By Khalid Alvi
April 8, 2019
While most associate Holi with a Hindu
ethos, even a cursory glance through the pages of history reveals otherwise.
Holi always falls in the month of March, which in the Mughal era fell close on
the heels of another significant festival, Navroz. Over time, both the
festivals became twins.
The Mughals were known to be liberal and
openly enjoyed celebrating Indian festivals. Historian Zakaullah writes that
Babur was so wonderstruck when he saw Holi celebrations where people were
splashing around in a pool of coloured water that he followed suit and filled a
pool with his favourite coloured liquid — wine. Abul Fazal writes in Ain-e
Akbari that Akbar used to start collecting beautiful squirts and syringes of
different sizes throughout the year in anticipation. This was one of the rare
occasions when Akbar would come out from his fort and play Holi with even the
commoners. Tuzk-e-Jahangiri mentions that Jahangir played Holi actively and
organised musical gatherings.
Shahjahan would watch the Holi celebrations
from the Jharoka of Red Fort. He also gave it the name Eid-e-Gulabi (the
festival of colour), Jashn-e-Aab-Pashi (the festival of spraying water).
During Shahjahan’s rule, a Holi fair was organised near what is today Rajghat
which included pantomimes in which jesters would imitate the king and princes
and nobody took offence. Bahadur Shah Zafar went as far as making Holi the
official festival of the Red Fort and patronised a new genre of Urdu poetry
called Hori, which was sung on the day of Holi.
Before the Mughals, even Muslim Sufi poets
had used this festive opportunity to propagate the message of brotherhood. Holi
was celebrated at most Sufi monasteries. Nizamuddin Aulia, who is considered to
be among the first secular theorists, advocated love for people of all faiths.
He also directed his protégée to compose poetry in the language of the
commoners and started celebrating Holi at his monastery. Khusrau was not only
an enthusiastic Holi player but also composed verse for the occasion:
Aaj Rang Hai, Maa Ri Aaj Rang Hai/Morey
Khwaja Ke Ghar Aaj Rang Hai/Mohey Peer Payo Nijamuddin Aulia/Des Bides Mien
Phiri Ri, Tera Rang Bhayo Nijamuddin Aulia/Aaj Sajan Mila Morey Aangan Mien
colour today, my mother its colour today, My beloved is found in my own yard).
This tradition of celebrating Holi became
such an integral part of Sufi culture that even today, a ritual “rang” is
observed on the last day of the annual celebrations at every shrine.
The tales of elaborate Holi celebrations
abound as much in Lucknow as they do In Delhi. Nawab Saadat Ali Khan and
Asifuddaula would spend Crores on Holi celebrations. The participating nautch
girls, singers, prostitutes and courtiers were famously rewarded with gold
coins and velvet cloth.
The references to Holi are innumerable in
Urdu poetry. Almost no important Urdu poet, from Khusrau to Sahir Ludhianvi,
left this topic untouched. Nazeer Akbarabadi, who is hailed as an enthusiastic
ambassador of Hindu culture, composed eight long poems about Holi. Shah Niaz, a
Sufi and a poet, was a contemporary of Nazeer. He wrote:
Hori Hoye Rahi Hai Ahmad Geo Ke
Duwar/Hazrat Ali Ke Rang Bano Hai Hasan Husain Khilar. Shah Niaz
(Holi is being played at the gate of
Prophet Mohammad, Ali has brought colours, Husain and Hasan are playing).
Qayam, an 18th century poet, has famously
depicted the real naughtiness of Holi. His importance can be understood through
Ghalib’s acknowledgement of Qayam as his Ustad. In his long poem Chandpur ki
Holi,Qayam paints a scene of an inebriated Maulvi who has forgotten his way to
the mosque. This is the state of people on Holi. People from all spheres of
life whether pious or habitual drinkers, celebrate together and indulge in
mud-slinging. It makes everyone equal and free. Qayam ends his poem with a
Jab Takke Ye Shor O Shar Ho Alam Mien/ Holi Seybaqiasar
(O God let the festivity of Holi survive
till the world does).
Khalid Alvi teaches Urdu literature at Zakir Hussain College, Delhi