Punjab : The Fairs & Festivals
Fairs or Melas in Punjabi are synonymous with the joy and gaiety; and in the countryside where the life follows a hard routine, nothing is more welcome to the people than the prospect of a festival or a mela. A rural mela in Punjab has a great significance. It is not just an occasion for festivity and mass gathering but it is an unbounded expression of the spirit of the inner freedom, of creative pride, of zest for life, and of colorful traditions of the people of Punjab.
People come to participate in fairs from far-off places, trudging dusty distances. Most of the fairs are held in memory of a saint or a pir, and people from all communities living in a village participate in it. Men women and children of all ages, classes and creeds flock in hundreds and enjoy the numerous fascinating features of the fair; races, wrestling bouts, singing, acrobatics, etc. They play on folk instruments, such as vanjli and algoza.
A fair is enchantingly picturesque. A bustling market springs up in which articles of food and products of local handicrafts-toys, glass bangles, and an assortment of all kinds of articles for domestic use are on display. There is fun and frolic all round. The gay ones in small groups sing boli’s and perform folk-dances to the strain of the vanjli and algoza. The sturdy ones test their strength in wrestling fields. It is a feast of color and gaiety and fully reflects the joy of the community. The fairs of the Punjab are linked with its culture and reflect by and large the various phases of its life.
Distinct Punjabi traits are depicted in them. They may be divided into the following types
Fairs held in honor of saints
Fairs connected with festivals
Basant Panchami is the most famous of the seasonal fairs. It heralds the advent of spring. Fields of mustard present a unique and colorful sight all over rural Punjab, which looks like a newly wedded damsel resplendent in her gorgeous golden yellow. There is a spirit of gay abandon in the air and the Punjabi is rightly infected with the spirit. His heart and soul become one with nature and he expresses his elevated spirit in song and dance.
The Basant fair is held in many villages of’ the Punjab. People put on yellow costumes appropriate to the season. One huge mass of mustard blossom seems walking down to the fair. Before Partition the main fair was celebrated in Lahore at the samadi (tomb) of Hakeekat Rai who, though a mere lad, preferred martyrdom at the hands of the Mughuls to swerving from his chosen path of duty. Kite-flying was a popular entertainment of the people on this occasion. Often on the Basant Panchami day, if there is a good breeze, one could see nothing but innumerable multi-colored kites in the sky, swishing over in all directions.
Baisakhi is a seasonal festival with a special accent. It is celebrated all over the State on the first of Baisakhi. This is the time when harvest is gathered in and the farmer exults in the fulfillment of his year’s hard work. He joins the merry-making with full gusto and does not mind walking for miles to be able to do so. Since this fair is also an expression of prosperity, singing and dancing constitute its most enchanting features. The Punjab’s famous Bhangra and Giddha are inextricably linked with this festival
Many fairs in the Punjab are held near the tombs and shrines of pirs. These fairs must have originated in a spirit of devotion to those saints and sages. The most famous among such fairs are the Chhapar fair, the Jarag fair, and the Roshni fair of Jagranyan.
This fair is held on Anand Chaudas, the 14th day of the bright half of Bhadon in honor of Gugga Pir. A big shrine known as ‘Gugge di Marhi’ has been built in his memory. He was a Chauhan Rajput and, according to legend, he gently descended into the bosom of Mother Earth along with his steed, and never returned. He was believed to possess special power over all kinds of snakes.
On the day this fair is held, villagers scoop the earth seven times because they believe that in this way they invoke Gugga Pir to protect them against snakes. This shrine has a reputation for curing people of snake-bite. It is strongly believed that if a person is bitten by a snake, all that has to be done is to take him to the shrine and lay him beside it, he is then sure to be cured. This shrine was built in 1890. This fair provides occasion for folk-songs and folk-dances. Young people form themselves into groups and go about dancing and singing for hours. The fair lasts three days.
