Hidden behind the high-rises and the metro tracks is a Delhi that breathes a different era, where the Phool Walon ki Sair festival pulsates

The Phool Walon ki Sair, or Sair-e-Gul Faroshan to call it by its proper name began on October 25 and will continue to be celebrated in Delhi’s Mehrauli area till November 3.

The festivities have their origin in the reign of Akbar Shah II who ruled from the Red Fort between 1806 and 1837.The king favoured his second son Mirza Jahangir over his elder son Bahadur Shah. Mr Archbald Seton, the British resident and representative of the East India Company at the court (1806-1811) did not approve of this and insisted that the elder son should be the heir and not Mirza Jehangir.

The impetuous Mirza Jehangir was unhappy with the manner in which the British used to carry themselves in the court and is reported to have been so angry with Seton that he once called him an ollu (owl). At that time Seton did not understand that he was being called a nincompoop, but realised his folly a few days later when Mirza Jehangir shot at him from atop the Naqqar Khana (the drum house). He missed Seton but killed his guard. Seton returned with reinforcements, Mirza Jehangir was taken into custody and exiled to Allahabad.

Mirza Jehangir’s mother vowed that when her son returned she would offer a floral sheet at the shrine of the patron saint of Delhi, Qutub-ud-Din Bakhteyaar Kaaki, in Mehrauli. Two years later, when Mirza Jehangir was freed, his mother and father walked from the Red Fort to Mehrauli. It is said that virtually the entire city walked with the royals, celebrating the freeing of the prince. The celebration certainly had an element of defiance of the British, who were now virtually in control of everything.

A floral chadar was offered on behalf of the queen. It is said that the queen had vowed to walk barefoot to the shrine and the flower-sellers had decided to cover her path with flower petals and it is on the request of the flower-sellers that the king offered a floral pankha at the temple of Jog Maya. The association of flower-sellers with the festival, it is believed, dates back to that day.

The festivities continued for three days and from then on they became an annual ritual, turning more elaborate during the reign of Bahadur Shah Zafar and continuing till 1857. The Sair was revived by the British a few years later but now it was the deputy commissioner who was in charge. The Sair continued till 1942 when in the wake of the Quit India Movement the British stopped the practice and it could be revived again only in 1961 when several residents of Shahjahanabad went to meet Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru with a request that the festival be revived as a symbol of the shared heritage of the city.

Gradually, over the years, the festival has become very official. Now floral pankhas are first presented to the lieutenant governor, the chief minister, the divisional commissioner, the President, the Vice President and since last year to the mayor of Delhi. This seems more like the continuation of what the British had started and less like something that was spontaneously taken up by the common Dilliwalas.

The performative part of the programme has now been ritualized into a few official events and a competition of one dance performance from each state. A fan from each state is taken to the shrine and the temple after the performance. An evening of Qawwali winds up the festivities till the next Phool Walon ki Sair.

A festival that has survived, with a couple of breaks for almost a 100 years, has left a deep impression upon the people and despite the increasingly official veneer that the event have begun to acquire, there are spaces that the people continue to hold as their own. If you want to see a small town mela with its own travelling circus, its own tin-shed cinema halls, its own tacky magic show and its own wonders of the world like a cow with eight legs or a girl who is half snake and if you want to see it in South Delhi, in the second fastest growing metropolis in the world go to Mehrauli, Near Hauz-e-Shamsi. Enter Mehrauli from the Andheria Mod side any evening before November 3 and you will reach the mela.

It is a fair where the sense of joy still rules supreme, stalls selling seekh kabab, gol gappe, dahi bhalle, jalebi, candyfloss and all manner of other eats. There are instant photo stalls where you can have a photograph taken with your arm around your favourite cardboard heroine, or sit in a swing decorated totally with plastic flowers, see ghosts and the tallest man in the universe or ride on the back of a Chinese dragon, buy an artificial nose or a pair of spectacles without glasses but a bushy moustache and a nose attached. This is the place to go. See how many small towns and villages continue to live and breathe in Delhi, hidden behind the screen provided by high rises, metro tracks and the all-pervasive Mexican Mesquite.