoners of war, put in chains and were forced to match bared-footed to Kufa, and from Kufa to Damascus. It is said that several of the younger children on this journey died on the route through the harsh conditions of travel and ill treatment of the family who were paraded in several towns along the route. They were often humiliated and assaulted by bystanders. Yazid had ordered for the city to be decorated and jubilant crowds had gathered to celebrate the capture of the prisoners. The heads of Imam Hussain and his companions were put up for public display in Damascus and subjected to further humiliation. The family of  Imam Hussain were paraded in the market of Damascus. Some historians note that bystanders attacked them with rubbish stones and even hot water was thrown at the family. It is one of the most tragic chapters of Islamic history. It was never expected or even thought that such a harsh treatment would be meted out to the beloved grandson of Prophet Muhammad (SAW).

A memorial to the 12 martyrs of Shia Islam was constructed at the Emeveyye mosque in Damascus, Syria. Cloth bundles representing the heads of the martyrs are displayed inside the memorial. The beheading of the martyrs of Karbala and transportation of their severed heads to Damascus, Syria soon after the battle of Karbala in 680 A.C.E.  is converted into folklore surrounding the Bara Shahid Dargah, Nellore, Andhra Pradesh and given a local colour. The story of the heads of martyrs falling at the present location can be compared with the incidents that happened after the battle at Karbala in 680 A.C.E.


The exchange of a special type of biscuit called ‘Rot’ during Moharram is a tradition in the Indian sub-continent. The same has morphed into ‘Rottela Panduga’. Thus, it has its roots in the exchange of ‘Rot’ by devout Muslims during Moharram. Thus it is clear that the legend surrounding the Bara Shahid Dargah has close similarities to the battle of Karbala, the beheading of the martyrs. The celebration of ‘Rottela Panduga’ a day after the Mohurram mourning festival, as explained above is a clear pointer that the shrine has its origins based on events of the battle of Karbala and the 12 martyrs of Shia sect of Islam.






























– The author is Associate, Centre for South Indian Studies, Hyderabad