Down Memory Lane: Blast from the past

The Rang Mahal in the Red Fort has been renovated and now the sagging ceiling of the Dewan-e-Khas is being set right by the ASI, not an easy task as the slightest miscalculation or deviation in laying the Sal wood planks can mar the symmetrical setting of the once gold-plated covering under the roof of the Hall of Private Audience, where the Takht-e-Taus or Peacock Throne occupied pride of place. Such care was not needed in the Rang Mahal which was the venue of Diwali and Basant celebrations during the time of Mohammad Shah (1720-1748). Holi however was celebrated on the lawns in front of it while the Diwali diyas lent lustre to the Mahal.

And that brings us to the point of the Mughal connection with Diwali, which actually began in the reign of Akbar at the Agra Fort and Fatehpur Sikri, where the palaces of Jodha Bai and Raja Birbal were also situated. Jahangir and Shah Jahan had milder Diwali celebrations and Aurangzeb was content with receiving gifts from his Rajput generals like Raja Jaswant Singh of Jodhpur and Jai Singh I of Jaipur. His grandson, Jahander Shah ruled for just about a year and celebrated his Diwali at Lahore with concubine Lal Kunwar. All the oil in the city is said to have been bought by the dandy emperor to light up the night but, exaggeration apart, there were enough telis there to cater to the needs of the hoi polloi and some of them were more than mere oil sellers, for the saying in Lahore as also in Delhi, was “Parhhein Farsi bechein tel”. It meant that despite their straitened circumstances brought about by the vicissitudes of fortune, they were not far removed from the intellectuals who wrote and studied Persian (the high water-mark of contemporary culture).

Diwali was considered, even by the orthodox Muslims, a festival of natural joy of God’s creation, though some of them had reservations about eating “kheel” which, incidentally, was mostly sold by Muslim Bharbhujas or gram roasters. Besides the colourful (Rangeela) Mohammad Shah, his predecessor Farukh Siyar had ordered Diwali illuminations at the Delhi Gate he had built on the Agra-Delhi road. The Sayyids of Barah, who had put him on the throne and some other puppets, including Mohammad Shah too, belonged to 12 villages in what is now Uttar Pradesh and where Diwali was celebrated with great enthusiasm, by the Hindu and Muslim peasants. So they were not surprised at the emperor’s unusual spectacle.

A special feature of the Mughal celebrations at Shabh-e-Barat and Diwali was the bursting of crackers close to the walls of the Red Fort under the supervision of the Mir Atish. According to historian R. Nath, in an age when there were no matches the permanent source of fire was Surajkrant. “At noon of the day when the sun entered the 19th degree of Aries, and the heat was the maximum, the (royal) servants exposed the sun’s rays to a round piece of shining stone (Surajkrant). A piece of cotton was then held near it, which caught fire from the heat of the stone. This celestial fire was preserved in a vessel called Agingir (fire-pot) and committed to the care of an officer”. The fire was used in the palace and renewed every year. Camphor candles called Kufuri-Shama were placed on 12 candlesticks of gold and silver to light up the palace as a daily ritual, Dr. Nath asserts. This was obviously done on a grander scale at Diwali when the Akash Diya (the Light of the Sky) was lit with greater pomp, placed atop a pole 40 yards high, supported by 16 ropes, and fed on several maunds of binaula (cotton-seed oil) to light up the durbar.

Just imagine the huge lamp lighting up a Diwali night and casting its glow right up to Chandni Chowk where rich seths had their own lighting arrangements, with mustard oil diyas on every building. A giant-sized statue of Tesu Raja and his wife Jhainji, symbolized by illuminated pots, was also taken out for immersion in the Yamuna.

However, the Diwali of Oct 17, 1762, turned out to be a bleak one (bleaker than the one of Oct 24, 1995) because of a solar eclipse. That was the time of an invasion by Ahmed Shah Abdali, who was engaged in battle by the Sikhs near Amritsar. However, the combatants dispersed when the sun suddenly turned black. Thinking that it was a heavenly sign of displeasure, the Sikhs took refuge in a forest while Ahmad Shah and his troops galloped off to Lahore in panic. Not only Punjab, Delhi too had an uneasy Diwali 230 years ago, but the 1995 eclipse did not cause that sort of alarm. It’s a far cry from the Jashan-e-Chiragan of the Mughals to our present times when oil diyas have largely been replaced by electric lights of many hues and Delhi is lit up like never before, though the crackers spread noise and air pollution.

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Printable version | Dec 2, 2021 4:17:18 AM |

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