Two major festivals have come up recently – the colorful and vibrant Holi was enjoyed on March 2 while Vaisakhi is being celebrated today, April 14th.
Vaisakhi is a harvest linked festival that has long been celebrated in the Punjab across both sides of the India-Pakistan border. It achieved greater significance among the Sikhs in the 17th century when the tenth guru, Gobind Singh used the occasion at Anandpur Sahib in the Punjab to create the Khalsa Panth, a militant force for opposing the then ruling Moghuls. Legend has it that on the occasion of Vaisakhi, Guru Gobind Singh came out of a tent brandishing a sword and challenged any Sikh from the gathering of thousands, to come forward if he was prepared to offer the ultimate sacrifice of his life in the service of the guru and their faith. One by one five males stepped forward and were taken into the tent from where the Guru re-emerged alone each time, with his sword covered in blood. The crowd became restive because they could not fathom why their leader would harm unarmed men. The Guru then brought forth all five men who were presumed dead and the crowd learned that he had staged their slaughter by killing goats instead. Having thus tested their resolve and found them to be strong, the Guru then introduced these five men as his Panj Piare Singh, or the “Beloved Five Lions” and baptized them as the Khalsa (the “Pure”) by making them sip Amrit (“immortalizing nectar” or holy water).
As a kid growing up in a family that was not especially “religious” but appreciated and respected all faiths, we would visit the local Gurudwara for the special Vaisakhi celebrations, which concluded with the ardaas (the Sikh prayer introduced by Guru Gobind Singh as a supplication or request to a Superior Authority/Divine Being.) My sole interest lay in grabbing multiple helpings of the piping hot karha parshad (semolina halva made of whole-wheat flour, clarified butter and sugar.) It is usually dispensed in small quantities by the sevadaar bhais (Sikh volunteers or priests) into the palms of the devotees after the prayers conclude. However, most of us young boys would rejoin the line to get extra portions until a sevadaar or family member would gently reprimand us.
Holi, better known as the “festival of colors” marks the start of spring and also symbolizes Thanksgiving for a good harvest. It has its origins in Hindu mythology and celebrates the victory of good over evil with a sense of joie de vivre, not just in India and Nepal but across the globe. There are several mythological stories associated with the origin of Holi. There is one about the destruction by fire of the evil sister Holika of the tyrant king Hirankashyap. The night before Holi, bonfires are lit in a ceremony known as Holika Dahan (burning of Holika) when people gather around fires, sing and dance. Other legends describe the Lord Krishna coloring the face of his beloved Radha while another alludes to the celebratory resurrection of the Hindu God of love, Kama after Lord Shiva had accidently killed him. Guru Gobind Singh had introduced Hola Mohalla, a three-day festival coinciding with Holi, for the display of military prowess and martial arts while later Maharaja Ranjit Singh celebrated Holi throughout his vast Sikh kingdom.
Holi is celebrated with a great deal of enthusiasm and colored powders and water-based colors are used to spread the festive spirit, seeking the participation of family, friends and even complete strangers with shouts of, “Holi hai (It is Holi”)! Many special delicacies (like gujhias and malpuas) are prepared for sharing with visiting neighbors and friends. The more ardent celebrants of Holi consume the intoxicating bhang (made from cannabis) in a variety of mouth-watering delicacies, such as pakoras (fritters) and thandai (sweet cold drink made of milk, almonds and cardamom etc.)
I can recall Holi through different stages of my growing years and will honestly confess that as a young lad my sole focus was to annually bring out my brass pichkari (water pump/gun made of a brass cylinder fitted with a piston), soak the dry, shrivelled leather washer in sesame seed oil to restore it to a functional state for sucking up and spraying the water out perfectly. I would team up with my closest friends to devise strategies on how best to camouflage our pails of colored water to waylay unsuspecting targets and drench them. Later, stepping into my adolescent years and moving towards adulthood the focus shifted from the tools to our intended marks. Holi was now viewed as the means to engage with the fairer sex in a playful manner through innuendos, flirting and where possible, the odd physical interaction. But, all this was always respectful and no indiscretions were planned or indeed allowed to transcend the unstated boundaries of civil, acceptable behavior. We would gather to sing songs and arrange beer or bhang-soaked “jam sessions” of music and dance that everyone thoroughly enjoyed, usually with extended families and neighbors also participating with gusto.
Therefore, it is most disheartening to now read press reports highlighting the type of filth being spewed under the pretext of Holi celebrations. Ladies are harassed on the streets, subjected to vile comments and targeted with disgusting projectiles. The new norm appears to be anything but normal. The bar has sunk so low that we cannot bring ourselves to get angry even about political points being blatantly scored over the rape or murder of innocent children in the name of religion, faith or culture. I wonder what if anything, of our past syncretic traditions would we pass down to our grandchildren; what will they be left with, to celebrate?
But, just like the conjuror who continues to deviate attention through tricks or talk, let us for now lighten the mood through two of my favorite Holi songs from Bollywood hits, Silsila and Sholay.