Delhi’s ‘Procession of the Florists’ marches toward obscurity

November 2, 2013

Every fall, people gather in Delhi’s Mehrauli area for the “Procession of the Florists,” a festival to commemorate the return from exile of a 19th-century prince who crossed India’s British colonial rulers.

The “Phool Walon ki Sair,” as it is called in Hindi and Urdu, features the offering of a “chaadar” or a “sheet” of flowers at a Muslim shrine and floral “pankhas” or fans at a nearby Hindu temple but after nearly 200 years, its popularity is fading.

The annual procession began in the early 19th century when Queen Mumtaz Mahal and her subjects walked to the shrine of Khwaja Qutub-ud-Din Bakhtyar Kaaki to fulfil a vow that she made. During the reign of her husband, Mughal ruler Akbar Shah II, their son Mirza Jahangir taunted the British Resident Archibald Seton. The young prince also took a shot at Seton at the Red Fort, but missed his target and killed his orderly instead.

The British exiled Mirza Jahangir to Allahabad, and the queen vowed to offer a chaadar at the shrine if her son returned. When the prince came back a couple of years later, she kept her word.

Things didn’t turn out well for the Mughal Empire though, and two decades after the death of Akbar Shah II, the last Mughal emperor was exiled to Burma. But the 32-kilometre procession from Chandni Chowk to Mehrauli continued. The British stopped the procession in 1942, the year of the “Quit India” movement, but Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, revived it in the 1960’s.

These days, about a few hundred people attend the festival in Mehrauli. Pankhas are offered to some of India’s top politicians, and the governor of Delhi leads a procession to the shrine. There is also a grand amusement fair — kite-flying competitions; wrestling bouts and other sports and cultural performances. All-night qawwali sessions follow.

The main event of this year’s festival, at a bedecked but otherwise neglected palace, started late on Oct. 26. The chief guest, the government tourism minister, didn’t turn up. There was no formal welcome note; the shehnai players were asked to stop mid-way for a small procession carrying a pankha from the Indian president.

Impassive spectators clapped as troupes from a few states performed to folk songs, a modern-day addition to the festival seen as a symbol of ‘national integration’ because Hindus and Muslims alike participate in it. The fair, happening in the nearby ground, pulled in far more people.

R. K. Khera, whose family migrated to Mehrauli from Pakistan after India’s partition, was in his early teens when he started attending the fair with his father. He recalls watching sound and light shows — a form of outdoor entertainment with narration, music and special effects to help dramatize historical events — but for him the festival is not what it used to be.

“Earlier lot of money was spent on this festival, which is not the case right now. Ten days before the start of this festival, all roads in Mehrauli used to be swept clean. But now it is limited to Jahaz Mahal,” said the 51-year-old government employee, referring to the dilapidated palace from the Lodi era, the site of the festival’s cultural show.

“The flavour of this festival is gone, it’s just a formality. This festival used to be among the biggest in Delhi. But now it is not even promoted,” said 23-year-old history student Asif Khan Dehlvi, founder of ‘Delhi by Foot’, a non-profit group that conducts “heritage walks” around the city.

History lovers also rue the fact that Mehrauli’s neglected monuments, including the historical water body beside which the Phool Walon ki Sair festival takes place, are looked after only during this time of the year.

“It’s an inclusive festival and we need to celebrate this inclusion because that’s the strength of our civilization. And that can only be made by not making it into a bureaucratic, controlled set-up,” said historian Sohail Hashmi, who regularly leads heritage walks in the city.

K R Narayanan was the last Indian president to visit this procession, recalls Usha Kumar, general secretary of Anjuman Sair-e-Gul Faroshan, the organising committee of the festival. A Google search throws up a black-and-white picture of the late president taken in 2001.

“Nehru … came to Mehrauli on every Phool Waalon Ki Sair as long as he lived,” according to the committee’s website. Barring Indira Gandhi, her son Rajiv, and Chaudhary Charan Singh, Kumar couldn’t recollect names of any other recent prime minister who paid a visit.

Kumar, who has been associated with this festival for the past four decades, admits she’s no less a victim of “red tape” as she puts together this week-long show. She faces trouble getting the premises cleaned on time and the special invitees don’t follow the schedule either.

“No VIP is interested. Now we have decided from next year we won’t call any VIP,” Kumar said. “Because there is no point. We invite them, wait for them and they don’t turn up.”

(Editing by Robert MacMillan, Tony Tharakan and Rahul Biddappa; follow Ankush on Twitter at @Ankush_patrakar, Robert @bobbymacReports, Tony @tonytharakan and Rahul @rahulbiddappa. This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced in any form without permission)

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