Water body Hauz-e-Shamsi, around which many of the events of the Phool Walon Ki Sair take place in Delhi, is cleaned only once a year at this time during the Sair. Otherwise, it remains choked and dumped with trash

In our series on the state of water bodies in Delhi, we have covered the Satpula of Mohammad Bin Tughlaq, the Neela Hauz and the once beautiful lake between Kishangarh, Vasant Kunj (Pocket A) and Mehrauli. Many of the water bodies of the first Delhi have, unfortunately, been quietly erased from existence and from memory, filled up and built over, without leaving a single trace that might betray the fact that they ever existed.

Within this overall bleak scenario there is a ray of hope in the form of the Hauz-e-Shamsi, the man-made lake created by diverting a couple of streams to fill a natural depression on the orders of sultan Shams-ud-Din Altamash (ruled 1211-1236) around 1230. Within a couple of years the Hauz must have begun to overflow during the monsoons, and then an overflow channel called the Jharna was created to carry the excess water to the Yamuna through the Naulakha Nala.

The Hauz continues to this day as a decent sized water body and the centre of one of the few inclusive traditions of Delhi that has managed to survive the sustained onslaughts on our shared heritage. The Jharna around which Akbar Shah II had built a water tank and two pavilions, as rain shelters for the ladies of the palace, is today the site where the floral offerings made on the occasion of the famous festival Phool Walon Ki Sair are prepared.

The Hauz-e-Shamsi is the site around which many of the events of the Phool Walon Ki Sair, the inclusive tradition referred to above, are organised. A cultural festival, an evening of Qawwali, a wrestling match and a very popular fair, the like of which you can only witness in a small-town come-together around the Hauz. The one event that was a major attraction organised at the Hauz till a few decades ago was the famous swimming competition that has regrettably ceased to be.

Originally, the Sair began as an event of thanksgiving at the release of Mirza Jehangir, the younger brother of Bahadur Shah Zafar and the favourite of his father Akbar Shah II, from the custody of the British. Mirza Jehangir had been arrested and kept as a prisoner at Allahabad for trying to assassinate the British resident Archibald Seton and was released after almost two years. His mother offered a floral chaadar at the shrine of the Chishti Saint Qutub-ud-Din Bakhtyaar Kaaki and a floral fan and canopy at the temple of the ancient temple of Jog Maya as thanksgiving and fulfilment of vows. The popular festival has therefore come to represent both the spirit of anti-colonialism and of inclusiveness.

Gradually, the event grew into a largely spontaneous week-long festival of processions, shows and competitions. Aside from the visits to the shrine and the temple, the rest of the action took place in the open spaces around the Hauz. The Sair continued till it was disrupted in 1857, revived again to continue till 1940 when it was stopped once again by the British in the 1940s, to be revived again in 1961.

The Hauz, for long considered sacred by the old residents of Mehrauli and of Delhi is nowadays a receptacle of trash originating in the houses of those who live all around the Hauz in houses built on land which was occupied by the Hauz not too many years ago. A thick covering of water hyacinth now keeps the Hauz choked for most of the year and despite court orders to save the Hauz, it is only in the run up to the Sair that the Hauz and its surroundings including the Jahaz Mahal and the Jharna are cleaned up once a year. The effects of the cleanliness drive last no more than a week or 10 days and then it is back to trash and rubbish as usual.

The streams that fed the Hauz have dried up, built over or choked. The Jharna no longer functions, the Naulakha Nala, surreptitiously connected to a sewer line, is now a carrier of untreated sewage from Mehrauli.

It is heart-breaking to see that such a rich tradition that continues to involve thousands every year, is gradually getting mired in official apathy and the grand monuments that used to hum with activity through the year have gradually fallen victim to neglect. Both the Hauz and the Jharna are treated through the year as nothing more than rubbish dumps and no one, including the residents of Mehrauli, seems to bother. Can’t we evolve mechanisms where the local people, the government and civic agencies come together to protect and preserve these monuments that symbolise our shared struggles and our syncretic traditions.