Kaleem Kawaja


The last Moghul Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar allowed his Hindu ministers to smear his forehead with gulal on Holi every year. He believed that his religion would not be affected by this social ritual and was sure that God would redeem him for he had not broken the heart of his subjects. That, in fact, is the true spirit of Islam that one should not hurt the feelings of the followers of other faiths.


This enlightened spirit percolated in the Moghuls right from the time of the greatest Moghul Emperor, Akbar. Even Jahangir is shown holding Mehfil-e-Holi in `Tuzuk-e-Jahangiri’. Many artists, especially Govardhan and Rasik have shown Jahangir playing Holi with Noorjahan, his wife. Mohammed Shah Rangila is shown running around the palace with his wife running after him with a pichkari. During Shahjahan’s tenure of Delhi, Holi was known as Id-e-Gulabi — Pink Id — or Aab-e-Pashi — Shower of Colorful Flowers.


Holi symbolizes the commencement of a new year with a wonderful rabi harvest along with a nice weather and refreshing air. The Umarahs, the Rajahs and the Nawabs all exchanged rose-water bottles and sprinkled on each other along with the frenzied drumming of the nagaras. More color to Holi is added as it falls near the Muslim festival of Id-ul-Fitr for both the occasions follow the lunar calendar. Who says Holi is a Hindu festival, asks Munshi Zakaullah in his book `Tarikh-e-Hindustani’. Zakullah writes that the carnival of Holi lasted for many days during which people, irrespective of their caste, creed or any other religious or social distinction, forgot their restraints and joined in the festivity.


The poorest of the poor used to sprinkle color on the Emperor. `Jam-e-Jahanuma’, an Urdu daily, wrote in 1844 that during the days of the Moghul Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, special arrangements were made for Holi festivities. Groups of people used to dance around singing Horis and indulging in a lot of fun some time even at the cost of the princes and princesses and that day it was not a punishable act but the one to berewarded. Special groups of jokers used to sing songs around the Holi fires but it was all taken in a sporting spirit. The major part of this ceremony used to be the sprinkling of yellow color deftly prepared by the Tesu ke Phool — flowers producing yellow dye — squirted with the help of syringes of various forms and kinds made of metal, glass and wood. There also used to be the snowballing of red and yellow color even on the king who too defended and attacked as per opportunity.


`Tehzib-ul- Akhlaq’ mentions in 1855 how the king got his forehead smeared with color. In a very amusing manner Mirza Sangi Baig in `Sair-ul-Manazil’ narrates that the frolicking Holi groups were alternately powdered and drenched till the floor had been covered with a swamp of crimson, yellow andorange color. A real color-riot used to be witnessed when the dancing girls, bedecked with a lot of jewellery on their person, used to go past the ramparts of the Red Fort with the veiled princesses being ecstatic at thesight of the libertinism of Holi songs and the classical dance. They used to sing Bahadur Shah Zafar’s song: “Kyon mo pe mari rang ki pichkari, Dekho kunwarji doon gi gari!” During the Holi mela there used to be exclusive groups of singers indulging in mischief using the musical instruments like the chang, naphiri, muchang, daphli, mridang, dhamdhami and dholak. Most of these Holi songs were sung in the havelis and the lobbies of the rich people. Some of these groups were also known as Kufr Kachehris – mock courts. Some boys even became copy-cats by miming the Brown Sahibs wearing old, patched and stinking suits along with rotten ties.


Urdu poetry occupies a special place so far so Holi’s colorful ceremonies are concerned. Greatest work on Holi has been compiled during the 17th and 18th Centuries in Persian and Urdu. It was Qateel’s `Haft Tamasha’ in Persian that actually contained the sharpest tinge of Holi. Quli Qutab Shah, a renowned South Indian poet, remarkably wrote about Holi in his inimitable Hyderabadi Urdu style describing the festival of colors in Braj and Bundelkhand. Fayeez Dehlvi of Shahjahanabad wrote pleasing verse on the celebrations. Wajid Sehri, a Delhi poet, mentions how Akbar Mahabali used to have many colorful ponds to enjoy a Holi dip. According to Wajid, Nazir Akbarabadi has been matchless in the description of Holi for his couplets used to cast a mesmerising spell on the listeners. Equally enjoyable are the poems of Mir Taqi Mir who joined the court of Nawab Asaf-ud-Daulah and wrote in praise of Jashne-e-Holi of his durbar. Besides, Bahadur Shah Zafar’s Holi Phags have been sung even today. Other poets like Khwaja Haider Ali Aatish,  Insha and Taban too have written marvellous Holi songs. The children in Delhi’s Walled City had their own pranks. Some of them used to hide on trees and with a hook attached to a string, they used to lift the Dupalli cap of any passer-by who never got it back until he feasted them with halwa, a delectable sweet dish. `Asad-ul-Akhbar’ wrote in 1870 that in the localities of Delhi, children used to go to each and every house to collect money for the burning of Holi. Lala Hardhian Singh of Chandni Chawk held Holi-Id milans from 1893 to 1998. Today the same traditional meetings are conducted by Brij Bhushan Sharan, the President of the Chandni Chawk Mercantile Association and the National Club. Hamdard’s Hakim Abdul Hameed too used to hold an annual Holi-Id Milan at New Delhi’s Malcha Marg.

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