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Lohri – The Harvest Festival

Originally posted in NRI Achievers Magazine


As the Sun travels towards south on the celestial sphere, the Dakshinayana Period is observed as per ancient Indian philosophy. This period starts from Karka Sankranti (Cancer) on July 16 and goes till January, which is celebrated as Makar Sankranti (Capricorn). In western world, this transition from Dakshinayana to Uttarayana is known as Winter Solstice. In simpler words, Winter Solstice is the shortest day and longest night of the year. This event is celebrated across globe and all ancient cultures mark it as one of the most important days of the year. Let’s have a look:

It has been proven that the Stonehenge in England and Newgrange in Ireland have their primary axes carefully aligned on a line of sight pointing to winter solstice Sunset and Sunrise respectively. These monuments were sites of worship and celebration.

In Northern Europe, a 12-day winter solstice is celebrated in form of a festival called ‘Yule’. Many modern day Christmas traditions and practices are inherited from this festival.

Traditionally, the Winter Solstice in European region is celebrated on 25th December. In Asia, it is celebrated few weeks later, on 13th/14th January. This period is also the period of harvest and of utmost importance for all cultures, that depend on agriculture.

The Julian calendar starts from 14th January and the Russian Orthodox church still celebrates it as the Old New Year. This Julian new year, aka Orthodox new year is also celebrated in many European & African countries including Serbia, Kosovo, Bosnia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Georgia, Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Montenegro, Moldova, Ukraine, Wales, Switzerland, Scotland, Herzegovina, Morocco, Libya and Montenegro. In many regions, it is also known as Little Christmas. Traditions in some of these countries are similar to how we celebrate in South Asia, especially the Bonfire.

Now let’s talk about South Asia. Being primarily into Agriculture, this festival of Harvest is one of the most important festivals in region. Hindu Tradition celebrates this date as Makar Sankranti. The Punjab region calls it Maghi. Instead of celebrating it on exact date of Winter Solstice, festival is observed on the last day of month, in which Winter Solstice occurs. Technically, this celebration is the passing of winter solstice and harvest. Maghi or Makar Sankranti is also seen as the start of new financial year. The new year’s eve is celebrated as Lohri in North India. If we look at the geographic position of North India, 13th January is the day every year, after which sunrise starts to happen earlier every morning until June, when this cycle reverses.

Global Economy used to rely on Barter System for ages. My mother tells me that her grandfather used to repair tools and equipment used by farmers. For most of the repairs, he was not paid. But during harvest, every farmer in village would come to gift a share of their crop. There were special store rooms and silos, where this harvest was kept. The extra stuff was sold to get money for rest of the year and silos were always full for food till next harvest season. In such happy times, it was obvious that many traditions were born. For example, before Lohri, children would go from door to door asking for treats. Kite flying, participating in fairs and dance is the most common of all. Since the Lohri night would be the longest night of year, everyone would gather around a bonfire and spend time singing, dancing, celebrating and hoping for better time ahead.

As we know, men used to work in farms. A boy born in any house that year becomes more important for families, as he would grow up to support in Agriculture. Lohri slowly became a festival, where families would celebrate the birth of a boy. The tradition still continues.

A very interesting character associated with this festival of Lohri is Rai Abdulla Bhatti, popularly known as Dulla Bhatti in Pakistan and Northern India. He was a Muslim Rajput, born to Farid and Ladhi in Pindi Bhattian same day as Prince Salim (later Emperor Jahangir) was born to Akbar. Someone prophesized that Salim would survive only if he is nursed by a Rajput woman. Hence, Emperor Akbar invited Ladhi to be the wet nurse of his beloved ‘Shekhu’ (as he called him). Despite of the fact that Ladhi’s husband and father-in-law rebelled against Akbar’s land revenue law (Zabt System) and died fighting against the throne, this decision was taken keeping in mind that Ladhi comes from the bravest Rajput Muslims families of region. Another reason of this diplomatic decision was to keep a check on her and her son Dulla, so he cannot be a rebel like his father and grandfather. But Dulla Bhatti kept his family legacy and became the local hero, the Robin Hood of Punjab. He rebelled against Mughal court, looted from the rich noblemen and distributed everything amongst the poor. He was known to support poor girls and arrange for their marriages with heavy dowry. Since the Zabt System of Akbar and his finance minister Todar Mal took away the land of many landlords, they were all supporting Dulla Bhatti. These landlords had no money left and Dulla became their biggest support for survival. Fearing that more and more people are joining Dulla, Akbar had to shift his capital from Fatehpur Sikri to Lahore for several years. Ultimately, he was arrested and executed publically by Mughals, in the Landa Bazaar of Lahore. But his legacy remained in the form of folklores and every Lohri, tales of his bravery are sung, blessing sons to be as brave as him. The most popular folk-song, attributed to him is:

Sunder mundriye ho! Tera kaun vicharaa ho!
Dullah Bhatti walla ho! Dullhe ne dhee vyayae ho!
Ser shakkar payee ho! Kudi da laal pattaka ho!
Kudi da saalu paata ho! Salu kaun samete ho!
Chacha gaali dese ho! Chache choori kutti ho!
zamidara lutti ho! Zamindaar sudhaye ho!
Ke Gin Gin bhole aaye ho!
Ek bhola reh gaya! Sipahee far ke lai gaya!
Sipahee ne mari itt! Bhaanvey ro te bhaanvey pitt!
Sanoo de de Lohri, te teri jeeve jodi!

