In the mystic alleys of Delhi (II) – Phool Wallon Ki Sair

On September 27, 2008 during an act of terrorism at Sarai Bazaar, Mehrauli less than two Kms away from the famous Qutub Minaar, a small boy Santosh, in an endeavour to help the passer by motor cyclist, lost his life and some others were seriously injured. As a homage to Santosh and to pray for the speedy recovery of the badly injured persons, I decided to write this post, as the Sarai Bazaar is very closely located to the focal point of the annual festivities called “Phoolwalon Ki Sair” which are held every year, after the monsoon has washed away the heat and dust of the summer.


Qutub Minaar, Mehrauli

Before starting to write about the two centuries old tradition of taking out the procession, it would be appropriate to add a few words about the background of this legendary tradition.


Phool Walon Ki Sair

The origin of Phool Waalon Ki Sair goes to the age of history during the reign of the Mughal King Akbar Shah II (1808-1837). The king not being very happy with his eldest son Siraj Uddin “Zafar”, wished to nominate his younger son Mirza Jahangir as the heir apparent (Wali-Ahad). This move didn’t meet the approval of the then British Resident in the Red Fort, Sir Archibald Seton, owing to the fact that Mirza Jahangir who was a reckless youth of nineteen had insulted Seton in the open court and called him “loolu” (dumbo). The British Resident somehow did not react to this insult as probably he did not understand the meaning of loolu. On another occasion when, Archibald Seton was coming from the Darbar after an audience with the emperor, Mirza Jahangir fired a shot at him from the roof of Naubat Khana of Red Fort. Seton escaped but his orderly was killed. For this act of his, Mirza Jahangir was exiled to Allahabad under orders of the British Resident.


Dargah Of Hazrat Qutub-ud-Din

The grieving queen of Akbar Shah II took a vow that if her exiled son was allowed to return to Delhi, she would make an offering of a four-poster flower bed at the holy shrine of Khwaja Qutubddin Bakhtiyar Kaki at Mehrauli. When the British finally relented after a while, the devout queen went to the Dargah at Mehrauli and kept her promise by offering an exquisite flower canopy. To this the local flower sellers added an intricate flower pankha, which was then carried in a huge procession to the saint’s mausoleum. It is believed that the royal court along with the entire population of Delhi also moved to Mehrauli. For seven days all sorts of merrymaking continued at Mehrauli with Jhoolas (swings) in the mango groves, cock fighting and bull bailing, kite flying, wrestling and swimming bouts. Amidst all the merrymaking with great pomp and show, the “chadar” was offered at the Dargah. The Mughal king was secular minded and under his orders floral offering in the shape of a floral pankha was offered at the famous temple of Devi Yogmaya which is also located in Mehrauli, less than half a Km away from the famous Qutub Minaar.


Yog Maya Temple

Considering the response of the citizens and sensing the enthusiasm generated, it was decided by the Royal Court of Akbar Shah that the festival be held annually after the rains and people of all the communities would offer pankha and chadar at the Dargah of Khwaja Bakhtyar Kaki and pankha and floral offerings at the Devi Yog Maya temple. The Royal Court was also shifted to Mehrauli for the seven days of the festivities.

In the sultanate days, the emperors used to visit both the mausoleum of Khwaza Qutabuddin Bakhtiyar and the Yog Maya Mandir. This was a great act of secularism at that time. The tradition was continued by the common Hindus and Muslims. Poets like Mirza Ghalib also promoted this trend through his epistles to close friends.

Phool Walon-ki-Sair became an annual celebration and something that the people looked forward to every year in the months following the monsoon. It is believed that the tradition reached its pinnacle during the reign of Siraj-U-din “Zafar”, the last Mughal emperor commonly known as Bahadur Shah “Zafar”. The emperor was so much obsessed with the “Phool Waalon Ki Sair” that even in 1857 when Delhi was under the siege of the British, he went ahead with the festivities.

The last Sair of the Mughals

In the year 1857 when the rains came, so came the date of holding of the Phool Waalon Ki Saair. Bahadur Shah Zafar along with Zeenat Mahal and Mirza Jawan Bakht left in a procession for Mehrauli via Lahori Gate and Chandni Chowk. They had a brief halt at Ballimaran and proceeded via Begum Fatehpuri Mosque to Lal Kuan, the residence of the father of Zeenat Mahal, Asad Quli Khan. The entourage then passed through Hauz Qazi, where the residents of that area, mostly the dancing girls showered flowers and silver coins over the Emperor and proceeded to Mehrauli via Ajmeri Gate, Jantar Mantar, Talkatora Garden and reached Safdarjung. The next break was at Yusuf Sarai and the procession reached Mehrauli at dusk. The emperor stayed at Jahaaj Mahal for three days free from all the worries and listening to the soul stirring sufiyaana kalaam (sufi music) at the Dargah. This was the last “Phool Waalon Ki Sair” under the Mughals.


