It was Mughal Prince Mirza Jahangir’s exile that led to the hoary tradition of offering floral chadars, but ironically his mausoleum in Nizamuddin is given a miss at every Phoolwalon-ki-sair, says R.V.Smith

Phoolwalon-ki-sair is over but its fragrance lingers on like a gentle breeze blowing from the perfumed garden of history. The flower sellers who enacted their annual part this year too included the great-great-great grandchildren of those who took part in the first festival 200 years ago. This is not surprising since generations in the Walled City have been continuing in the same profession as their ancestors. The silver leaf beaters of Ballimaran, the kabab sellers, the pulao, biryani and sheermal makers of Matia Mahal are some examples. However, despite all the fanfare that surrounds the festival, one thing that seems like a glaring omission is that while floral chadars are offered at the shrine of Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki and pankhas at the Yogmaya Mandir, no one makes such offerings at the grave of Mirza Jahangir, the Mughal prince whose exile started the hoary tradition. The mausoleum of the colourful prince in Nizamuddin hence stays bereft of the homage due to him and to his mother. And this is a pity. Even so the story of the festival is worth repeating.

As Phoolwalon-ki Sair has ended, the shehnai is no longer played in Chandni Chowk but the visit of the members of the Anjuman Sair-e-Gul Faroshan to the Lt. Governor (Najeeb Jung for the first time) and Chief Minister is still evident because of the pankhas presented to them and still on display. This festival, unique to Delhi, owes its origin to an incident in the Red Fort in the second decade of the 19th Century. Mirza Jahangir, favourite son of Akbar Shah II, was denied the right to be his successor in preference to his elder brother Abu Zafar (who later came to be known as Bahadur Shah Zafar).

One day when the British Resident at the court went to meet Akbar Shah, the topic of succession came up again but the Resident (Charles Seton) stated the East India Company’s known position very firmly. Angry at this Mirza Jahangir fired at Seton just as he was leaving the Red Fort but missed. Seton turned his horse back and asked the prince to apologise but he refused and taunted him instead by shouting “Lu, lu hai bey” (cranky booby fie on you). The Resident then went back and returned with a whole posse of British troops bent on avenging the insult. The prince was arrested and sent in exile to Allahabad about the year 1812. His mother pined for him and vowed that if he were to return she would offer a chadar and floral pankha at the shrine of Hazrat Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki and a canopy at the Yogmaya Mandir close by. As things turned out, Mumtaz Mahal II’s wish came true. Mirza Jahangir was sent back to Delhi after the British relented and there were grand celebrations, with drummers and shehnai players carrying floral and embroidered pankhas to the mazar and temple in Mehrauli. Since then the festival has been observed, as a symbol of communal harmony, except for brief periods —during and after the Mutiny of 1857 and then again in the 1940s right up to the partition. But Jawaharlal Nehru revived the festival at the instance of Yogeshwar Dayal in 1961 and so it continues, with many States taking part. Interestingly the first pankha made by the women of the Salatin (poor ladies’ quarters) in the Red Fort was kept in the Dewan-i-Khas as per the queen’s wishes.

Mirza Jahangir’s behaviour on his return to Delhi worsened and Akbar Shah agreed with the British (after he tried to poison his elder brother twice) that he be sent back to Allahabad. There he whiled away his time in drinking Hoffmann’s cherry brandy and making merry with dancing girls. In 1816, Col Sleeman (who suppressed the Thugs) found him in a bad state. “To obtain an interview with the Governer General, Lord Hastings he promised to limit himself to one bottle of port wine daily.” Lord Hastings described him as wearing a tartar dress, a crimson robe, blue vest, lined with fur and a high conical cap ornamented with fur and jewels, though it was the peak of summer. He had long hair, cut at the side — a handsome young man gone astray. The prince died in 1821, long before his parents, and was buried in a beautiful tomb in Delhi. His case was reminiscent of Absalom, King David’s favourite son, who died as a tragic biblical figure over 3000 years ago.

Phoolwalon-ki-sair wends its way through Mehrauli to the Jharna led by shehnai players in brocade sherwanis and then to Jahaz Mahal. This Mahal is shaped like a ship, hence its name. Bahadur Shah Zafar, who was considered gay by his father and so “not worthy to be his successor” used to preside over the festival with great aplomb till 1856.

Yogeshwar Dayal is, however, missed very much after his death some years ago but the tradition is still sustained by the example he set. In the end one cannot help wondering what course Mughal history would have taken had Mirza Jahangir become king. Probably the British would have seized control well before 1857. But even so, that’s no reason why he should not get his due!

CORRECTION: In last week’s column headlined “Season of spooks”, it was mentioned that All Souls’ Day precedes Halloween. The reference was to All Saints’ Day. The error is regretted.

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