This festival of harvest is known with different names in different parts of the country. From Pongal to Bihu and from Bhogi to Lal Loi, the celebration of winter solstice has its own charm and different folklores to tell. The stories shall remain alive in our hearts, as long as we continue to embrace our past.

Festival of Colours, Water, Sticks & Swords–Holi

From Akitu to Sham el-Nessim and from May Day to Easter, entire world celebrates spring. Scientifically, this season is one of the most important seasons because the axis of Earth is increased relative to Sun, which causes the length of daylight to increase and the days become warmer. The snow begins to melt and water streams start flowing throughout the lands. The light warmth provides perfect weather for plants to nourish and this period gains its own agricultural importance. With this, primarily agricultural countries mark this season’s beginning as the most important event of their calendar. Most cultures celebrate it as their New Year and with time, many folklores, legends and mythical stories got associated with it.

People living in Indian Subcontinent have their own versions of Spring Festival. Some call it Phagwah, some say Dolajatra, some Basantotsav, some Shigmo, and majority of population celebrate it as “Holi”. For the followers of Hindu religion, the auspicious festival of Holi is celebrated on the day, when “Holika”, sister of “Hiranyakashyap” died. According to Hindu mythology, king Hiranyakashyap was Lord Vishnu’s gatekeeper but due to a curse, he was reborn as an Asura (demon) in Moolsthan (present day Multan). He declared himself as god and ordered his subjects to worship only him. However, his own son “Prahlad” becomes devoted to Lord Vishnu and disobeys his father’s commandments. Angry from this act, Hiranyakashyap orders his sister “Holika” to take Prahlad in her lap and sit on a bonfire. Holika had a cloak, which would prevent her from fire. However, as the bonfire started, the air blew off the cloak and covered Prahlad. As a result, Holika was burnt alive and Prahlad was saved. Since then, the night when Holika died is celebrated as Holika Dehan (Burning of Holika) and the next day is celebrated as “Holi”, the festival of colours. Another symbolic myth connects this festival with the death of demon Pootna, who came to poison infant Lord Krishna.

But in Barsana (near Mathura), the tales goes like this: Lord Krishna visited his beloved Radha’s village and playfully teased her friends. At this, the women of Barsana chased him away with sticks. Since then, groups from Krishna’s village (Nandgaon) visit Barsana during Holi and get chased away, and sometimes beaten with sticks by the people of Barsana. It is popular by name“Lath-Maar Holi” (Literally: Stick hitting holi).

Another interesting form of Holi is celebrated in hill areas of Kumaun in India. Here, instead of colours and water, people sit across and sing the songs of Holi. It therefore got its name “Baithaki Holi” (Sitting Holi). Soon, another form of Kumaoni Holi was developed, called “Khadhi Holi” (Standing Holi), where these songs were sung standing. Some parts also celebrate “Mahila Holi” (Women’s Holi), where only ladies participate and sing songs. Even Goan version called “Shigmo” concentrates more on Singing and Dancing.

In Punjab, a totally different form of celebrating Holi is observed. During the times of Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth spiritual master of Sikhs, the people of Punjab was struggling with the Mughal Armies for their survival. While they were celebrating all festivals, the important festival, which also marks the New Year was to be given some special importance. Hence, the war cry (Halla) gave the name ‘Holla Mohalla’, where mohalla means ‘to gather/assemble’. Guru Gobind Singh jee used this occasion of Holi to do mock war drills at the fort of Holgarh. This became a gazetted festival during the British Raj and is celebrated till date at the city of Anandpur, where Sikhs, who practice the Sikh form of Martial Arts, called ‘Gatka’ gather every year and exhibit their talent and skills with weapons and horses.

We find many Mughal paintings where the emperor or the members of royal family are enjoying Holi. We find references of the term “Eid-e-Gulabi” and “Aab-e-Paashi”. Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last mughal emperor, who is also the founder of Luv-Kush Ramlila Committee, the oldest continously performing Ramlila Committee in world, allowed his Hindu ministers to smear his forehead with gulaal. This was perhaps the only occasion, when someone was able to touch the emperor, other than on his hands or feet. Jahangir in Tuzk-e-Jahangiri talks about Mehfil-e-Holi that he used to organize. Muhammad Shah Rangeela is shown running around the palace, with his wives trying to drench him with pichkaaris.

Though celebration of Holi by Muslims of India started centuries before this. In the works of Khwaja Nizamuddin Auliya and Hazrat Amir Khusrow, we see the fondness for the “pink festival”. Special musical events were organized in the courtyards of nobles on holis. They earned a nick-name ‘Kufr-Kachehri’ (Mock court). From Quli Qutub Shah of Hyderabad to Mir Taqi Mir while in court of Awadh’s Nawab have written praises and descriptions of Holi.

While majority of Indians celebrate Holi with colours and water many others have their own way of celebrating. Some simply sing, some dance, and some take out their weapons to demonstrate war drills and martial talent. All this happens to mark the beginning of the Spring season. This diversity in Indian culture makes it so special and unique. The celebration of this spring festival is not limited to Hindu or Sikh community in India. The followers of Islam also got drenched in the colours of Holi at one time in the subcontinent. Famous sufi mystic Hazrat Baba Bulleh Shah looked at this festival as a connecting factor between him and his holy god. He wrote:

“Hori khelungi keh bismillah!
Naam nabi ki ratn chadhi
Boond padi allah allah
Rang rangeeli ohi khilave
Jis seekhi ho fana fi allah
Alastu bi rabbikum Pritam bole
Sab sakhiyon ne ghoonghat khole
Qalu Bala yun hi kar bole
La ilaha illallah
Hori khelungi keh bismillah!”

– Bulleh Shah

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