Gugga Naumi, which is a festival in honor of Gugga Pir, also falls in Bhadon. The pir’s devotees paint his image on the wall in turmeric, as also paint a snake in black right in front of it, and then perform the ritual of worship. People also pour milk and butter milk into the holes of snakes. Sweet sevian is the special dish of the festival. The Lalbagis who are devout followers of Gugga Pir, also known as Zahir Pir, erect a long pole covered with flags, colored cloth, coconuts, etc., and render worship to it as to a God. The devotees carry the pir’s standard from house to house and beg. The disciple who carries the standard is known as the pir’s horse. The privilege of carrying the standard is much coveted.
This fair is held in Jarag, a village in tehsil Pail. It is held in Chet (March-April) in honor of the goddess Seetla. It is also known as the Baheria fair. Sweet gulgulas (jaggery cakes fried in oil) are prepared one day earlier and then given in offering to the goddess and thereafter to the donkey who is her favorite. After propitiating the goddess, the family members cat the remaining savory gulgulas with great relish. This festival is observed in Malwa and Powad but the fair is held only in Jarag. There is a pond where the devotees of Seetla gather. They scoop the earth and raise a small hillock, which is accorded the status of the goddess’s shrine. Potters specially bring their donkeys decked in colored blankets.
The Roshni Fair (Fair of the lights)
This fair is held in Jagranvan from the 14th to the 16th of Phagun in honor of a Muslim Pir, Abdul Kader Jalani. It is held in the vicinity of his tomb. Although it is a Muslim fair in origin, the Hindus of the area also flock to the site of this shrine. Even after Partition, this fair has been held regularly. It is called the ‘fair of lights’ because innumerable devotees who come to visit the place light earthen lamps at the shrine of the pir. The lights are visible from long distances. It is believed that whatever wish one sincerely makes at the shrine of this pir is granted. Young people sing bolian and perform dances, thus adding to the gaiety and glamour of the fair. It is sheer delight to villagers performing dances and singing songs to the sweet strains of the flute and the one-stringed instrument called Toomba.
Haider Sheikh at Malerkotla
A big fair is held for four days every year in Malerkotla at the shrine of Haider Sheikh. It is largely attended. It is believed that if childless women visit the shrine of Haider Sheikh and propitiate the pir, their wish for progeny is granted. Another belief is that if someone overpowered by a malignant spirit or under the effect of an evil shadow comes here during these days, he will be cured if he propitiates the pir at the shrine and offers rots (large sweet cakes) specially cooked.
On the 14th of Chet, a fair is held in Dhesian Sang (Philaur) at the shrine and in honor of Baba Sang.
Another fair is held at the tomb of Khwaja Roshan in Har on every first Thursday after the new moon.
Mir Shah Husain
In Nakodar a Hindu-Muslim fair is held at village Kara at the shrine of Mir Shah Husain, who, according to legend, lived about five hundred years ago.
Baba Jawahar Singh
At Khatkar Kalan (Nawanshehar) a fair is held on Baisakhi day in memory of Baba Jawahar Singh.
Shiy Chaudas, is held at Paddi Matwali (Nawanshehar) on the 14th of Chet on the bank of the river Bein.
In March, at Nathana (Ferozepur) a fair is held in honor of a Hindu saint, Kalu. He is said to have dug a large pond in one scoop and deposited the dug-up earth in a close by heap, which now forms the object of popular veneration
It is one of the largest Sikh fairs held in the Punjab. The fair is held in the middle of January on the Makar Sankranti day. It is one of the great Sikh festivals, and lasts for three days. On the first day the worshippers bathe in the sacred tank. On the second day the people go in a procession (mohalla) to the three holy mounds which lie to the north-west of the town, namely, Rikab Sahib, Tibbi Sahib, and Mukhwanjana Sahib. The Rikab Sahib, a. mound formed out of the handfuls of earth taken from the tank by the faithful and thrown there, commemorates the spot where the Guru’s stirrup broke. The procession goes up the slope to the Tibbi Sahib which, crowned with a Gurudwara, is the mound where Guru Gobind Singh stood and aimed his arrows at the imperial forces. The devotees then proceed to the Mukhwanjana Sahib where the Guru is said to have cleaned his teeth with a tooth-stick. Prayers are offered here and the devotees then return. This mound has been built in the same way as the Rikab Sahib. On their return trip people visit the Tambu Sahib where the Guru’s tent was pitched before the fight started, the Shahid Ganj, which is the samadhi of the forty martyrs, and the Darbar Sahib, where the Guru held his darbar after the cremation of the slain. The festival is in commemoration of a battle fought in 1705-06 by Guru Gobind Singh against the pursuing imperial forces, which overtook him here and cut his followers to pieces. The Guru himself escaped and had the bodies of his followers disposed of with the usual rites. He declared that they had all obtained mukti and promised the same blessings to all his followers, who should thereafter, on the anniversary of that day, bathe in the Holy Pool which had been filled by rain from heaven in answer to his prayer for water. On this spot a fine tank was afterwards dug by Maharaja Ranjlt Singh and called Muktsar (the pool of salvation.
