I ran. Scratch that. I scrambled. Without a thought and into some kind of an imaginary cocoon I lunged, reacting to my husband’s desperate, urgent plea: “Watch out!”
One moment, my heart was thumping for joy at the spectacle unfolding in front of me, the next it was pounding in fear. An errant horse was galloping full-charge towards me. This wasn’t quite the action we had anticipated when we had planned to attend the Hola Mohalla.
Anandpur Sahib is a small town in the Himalayan foothills bordering the North Indian states of Punjab and Himachal Pradesh. Every year on the day, the rest of India erupts into a colourful diffusion to celebrate the festival of Holi. Sikhs throng the tiny town with a population of less than 20,000, to hail a tradition that began more than 300 years ago.
Hola Mohalla is a festival that celebrates colours, but only as a subtext. It is an amalgam of spirituality and religion, in sync with Anandpur Sahib’s hallowed glory as one of the holiest Sikh sites. Truth to tell, Hola is a whole lot more as it celebrates bravery, commitment and martial skills, too. The festival’s abiding mascots are the Nihangs, the Sikh warrior order who were the vanguard of Sikh armies at one time. Through sword-fights and mock battles, they give ample evidence of their machismo and athleticism, and showcase incredible horse-riding skills.
How did a town that symbolise peace and piety become synonymous with strength and battle? In 1701, the 10th Sikh guru, Guru Gobind Singh, realised that unwavering faith and solid martial skills were the only prerequisites to defeat the marauding Mughals.
It was the day of Holi when he, while pitched at Anandpur Sahib, ordained that Sikhs reaffirm their faith in the Khalsa Panth (Sikh Brotherhood) and be ready for the war of good against evil. Battle preparedness entailed both the mind and the body to be in tandem, and he held military drills and mock battles to the accompaniment of the recitation of holy scriptures.
Thus was born Hola Mohalla (‘hola’ means military charge and ‘mohalla’ stands for procession).
For days before the actual event, all roads lead to Anandpur Sahib. The GPS turns redundant as everyone seems headed to ‘the holy land’, packed en famille into every available transport — three-tiered trucks, tractors, trolleys, jeeps, carts, buses and motorbikes. They come bearing sacks of wheat and food grains to offer at the langars, community kitchens, that are organised by the locals as a form of seva (service).
The Nihangs are a living contradiction: fierce-looking owing to their multifarious deadly weapons, yet wearing a sublime smile always. With their defining blue robes and embellished dastar bungas (huge turbans) rising high above their heads, they are instantly recognisable.
At the Hola Mohalla, faith is manifested in the form of devotional music and the recital of the Guru Granth Sahib. Stories are narrated about the bravery of Guru Govind Singh and the valour of prominent Sikh gurus. Processions (called nagar kirtan) are led from the gurudwara at Takht Sri Kesgarh Sahib through the town.
On the final day, the Nihangs, representing different factions, congregate at the Charan Ganga Stadium at the foothills of the Shivalik ranges to showcase spectacular feats of courage, skill and discipline. Competitions are held for sword-fighting, tent-pegging and horse-riding, and martial skills are displayed. Some of the more consummate participants run races standing on a horse, or riding two or three horses at a time.
It was pure adrenaline and bravado as men after men tried tent-pegging to hoots and applause. And then, somewhere along the way, I found myself running.
In all the hoopla and excitement, I had got carried away, veering perilously close to the lane the horses were running in. Every now and then, my husband was calling out to “be careful” or “move out”. And then the scariest few seconds, that I recall as a mere blur, whizzed past, beginning with my concerned husband’s entreaty: “Watch out!”
I survived, of course. It was providence more than my athletic skills that helped me jump off the perilous path even as the jockey jousted to rein in the horse. The overdose of excitement made my knees buckle. It was not that which made us sit cross-legged in a gurudwara a few hours later and partake of the guru ka langar (food from a community kitchen that’s been blessed by the Lord). It was gratitude.
As we broke the first piece of roti to scoop up the cauliflower curry, I smiled the relieved smile of a blessed survivor. We ate the rest of the meal silently, fuelled by our grateful hearts.
Avtar Singh Mauni is arguably the most-photographed Nihang. His claim to fame? A huge head. Every day, for the past many years, Mauni, 65, has been devoting six hours to each session of turban-tying; natural, given that he has to wrap more than 645 metres of cloth. That is roughly the length of six football grounds. Add his armaments of steel, and the load his neck bears is a shocking 100 lbs.