Jahaaj Mahal

He came back via Delhi Gate and Faiz bazaar, not knowing that very shortly he would be brought back through the same route like a prisoner.

The annual celebrations continued even after 1857 under the auspices of the British Deputy commissioner, who was the highest government functionary in Delhi, with the help of some of the prominent citizens. Sensing the mood of the public during the “Quit India” movement led by Mahatma Gandhi in 1942 and in pursuance to their policy of “Divide and Rule”, the Governor ordered discontinuance of such festivities.


Outer wall of the temple

The tradition was revived in 1962 by the then Prime Minister of India, Pandit Jawahar Lal Nehru, who took great interest in this tradition and came to Mehrauli on every “Phool Waalon Ki Sair” as long as he lived. The job of revival was entrusted to one of the prominent personalities of Delhi, Shri Yogeshwar Dayal, who carried on this noble tradition until his demise in 2006. For his great contribution towards this national cause, he was awarded the coveted title of “Padmashri” in January, 1969. After his death, the charge of conducting these festivities was taken over by Ms. Usha Kumar. I had the honour of meeting her and she was indeed very kind to give me a detailed account of the festivities and also provided me the photographs of presentation of pankhas to the dignitaries.

The festival is organized under the auspices of Anjuman Sair-e-Gul Faroshan, a registered society. Considering the time consuming efforts required, the society starts making preparations for the event from May onwards.

Thus, what began as a muslim woman’s obeisance in gratitude at the shrine of a muslim saint, has over the centuries, become an occasion of pilgrimage and celebration for the whole of the city, transcending the barriers of community and class.

Phool Waalon Ki Sair -2008

This year, the three days festival started on October 23, 2008. In the morning some of the members of the Anjuman Sair-e-Gul Faroshan called on the President of India, who was escorted to the meeting hall with shehnai and dhol-tashe in the true Delhi Tradition and was presented a “pankha”. Madame President wished success to this noble endeavour.


Floral Pankha being presented to the President of India

The festival started with the notes of shehnai announcing the beginning of the “Phool Waalon Ki Sair” at 6, Raj Niwas Marg, the residence of the Lt. Governor of Delhi. A floral pankha was presented to him. From there the members proceeded for the Office of the Divisional Commissioner, which was followed by visit to the Delhi Secretariat to meet the Chief Minister of Delhi. The last destination of the entourage was the Town Hall in Chandni Chowk. The Mayor of Delhi, Ms. Arti Mehra being out of the country, they were received by the Dy. Mayor. Shehnai was played at the Town Hall to herald the festival dastaarbandhi of the Dy. Mayor.


Lt. Governor offering a chadar at the Dargah

This was followed by offering of prayers at the Dargah of Hazrat Qutubuddin by the citizens of Delhi led by the Lt. Governor of Delhi. The event opened with the recital of the shehnai (an Indian musical instrument). The entire compound of the Dargah was decorated with flowers. The Lt. Governor went inside the Dargah with the chadar which was offered at the shrine with utmost devotion. After this the Lt. Governor addressed the gathering and spoke about the teachings of the Sufi Saint, Hazrat Qutubuddin Bakhtyar Kaki. Qawwalis were sung in praise of the almighty.

On the second day i.e. October 24th the citizens of Delhi gathered at the Yog Maya Temple and a “Chattra” made of flowers and the floral pankha was offered at the temple by Shri Farhad Suri. A beautiful programme of dances and devotional music was presented by the artists of the Song and Drama Division. Odissi dances were performed by the students of one of the schools in Delhi.


Muslim leaders offering Chhatra and Pankha at the temple.

At these shrines, the flower sellers also pray for a good harvest of flowers during the next year. In the procession, flower pankhas (hand fans) were also taken through the streets. Phul Walon ki Sair of Delhi is one of the few festivals that are celebrated by both the hindus as well as the muslims in perfect harmony. You would have probably noticed that the Chadar and the floral pankhas were offered by the hindus at the Dargah, while at the Yog Maya Temple the Pankhas and Chhatra were offered by a muslim. What could be a better example of the Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb, which means the two sacred rivers, the Ganga and the Jamuna which stand for Hindus and Muslims, flowing side by side i.e. coexisting together peacefully.

Thanks to my association with the Banking Sector, I met Jaspal Singh Taneja, the landlord of the premises of one of the ATMs of ICICI Bank in Mehrauli. Jaspal, who was born and brought up at Mehrauli, close to the vicinity of the Dargah, very kindly agreed to show me around the area.

