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Phool Walon Ki Sair

Every year after the monsoons have washed away the heat and the dust of summer, a colourful procession—Phoolwalon ki Sair or the festival of flower-sellers winds it way down the flower-sellers’ promenade in Mehrauli. Led by shehnai players and dancers, it moves from the temple of jog Maya through the Mehrauli Bazaar to place curtains made of flowers on the tomb of Saint Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki. This is one of the few festivals in which both Hindus and Muslims participate with equal fervour. Watch out for it this year in October.

Phoolwalon Ki Sair, a three-day festival, is observed by practically everyone in Mehrauli. It is celebrated simultaneously at the dargah of Khwaja Bakhtiyar Kaki and at the ancient shrine of Devi Jog Maya. Floral tributes are offered at both places. Kathak dances, qawwalis, a blaze of lights, huge pankhas (fans) made of palm leaves, decorated with tinsel and flowers, and acrobats delight a vast audience. A huge procession, led by fire dancers, takes the flower pankhas through the streets of Mehrauli.

The cultural programme takes place at jahaz Mahal (ship palace) built by the Lodhis on the banks of Shamsi Talab (once a large pool) at the end of the Mehrauli Bazar. Behind Adham Khan’s (Emperor Akbar’s foster brother) tomb, stands the temple of Jog Maya, after which Delhi was once known as Yoginipura. Nothing remains of this temple except the name and the stone idol.

Muslims come from distant lands on pilgrimage to Kaki’s Tomb. Kaki or Qutub sahib earned the sobriquet Kaki because during his long hours of meditation, he sometimes forgot to eat and had to be fed with cakes—kaki. He succeeded Muenuddin of Ajmer as head of the chishtiya order of Sufis. People still tie colored strings to the trellis-work to beg favours of the saint. On his death anniversary qawwalis are sung and the poor are fed. Village boys entertain visitors by jumping into an adjoining bauli (well) from seemingly dizzy heights.

But how did Phoolwalon ki Sair begins? It goes to the days of the Mughal Emperor Akbar Shah 11in the 19th century. However, the festival’s popularity reached its peak during Bahadur Shah Zajar’s reign. Zafar was the prince chosen by the British to succeed Akbar
Shah 11. But the latter was persuaded by his favourite Queen, Mumtaz Mahal to change his decision in favour of her son, Mirza Jahangir. The British did not agree. Mirza Jahangir was a spirited but spoilt boy who, to show his resentment against the British, took a shot at the British Resident, Seton. The attempt failed, Seton’s hat was merely knocked off, but the British annoyed with Mirza Jahangir, exiled him to Allahabad. His grieving mother then took a vow that if her son were allowed to return to Delhi, she would make an offering of a four-poster flower bed at the holy shrine of Khwaja Bakhtiyar Kaki at Mehrauli.

After some time, the British agreed to Mirza Jahangir’s return to Delhi but only after the King had guaranteed his good behaviour and agreed not to question Zafar’s status as heir apparent. Mirza Jahangir returned amidst great fanfare. Mumtaz began elaborate preparations to fulfill her vow. A beautiful flower canopy was created to which flower-sellers added an elaborate flower pankha at their own cost. Both these were then ceremoniously carried in a large procession to the saint’s tomb.

Mirza Jahangir, an incurable alcoholic, did not change his ways. He was exiled again and finally died in Allahabad at the age of 31.But the pilgrimage of the court and the people of Delhi to Mehrauli became an annual event.

The King, Queen and their court would leave Delhi in palanquins a few days before the festival. They visited Humayun, Safdar Jung, the tombs of Nizamuddin Aulia where they lunched, then moved on to Mehrauli to accredit a reception. The Jahaz Mahal, near the dargah of Khwaja Bakhtiyar Kaki, now in ruins, but then in all the glory of a royal palace, was richly decorated with carpets and chandeliers. The King went to the Jharna (a beautiful garden with cascades and fountains built by Feroz shah Tughlaq) the next day—where, in the seclusion of kanats and curtains, the court ladies relaxed. When there was a light drizzle, the royal party moved to the Amarian, a mango grove to the east of the Jhama and a beautiful picnic spot. Here the delicacies of the season were prepared by the royal ladies themselves.

On the first day of the festival, the procession of fans and flowers started from the Jharna with musicians, athletes demonstrating sports and fencing, and soldiers in their colourful uniforms. It passed through the brilliantly lit Mehrauli Bazar to Jog Maya Mandir. The next day, another elaborate procession owing its way to the tomb of Khwaja Bakhtiyar Kaki.

What began, as a Muslim Woman’s obeisance in gratitude at the shrine of a Muslim saint became an occasion of pilgrimage and celebration for the whole city, transcending barriers of community and class. The King went both to the tomb of Khwaja Bakhtiyar and to the Jog Maya Mandir. Muslims and Hindus alike followed him. Ghalib refers to the secular nature of the festival. He wrote: “In this city, is a festival called the flower men’s festival. Everyone in the city from the nobles to the artisans goes off to the Qutub Minar. There they stay for two of three weeks. All the shops in the city of Muslims and Hindus alike stay closed throughout this time”

So Phoolwalon Ki Sair became an annual celebration and something that the people looked forward to every year in the months following the monsoon. In 1942, with the Quit India Movement, The British suspended the festival for reasons of security. But Jawaharlal Nehru, who responded instinctively to its beauty and gaiety, reinstituted it in 1962. Since then history has been beautifully reenacted every year.

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