The street next to Tarlok Shah’s Haveli offers another exit, a three-foot high passage that closely resembles a tunnel. Though not as strategic as the tunnels of the early days of Shahdara, it opens into a crossroad where three Moghul-style arches guard a monument; all this is almost three centuries old.
The monument, locally known as ‘Madhoo Ki Bethak’, is a saffron-painted tree that bent and grew for an unknown number of years and has recently been sheltered. As the name reveals, it marks the birthplace of Madhoo, a local Hindu, who was the love interest of the famous Sufi poet, Shah Hussain. Why Lal Hussain chose to join the controversial Malamati line of Sufis and what happened to Madhoo is another story. But what makes this love affair memorable is its celebration, which now confronts the administrators of the metropolis of Lahore.
Basant and Charaghon Wala Mela were the two fairs that defined Lahore and Madhoo Lal was central to both of them.
Traditionally celebrated in the UP and Punjab, the festival traces its origins to the Sanskrit word, Vasanta Panchami. The day – that falls in the first week of February or the last week of January – is actually the fifth of a Bikrami month. It marks the farewell to winters and foretells the coming of spring. But before it became a Hindu festival, the pagan festival was celebrated across the sub-continent.
Upon their arrival, the Moghuls viewed it with skepticism. But as their love for India grew, they took up the tradition and made it official. The dispatches of Darashikoh, amidst his ideological differences, make a special mention of Basant merriment by Temurid elites.
The peaceful co-existence shed away the communal colors of Basant and dressed it in countryside yellow. The chroniclers of Dehli at the time, the likes of Abu-al-Fazl, have written in detail about the events of the day.
A page from the court diary of Shah Alam the 2nd, gives an insight into the events. The Muslim elite of Delhi started their Basant festival by visiting ‘Qadam Shareef’, a place where the relic of the footprint of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) was kept. After prayers, the whole day was spent in joyfulness and glee, with vibrant kites plastering the sky and people wearing colorful clothes adding life to the landscape.
While this was happening on one side, Basant was taking a new form in the Punjab and this is where the famous reference of the right wing made its way. An incident is very frequently cited from Bakhshish Singh Nijjar’s book titled, ‘Punjab under the Later Moghuls’. According to the book, the event is celebrated as a reaction to the hanging of Haqeeqat Ray, a convict of blasphemy, on the orders of the then
Governor of Lahore, Zakariya Khan. After Ray’s death, Kalu Ram, another affluent Hindu, built a monument for him and ordered all Hindus to commemorate his death by celebrating Basant and flying kites as an expression of revenge.
The association of kite flying with this incident is not true. Kites were flown way before 1734, the year in which this incident took place, as the sport had come to India from the northeast through Buddhist monks. Also, Zakariya Khan, the ruler of Lahore, said to have been despised by the Hindus, was a ruler they loved the most, according to ‘Tehqiqat-e-Chishti.’ He trusted the Hindus to such an extent that he chose Lakhpat Ray – the person who founded Kot Lakhpat – as his prime minister (Deewan). His popularity is also verified by Anand Ram Mukhlis’ account who, in his book ‘Badai Waqai’, wrote that when Zakariya Khan died, every Lahori Hindu mourned the loss.
Ranjit Singh gave a new life to this festival and ensured its household appeal. Many historians have archived it in great detail. During his reign, the Maharajah dressed up in yellow clothes on every Basant day, went out in the streets, reviewed the parade and the guard of honor, administered religious ceremonies and graced foreign emissaries, doing all this in the company of the British Resident. The pathway from the city to Shalimar Bagh was lined up with mustard fields and the entire city of Lahore would dress in yellow with a sky that looked equally colorful. The event was so popular that it attracted thousands of Lahoris – 50,000 as Syed M. Latif noted.
In 1848, John Lawrence took it upon the Raj to celebrate Basant in a more festive manner. The event spanned over a week and was called Jashn-e-Baharan,something that came handy to the Lahore administration a century later.
During the British rule, the princely states patronized the craft of kite flying and Basant picked up pace. The Maharajas of Patiala and Jaipur are said to have taken a personal interest in the ministry that oversaw kite flying.
As late as 1947, Basant was celebrated without a pinch of communal colors and it continued till the early 1950s. Being the age of non-commercialism, the yellow was not that gross and everyone celebrated it.
The budding consumerism pitted multinationals in a race to outdo each other to make Basant a big eastern festival that had immense marketing potential. Havelis in inner Lahore and farmhouses on the periphery were, at once, the hub of such activity.
On the other hand, the rise of the Saudi school of thought, the use of metal strings, over-commercialization of the festival and the attached entertainment value provided the religious right with ample reasons to vent its differences. The religious element framed its most handy charge against Basant. The reference of B S Nijjar was repeated over and over again and, by misquoting such references, Basant was established as a Hindu festival. The kites of blasphemy, they alleged, targeted the Two-Nation Theory, not realizing that this premise could be devastatingly twisted and flawed.
Soon, the ideology and its praetorian guards subverted the activity through an overtly active court, saving Islam from the invasion of an infidel culture. Basant was banned. The declaration, however, raised another query…if Basant is an Indian festival, should we celebrate spring in the Middle Eastern style?
Eids (two compulsory and one optional), Muharram and the national holidays apart, the Pakistani calendar has no seasonal/cultural celebration – a phenomenon that largely remains unexplained. The segregation of celebrations on the basis of religion is not a very good idea. The over-religiosity of society ends up bringing divergences to the fore. Pagan or commercial, festivals are only meant to give a sense of happiness to the people who are otherwise lost in everyday life. Making them a pattern of ideology complicates the whole thing.
The issue has now taken a political turn. Since Bilawal Bhutto Zardari has included Basant in Sindh’s cultural celebrations, the Sharifs have chosen Changa Manga to duel the cultural pre-emption, (leaving PTI ideologues with the only option of a social media Basant). But through it all, the innocent sentiment which existed at the very heart of this festival lurks in the open fields.
The logic that Basant should be banned on account of lives lost due to violations points to the state’s inability to act and intervene. One is reminded of another man who flew kites but ended up writing a constitution – Benjamin Franklin – who rightly said, “Any society that would give up a little liberty to gain a little security will deserve neither and lose both.”