Hola Mohalla: A Unique Vibrant Festival – OpEd


 Having been the abode of the last two human Gurus of the Sikhs for more than 20 years, Anandpur Sahib was witness to many momentous events of Sikh history, including the Hola Mahalla festival, which is an annual feature. The festival has now lost much of its original military significance, but Sikhs in large numbers still assemble at Anandpur Sahib on this day and an impressive and colourful procession is taken out in which the Nihangs, in their traditional panoply, form the vanguard while parading their skill in the use of arms, horsemanship, tent-pegging, and other war-like sports.

Hola Mohalla or simply Hola is a three days long annual Sikh festival, which takes place on the first of the lunar month of Chet, which usually falls in March. It takes place on the second day of the lunar month of Chet, usually a day after the Hindu spring festival Holi but sometimes, coincides with it. The popularity of this festival may be judged from the fact that out of five Sikh public holidays requested by the Khalsa Diwan of Lahore in 1889, the Government approved only two – Hola Mahalla and the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev. 

Holi is a festival of colours which is celebrated by the Hindus. This is celebrated with a belief that the evil is being killed by the god and the life is full of colours (happiness). Mahalla or simply Hola is a Sikh festival that takes place on the first of the lunar month of Chet which usually falls in March. This, by a tradition established by Guru Gobind Singh, follows the Hindu festival of Holi by one day.

 Hola is the masculine form of the feminine sounding Holi. Hola, which originated from the Arabic word ‘halla’ means military charge. Mohalla, as explained by Mahan Kosh, the first Sikh encyclopaedia, compiled by Bhai Khan Singh Nabha at the turn of the 20th centry, means an organized parade. Together the phrase “Hola Mohalla” stands for “mock fight”. A similar Punjabi word  Mahalia, derived from the Arabic root hal (alighting, descending),  implies an organized procession in the form of an army column accompanied by war drums and standard-bearers, and proceeding to a given location or moving in state from one Gurdwara to another.

Therefore, the phrase Hola and Mohalla put together mean ‘the charge of an army’. But unlike Holi, when people playfully sprinkle colored powder, dry or mixed in water, on each other, the Guru made Hola Mohalla an occasion for the Sikhs to demonstrate their martial skills in simulated battles. During this festival, processions are organised in the form of army type columns accompanied by war-drums and standard-bearers and proceeding to a given spot or moving in state from one gurdwara to another. The custom originated in the time of Guru Gobind Singh who held the first such mock fight event at Anandpur in February 1701. Guru Gobind Singh started this festival as a day for Sikhs to practice their military exercises and hold mock battles. The event concludes on the day of Hola Mohalla with a long, “military-style” procession near Takht Kesgarh Sahib, one of the five seats of temporal authority (“Panj Takht“) of the Sikhs. Hola is a Sanskrit word meant to be distinguished from Holi the Hindu spring festival of colors (Holi) which takes place the day before Hola Mohalla.

Hola Mohalla builds upon the spring festival of Holi. Sri Guru Granth Sahib contains passages prescribing the celebration of Holi by serving God. The colours of Holi manifest in the Lord’s love. As Holi starts with Holika Dahan on the full moon night of Phagan or Phalgan, the festival of Holi is referred to as the festival of Phalgun even though the actual day of Holi falls on the first day of the lunar month of Chett. Guru Gobind Singh built upon this method of celebrating Holi by adding a martial element and creating Hola Mohalla to be celebrated a day after Holi.

The festival also has roots in the story of the child Bhagat, Prahlad who refused to accept his father, Harnakash, as god. In order to please her brother, Holka planned to burn Prahlad. She took him in her lap, sat in the midst of a heap of easily combustible straw. Holka thought she would be protected by a cloth but it was Prahald who survived and Holka perished in the fire. The event gave rise to the belief that good triumphed over evil. Harnaksh, the King of Multan, was defeated by good in the form of Prahlad. The story of Prahlad was popular with the early Sikhs. Sri Guru Granth Sahib contains verses reciting Prahald by the saints Namdev and Kabir, and also by the third Guru Amar Das.

 Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru built upon the story of Prahlad and founded the festival of Hola Mohalla. Guru Gobind Singh established Hola Mohalla in the spring of 1701.  Guru Gobind Singh summoned his followers to attend Anandpur Sahib on Holi when he introduced a new rally in 1680 to coincide with Holi where his followers could practice manoeuvres and combat training. However, Guru Gobind Singh organised the first procession accompanied by drums in Anandpur on 22 February 1701 A.D. The new tradition of overseeing mock battles and poetry contests at Lohgarh Fort has since spread from the town of Anandpur Sahib to nearby Kiratpur Sahib and the foothills of the Shivaliks, and to other Gurdwaras around the world. During the celebrations of Hola Mohalla a sword is most in demand at Nanded, since each participant in the procession must have it in his hand.

Holi, when people playfully sprinkle colored powders, dry or mixed in water, on each other on the first day of Chet was given a new dimension by establishing Hola to be celebrated a day after. However, Guru Gobind Singh (1666–1708) held the first march at Anandpur on Chet vadi 1, 1757 Bk (22 February 1701) and therefore festivities start before the second of Chet and lasts for three days.   

The Guru made Hola Mahalla an occasion for the Sikhs to demonstrate their martial skills in simulated battles. This was probably done to forestall a grimmer struggle against the imperial power and channeling people’s energy into a more useful activity. Hola Mahalla became an annual event held in an open ground near Holgarh, a fort across the rivulet Charan Ganga, northwest of Anandpur sahib. It reminds the people of valour and defence preparedness, concepts dear to the Tenth Guru who was at that time defending the Sikhs from the attacks of the Mughal empire and the hill kings.

 According to Bhai Nand Lal – poet of Guru Gobind Singh’s court colours were thrown by the participants after completion of the mock battles: rose water, amber, musk and saffron-coloured water was used. Sikh tradition holds that Guru Gobind Singh also participated in the colourful festival with the use of colors like Gulaal, Ambar and Abeera for playing Holi which has survived into modern times with Nihangs “splashing gulal (red farinaceous powder) on each other and the audience”. The alternative view is that the practice of throwing colours was not observed by Guru Gobind Singh. 

Originally known as Akalis, the Nihangs or Nihang Singhs are endearingly designated as Guru’s Knights or the Guru’s beloved. They still carry the military ambience and heroic style that was cultivated during the lifetime of Guru Gobind Singh. Nihangs constitute a distinctive order among the Sikhs and are readily recognized by their dark blue loose apparel and their ample, peaked turbans festooned with quoits, insignia of the Khalsa and rosaries, all made of steel. They are always armed, and are usually seen mounted heavily laden with weapons such as swords, daggers, spears, rifles, shotguns, and pistols.

The weeklong festival of Hola Mahalla concludes at Gurdwara Holgarh Sahib (which stands on the site of Holgarh Fort), one and half Km northwest of town across the Charan Ganga rivulet. Unlike the playful sprinkling of colors as is done during Holi, the Guru made Holla an occasion to demonstrate skills in simulated battle, which is presently carried out by the Nihangs. On this occasion they hold tournaments of military skills, including mock battles. The most spectacular event at the Hola Mahalla is the magnificent procession of Nihangs on horses and elephants and on foot carrying a variety of traditional and modern weapons and demonstrating their skill in using them. The Hola Mahalla festival is unique and distinguishable from other festivals in that the Nihang have tried to preserve the traditional form and content as established during its inception,and strictly observed by the Akalis for more than three centuries.

Dr. Gursharan Singh Kainth

Dr. Gursharan Singh Kainth is Founder–Director of Guru Arjan Dev Institute of Development Studies

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