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Communal harmony, the Delhi way


IT IS time for Phool Walon-ki-Sair again. The shehnai is being played in Chandni Chowk and the members of the Anjuman Sair-e-Gul Faroshan have visited the Lt.-Governor and Chief Minister's houses to offer them floral pankhas. The festival, unique to Delhi, owes its origin to an incident in the Red Fort in the second decade of the 19th Century. Mirza Jahangir, favourite son of Moghul Emperor Akbar Shah II, was denied the right to be his successor in preference to his elder brother Abul Zafar (who later came to be known as Bahadur Shah Zafar). The emperor was frustrated at the British attitude, which was very correct, in the sense that a younger brother could not usurp the right of the elder one to become Wali-ehad. Mirza Jahangir also thought that he had been treated unjustly as he was the son of the emperor's favourite Begum, Mumtaz Mahal-II, who happened to be Zafar's stepmother.

One day when the British Resident at the court went to meet Akbar Shah, the topic of succession came up again but the Resident, (Charles Seton) stated the East India Company's known position very firmly and said it was not possible to accept the contention being made by the emperor. Angry at this Mriza Jahangir fired at Seton just as he was leaving the Red Fort but missed. Seton turned his horse back and asked the prince to apologise but he refused. The Resident then went back to his residence and returned with a whole posse of British troops.

The prince was arrested and sent to exile to Allahabad about the year 1812. His mother pined for him and vowed that if he were to return she would offer a Chadar and floral Pankha at the Shrine of Hazrat Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki at Mehrauli and another pankha at the Yog Maya Mandir close by.

Communal harmony

As things turned out, her wish came true. Mirza Jahangir was sent back to Delhi after the British relented and there were grand celebrations with drummers and shehnai players carrying floral pankhas to the mazar and temple in Mehrauli. Since then the festival has been observed in Delhi, as a symbol of communal harmony, except for brief periods - during and after the Mutiny of 1857 and then again in the 1940s right up to some years after the Partition. But Jawaharlal Nehru revived the festival in 1961 and so it continues with many States taking part.

Incidentally, Mirza Jahangir's behaviour on his return to Delhi worsened and Akbar Shah agreed with the British (after he tried to poison his elder brother twice) that he be sent back to Allahabad. Here he whiled away his time in drinking Hoffmann's cherry brandy and making merry with dancing girls.

Phool Walon-ki-Sair now wends its way through Mehrauli to the Jharna led by shehnai players in brocade sherwanis and then to Jahaz Mahal. This Mahal is shaped like a ship, hence its name. The mahal is located in a corner of Hauz Shamsi and is believed to date back to the Lodi area. It was built as a retreat for the emperor during the summer months when the heat and dust of Delhi made life uncomfortable even for the royal family. Some say that it was a resort for pilgrims. At that time too the Capital had many Muslim shrines to which pilgrims came from Turkey, Iraq, Iran, Morocco, Arabia and Afghanistan. It is believed that Jahaz Mahal was constructed after 1451 and before 1526, prior to Babar's invasion and the advent of Moghul rule.

A forgotten past

One is impressed by the rectangular courtyard in the centre of Jahaz Mahal, the arched chambers at the sides and an arch which gives the impression that part of the mahal was a mosque. There are blue tiles in the pavilion which leads to the gateway and the monument has square towers or chattries at its backdrop at Phool Walon ki-Sair every year when a chadar is offered at Qutab Sahib's grave and the next day a pankha of Yog Maya's Mandir, cultural troupes from different States of the country vie here for honours as they enact programmes of songs, dances and drama in costumes that are typical of the region from which they come. Some are even dressed in period costume. Prizes are given to the best performers. But how many of those who take part in the variety entertainment know how this beautiful festival of communal harmony began?

R.V.SMITH

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