Jaspal told me that the Hindus and the Muslims both celebrate this festival with equal reverence.


Inside the Dargah

I was told that muslims come from distant places on pilgrimage to Khwaja Qutubuddin’s tomb. He succeeded Hazrat Muenuddin of Ajmer as the head of the Chishtiya order of the Sufis. People still tie colored threads on the trellis-work of the dargah to beg favors of the saint. On his death anniversary, qawwalis are sung and the poors are fed. The village boys entertain visitors by jumping into an adjoining bauli (well) from seemingly dizzy heights.

Passing through the crowded alleys, we reached Jahaj Mahal, which is the focal point of the celebrations. Jahaz Mahal (ship palace) was built by the Lodhis on the banks of the Shamsi Talab (once a large pool) at the end of the Mehrauli Bazaar. I was told that the Talab was built by Shamsuddin Altamash and originally covered an area of around 100 acres of land and was lined all around with red sandstone. Unfortunately, none of the stones now remain and the pool has considerably silted up, as a result of which except during the rains, there is hardly any water in the Talab. Not far from there, behind the tomb of Adham Khan (Emperor Akbar’s foster brother), stands the temple of Yog Maya, after which the area was once known as Yoginipura.


Shamsi Pool

As mentioned above, on the first day floral tributes were paid at the Dargah and on the second day at the Temple. The second day was also a “Mela Day”, with lots of fun and frolic at the large park on the southern side of the monument. Though a couple of giant wheels were the main attraction for the children and youngsters clad in the festive dresses, the Chaat shops, put in by some of the known names from the walled city area also had a field day. The bangle sellers, the salwar kameej shops, the decorative mehndi shops were all doing brisk work. On the roads leading to the fair park, we could see the Shenaiwallahs playing the shehnai and welcoming the visitors. Lots of fireworks were also seen. The whole atmosphere was that of fun and gaiety, with qawwalis and kathak dances being performed on the streets.


The Pankhas

The evening of October 25th was the day of cultural activities at the flower decked Jahaaj Mahal, where a huge stage was set up. The function started with the presentation of flower bouquets to the dignitaries followed by a shehnai recital. The cultural troupes from the various states performed some exciting dances, after which the Song and Drama Division also presented a programme of dance and music. The popular Dandiya Raas was also performed. The highlight of the evening was the singing of qawwalis by Aftab-Hashmi Brothers and another famous artist, Sangeeta Bhonsle. For want of space some of the spectators were seen on the tree tops and the adjoining buildings. The programme went on till the early hours of the morning. The arrangements made by the police were excellent and the credit also goes to the volunteers, who controlled the gathering patiently.


Performance of a Dance Drama

Jaspal believes that over the years the communal bonding has strengthened immensely and the festivities remain unaffected by the separatist activities. Undoubtedly, the recent blast in the Saraai Bazaar area may have left deep scars in the lives of locals, but what remains intact is the inter-religion bonding.


Paintings of the martyrs

Jaspal also showed me the historical Gurudwara Baba Banda Singh Bahadur, the famous martyr of the eighteenth century, who laid down not only his life but also sacrificed his two sons for the sake of the “Panth”. I will endeavour to write about this valiant soldier shortly.

Thank you for being with me on this journey to Mehrauli.

28 Comments

  • Patrick Jones says:

    Wah! Ram Wah!

    I was transported to 19th century Delhi and was walking with the procession but it ended all on a sudden and Im back in 2008.

    It gives immense joy reading about such wonderful festivities jointly celebrated by different communities.

    The photograph of Qutub Minar represents the gloomy side of the modern day atmosphere, literally and figuratively.

    Can’t wait to read about the Sikh martyr.

  • nandanjha says:

    Its getting difficult to write a worthy comment for your posts. I would chose to remain frugal this time

    Jai Shree Ram

  • Alok says:

    Dear Uncle,

    This is a detailed and an apt description of the festivities. Though started on a sad note, it reflects the happiness, which the festivities bring into our life. It truely is a tribute to the little Santosh.

    God bless you.

  • Subhash Gupta says:

    Dear Ram,

    The post revived memories of the joint family system which existed in old Delhi where all communities lived together participating whole heartedly in each other’s functions of joy and in the times of sorrow. We both have good memories of our families in old Delhi, which we used to and still remember as culture of Delhi 6. Alas this has slowly faded away (or fading away) with the time.

    But the good thing is that we still have festivities like “Phool Walon Ki Sair” (though held for only 3 days in a year) to remind us and bond the communities. Your post is timely and a reminder to revive the old traditions / systems which would bring immense peace among all of us.

