I was walking curiously through the open fields and residential quarters of Anandpur Sahib, filled with Nihangs (Soldier wing of Sikhs) wielding weapons and arms. Some of them ran towards me with swords, maneuvering their way skillfully in the narrow lanes of the kloni (colony), their blue and orange blending well with the stark white buildings. I froze in the moment, goosebumps jostling for space on my body.
Suddenly, the fictional Mano Majra of Khushwant Singh (Train to Pakistan) came alive. So did Saadat Hasan Manto’s Punjab (Thanda Gosht aka Cold Flesh). The Punjab I saw was similar and yet so different from the Punjab I read about in the above mentioned stories. The men in my story ran with swords out of the enthusiasm and festive fever which gripped the town during Hola Mohalla. The men in Thanda Gosht and Train to Pakistan (TTP) were fueled by communal hatred set in the backdrop of an agonizing partition of India in 1947. As I ran the slide show of past and present alternatively in my mind, my thoughts were disturbed by the ever swelling crowds rubbing me gently, as if shaking me back to reality.
I started hallucinating again in the night. The (almost) full moon danced lyrically on the gentle waters of Sutlej river; against the backdrop of green fields bathed in soft glow of moon. The air perfumed with all things earthy, I imagined the doomed Juggat Singh and Nooran (TTP) making love in the fields for one last time.
The next day, I focused on Hola Mohalla, the annual rural festival of Punjab. The sleepy but historically important town of Anandpur Sahib is inundated with lakhs of Nihangs and Sikhs from not only just Punjab but other parts of India too. I was told that many villages in Punjab turn into ghost villages during the 3 day long revelry. All of them head here, a reason why they bring along their cattle and livestock along. It’s a small town with a population of merely 16,000 approximately.
Despite poor infrastructure and limited space, the town handles the sudden surge in the demographics with elan. I was amused when I noticed that they camped up in open fields called ‘dera’ in their trucks or tents. Some are however tractors masquerading as trucks (madhuji quipped it’s ‘truck over tractor’). The trucks were customized to turn it into bunk bed of sorts. A wooden plank divided the spacious insides of the truck horizontally. A wooden stair was tied roughly to access the upper deck. Both decks doubled up as their bedroom/living room/entertainment room/kitchen and what not. Dried straws of wheat were creatively used as mattresses. These also served as convenient places to socialize and rest in the afternoon. The main festivities last for 3 days, though camps last more than a week or more. I was told once the festival is over, the rain Gods sanitise it all with a default rain every year just after the festival.
Many of such mobile homes boasted of a woofer, playing energy filled Punjabi songs in full volume. I got a vague idea from where Yo Yo Honey Singh (Rap artist from India) gets his inspiration from. Thanks to the self discipline and admirable civic sense, the streets were shockingly clean for an event of this mammoth scale. There was no pushing, shoving, pick pocketing attempts or arguments, just a little nudge to move ahead in the sea of humanity, crowned with turbans and dupattas (Long piece of thin cloth worn at neck/head/shoulders) of bright hues.
Most of the action is centered around Gurudwara Takht Sri Kesgarh Sahib. It’s a much revered pilgrimage for Sikhs around the world since this was the place Khalsa Panth was founded by Guru Gobind Singh. Though Holi is a Hindu festival, Hola Mohalla was invented to co-incide with Holi on 7th March, 1701 by Guru Gobind Singh. It began as a festival for poetry contests and mock military processions at the nearby Holagarh Fort. Much of the tradition retains its flavour, give or take a random ‘Facebook’ Golgappe wala or punters roaming around in bizarre masks playing loud music.
It was a pleasure to the senses, walking through the stark white lanes of the holy town. The whole town around the Gurudwara was painted in white much like the pink/blue/golden cities of Rajasthan. Not many know, it’s the first White City of India. The entire city was painted white (symbol of peace) in 1999 when Khalsa Panth turned 300.
I spotted many youngsters carrying placards, preaching all things good (and quirky). My friend, Sakshi Sharma, an ex Radio Jockey, helped decipher the Punjabi script for me:
- I have come here to take blessings of Guru or just to stroll around
- My tongue should be useful only to take the name of my Guru. My tongue should never be used to speak swearwords or indulge in substance abuse.
- ‘Haaye kahan gayi meri soni dastaar aur kahan gaye mere sone baal’ (Oh, where have my nice turban and hair gone?) I like this one the most. It’s a harmless taunt to youngsters who are giving up beards and turban in the name of modernity.
- Donate 1/10th of your income to the ‘have nots’ and then see how you rise in life.