This mela is held in December at Sirhind(Fatehgarh Sahib). It is celebrated in the memory of Guru Gobind Singh’s younger sons who were entombed alive here by the mughals. Today it is an important center of pilgrimage, drawing the devout to pay homage.
This religious fervour culminates in the exuberant festivities of the jor mela, when hundreds of thousands of people gather here in rememberance and devotion. Hymn and recitation of the holy epic are sung by folk minstrels. The Guru ka Langar caters to the milling, jostling devotees but there are also rows of stalls offering tasty sweets and variety of exotic handicrafts, jewellery, traditional weapons and costumes.
The most colorful and hilarious of all the festivals, which are celebrated in, Punjab is Holi, celebrated on the full moon day of Phagun. Holi is a festival of colors. The revelers embrace their friends and relatives, and go out in groups, embrace their near one another with liquid colors and gulal. A big fair known as Hola Mohala is held at Anandpur on the next day after Holi. People come from far-off places to join it.
Each year, spring is ushered in by the Sikhs with the celebration of a vigorous and colorful festival at Anandpur Sahib. The festival is slated for the day after Holi and is called Hola Mohalla.
It was here at Anandpur Sahib that Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth and last guru, instituted the pahul (baptism of the Khalsas), and elected the panj pyare (the beloved five), and militarized his followers into the order of Nihangs (warrior-mendicants) at this site.
This festival of the Nihangs held at their headquarters Anandpur Sahib began as a counterpart to Holi. Though it almost did away with the throwing of colors, nonetheless, it is more colorful.
Martial arts like archery, sword fencing, fancy horse-riding, tent-pegging, and the deft handling of other contraptions of offence and defense are displayed by the Nihangs. Spectacular and thrilling acts of dare-devilry nimbly executed are performed. The festivities close with a ceremonial procession taken through the township. The langar (community feast) is open through the day and lasts as long as there are any takers.
Dressed in along tunic of bright deep blue, an elaborate turban, sometimes of enormous size, at times banded with strips of bright yellow, armed with weapons of one’s liking – bows and arrows, spears, swords and shield, muskets, guns or what have you – the Nihang displays his skills at this festival of valor, a pageant of the past.
The festivals held in honor of the Sikh Gurus are called Gurupurabs. They are well spread over the year but there are three important ones. On the full moon of Kartik the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak is celebrated by the devotees with great ardor. Two days earlier a non-stop reading of the Adi Granth is started. At different places religious congregations are held and hymns from the Granth Sahib are chanted. Large processions and are taken out through the towns. At night buildings are illuminated. The birth anniversary of Guru Gobind Singh is also celebrated in a similar manner. The third important Gurupurab is the one associated with the martyrdom of Guru Arjan Dev.
The festivals connected with the lunar days, Ekadashi (eleventh lunar day), Pooranmashi (full moon), and Masya (new moon) occur every rnonth. Similarly, Sankranti, when the sun enters the new Zodiac sign, is celebrated on the first of every month of the Vikrarmi era with great gusto. It is also an occasion to prepare and eat the nicest of foods.
In the Punjab, where the Vikrami era is followed, the year begins with Chet (March-April). On the first of this month the arrival of the new year is celebrated by the performance of a ritual of taking the new corn, known as ann nawan karna. Sheafs of new corn are roasted and then the parched grain is eaten. Everyone must have a bath on the new year day, and put on new clothes. Delicacies like kheer and halwa are prepared and eaten.