    As usual extremely well written post. Congratulations!!!!

    Awaiting for more to come.

    Subhash

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Patrick,

    Your sweet and heart warming words always provide me strength and energy in my endeavour to do still better.

    I would try to write a post on Banda Singh Bahadur soonest.

    May God be with you.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Alok,

    I am deeply touched by your kind words.

    Please do keep on visiting us and remain in touch.

    Thanks and God’s blessings.

    Nandan,

    Thanks. I am glad that the post was to your satisfaction. And as Harshit used to say “Jai Shri Hanuman”.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Subhash Bhai,

    Your remarks are always very heart warming and encouraging.

    Yes, the good old days Of “Delhi-6” are slowly fading away. I still remember Haji ji’s daughters living next door tying Rakhee on our wrists with the same fondness as of our own sisters. Diwali and Id were celebrated in the same fervor and gaiety. You have lived in the thick of the things and can feel my emotions.

    Where is the place for hatred and animosity in a country like ours, which stands at No. 66 (out of hunger index of 81 countries)!!!. We all have to strive hard to provide meals and drinking water to them first.

    Incidentally, Delhi is not the same city after your migrating to Hyderabad. Needless to say that we all miss you immensely.

  • Sudhir says:

    I am speechless !!!

    It touched a chord in me somewhere and reminded me about Kashmir where we used to celebrate all the festivals together……

  • JATINDER SETHI says:

    Your title Mystic Alleys of Delhi seems so appropriate as I was roaming around Jama Masjid and the old lanes like Kinari Bazarsight upto Hauz Qazi, and was reminded of the big processions of the Mughal kings and the British Residents, on elephants and horses passsing thro these mystic alleys,as described by William Dalrymple in his The Last Mughal and the White Mughals. But your post transports the reader right amidst the procession of Zafar(like a Time Machine) and the reader is almost a participant. Great. I dont know whether I can write correct Roman but I will try what Galib said “HAIN AUR BHI DUNIYAN MEIN SUKHANWER BHAUT ACCHEY,–KEHTAYN HAIN KAY GALIB KA HAI ANDAZ_E_BIYAN AUR>”
    As Nandan said”not enough words to praise.JATINDER

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Sudhir,

    I can very well understand your sentiments.

    Prior to the outburst of insurgency, the relations between the two communities in the Kashmir valley were very cordial, probably due to the same language, same traditions, similar eating habits and almost similar style of living. Obviously, participation in each other’s festivities was very common. Alas, a few persons, for their petty personal reasons, don’t mind putting a divide in the hearts of two brethren. Hopefully, the good sense would prevail and the good old days will be back soon.

  • lakshmi says:

    You had me transported for a moment..its amazing how much we learn from each other’s posts

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Lakshmi,

    Thanks for your one-liner, which says it all.

    I am feeling elated.

    God bless you.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Jatinder,

    I am deeply touched and overwhelmed by your very kind words, perhaps to the extent that I am not in a position to find appropriate words to express my very humble and heartfelt gratitude.

    Please do keep on encouraging us.

  • Sanjay Gupta says:

    Dear Ram Sir,

    A wonderful write up about a festival which reminds us of the bonmomie and camaredrie enjoyed by hindus and muslims .

    Also , it is an excellent effort to educate some of us Delhi-ites , who have been living in this city for many years , but have been totally ignorant of the history , as well as the rationale behind this ” phoolwalon ki sair “. Till I read your post , to me Mehrauli was nothing more than a down town market , with shops in small by-lanes , meant for buying and selling cheap products. But your post has been an eye opener for ignoramus like me , not realizing the wealth of rich heritage existing in these ” mystic alleys of Delhi ” .

    Hats off to you , for not only your writing prowess, but also for your zeal to familiarise fellow citizens of rich cultural and religious heritage of this city. Mentioning the tragedy that had befallen family of Santosh shows the human side of your personality.

    Keep up the good work , maybe on a bigger canvas, bcoz God has chosen you to be the blessed one with this ” gift of writing ” for efforts like these , especially in today’s troubled times.

    Sanjay Gupta

  • Subash Kapor says:

    Your narrative is like a great movie story which spell bound its audience. From the tribute to Santosh (May God rest his soul in peace), moving to mughals and ending up with the present day festivities— its all there to excite us to read more from you. Your articles have generated interest as well as curiosity. Due to this reason, I had decided to show such places to my grand daughters. I have already covered the area of Chandni chowk. Insha Allah, next stop would be Mehrauli. Waiting eagerly for your next article.

