The tairaki melas of the Mughals. The swimming competitions of Sawan. Throwing rose petals in water before a splash in the Yamuna. Good old Delhi saw it all, says R.V. Smith

One result of pollution and the scanty water in the Yamuna is the virtual end of the annual swimming fairs. The Delhi Gazetteer of 1883-1884 recorded the number of fairs in Delhi at 33, though originally there were 104 which included (besides the bathing ones) mostly those in honour of local deities, the pankha melas, the Moharram processions and the urs at various shrines. Among the fairs that attracted both Muslims and Hindus were the tairaki melas, first started by the Mughals during the rainy months, when the river was full and flowed right under the walls of the Red Fort. Nets had to be thrown in it to catch crocodiles that were swept thither by the flood. There may be some exaggeration in such accounts, though it is a fact that occasionally ensnared crocs found their way to Macchliwalan, the fish market near the Jama Masjid, where oil was extracted from their carcasses and, like their skin and teeth, fetched a high price, along with the snout that was mounted by taxidermists for the drawing rooms of the nawabs and nawabzadas . Until the late 19th Century crocodiles were found basking near the Purana Quila in winter and shot by British sentries, according to the Gazetteer.

Here is an account written in the mid-20th Century. For most Delhiwallahs the swimming season begins with the onset of the monsoon and not at modern swimming pools. There was a time when swimmers floated on their backs with iron spits on their chests on which kababs, paranthas and jalebis were fried. In Mughal days the art of swimming reached its zenith with tairaks from Turkey, Iran, Armenia, Central Asia and Afghanistan coming to compete here. A noted swimmer from Agra was given the title of Mir Macchli by Jahangir. It is said that when, as Prince Salim, he was initiated into the sport, tons of roses were thrown into the Yamuna, then in flood. A similar story is told about Shah Jahan, which only goes to show how popular river swimming was in those days even for princes.” Up to the early 1940s there were four swimming fairs on the four Thursdays of Sawan. Parties of swimmers from the Walled City marched to the river to the beat of drums, headed by a flag-bearer (the Nishan Nashin), and singing the songs of Barsat of poet Nazir. There were separate groups of Muslim and Hindu swimmers. For the former the ustad was the chief and for the latter the Khalifa (colloquially pronounced Khalipa). This was strange since the word Khalifa has Arabic origins and got converted into the Anglicized “Caliph”. How come then that a non-Muslim group had adopted it? One reason could be that in former times the trainers of both communities were of Turkish descent and so when “ustad” became popular with one group, the other one decided on retaining “Khalifa”.

Parmal Khalifa was actually a fat, paunchy vegetable seller who walked with difficulty. But when he entered the river he was grace sublime, braving the current and leading his team into the most tricky parts of the Yamuna. Ghafoor Ustad was a balding pigeon-fancier who used to jump from the old Yamuna Bridge into the flood water, holding the Nishan in one hand and swimming with the other — a tight-fitting cotton Lucknavi cap on his head. Both Muslim and Hindu groups swam across the river and when they reached the other side they offered “Chiraghi”. One on a mazar and the other under a pipal tree. The groups returned home with the drums beating again and the Nishan fluttering in the monsoon breeze to cries of “Nare Taqbi” and “Har har Mahadeva,” as per their belief. But if a group lost a swimmer (a rare occurrence) then the drums were not played and it trooped home silently. Because of this fear little girls and boys were posted on the road to bring word to the zenana that all was well and that their group was returning with “deecham-deecham” (joyous drumbeats) and mad Razzak dancing in a frenzy. It was then that kheel-batasha or sweat nuktidana (boondi) were distributed to all and sundry. In the case of a mishap the group did not return without the body of the drowned member, even if it took hours to recover it from usually the “bhanwar” or the treacherous circular river current that was a virtual death-trap.

One remembers meeting Munne Mian, an old ustad staying in Kucha Chelan in the 1960s, who had a host of stories to relate in his spare time. Though he had stopped swimming, his son had taken over the ustadi and the turban that went with it. One story concerned Masoom, a boy of 16 who was presumed drowned in the last fair of Sawan. The group searched for him but couldn’t find the body and wanted to return home. Munne Mian however was not the one to give up and eventually found the boy caught in the bhanwar. He carried him to the Yamuna bank, put him on his stomach and squeezed the water out of his lungs. He then massaged the body till breath returned and then the Nishan was hoisted and the group returned triumphantly, with Masoom being carried in a sort of relay throughout. One hardly hears of such fairs now!