This heritage walk coincides with the Festival of Flower Sellers (Phoolwalon ki Sair) organised every year in Delhi. We shared stories of the festival, its history, its performance & visited sites in Mehrauli village where the festival was held. Two key sites in the Sair are Yogmaya Temple & dargah of Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki. The festival involves offering a chadar (sheet) of flowers at the dargah & pankha (fan) of flowers at the temple.
The beginnings of the Sair, goes back to the Mughal times. By the end of 18th century, Mughal power had effectively declined & the real power lay with the English East India Company. At Red Fort, the Company had an ambassador, the Resident, who controlled pretty much everything in the empire. The Mughal emperor, at this time is, Akbar Shah II, whose son is Mirza Jahangir. The Emperor favoured Mirza Jahangir as his heir, but the Resident, Seton, who was the real power at the Mughal court, did not approve of Mirza. He preferred Sirajuddin Zafar. Another angle to the story is said to be Mirza Jahangir’s resentment of the power enjoyed by Seton & the latter’s arrogance. Seton, it is said, would ride up to the Mughal court on a horse, which was considered disrespectful in Mughal court etiquette & this was highly resented by Mirza. So one can imagine Mirza Jahangir & Seton were not on friendly terms. Once, Mirza took a pot-shot at Resident Seton. Seton survived but his servant was killed. As punishment, Seton exiled Mirza to Allahabad. Mirza’s mother was Mumtaz Mahal, who was extremely distressed at her son’s exile. She prayed for his return & promised to offer a chadar of flowers at Qutb Sahib’s dargah in Mehrauli, in thanksgiving. Mirza Jahangir did return & Mumtaz Mahal along with a whole retinue from the Mughal court & family travelled in a spectacular procession, to Mehrauli, to fulfil the vow. The people of Delhi too participated in it. The emperor suggested making it an annual affair & thus began Phoolwalon ki Sair.
The festival continued even when Mughal rule ended in 1857 & the British took over. Earlier, the Mughal emperor would decree the date appropriate for beginning the festival & declare it open. After 1858, this function was carried out by the Commissioner of Delhi. The Sair was banned by the British in 1942 during Quit India Movement, in an attempt to curb popular participation. It was restarted in 1961 by Yogeshwar Dayal & Jawaharlal Nehru as a symbol of secular, modern India. Predictably, the festival has become a symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity and tolerance. Today, the celebration is largely a government function, rather than a spontaneous celebration by Delhi-ites. Still, it is interesting to explore the history of the festival & sites associated with it.
We begin our walking tour at Yogmaya temple which is said to have been built by the Pandavas. Mughal emperor Akbar II, had instructed Lala Siddhamal to rebuild the temple. The building you see today however, is a modern one. We could see pankhe (fans) on display at the temple, one was from the President of India, others from different states of the country. Next on the heritage trail were Adham Khan’s tomb & Gandhak ki Baoli (a step well). Neither is directly associated with the Sair, however we included them in the heritage walk as they are very prominent monuments in Mehrauli village. The dargah of Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, a key site of the festival, is adjacent to the step well. As part of the Sair, the procession which offers the pankha at Yogmaya temple, also offers pankha & chadar at Qutb Sahib’s dargah. The main burial here is of course of Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, a much revered sufi saint of Chishti order. Given that the land where a sufi is buried is considered holy, one can see many other graves in the same complex. The later Mughal kings also chose to be buried in the close vicinity of the saint. The family burial ground of nawabs of Loharu & Jhajjar are also within the dargah complex.
The dargah shares its boundary with Zafar Mahal, a palace of the Mughals, which stands completely ruined now. The palace is named after the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar who added the tall gateway to the complex. The palace itself was built earlier. Today the complex includes remains of haveli of Mirza Babar incorporating elements of European architecture, graves of Mughal family members, Moti Masjid & portions of royal palace complex. During the days of the Mughal rule, the Sair would start at Jharna (the last stop in our walk) & weave its way through Mehrauli & come to a the large ground which existed before the gateway of Zafar Mahal. Here the Emperor watched from the jharokha of the palace, as a series of artists performed on shehnai & other instruments, dancers & acrobats displayed their skills & waited to be awarded by the ruler. From this point, the procession was joined by princes of the Mughal family, as it went up to Yogmaya temple. The next day chadar was offered at the dargah.
The Emperor & his family participated in the competition of fireworks at Jahaz Mahal & Hauz Shamsi. They would appear on the roof of Jahaz Mahal & watch boats on Hauz Shamsi compete. One team was made up of Emperor’s officers, the other was that of his subjects. Farhatullah Beg gives vivid descriptions of these festivities. He says, that not only the sky but water itself seemed to be alive with fire. Today, Jahaz Mahal & the grounds around it is the venue for wrestling matches, kite flying competitions, qawwalis & cultural programmes.
The last stop on our heritage walk was Jharna, literally, the waterfall. The complex was a pleasure resort, built over a period of time, as different people added different buildings to it. The area was surrounded by orchards & canals ran through the entire complex, over pavilions, through gardens & into pools & fountains. Beg describes how the Emperor would arrive here with the family & servants. Swings were set up, women would sing as they played on the swings; ponds were used by the family to swim, snacks like gulgule, anarsa were prepared on the spot. After playing on swings & in water, women & children would proceed towards mango orchards. No one could touch the fruits, unless the Emperor permitted & as soon as they got the nod they would climb the trees & eat their fill, often completely ruining their clothes with mango juice. The day’s fun over, they would all return to Zafar Mahal, which was then called jangali mahal. The next day would be spent visiting the mazar (burials) of former kings in the Qutb, Jamali Kamali & Andheria Bagh (the current Andheria More). Today, the pavilions are falling down, the orchards are replaced by kikar & drains flow in place of waterfalls. Every year the complex is cleaned up a little bit on occasion of this festival, but the effort remains inconsistent & more of an eyewash.
(posted by Awadhesh Tripathi & Kavita Singh, team members, Delhi Heritage Walks)