It is one of the most popular festivals of the Punjab, with fairs held at various places. Baisakhi, the first day of the month of Baisakh (April/May) is New Year’s Day, going by the Saka calendar. It corresponds to April 13th of the Gregorian calendar. Essentially it is a North Indian harvest festival, for it is the day when the reaping of the rabi (winter crop) begins. The jubilation at a bountiful harvest becomes the reason for celebration.
Through celebrated all over North India, it is nowhere as colorful as it is in Punjab, India’s granary. The joy of the energetic Punjabis is manifest in the strenuous folk dance, the Bhangra. This dance usually enacts the entire process of agriculture from the tilling of the soil through harvesting. As the beat of the dholak (drum) changes, the sequences progress. The dance movements express ploughing, sowing, weeding, reaping and winnowing. The final sequence shows the farmer celebrating the harvest.
Though in real life the farmer has to toil hard in order to win grain from the soil, this dance shows him performing his labors with grace and ease, a smile to his lips. Women too join the men, both at reaping during the day, and in the many dances and folk songs at evening. Baisakhi has a special significance for the Hindus. It is believed that the Ganga descended to the earth on this auspicious day. The Kumbha is held every twelve years at Hardwar on this occasion.
For the Sikhs the day has a deep religious meaning. At Anandpur this day in 1699 AD, the tenth and last Guru, Gobind Singh, baptized the Sikhs into the Khalsa, meaning the Elect. This baptism of the sword, called pahul, led to the creating of the panch pyare, the Beloved Five. The Sikhs became a militant order so as to meet the challenges of persecution at the hands of the Mughal rulers. The Khalsa was to adopt the panch kakkas, (the five K’s), Kesh (unshorn hair), kanga (small boxwood comb in their hair), kaccha (a pair of shorts), kara (a steel bangle), and a kirpan (a short dagger), which have since become their distinctive signs. The Guru enthused their valor by calling them Singh (lion), now a suffix to every Sikh’s name. To commemorate the day of the initiation of the sword, a large number of Sikhs flock to Harmandir Sahib (the Golden Temple, Amritsar), their major shrine. They take a dip in the holy Amrit sarovar (pool of nectar), the lake in the midst of which the Golden Temple stands. Religious service follows in the form of Akhand Paath – an end chanting of the holy
On the eleventh day of the bright half of Jeth (May-June) falls Nirjala Ekadashi, which is better known in the Punjab as Nimani Kasti. Hindus, especially women, observe fast on this day and smear the body with powdered sandalwood. This fast is very hard to keep because for the whole day one has to abstain even from water. Charitably inclined people put up stalls for free distribution of sweetened and chilled water. The stalls, known as chhabils, are a common sight on this day
Teeyan, a festival of the rainy season, is celebrated on the 3rd of the bright fortnight of Sawan (July-August). The four months from Harh (June-July) to the first half of Assu (September) are called Chaumasa. During this period the sky generally remains overcast and the weather shifts between sultriness and rainfall. Rains bring the longed-for relief to the heat-stricken Punjabis, and the rhythm of the little and big drops of rain instills in them the enthusiasm which must seek expression in fun and frolic. A newly-married girl looks forward to the rainy days when a brother or some other male relative from the parental home may come to escort her to her father’s place. This reversal from bride to being just a daughter again is such a liberating and thrilling experience that it cannot be put into words. One day before the Teeyan, girls apply henna to their hands and feet, and on the day of the festival they put on their best clothes and go out to the fair. The fair resounds with the songs of love and the rhythm of dance. The songs are known as Teeyan songs. The Giddha dance has become a regular and most enchanting feature of this festival. At home women make kheer, a dish specially associated with Sawan.
In Bhadon, on the day of the full moon, the Rakhi festival is celebrated. On this day sisters tie the multicolored thread on the right wrist of their brothers. So long as a sister has not tied the rakhi to her brother, she is not supposed to eat anything. After she has done so she offers some sweets to her brother and he in return gives her some gift or money. Rakhi is meant to remind the brother of his promise to protect his sister whenever she needs this protection. The true origin of this festival is, however, lost in antiquity.
