Down memory lane Metroplus

A celebration of syncretic traditions

Ravan's effigy being burnt during the Dussehra celebrations Photo R.V. Moorthy   | Photo Credit: R.V. Moorthy

Dussehra celebrations, as evidenced now, actually began during Bahadur Shah Zafar’s time or so it is believed. While Akbar celebrated Navroz, Janmashtami and Diwali with his Rajput queen, Humayun before him is associated in popular parlance with Rakshabandan after the rakhi sent to him by a princess. Jahangir, Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb were not so much interested in Hindu festivals except Diwali and Basant. Bahadur Shah-I was not so interested and the Sikh Guru Govind Singh found a good friend in him because of his easy accessibility and unhesitating participation in non-Muslim feasts. His successor Jahandar Shah because of his concubine (later queen) Lal Kanwar invited Hindu courtesans to the Red Fort at Dussehra, Diwali and Holi during his short reign (1711-12). His nephew, Mohammed Farukhseyar who usurped the throne, was more of a zealot but Mohammad Shah, who eventually ascended the throne after some puppet rulers, was an enthusiastic participant, particularly at Basant, Holi and Diwali. There are paintings of him pursuing his concubines on the lawns of Rang Mahal with a pichhkari. Bahadur Shah Zafar, being equally secular in his outlook, was ever willing to please the majority community in his shrivelled-up kingdom.

It was during his time that Dussehra celebrations found their chief venue in the present day site of Ramlila Grounds, though there used to be a lake there, Shahji-ka-talab. Earlier it was the Yamuna bank that witnessed Ravan’s end. Why the venue was shifted was probably due to the fact that Zafar realised that his kingdom was demarcated by the Yamuna with no effective control beyond it. In this connection it is pertinent to mention what oral history says, “Some dhobis came to him with a request that he intervene in a dispute between them and other washermen of the opposite bank of the river. Zafar expressed his inability to do so, saying that his jurisdiction did not extend to the other side of the Yamuna.” However, Prof. Amar Farooqui in his book, “Zafar and the Raj” mentions an interesting incident to show that Zafar was not so indifferent to the dhobis’ plight, “When washermen of the city who customarily used the right bank of the Yamuna near the palace for washing and drying clothes were prohibited by the British Deputy Magistrate from using the stretch between the Red Fort and Qudsia Bagh, they immediately appealed to Bahadur Shah. Initially the emperor expressed his helplessness in the matter. When the washermen again appealed to him after a few days, assembling beneath the jharokha, he agreed to send a shuqqa (note) to the British agent upon the royal attendants confirming that in truth the Deputy Magistrate had taken upon himself to annoy and trouble the dhobies’.

Festivals were not just about religion. Through his participation in them the emperor underlined his relevance to the religious and cultural life of the city. Id-ul-Fitr and Id-al-Azha were major festivals. So were Diwali and Dussehra. At Diwali, the emperor “went out to inspect the bazaars; he “weighed himself against seven kinds of grain, gold, coral, etc,” which were distributed among the poor. “Bowls of wine and sherbet (were placed) on the bastions of the Palace; a buffalo was sacrificed as usual at each of the Palace Gates; a goat was also ordered to be sacrificed, the meat to be given to the poor and an elephant belonging to His Majesty was given as an alms offering.” A formal darbar was held on Dussehra at which nazr was presented by the Hindu officers and the emperor conferred “customary Khilluts” on them. A somewhat unusual custom associated with the Dussehra darbar was the hawk ceremony, “The head falconer paid his respects, and placed a hawk on His Majesty’s wrist, on the occasion of Dussehra.” The celebration of Holi involved ritual bathing by the emperor with water drawn from seven different wells, according to custom.

Despite being a devout Muslim he did ardently believe in what astrologers said. Farooqui discloses that in January 1851 Zafar decided to go on a sojourn to the Qutub. The court astrologer, Sukhanand informed the emperor that there would be an eclipse of the moon on the night of 16 January, suggesting that the journey to the Qutub take place after the eclipse. Accordingly, on Jan 18 the emperor was weighed against seven kinds of grain and metals, which were afterwards given as alms to the poor to ward off the effect of the lunar eclipse. There are other examples of Zafar’s flexible approach to religion. Ramlila acquired greater prominence in his reign and passing by Kashmere Gate entered the city with thousands, both Hindus and Muslims, watching the Barat of Lord Rama wending its way through the throughfares. The emperor himself was among those was watched Ravan meeting his doom against the backdrop of Shahji-ka-Talab.

In the present-day context it is the prominent politicians like the Prime Minister who watch the Dussehra finale and shoot the flaming arrow that lays low the demon king something that Bahadur Shah Zafar himself might have done 170 years earlier.


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Printable version | Jan 19, 2022 7:47:31 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/a-celebration-of-syncretic-traditions/article7774720.ece

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