A group of Nihang, excited to see my camera, invited me to their tent. They introduced me to a Babaji who had participated in the 80th Kila Raipur Rural Olympics in horse racing. The tent was buzzing with activities. Young Nihangs were busy bullying each other in good humor and tending to their horses, cleaning and feeding them. Older ones took care of more skillful chores like churning the Bhaang (Buds and leaves of cannabis ground with mortar and pestle and turning into a hedonistic drink, fit for holy men) and preparing the dinner. I also met a man who made licenses for Nihang men and women. These Government licenses allow them to travel anywhere in India via train for free.
Not very far away, a group of singers grabbed the mikes to fill the air with devotional songs, rural Punjabi pop (Yes, I coined it) and tales of the courage and valor of Sikhs. The young girl, barely in her 20s (I am confused about her age. Look at the picture and you decide) belied her age and spoke passionately and authoritatively about the glorious Sikh history. She spiced it up with moral policing. What ensued was a long lecture on why women should not enter the holy places in Jeans and shorts. The elders listened to the kid obediently as she announced that women are responsible for crime against them. I squirmed in horror as she continued her tirade in a tone of finality a la dramatic protagonists of Hindi soap operas. Never mind, I also danced (in my mind) when they sang quirky fun songs in Punjabi.
Next day, as soon as I reached the stadium where Hola Mohalla events were scheduled, I was spell bound when I bumped into a holy man wearing the heaviest turban I have seen till date. He claimed it weighed 80 kgs. Soon he was surrounded by a group of curious bystanders turning him into a Demi God of sorts. The turban embellished with decorative accessories simply stood out in the wide ground.
The precocious young boys, rubbing dry colors on each other’s face reminded me that it’s the festival of Holi too. The short lived clouds of colors floating in the air made the event more unique. The open field soon filled with countless horses, few camels and elephants and thousands of Nihangs, performing martial arts and mock battles in their own small groups.
There were sword fighting, demonstrations of the many traditional weapons and of course the ostentatious Horse racing. Unlike Kila Raipur, where Horse racing was done away from the crowds for safety reason, here all the action is bang in the middle of the crowd. The jockeys pierced through the crowds skillfully and at such amazing speed that it left the audiences agape mouthed. Despite all the organized chaos, the participants cum audience were well behaved and self disciplined. And do you really want me to tell you that there were jockeys who handled 3 to 5 horses at a time at a ‘blink-and-you-miss-it’ speed? It’s Punjab after all!
Dieting should be made a crime in Punjab!
How can I come to Punjab and not fill my face greedily with its sinful food? I was told Chola Bhatura and Samosa Chaat of Pal restaurant is best. I was so overjoyed with the taste, I had to eat extra. Ask for sinfully spicy potatoes and fresh chilli pickle on side.
The thick sugarcane juice I had near stadium was nothing like I have had before. It came with a subtle flavor of mint. Just Rs.10
Tip : When in stadium do pack some food and water. When in the city area, don’t worry about Food and water. It’s available for free every few steps. All day long! Carry water bottle though if you are not comfortable drinking from community water dispensers. Carry food too if you are the hygiene snob types!
WHERE IN WORLD WILL PEOPLE COMPETE WITH EACH OTHER
SO YOU CAN EAT WITH THEM FOR FREE :
As I wandered around, many young adults and even kids stopped me, almost pulling my hand and dragging me to their ‘pandal’ (tent) to feast at their ‘langar’. Langar is a noble tradition in Sikhs where people can eat in the tents as much as they want for free. Caste and religion no bar! Here, the huge cost of food and infrastructure is borne by the villagers themselves without any Government support. Generally, I have had only simple food of Chapati, Daal (Lentils) and Kheer (Sweetened rice in milk) at langars elsewhere. But the langars here were special. They were more lavish. I tried many langars and was bowled by the variety. Matar Paneer (Cottage cheese and peas curry), Kadhi-rice, jalebi, halwa, Chaas, Lassi etc kept my taste buds happy. The loudspeakers were literally trying to lure you into tents requesting all to ‘try our matar paneer at least once’. I was told there were about 200 langars in town during the festival to cater to the huge influx. From what I saw, I believe them. Then there are the many langars on the Chandigarh to Anandpur Sahib highway, who literally try to stop the car so you can have food with them, yes, for free. In fact, one langar member managed to fill my car with plates of spiced chanas (Chickpeas) despite our protests that it’s more than I can chew.
The activities at langar was so well co ordinated and flawless that many 5 star hotels will fail in comparison. Old men and women, kids, young adults co operated to cook huge amounts of food, serve, wash utensils, the works. All this, without seeking any monetary benefits!
