CITYSCAPE Janmashtami graduated from being a mere ritual to an established tradition. R.V.SMITH traces its journey right from the time of the Mughals to now when temples and communities vie to celebrate the festival
It’s interesting to note how festivals graduate from mere ritual to established tradition. In the 19th Century Janmashtami was not the popular festival it has now become. During the earlier Mughal days Akbar used to participate in it because of his Rajput wives. Jahangir, though born of a Rajput mother was ambivalent, and later under the influence of Noor Jahan became partial to the Shia sect, except when he got annoyed with Qazi Shustri for replying to a question on Sheikh Salim Chisti with the remark, “Een mardan Chist” (who is this man Chisti?) The great Qazi had to pay with his life, as his tongue was pulled out from the back of his neck (guddiphut) for his comment on the saint through whose prayers Jahangir was born and named Salim, the heir apparent. Shah Jahan was orthodox in his beliefs, despite the refuge given to him by a Rajput raja when he rebelled against his father. Aurangzeb was too puritanical to tolerate Hindu customs, though he gave land for the building of quite a few temples in Banaras. His successors were inclined to be guided by the maulvis. But Mohammad Shah was an exception who celebrated Hindu festivals like Holi, Basant and Diwali (something that Akbar, Jahangir and Shah Jahan did in a modest way). But not Janmashtami, though Krishan hindolas (rocking cradles) were allowed to be put up in Chandni Chowk and the dandy emperor gave money to the Brahmins proceeding to Mathura and Vrindavan, something that Akbar, had also done. Shah Alam helped in the renovation of the Kalkaji mandir, Akbar Shah too helped in temple renovation in Mehrauli and Bahadur Shah Zafar was only too eager to patronize Hindu festivals. The British tried to keep order during them by trying to prevent communal clashes, though the riots of 1886 and again some years later unnerved them, especially the ones in 1919 and 1924 when the much respected Hakim Ajmal Khan failed to restore peace. However, there are no reports of rioting during Janmashtami.
At that time E.M. Forster was the Dewan of Dewas State and much impressed by the Janmashtami celebrations, when Dr Godbole, almost as fair as a European, danced before the child Krishna idol in the main temple, a fact recorded by him in his magnum opus, “A Passage to India”. In Delhi the main Janmashtami celebrations used to take place at Jhandewalan and at Kalkaji besides, of course, the temples of Chandni Chowk as Laxminarain Temple had not yet come up. Even now Jhandewalan attracts the maximum crowd, with its Vaishnodevi and Radha-Krishan temples. One feature of the celebrations in Chandni Chowk used to be the ritual cutting of a cucumber at midnight, when the Lord was born. This gave currency to the expression “Krishna Kanhaiya kheere main se paida hue”. The next day when it rained, as it usually does at Janmashtami time, old women and young ones used to spread little pieces of cloth on clothesline with haldi (turmeric) marking. The ritual was regarded as the washing of the napkins of the new-born god (Kishanji ke langote dhul rahe hain). The villages of Todapur and Dasghara, which now border Pusa Institute, have always had a rich tradition of celebrating Janmashtami and serving of the dahi (curd) handi to children in the absence of butter, of which Kishanji was so fond in his childhood that he began to be referred to by the gopis as maakhan chor (butter thief).
It is pertinent to mention that Janmashtami acquired great popularity after Partition, though it was much later that it was declared a public holiday. The new colonies that came up in Delhi with the influx of refugees from Punjab and Sindh have now started vying in celebrating the festival. An example is the rivalry between the temples of Subhash Nagar and Hari Nagar in West Delhi which seems to have been encouraged by the neo-rich. The jhankis or Krishna cribs displayed are especially popular. Seeing them children are encouraged to set up replicas near their homes and prizes are awarded to them by both individuals and cultural societies. Like Christmas, the main celebrations start late in the evening and end at midnight with the blowing of conch-shells and bursting of crackers. The cacophony is to be heard to be believed. Meanwhile crowds mill around the mandirs in an excess overflow of emotion. Thus Janmashtami, which was observed publicly only in certain pockets of the Capital, now sees widespread celebration, thanks to the emergence of the affluent class because of which even smaller festivals like Karva Chauth (that triggers a virtual fancy dress parade) and Raksha Bandhan evoke more interest. Incidentally, the latter used to be known as “Sanoono” and one became aware of it only on seeing people wearing yellow threads around their wrists, which with fanciful rachis around, are hardly visible. Thus does ritual grow from humble beginnings into popular tradition. Diwali, Easter and Dussehra are other examples. Had Forster been alive he would have found many Godboles, fair and not so fair, dancing up the Hill of Devi to greet Nand Lala.