When the Mughals conquered India, they adopted Indian lifestyles and respected the religions of the locals. From Akbar offering Chhatar to Hindu temples and donating land for the Golden Temple of Sikhs, each Mughal emperor was involved in some or the other interfaith activity. Communal unity was at its peak then with many Jain, Hindu and Sikh nobles serving in the Mughal courts. The British, when they realized that this strength of the Indian people will be a stumbling block in advancing their insidious motives, decided to implement what later came to be known as their ‘Divide and Rule’ policy. They identified Aurangzeb as a pivot, during whose rule maximum forceful conversions and temple destructions took place. The fact that these incidents happened only in those areas where Hindu/Sikh groups had started mutinies against the Mughal crown was deliberately removed from History books. Instead, it was projected that Mughals, and especially Aurangzeb, were always bad. Following this Divide and Rule policy of theirs, all events that exhibit Hindu Muslim Unity were banned, including the one we are going to talk about today …
The year was 1812.
The British East India Company had penetrated the Mughal court completely and a Resident Officer was living inside the Red Fort controlling the administration of India. Coins were being struck by British Mints and the name of the Mughal Emperor was summarily removed from the currency. Emperor Shah Alam II had died, whom the people had started calling:
‘Badshah Shah Alam, Az Delhi, Ta Palam’
Meaning: “Emperor Shah Alam’s rule is merely from Delhi (the Red Fort) to Palam (the present day Delhi Airport).
Shah Alam II’s son, Akbar Shah II, was a puppet king and Archibald Seton, a Scottish East India Company Administrator, was the appointed Officer in the Red Fort. Next in line to throne, Crown Prince Mirza Jahangir was against the British way of working. One day, this reckless young prince of 19 insulted Seton by calling him Lullu. Seton did not react then. Perhaps he did not understood the meaning of the word. A few days later, when Seton was returning from court, Mirza Jahangir, sitting on the roof of Naubat Khana, fired a shot at him, missing Seton completely. While Seton escaped unhurt, his orderly lost his life. Angry with this, the British arrested Mirza Jahangir and sent him to Allahabad fort.
Back then, it was an infamous fact that any political prisoner sent to the Allahabad Fort never returns alive. The Mughal court tried its best to save him, but the administration was completely in British hands. Having failed at every door, Empress Mumtaz Mahal, mother of Mirza Jahangir, came to the shrine of Sufi Saint Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki (ra) in Mehrauli, Delhi. She took a vow that if Mirza Jahangir returns safely, she would offer a sheet (chadar) of flowers at the Dargah. And after a few years of praying, Mirza Jahangir one day miraculously returned to the Red Fort. The Empress approached Emperor Akbar Shah II and told him about her vow. The Emperor was more than happy to be a part of pledge, and they both decided to start from the Red Fort with a sheet of flowers for the shrine. This news soon spread like jungle-fire and everyone in and around the palace got ready to walk with the royal family, to pay homage to the Sufi Saint resting in Mehrauli.
It was the month of September. The Convoy started with all the praise singing and merry making. When they reached the outskirts of Mehrauli, the Mughal Emperor stood by the Temple of Ma Yogmaya and averred that as Mehrauli was well-known for this deity, it would indeed be a sin to pay respects at the Sufi Shrine and not visit the Hindu Temple. The Yogmaya Temple in Mehrauli is considered to be one of the many temples that the Pandavas (of the Mahabaratha) built. It is dedicated to Maa Yogmaya, a sister of Lord Krishna, who was replaced with Krishna upon birth to save him from his evil uncle Kans. And it was thus that this temple came about to give this area the name of “Yoginipura”. Maa Yogmaya is also known as Maha Maya or Mehraa.N waali maayi (the Mother of Graces) … and some say, the name ‘Mehrauli’ is but a distorted version of ‘Mehra.N Waali’ (NOTE: Mehra-waali = Mehravali = Mehrauli).
So Emperor Akbar Shah II entered the Hindu Temple and offered a Pankha (fan) to the deity, and it was only then that he went to the Muslim Shrine to fulfil the rituals of offering the Chadar. For seven days, the entire court was shifted to Mehrauli and with all the merry making and celebrations, people were very happy. The Emperor then decreed that this event be repeated every year. A palace, called Rang Mahal, was constructed here in the vicinity,as every year the entire Mughal court would shifted to Mehrauli for these 7 days from then on. And every year the Mughal Emperor would come with everyone from Red Fort and around, with a sheet of Flowers for the Dargah and a decorated Fan for the Temple. This festival became popular with name ‘Phoolwalo.N ki Sair’ or ‘Sair-i-Gul-Farosha.N’.
The Rang Mahal in later times came to be called the Lal Mahal. Mirza Jahangir, apropos, could never become king and instead, his brother, Mirza Sirajuddin aka Badshah Bahadur Shah ‘Zafar,’ a poet who had no interest in ruling the country, was made Emperor. Zafar added his portion to this palace, and to this day this palace complex is popular by the name of Zafar Mahal.
Emperor Akbar Shah II and his family were interred at this selfsame palace, the Zafar Mahal, next to the shrine. Emperor Zafar also designated a place for his grave next to his father, but since he was exiled to Rangoon, he could never return and his last wish remains unfulfilled.
In the early 1940s, the British imposed a ban on all activities that exhibited communal harmony. So was the fate of Phoolwalon ki Sair. It was stopped for almost two decades, until in 1961, Pundit Jawaharlal Nehru asked the mayor of Delhi, Mr. Nooruddin Ahmed and a scion of prominent family Shri Yogeshwar Dayal to revive the festival. On September 6, 1962, Pt. Nehru played the part of the Mughal Emperor and the festival was celebrated as in the olden days. He continued to do so until his death, after which his daughter Indira Gandhi took special interest in the festival. She invited other states of India to participate so that this festival of Communal Harmony becomes the festival of National Harmony.
Phoolwalon ki Sair is celebrated till date, for 7 days every September. It is managed by the Anjuman-i-Sair-e-Gulfaroshan, a society governed by notable Hindus and Muslims of Mehrauli. The Pankha and the Chadar are offered by the President, Prime Minister, Chief Minister of Delhi, Lt. Governor of Delhi and different state governments. It is indeed a great pity that these days we are too busy in propagating religious bias rather than pay no attention to such celebrations and take part in them.