13 November 2018. 3 PM. It is a beautiful afternoon with enough clouds to soften the sun. Delhi’s pollution doesn’t seem very harsh either. Walking towards the India Gate on Rajpath, you see a line of barricades, which is not usually there. Spread out on the left-hand side pavement are fans, kind of like the big hand-held fans from the medieval era swayed by two courtiers on either side of the king. On them is written “Phool Waalon Ki Sair 2018”, with two photos below: the first one, an image of the Hindu goddess Durga, next to a photograph of the Green Dome at Medina, which houses the grave of Prophet Mohammed.
Before you even turn to the front, you hear drums, along with the murmurings of the crowd. You turn, and there is a bright splash of yellow moving amidst the crowd. Drawing closer, you see a band of old men playing the drums in sync and dancing with dandiya, dressed in bright yellow.
You are not quite done appreciating this tableau when another sound elsewhere beckons. Follow the strains of shehnai and you reach another band up ahead! These men add another visual and auditory element with their red turbans, cream coloured sherwanis and shehnais. The music from these two bands comes together, even as another set of people picks up those fans mentioned above and themselves fan out in a semi-circular formation. Then the procession begins, with white-clad nagada drummers leading, followed by the drummers and dandiya players in yellow, then the shehnai players, and then finally the fan-bearers. The procession gradually moves around the India Gate, all the while stopping at intervals to play newer tunes and engage the crowd with different theatrics. There is an occasional shower of rose petals. Everything looks very colourful and visually appealing. This is proven by the curious onlookers who cannot help but be drawn to the festivities.
The scene described above is from a day in the week-long festival of “Phool Waalon Ki Sair”. This event traces its history to the late Mughal Period when emperor Akbar Shah II(1808 to 1837) picked his son Mirza Jahangir as his heir, rather than his elder son Sirajuddin 'Zafar'. India was under the British colonial rule at that time. The British resident in the Mughal Court, Sir Archibald Seton, was not happy with Akbar Shah’s decision because Mirza Jahangir was an insolent young man who had insulted Seton in the royal court. A few days later, Mirza Jahangir was frolicking on a rooftop when he saw Seton passing from below. The former fired a shot at the latter. Seton barely managed to escape and one of his orderlies got killed. Incensed by this, Seton exiled Mirza Jahangir to Allahabad.
Distraught by her son’s absence, Mirza’s mom, Mumtaz Mahal Begum vowed that if her son were to be allowed to come back to Delhi, she would offer a chaddar at Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki’s dargah at Mehrauli. Her son did return after two years. Mumtaz Mahal Begum went to offer the chaddar at the dargah and the whole court moved to Mehrauli with her for a week. People celebrated with games like wrestling, cockfighting, kite flying and others. Considering that it brought together people from different faiths and communities, the secular-minded king ordered for a flower pankha (fan) and chhatra (canopy) to be offered at the ancient Jogmaya Temple, also in Mehrauli.
After this, the event came to be celebrated every year, becoming a symbol of communal harmony. Bahadur Shah Zafar was the last Mughal king to celebrate it in 1857. However, the tradition was continued by the British Deputy Commissioner until the Quit India Movement in 1942 when the British stopped it under their Divide and Rule Policy.
After independence, in about 1962, India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru revived Phool Waalon Ki Sair. After its revival, the festival has been organised every year by "Anjuman Sair-e-Gul Faroshan", a society registered under the Societies Registration Act, enjoying the patronage of Delhi’s former Lt. Governor Najeeb Jung.
Today, Phool Waalon Ki Sair remains an iconic festival of Delhi. The annual week-long festivities range from processions, offerings at the temple and the dargah to qawwalis, wrestling, dancing and kite flying. Members of both the Hindu and Muslim communities also visit the Delhi’s Lt. Governor and Mayor, as well as India’s President and Vice President to seek their blessings and to invite them to the festival. This event is a beautiful example of Delhi’s living history.
4 PM. On the way back, another colourful sight treated the eyes. It was also the day of the Chhat Puja festival. People populated the banks of the water tanks surrounding the India Gate and began their prayers and customs.