The Dussehra festival, as in most other parts of India, is celebrated in a big way. This festival marks the victory of good over evil. Big tall effigies of Ravana, Kumbhkarna and Meghnath are burnt at a large number of places. During the Nauratas Ram Lila is organized at innumerable places in the State. This song and drama has, from year to year, contributed largely to the continuance of the tradition of folk-drama in India
In Kartik, on the fourth lunar day falls Karva Chauth. On this day married women observe a fast and pray for the long life of their husbands. Sometimes even unmarried girls observe this fast and pray for their husbands-to-be. In a way this is the mother-in-law’s day too, because it is customary on this day for the daughter-in-law to present her offerings-(Baya) in the form of money and eatables.
On the eleventh lunar day in this month falls the festival of Devuthan (waking up the deities). Metal plates are beaten in order to awaken the deities who are supposed to go to sleep between the summer harvest and the first ploughing after the start of the autumnal rains.
Earthen lamps or candles are lighted over buildings all over the State. People celebrate the festival with great gusto. Houses are white-washed days ahead of it, new clothes are purchased and sweets of all kinds are prepared. People worship Goddess Lakshmi with an offering of sweets and silver coins. Thereafter they distribute sweets among friends and relatives. It is believed that on this night Goddess Lakshmi in the company of Vidmata (goddess of fate) takes a round of every house and wherever she takes a fancy, she bestows immense prosperity.
In the Golden Temple of Amritsar, Diwali is celebrated with great eclat. Earthen lamps are lighted all round the holy tank and their undulating reflections in the water look extremely fascinating. Sikhs started celebrating Diwali at Amritsar from the time of their Sixth Master, Guru Hargobind. When he rescued fifty-two rajas from imperial detention in the fort of Gwalior and reached Amritsar, the residents there welcomed him by illuminating the whole-city.
Lohri, which comes on the last day of Poh (December-January), is another extremely popular festival. A few days before it arrives youngsters get together in groups and go round their localities singing folk-songs connected with Lohri and collecting fuel and money for the bonfire. This is a special day for making offerings to fire. When fire is lit up in the evening, orthodox men and women go round it, pour offerings into it, and bow before it in reverence. The first Lohri for a new bride, or a new-born babe, is enthusiastically celebrated, and sweets are distributed.
One of the stories behind the celebration of this festival goes like this;
Somewhere between Gujaranwala and Sialkot in Pakistan now, there was a thick forest called Rakh. There used to live a Muslim Dacoit named Dulla Bhatti, the Robinhood of Punjab. He was brave, generous and provided maximum help to everyone in distress. During the reign of Jahangir, a middle class Hindu who was a jealous and a cunning man spread a rumor that his niece was very beautiful and would do credit to muslim harem. On hearing this, the mughal officers wanted to carry her off forcibely. The girls father was extreamly worried and sought the protection of Dulla Bhatti. Dulla at once got her married to a young Hindu boy at a simple ceremony in the forest.
He lit the sacred fire in keeping with the Hindu custom. Since there was no priest to chant the holy mantras, he broke into a hiliarious song composed extepore to add chear to the occasion. This song is sung even today on the occasion.
The song goes ;
Sunder mundriye Ho
Tera kaun bachera Ho
Dhulla bhatti wala Ho
Dulle dhi vaiahi Ho
Ser Shakar Pai Ho
Kudi de boje pai Ho
Kudi da lal pataka Ho
Kudi da salu pata Ho
Salu kaun samete Ho
Chacha gal dese Ho
Chache churi kuti Ho
Jimindara luti Ho
Jimindara sado Ho
Gin gin paule lao Ho
Ik paula reh gaya
Sepai fadh kei lai gaya
Sepai ne mari it
Next day after Lohri comes Maghi, also called Makar Yonkranti (entry of the sun in the sign or Capricorn). It is very popular with the punjabis. On this day fairs are held at many places. The people go out for a holy dip and give away a lot of charity. The special dish of the day is kheer cooked in sugarcane juice.