By Firoz Bakht Ahmed*
Since my schooldays, though a devout Muslim, I’ve been celebrating Holi as Tilak Raj Rustagi, a Hindu friend and an ex-colleague of mine, has for the last three decades, been coming to my place on the day of the festival of colours to smear the red gulal (symbolic red colour) on my forehead as a mark of the festival’s inter-faith harmonious spirit.
Though I never see people as Hindus and Muslims, yet I would like to share that once a relative of mine, on seeing the colour smeared on my forehead, remarked, “It is irreligious to play Holi.” I told him that such things only reiterate my faith in my religion, as friendly acts like putting gulal or lighting a candle on Diwali cannot take away my religion.
Moreover, these festivals cement the interfaith bonds and we must frequent each other’s places on the occasions of Holi, Diwali, Eid, Christmas etc to strengthen the composite culture of India.
Since I have a Hindu neighbour, opposite my house, I lit two candles throughout the Diwali night in my balcony so that he is not hurt to see darkness at my end.
This milk of concord is very necessary since Hindus and Muslims have been, for centuries, living together in India.
Holi has a Muslim history as well. Revered Sufi saints like Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia and Ameer Khusro in their chaste Persian and Hindvi poetry have adored the ‘pink’ festival generously.
Emperor Bahadurshah Zafar, whose Holi phags (songs) are even relished today and who allowed his Hindu ministers to tinge his forehead with gulal on the day of the festival each year, writes: “Kyon mo pe mari rang ki pichkari, Dekho kunwarji doon gi gari…” (Why am I with colour sprinkled – By me now you will be abused).
During the Shahjahani tenure of Delhi, Holi was known as Eid-e-Gulabi (pink Eid) or Aab-e-Pashi (shower of colourful flowers), and truly so owing to its carnival spirit and hysterical rejoicing for both the major Indian communities.
The umaras (nobles), the rajahs and the nawabs all exchanged rose-water bottles and sprinkled scented water on each other along with the frenzied beating of nagaras (big drums).
This enlightened spirit percolated in the Mughals right from the time of Akbar. Even Jahangir is shown holding Holi festivities in his autobiography Tuzk-e-Jahangiri. Many artists especially Govardhan and Rasik have shown Jahangir playing Holi with Noorjahan, his wife. Mohammed Shah Rangila, in a remarkable painting, is shown running around the palace with his wife following him with a pichkari (water spout).
Such examples are umpteen for India’s cultural heritage has been enriched by the harmonious amalgamation and assimilation of various faiths and ethnicities.
Mirza Sangi Baig in Sair-ul-Manazil narrates that the rollicking and frolicking Holi groups were alternately powdered and drenched until the floor had been covered with a swamp of crimson, yellow and orange colours with the faces being multi-coloured, a spectacle so very enthralling and exclusive that words fail the speaker or the writer to describe the thrill.
“Who says Holi is a Hindu festival?” asks Munshi Zakaullah in his book Tarikh-e-Hindustani. Zakaullah writes that the carnival of Holi lasted for many days during which people, irrespective of their caste, creed or any other religious or social distinction, forgot their restraints and joined in the festivity.
The poorest of the poor used to throw colour on the emperor with a spirit so great. Children’s Urdu monthly Khiluna (March, 1960) mentions that during the days of Mughal emperor Bahadurshah Zafar special arrangements were made for Holi festivities.
In Jam-e-Jahanuma – an Urdu daily (March 10, 1844) – eminent writer Abdul Haq states that on such occasions of universal cosmic fabric, both Hindus and Muslims came out of their apprehensions and inhibitions to appear as unaffected and normal equals by sharing and mixing.
He described it as a spirited carnival of the Indian at a time of frenzied rejoicing, alacrity and license of all kinds.
*Commentator on social, educational and religious issues, grandnephew of Maulana Abul Kalam Azad