  • Celine says:

    Dear Ram,

    Fabulous!
    Your reference to Ganga-Jamuni Tehzeeb could not have come at a better time when inter-religious bonding to continue is the need of the hour.

    Very interesting to read about the significance of Phool Walon Ki Sair and the history associated with it. And it includes details of one of my favourite topics, the Mughals. It is fascinating to read about the harmonious celebration in the city that surpasses the barriers of religion, class and community. Thank you for a great post that brought forth a myriad of feelings from within. Well done, and please do continue writing.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Sanjay ji,

    I am indeed very thankful to you not only for your warm words, but also for your whole hearted efforts in introducing me to Ms. Usha Kumar, General Secretary, Anjuman Sair-e-Gul Faroshan and Jaspal Singh Taneja, who were kind enough to provide me the whole lot of information, without which my humble submission couldn’t have been completed.

    Thank you very much.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Celine,

    As usual, your kind and generous words give me unbounded encouragement to do something better.

    I am happy that the post was to your satisfaction.

    Thanks and God’s blessings.

  • manish khamesra says:

    I am time and again reminded about a short story I read in our textbook, about a sage and a dacoit. The sage had a horse and one day dacoit, took it away after begging for a ride with him (deceiving as a poor man). The sage told him, you can take the horse, but don’t take it in this manner or else no-one will ever give lift to anyone needy.

    I wish that those who don’t mind looting or cheating others, never do so, with people who came to help in all their good intentions. What can be a sad and more cruel than having an honest young child killed like this.

    There was an interesting observation in how this festival started: This festival started with Akbar Shah II’s younger son’s return to delhi and the festival continued to thrive under the elder son (Bahadur Shah Zafar). Who seemingly got the throne in the end. Am I right in my observation ?

    ———————————
    Where is the place for hatred and animosity in a country like ours, which stands at No. 66 (out of hunger index of 81 countries)!!!. We all have to strive hard to provide meals and drinking water to them first.
    ———————————
    You are so right in your above quoted lines. We want an India with no hatred. Religion should teach love & only love, but surprisingly its fanatic followers keep on fighting about it, for it, without realizing that for HIM the dearest soul will be the one which is very pure – devoid of any vices – most important being the love for everyone – whatever be their way of worshipping.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Manish,

    I am overwhelmed by your very kind words, perhaps to the extent of speechlessness.

    Your observation is very correct. As I have said in my post that what began as a muslim womans obeisance in gratitude at the shrine of a muslim saint, has over the centuries, become an occasion of pilgrimage and celebration. The tradition started basically with the grieving queen expressing her family’s gratitude for the safe homecoming of her younger son -Mirza Jahangir. The tradition came to its pinnacle during the reign of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the elder son, who became the emperor.

    I am also in total agreement with what you have said about Allama Iqbal’s famous poem ” Majhab Nahin Sikhataa, Aapas mein bair rakhna”.

    Thanks and warm regards.

  • Mahesh Semwal says:

    Dear Ram Sir,

    WOWWWWW, Awesome.

    You are one of my favorite writer, I have to learn a lot from you that to start & end a story to maintain the interest of a reader.

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Dear Mahesh,

    I am indeed very grateful for your very kind words.

    Getting such an applause from a person like you, is an honour.

    God bless you.

  • Tarun says:

    Ram Sir,

    I read about this Sair every year in the papers but never realized its significance till I read your post. I will definitely visit Mehrauli for the Sair this year.

    On another note, yes, we still have problems but the society seems to be changing for better and people are more accepting of each other than they were perhaps 20, 50 or 100 years ago.

    Thanks for the wonderful post.

    Tarun

  • Hansini says:

    namaste taayaji..
    i am sorry i could not be in touch after that as we were in the process of shifting..
    finally got internet connection..this is such a detailed description about our festivities…thogh i myself have never been to the Sair,but while reading this,it was as if i was already present there….

    Although i myself have never stayed in a joint family…due to papa’s profession but have heard alot about what a great way it is to stay,from both mom and dad…your articles and notes are just like a movie…for they keep the reader so interested and engrossed…till the very end..:)
    your posts are beautiful taayaji..
    Hansini.

  • I agreed with Mahesh .. Ram sir is just awesome . I can’t stop my self to reading all your post :)

  • Ram Dhall says:

    Thanks for your kind words.

  • Differentgate says:

    Wow, wow, wow!! Stunning pictures and nice write-up.
    How is your wrist now? Hope you give it some rest before your next adventure.
    Your blog is a very good travelogue.

  • Different says:

    Wow, wow, wow!! Stunning pictures and nice write-up.
    How is your wrist now? Hope you give it some rest before your next adventure.
    Your blog is a very good travelogue.

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