Spring festivals and why we refuse to be happy

By Majid Sheikh

Dawn Jan 4, 2017

As the New Year dawns I cannot but think of Mr William Shakespeare, who said: “Cursed are those who cannot celebrate”. It seems the bard was talking about those who love and feel for Lahore … a Lahore without the Basant festival.

On Basant mornings our elders would wish the children a lucky prosperous year ahead. The girls would wear yellow and the mothers were in the kitchen.

The sub-continent, and the world at large, all have different New Years. The Gregorian calendar imposed the New Year starting January the first.

The most interesting New Year is the Iranian festival of Nauroz, which was once celebrated in our part of the world. In western portions of Pakistan, as among our Parsi population, it still is.


But in Iran, and old documents show that in Punjab of old too, a fat man dressed in red would run through the streets making people, especially children, laugh.

He would be given sweets for his labour. This man is still, in Islamic Iran and in the tribal areas, called Haji Feroz, or even Haji Perooze as the Parsis call him.

Thankfully this tradition still persists. Could this be the origin of Father Christmas? After all Haji Feroz is connected to the Sumerian god of Sacrifice, called in ancient languages as Domusi – two lives – who is ‘killed’ (figuratively only, but you never know in Waziristan) when the year ends, only to be reborn on New Years’ day.

This is a 4,000-year old tradition, much before Father Christmas climbed down Victorian England’s soot-filled chimneys after flying across the North Pole sky with his reindeers.

But then Nauroz is celebrated starting the end of the third week of March, and festivities go on for 13 days. In this period takes places ‘Khaneh Tekani’, in which women throw away old clothes and utensils and buy new ones.

On the 12th day neighbours distribute ‘Eidee’ among themselves in the form of sweets and food. This very much is what happens still.

But as we study different New Years, it strikes the mind that Nauroz falls in the middle of our Basant and the harvest festival of Baisakhi, the first being on the second weekend of February going on to the end of the third weekend.

Lahore was the epicentre of this celebration with people coming in from the countryside to celebrate, with kite-flying being a central activity. As the crops ripened there came Baisakhi -- the wheat harvest festival -- which falls on the 13th or 14th of April. In between these two is the Nauroz festival.

All these are purely harvest festivals symbolising different stages of Spring, when natural life is ‘reborn’ after the cold recedes.

The Sikhs, mostly Jaat Punjabis, adopted this festival of Vaisakhi, which goes back thousands of years, as their New Year. In 1689 AD the Sikh guru Gobind, very aptly at that, announced the elimination of castes from their faith on this day. It was an act of liberation.

The Punjabi tradition was for women and men both to run through fields shouting “Jatta ayie Vaisakhi.”

It is interesting that all over the sub-continent this was the New Year for different traditions and religions. Be it Bengal, or Assam, or even Tamil Nadu. That we in Pakistan have completely forgotten our ancestral New Year comes as no surprise.

There are always narrow reasons, given slack governance, to abandon our past, with no effort to overcome the hurdles, which is what governance is all about. Surely we are the poorer as a civilisation.

In pre-Partition days every religion follower went to their places of worship to pray for a prosperous year. Once back home peasants would start the day with ‘saag’ and ‘makaee de roti’ and ‘daal makhani’ was a must dish, followed by ‘soojee ka halwa’.

This distribution of ‘halwa’ gave the priests of every faith a bad name for they probably had everyone sending them this sweet. Jokes of them drowning in ‘halwa’ still abound.

On the eastern side of the sub-continent the Bengalis celebrate ‘Nabo Barsha’, in which people decorate their houses with flowers and with ‘rangolis’ made of coloured rice called ‘alapna’.

An earthen pot is kept in the middle in the belief that it brought wealth and a prosperous New Year. We know from Abu’l Fazl’s ‘Ain-e-Akbari’ that this tradition was encouraged by Moghal emperor Akbar, and hence it took firm root.

The only difference in the time of celebration was with the Marwari people, who would celebrate the New Year on Diwali. Even today people following the Marwari tradition, irrespective of faith, start a new venture after this celebration, which normally falls at the end of October when winter is about to start.

This coincides with the sowing of the winter crop, and women fast so that their husbands may become wealthy in the coming (accounting) year.

On this day Marwaris buy silver coins and start the year with new account books. The farmer and the traders both have understandable times of celebration, with both wishing for more wealth in the year to come.

But with the morphing of Abrahamic religions, additional festivals, all based on fasting and sacrifices, historically pagan pastimes, came about. The Gregorian calendar, as well as the Hijri calendar, determined time and festivity.

So two sets of festival timings came about, one based on seasonality and the other on belief. Our religious festivals are based on the Lunar Calendar, just as Christian ones are on the Gregorian.

But does this mean that we forget the festivals of our land and traditions that go back in time. As in Iran the Nauroz celebrations are not connected with any religious beliefs, nor do the Muslims of Iran feel threatened by this tradition.

If anything it reflects our insecurities with reason. So this brings me to the Punjabi festival of Basant, or Vasant and Baisakhi or Vaisakhi.

Basant over time has increasingly become a major Lahore festival representing the spirit of the city as Spring starts. It was seen as the beginning of good luck. That kite-flying is part of exhilarating happiness is understandable.

The wearing of yellow clothes depicts the flowers of the mustard field that abound at this time in the entire northern Indian sub-continent. By this time the wheat crop becomes green and heads towards browning. Another two months and the rising heat would dry the wheat. The harvest time is what Baisakhi is all about.

Why have we abandoned the festivals of our land, of spring, of hope and one free of any religious hue? Why has joy become a matter to be ashamed of?

Surely we have not reached a point where the rulers of this land cannot create circumstances which makes sure that people can enjoy their Basant.

The reason, and the sole reason given, is that some special sort of ‘dor’ cuts across people’s throats, especially those on motorcycles. This is an exaggeration to say the least. String deaths are lower than those caused by crossing a road, and police statistics say so.

A few things need to be considered. Firstly, Lahore, as per the Lahore traffic police, has 4.3 million motorcycles, or per family of seven persons two motorcycles each. This is because of the total absence of public transport.

Even the much-touted Metro Buses and Orange Line will cater to less than one per cent of the population. People who race about without helmets and proper protection meet accidents, and stray strings is one very rare reason.

Before motorcycles came about this ‘evil’ did not exist. People who have never flown a kite blame some ‘chemical string’. This is basically ‘surgical thread’, and now almost completely eliminated. Only hospitals are sold this string.

So how can Basant be celebrated? My suggestion is that three or four areas be marked out and on the surrounding roads let motorcycling be restricted for just one day in a year.

Given our expertise on blocking roads for VVIPs, this should not be a difficult exercise. This will solve the threat to a level where fatality will not be possible.

It is now a matter of political will and administrative competence. On that we all know what the situation is. Or are we destined to remain ‘cursed’ and ‘unlucky’.


Back To Majid Sheikh's Columns

Back To APNA Home Page