Eid-e-Gulabi: Holi in Mughal Times

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Eid-e-Gulabi: Holi in Mughal Times

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Syncretism in India was actually inspired and introduced by the holiest Sufi saint of Delhi, Hazrat Nizamuddin Auliya and his disciple, Amir Khusrau. Called Eid-e-Gulabi or Aab-e-Pashi (Shower of Colourful Flowers), Holi would be celebrated on the same scale as Eid in the Red Fort. In Mughal times, the fiesta of Holi lasted for days during which people, irrespective of religious or social boundaries, took part in it. The poorest of the poor could apply colour to the emperor. 

Different Mughal rulers had different ways of celebrating Holi. Babur often celebrated Holi by dousing in a pool full of wine. Abul Fazal writes in Ain-e-Akbari that Akbar used to collect beautiful water guns (pichkaaris) of different sizes throughout the year which clearly shows his excitement. This used to be one of the rare occasions when Akbar would come out from his fort in Agra and play Holi with even the common people. 

In Tuzuk-e-Jahangiri, Jahangir mentions that he played Holi actively and organized Mehfil-e-Holi. Paintings of Jahangir playing Holi with Noor Jahan, have been painted by many artists including Govardhan and Rasik. In Tuzuk-e-Jahangiri, Jahangir (1569 –1627) writes: “Their day is Holi, which in their belief is the last day of the year. This day falls in the month of Isfandarmudh, when the sun is in Pisces. On the eve of this day, they light fires in all the lanes and streets. When it is daylight, they spray powder on each other’s heads and faces for one watch and create an amazing uproar. After that, they wash themselves, put their clothes on, and go to gardens and fields. Since it is an established custom among the Hindus to burn their dead, the lighting of fires on the last night of the year is a metaphor for burning the old year as though it were a corpse.”

Jahangir celebrates the Hindu festival of Holi, unknown artist, c 1635. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

Shah Jahan would watch the Holi celebrations from the jharokas of his Red Fort in Delhi. During Shah Jahan’s rule, a Holi carnival was organised near what is today called Rajghat which included performances in which jesters would imitate the king and princes and nobody took offence in this. The Emperor would reward these artists handsomely. 

Bahadur Shah Zafar went as far as making Holi the official festival of the Red Fort and a new genre of Urdu poetry called Hori was also patronized by him, which was sung on the day of Holi. He allowed his Hindu ministers to fill his forehead with gulal on the day of the festival. He believed that his belief for his religion cannot be affected by this social ritual. 

At night, there would be a celebration of Holi on a grand scale in the Red Fort with singing and dancing throughout the night. The nobility and the royalty exchanged rose-water bottles and sprinkled scented water on each other along with the frenzied beating of nagadas. 

This is often called the Ganga-Jamuni tehzeeb which prevailed all over India right till the 19th century. It still exists in most parts of the Indian sub-continent despite many attempts to divide and rule. As many artists point out, the colours are smeared to smudge off any trace of identity and erase all differences among humans, so that all of us can be one.

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