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Phool Waalo’n ki Sair: When Delhi says it with flowers

Initiated by an emperor and embraced by his people, this 19th-century festival is a living example of India’s syncretic traditions

delhi Updated: Nov 04, 2017 13:14 IST
Rana Safvi
Rana Safvi
Hindustan Times
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A procession is led by shehnai players in the Phool Walon ki Sair at India Gate on October 31, 2017. Initiated by Mughal emperor Akbar Shah II, the 19th-century fair drew inhabitants of Shahjahanabad to Mehrauli every year with the entire area from the Yogmaya temple to Bagh e Nazeer lit up, full of vendors selling jewellery, food and other trinkets. While the empire is long gone, this syncretic tradition lives on. (Sanchit Khanna / HT Photo)

Many Many moons ago, after the fall of the Mughal dynasty in 1857, the poet Ghalib had this to say about his beloved city, Delhi: ‘The existence of Delhi is dependent on many spectacles: The Red Fort, Chandni Chowk, the daily crowds at Jama Masjid, the weekly jaunt around the Jamuna bridge, the annual fair at the Phool Waalo’n ki Sair – now that these five things are gone, Delhi isn’t Delhi.’

Today, the Red Fort is a shell of its former self; Chandni Chowk is a traffic nightmare; the crowds that assembled on the steps of Jama Masjid to watch dastangoi performances, cockfights and enjoy conversations, are now composed of tourists or the faithful who go to offer prayers; and the Jamuna has receded far away.

But the Phool Waalo’n ki Sair still continues, though in a restricted form.

It was a week-long fair in which the emperor, his queens, the royal prince, princesses, nobles and inhabitants of Shahjahanabad went to Mehrauli every year. Much fun would be had by all: there were shopping stalls, diving competitions in the jharna, and swings in the mango orchards. Oil was heated in huge woks and piping hot sweets and savouries would be served; malhar or monsoon songs would be sung and dancing girls would show their moves.

The entire area from the Yogmaya temple till the Bagh e Nazeer [now Ashoka Mission] would be lit up, full of vendors selling jewellery, food or other artifacts.

Phool Waalo’n ki Sair has an interesting history: The Mughal emperor, Akbar Shah II (1808 -1837) had wanted to nominate his younger and favourite son Mirza Jahangir as his heir, instead of the eldest son [who later succeeded him as Bahadur Shah Zafar], a move that didn’t meet with the British Resident, Sir Archibald Seton’s approval. Mirza Jahangir, a hotheaded youth, mocked the Resident and later shot at him from one of the buildings in the Red Fort. Though Sir Archibald escaped the bullet, a guard got killed. Mirza Jahangir was exiled to Allahabad Fort. This caused great consternation and grief to his parents, particularly his mother, Mumtaz Mahal Begum.

She made a vow that if he came back safely she would offer a chadar at the dargah of Delhi’s great Sufi saint Hazrat Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki in Mehrauli. When Mirza Jahangir was finally released, his mother fulfilled her vow with great pomp and ceremony. When the floral canopy and chadar for the shrine were being made, the flower sellers also made a floral pankha [fan shaped banner on a pole] and offered it on the shrine. According to her vow she walked barefoot, even as flower sellers spread flowers in her path to act as a cushion.

The emperor and the queen shifted to Mehrauli for the Sair and the emperor also sent a floral offering to the nearby, ancient temple of Yogmaya Devi, Lord Krishna’s sister. Every year the emperor ensured he and his courtiers went to both the dargah and the temple. If he couldn’t go to the temple for some reason, he wouldn’t go to the dargah either.

After the fall of the Mughal empire in 1857, Phool Waalo’n ki Sair was stopped. Later, it was continued by the British Commissioner of Delhi. In 1942, during the Quit India movement, the British government put a stop to the Sair to prevent popular participation and mass gatherings. Nehru asked Yogeshwar Dayal, a businessman of Delhi, to revive the festival. In 1962, it was registered under the Societies Registration Act and Nehru attended it in 1962 as a symbol of secular, modern India. It is a unique festival that truly symbolises India’s syncretic culture. The Sair e Gul Faroshan or Phool Waalo’n ki Sair which was traditionally held in the month of Bhado’n [August/September], is now held after the monsoon.

Though the Mughal empire is no more, the tradition continues with the head of state being represented. Every year the President and Lt Governor of Delhi send a pankha which is carried in a procession from the Town Hall in Chandni Chowk to Mehrauli. On the first day, which is Thursday, a joyous procession goes to Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki’s dargah and offers floral chadars. Here it is the Hindu brethren who are supposed to take the lead.

On Friday, the procession goes to Yogmaya Temple and offers the floral chadar, this time with the Muslim brethren taking the lead.On Saturday (today), there is a cultural function at Jahaz Mahal, a building from the Lodi period which may have been built for use of pilgrims to the dargah. Cultural troupes representing the states of India come in a procession holding pankhas and perform on stage. This year, there is a qawwali performance by Rais Anees Saabri and Yusuf Malik.

DETAILS

What: Procession of pankhas, performance of cultural troupes; cultural programmes, qawwaali.

When: November 4, Performance by cultural troupes (5:30 pm); procession of pankhas (7:30 pm); prize distribution (7 45 pm); Qawwaali by Rais Anees Saabri, Yusuf Malik(8pm)

Where: Jahaaz Mahal, Mehrauli

Nearest metro station: Chhattarpur