Where in the world but in India will you experience such hospitality and charity without any hidden agendas?
Virasat e Khalsa Museum :
I got lucky to catch the architectural wonder that Virast-e-Khalsa museum is, during the golden hours.
As the brochure suggests,
“ Virasat-E-Khalsa showcases/embodies the rich heritage of the Khalsa and its influence on the history and culture of Punjab.”
Designed by internationally acclaimed architect Moshe Safdie, Virasat-E-Khalsa is one of its kind buildings in India. Moshe is the man behind the famous Holocaust Museum. Read more about this must visit museum here.
We stayed in the Heritage Haveli of the very humble Mr. Vikram Singh Sodhi and his wife. It was a 300 year old Haveli with a rich history. The British often used to hang out at the Haveli when Bhakhra Nangal Dam (nearby) was under construction. Since the mother of Mr. Vikram was the only lady in the area who could speak good English, the British women loved to spend their time talking to her.
Mr. Vikram Singh Sodhi is the Managing Trustee and members of the Anandpur Sahib Heritage Foundation.
In the evening the Sodhi couple and Ms. Madhu invited us to their resort by the Sutlej river for dinner. The resort, which is yet to open to public, won my heart. It’s location was a winner and so was the tastefully landscaped terrains.
I happened to meet the very talented wedding photographer Kanwardeep Singh Narula who was excited to shoot the polo match. The polo match pictures above are clicked by him.
As per the press release shared with me by Anandpur Sahib Heritage Foundation,
” The 3rd edition of Sodhi Kishan Singh Memorial Polo Cup, 2016 held during Hola Mohalla was a grand success. The cheering crowd that had gathered to witness this ancient royal equestrian sport at the 120 year old SGS (Sodhi Gurbachan Singh) Khalsa Senior Secondary School ground await Hola Mohalla every year to see Polo in action.
The polo tournament was held under the patronage of Shri Madan Mohan Mittal, Cabinet Minister of the Punjab Government and Prof Prem Singh Chandumajra, Member of Parliament, Government of India from the Anandpur constituency. The tournament also has the support of the Chief Khalsa Diwan, one of the premier Sikh institutions based in Amritsar.
Among the several initiatives of the Foundation, this annual horse polo event was introduced to add an international flavor to the traditional martial arts display by “Guru Ki Ladli Fauj” (beloved army of the Guru) from various Dals and Jathas who still follow the traditions started by Guru Gobind Singh Sahib ji. As nearly an estimated 2-3 million pilgrims & visitors from all parts of India and abroad converge for the celebrations from a week before Holi, it is the most opportune time for the Foundation to draw attention to the holy city’s history & unique traditions. The endeavour of the Foundation also seeks to strive for a Drug free Punjab and wean the youth towards sports for a healthy and productive life-style.”
Mr Vikram is Managing Trustee at Anandpur Sahib Heritage Foundation, Owner at Delhi Polo & Riding Club. He is passionate about polo and himself a Polo player of international repute. He has introduced the sport to Holla Mohalla in collaboration with the Delhi Polo and Riding Club.
The next day, I started the day with Ms Madhu singing old Bollywood classics over breakfast in the dining hall of haveli. I nagged her to sing since I knew she’s a trained singer.Ms. Madhu is Media and Event Consultant & Coordinator
Many thanks to Mr. Gursharan Singh and Mr. Kamlesh from Punjab tourism board, for their hospitality and guidance. I am also thankful to Mr Sukhwinder for making life easy by transporting me throughout on spacious Innova.
- Nihangs and locals are very well behaved and mostly busy in their own world. Even if you get into a conflict with them (99 % you will not), avoid arguments. It’s their domain. Set your ego aside and respect the people you are shooting.
- Carry a scarf/handkerchief or buy a headgear (Rs.20) on the spot. You need to cover the head when you enter Gurudwaras, langars, poetry sessions, even stadium. Warning : If you forget to carryone, be ready to end up looking as ridiculous as I did (See picture)
- Wear appropriate clothes. Avoid shorts, revealing clothes.
- Don’t harass people when you click them. Mostly, they will harass you to click them. I shot many people none of whom objected. Take permission before you shoot.
How to Reach :
It’s 2.5 hours on road from Chandigarh. Alternatively, take up a train till Anandpur Sahib if the timings match yours. Look out for sunsets and Veer Zara wala Gurudwara.
The dates keep changing every year. Google the Holi dates for the year.
Got any questions? Ask in the comments below.
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The content produced here is original and its copyright stays with Abhinav Singh. The same can not be reproduced without permission.