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Once upon a time in royal Shahjahanabad

Sohail Hashmi recalls the Diwali celebrated in Shahjahanabad and inside Delhi’s Red Fort

art and culture Updated: Oct 14, 2017 12:42 IST
Sohail Hashmi
A few decades ago, Diwali in Delhi was about lights.
A few decades ago, Diwali in Delhi was about lights. (Ravi Choudhary / HT Photo )

In these times of made-in-China multi-coloured LED lights, flickering to the digitised beat of Ganesh Aarti captured on a Chinese microchip , it is difficult to imagine the kind of Diwali that Delhiwallahs celebrated a few decades ago. Diwali was truly a festival of lights that enveloped the entire city in the pale glow of terracotta lamps. Countless small flames quivered in the moonless night turning the city into a replica of the star-lit heavens above.

We have several textual references on how many of the festivals were traditionally observed in the city that Shahjahan had built. One of the most detailed of these descriptions is about the celebration of Diwali in the city and inside the fort and it comes to us from the pen of Padma Bhushan Maheshwar Dayal.

Dayal, an administrator, social worker and author of Aalam Mein Intekhab-Dilli (The Chosen One in the World- Dilli) and two other books on Delhi, knew Delhi like the palm of his hand, coming as he did from a family with roots in Shahjahanabad that go back more than 300 years. And this is how he describes Diwali in the city of Shahjahan and inside the Red Fort in the times of the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar.

Miniature of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor. He participated in the festivals of his people irrespective of faith. (Getty Images)

“Long and short rows of glittering earthenware lamps created a stunning spectacle that one cannot find now even in villages. Those days, people lighted earthenware lamps, one seer (933 gms) mustard oil cost a few aanas (an aana was 1/16th of a rupee) and one could buy 50 small earthenware lamps for 1 aana. Only the rich could afford candles and lighting them was considered a big thing. In front of temples and on the bank of the river one could see endless lines of twinkling lights, people lighted lamps on both the Chhoti (minor) and Badi (major) Diwali, less on the former and much, much more on the latter. On Diwali night everything was lit up, wherever you looked, there were lights; the entire city was bathed in light as if it wasn’t a city but a land of magic”.

Lighting lamps on the banks of the Jamuna is now not even a memory, the Jamuna itself has become nothing more than a memory. But for a moment try to visualise Delhi without street lights; there weren’t any at that time. Delhi was just Shahjahanabad and a few scattered settlements like Mehrauli and Nizamuddin and scores of villages. Imagine a moonless night and imagine a river filled not with water hyacinth and a putrid sludge, but with clean water, teeming with fish, reflecting the stars above and the countless dots of flickering lights from the walls of Rang Mahal, Sheesh Mahal Hammam, Baradari, Jharokha-Darshan, Shah Burj, Musamman Burj all within the Red Fort; lamps placed on the terraces and on the steps of the temples and the steps leading to the ghats and from the terraces of the havelis that overlooked the city wall.

Maheshwar Dayal has also described the celebration of Diwali at the Red Fort and it makes for interesting reading.

“One of the highlights of the Diwali festivities at the fort was the ritual to weigh the king in gold and silver coins, that were distributed among the poor, (the ritual was later modified to a practice of weighing the king in a combination of 7 grains and some coins, because by the 19th century the kings had very little wealth left, the English having taken over a major part of the country). After the weighing ceremony the king would take a bath, change into ceremonial robes and take the throne; he would now accept gifts brought by his nobles. At night all the burjis (turrets) would be lighted, puffed rice and sweets made from refined sugar, traditionally made for Diwali, would be distributed among the nobility (and the retainers)”.

Lamps used to line the terraces and decorate the steps of temples leading to the Jamuna ghats. (Ravi Choudhary / HT Photo)

Talking about the inclusive traditions of the court, Dayal quotes Andrews (probably CF Andrews, a missionary who was a close friend of Mahatma Gandhi): “People from each community participated in the rituals of the other. The practice of peaceful co-existence with one’s neighbour had evolved into a fine art. The king zealously adhered to these principles all his life. He sat in the Musamman Burj and observed the rituals and fairs of both Hindus and Muslims and thus were the emotion of harmony strengthened among the people.”

Despite the fact that there is mention of the use of fire-works at the time of weddings and on the occasion of coronations, one has not come across descriptions of the use of fireworks, crackers , bombs, rockets and such other weapons of mass ignorance during Diwali. Does this perhaps suggest that we were not so callous, uncouth and uncaring a 100 or a 150 years ago?

Can we, not as nostalgia, but as sheer love for the environment, not go back to the earthenware lamps and light up the Jamuna and our homes and our streets, this coming Diwali and all other Diwalis with lights that do not hurt and for a change not fill the lungs of our children and our own with partly burnt gun powder.

Sohail Hashmi is a well-known cultural commentator of Delhi