Once a year for the last two centuries Mehrauli's phoolwalas—flower traders—prepare elaborate fans of rose and marigold to gift at a Hindu temple and a sufi dargah.
The blooms they sow into garlands are young but the work draws in the attar of the past.
This is the 197th year Delhi celebrates its annual and perhaps, most secular festival—the poetically named Phool Walon ki Sair or the walk of the flower merchants. The sair is one of the oldest surviving Mughal traditions of Delhi.
Every year, after the rains end, a procession weaves though the narrow lanes of south delhi's Village Mehrauli towards the Yogmaya Temple and the darhah of Khwaja Qutbddin Bakhtiar Kaki—holding up the pankhas of flowers as offerings.
It’s a journey that began in 1812.
That year, an overjoyed father and mother travelled southwards from the Red Fort to thank a Hindu goddess and a sufi saint for their son’s safe return.
The parents were the Mughal Emperor and Empress of India.
the first walk
In 1812, Mirza Jahangir—the younger brother of the lst Mughal Emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar—was exiled by the East India Company for firing at a British resident at Red Fort.
Jahangir was the son of Akbar Shah II who ruled Delhi from 1808-1837.
During the period of Jahangir's separation—lore says—his bereft and religious mother, the Queen Mumtaz Mahal, was visited by a dream of a Hindu Goddess—Yogmaya.
In Mehrauli exists the ancient temple of the Goddess of works and illusion. Close to this lies
a pre-mughal dargah of a sufi saint.
When the British allowed Jahangir to return, the queen, who had vowed to offer a chaadar (sheet) and masehri (net) of flowers at the dargah once her son had reached her, made the pilgrimage to Mehrauli.
A floral pankha was offered at the Hindu temple and a chaadar and masheri at the Muslim dargah.
The joy at Jahangir's return was not to be contained in one day. For seven long days the court—that had accompanied the king and queen to Mehrauli-celebrated with kushti matches and kite flying competitions during the days; quawwalis lifted the nights.
The Emperor decided to hold the festival the next year too, and after that, and after. Till today, when two centuries have come to pass.
then and now
Like in 1812, the festival spans more than the procession.
The lingering, fast-disappearing traces of another era—Dilli's kabaddi, kushti , kite flying and quawwali colour it delicately till date.
These traditions have persisted and some have evolved: for instance the pankahs or
the fans are offered not only from royalty but states of India as well.
What continues to be the heart of the festival is its openhearted embrace of faiths.
“People from all communities participate in this festival, which speaks volumes about our plural culture,” says Usha Kumar, general secretary of
the Anjuman Sair-e-Gul Faroshan, which organises the fair every year.
The locals of Mehrauli agree. “In fact, not just the traders from Mehrauli, many people from my village Fatehpur Beri too come for it," says Ashok Tanwar, a tobacco trader.