Phoolwaalon ki sair, or the procession of the florists, began in 19th century Delhi as a spontaneous celebration of brotherhood and love between the Hindus and the Muslims. In the last couple of decades, however, the festival has become a government-funded, bureaucratic affair.
Every year the week-long festival, also known as Sair-e-Gul Faroshan, takes place right after the monsoon gets over and before winter sets in, with a fair in Mehrauli. The 2017 edition began on October 30 and ended on November 4.
According to Delhi-based historian Sohail Hashmi, the festival’s beauty lies in the history of its origins. Before it became, as he puts it, a “sarkari” affair, phoolwalon ki sair was about inclusion.
The festival today begins with a ceremonial visit by the heads of the festival’s organising committee, Anjuman Sair-e-Gul Faroshan, visiting the lieutenant governor of Delhi at his residence in Civil Lines area. At Raj Niwas, the lieutenant governor is presented with a fan made of flowers. The organising committee then meets the chief minister and chief secretary of Delhi. During the next seven days, the organisers also try to present the president and vice-president of India with floral pankhas.
“The festival has now been ritualised into a few bureaucratic events, a dance performance, and the week of celebration ends with a qawwali session,” said Hashmi. “What happens now is more in keeping with what the British had started, before they put a stop to the festival altogether in 1942, in the interest of their divide and rule policy during the Quit India movement.”
The story of Sair-e-Gul Faroshan dates back to 1812, during the reign of the Mughal king Akbar Shah II and revolves around a mannat, or prayer.
The Mughal king wanted to nominate his younger son Mirza Jahangir as his heir apparent. By then, the East India Company had penetrated the Mughal court and a resident officer was living inside the Red Fort – Sir Archibald Seton. Seton was not particularly pleased by the king’s choice – he disliked Mirza Jahangir, having been insulted by him once during open court. A few days after the announcement of the succession by Akbar Shah, Mirza Jahangir fired a shot at Seton, killing his orderly. For this, the British officer exiled Mirza Jahangir to Allahabad.
Mirza Jahangir’s mother, queen Mumtaz Mahal Begum, was distraught when she heard about her son’s exile and vowed that if he were allowed to return to Delhi, she would offer a floral chaadar at the dargah of Sufi saint Khwaja Bakhtiar Kaki at Mehrauli. After a few years, when Mirza Jahangir was finally allowed to return to Delhi by the British, the queen began the annual tradition of walking to Mehrauli to complete her promise. “The story goes that, as she began her walk with the chaadar to the dargah, the people of Delhi could not bear the idea of their queen walking barefoot through the streets,” said Hashmi. “So, they scattered rose petals under her feet all the way.”
The mood of the city was joyous after Jahangir’s return, and for the next week, all of Mehrauli transformed into a fair. Besides the offering made at the dargah of Khwaja Bakhtiar Kaki, Akbar Shah also arranged for a floral chaadar to be presented at the Yogamaya temple in Mehrauli. It is believed that he stood in front of the temple and said that it would be a sin if they paid their respects to the Sufi shrine and not to Ma Yogmaya, since Mehrauli is known for this deity.
From then on, the festival was celebrated every year, even after the revolt of 1857 and all the way until 1942, when the British implemented the divide and rule policy.
The walk was later revived in 1961 by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who attended the event every year for as long as he was alive. Former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi later requested all Indian states to participate in the festival by sending a floral pankha each.
“Despite its official makeover, the vibrancy of the sair is a spectacle that everyone should experience at least once,” said Hashmi. “It is the kind of thing you see in a mofussil town. You can’t even imagine that something like this is happening in Delhi. Hundreds descend upon Meharauli during this time to witness daredevil motorcycle acts, vaudeville performances, freak shows and magicians. Some events like the kushti, or wrestling, competition have persisted through the decades, while others like the diving contest in the Hauz-i-Shamsi lake have been discontinued.”
The kushti tournament was a favourite of Narendra Sharma, a resident of Mehrauli. The 48-year-old has lived in the neighbourhood all his life and runs a sweet shop, Pandit Siyaram Sweets, opposite Adham Khan’s tomb. “As children we used to look forward to the phoolwalon ki sair with so much excitement,” said Sharma. “The government used to declare a half-day holiday for schools and government offices on one day during the week, and we would head to the festival to watch kushti, take part in patangbaazi [a kite-flying contest] and end up listening to the qawwali performances all night. There used to be a sense of bhai-chaara [brotherhood] that has somehow disappeared now.”
The government still declares a half-day holiday during the festival, but according to Sharma, his children are not interested in seeing the sair.
“The budget for the festival too has been reduced and it’s now just a formality that must be followed every year,” said Sharma. “Earlier there used to be buzz around it. It was the one big mela that we would visit each year but now it is not even promoted.”
In a 2013 interview to Reuters, its general secretary Usha Kumar said she faces roadblocks while organising the festival each year, including trouble in getting the premises cleaned or getting special guests to stick to the schedule. “No VIP is interested. Now we have decided from next year, we won’t call any VIP because there is no point. We invite them, wait for them and they don’t turn up.”