Dateline Mehrauli – No Fervour for Phool Waalon ki Sair

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The dargah of Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, Mehrauli

A terrorist attack has disturbed the fragility of our multi-religious society.

[Text and pictures by Mayank Austen Soofi]

Twenty-four days after the deadly bomb blast that killed a rickshaw-walla’s child, The Delhi Walla goes to Mehrauli and finds that life is not rolling along as usual.

Out there on the streets, you sense little enthusiasm for Phool Waalon ki Sair, a 3-day festivity especially noted for its inter-religious character — it begins in a Muslim shrine and ends in a Hindu temple. It was to start the next day. This is my account of how a terrorist attack disturbs the fragility of our multi-religious society.

By now, in Jahaz Mahal, a 16th century ship-shaped monument just across the bazaar, the naatak mandlis (theater companies) should have started their rehearsals. The stage should have been set up. Instead, it looks haunted. The mela ground on Aam Bagh, too, should have stirred to life with swings and giant wheels. Instead, poles were still being set up and trolleys still needed to be lifted and fixed on to the giant wheel.

“The buzz usually starts 15 days in advance,” says Mr Anuj Khattar, the owner of an electrical shop. “But this time you don’t feel that Phool Waalo ki Sair is around.” Mr Khattar then points to a crater outside his store, at the middle of the street. That’s the blast site. It’s now covered up with cement. On the afternoon of September 27, 2008, Mr Khattar’s father was one of the injured.

With his bandaged leg resting on a low wooden stool, Mr Baldev Raj Thakkar is reading a newspaper in a godown, not far from his son’s store. He betrays no bitterness.

“This year Phool Waalon ki Sair has a more pressing relevance,” says 58-year-old Mr Khattar who has lived all his life in Mehrauli. “While we are conditioned to believe that terrorist attacks would create Hindu-Muslim rift, this procession celebrating both religions will prove that no such divide has taken place.”

It’s a sentiment shared by Mr Deen Mohamamd whose saree showroom, facing Mr Khattar’s store, lies on the other side of the crater. “Look, on one side of this ghadda is a Hindu’s shop and on the other a Muslim’s,” Mr Deen argues. “That means those terrorists had no religion.”

Many people I talked to repeated the same argument. But probe deeper and fears and conspiracy theories surface.

“After the blast, many have become fearful of Muslims,” says Mr Bunti, a Khaki-dressed security guard who walks the bazaar lane looking for disturbances. Similarly, the old caretaker in Hijron ka Khanqah, a 15th century sufi spiritual retreat close to the blast site, whispers that a large number of Muslims were killed in the blast but their death was kept secret. “Yet, I’ll pray for Hindus, too, during Phool Waalo ki Sair,” he says.

Interestingly, this festival, befitting its ‘secular’ label, has very sarkari origins. It was started by a Mughal queen in the dargah of Khwaja Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki during the dying years of her dynasty. Since then, barring a few years when the British stopped it, a chaddar decorated with flowers is offered on the shrine of Bakhtiyar Kaki; the next day a floral pankha offered at the nearby Jogmaya temple. During the Raj, a British Deputy commissioner would be the chief guest; today it’s Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor.

However, despite the lack of upbeat mood, the Dargah has dutifully started white-washing its walls. Its eight in-house qawwals, too, are busy challenging the limits of their vocal chords. “We’re ordering around twenty quintals of flowers from the mandis of Mehrauli and Chandni Chowk,” promises Mr Naseer Ahmed Hashmi, a dargah official.

I witnessed no such eagerness in Jogmaya temple, though. “No special arrangement here,” says Mr Nandu, the temple’s sevadar. “But come for the bhajans.”

A bit too quiet, the Mehrauli dargah

Phool Waalon ki Sair, Mehrauli

These qawwals have no audience

Phool Waalon ki Sair, Mehrauli

Sister, whom you praying for?

Phool Waalon ki Sair, Mehrauli

No buzz outside Jahaz Mahal

Phool Waalon ki Sair, Mehrauli

No buzz inside Jogmaya temple

Phool Waalon ki Sair, Mehrauli

Hope floats – the Hindu and the Muslim shopkeeper at Ground Zero

Phool Waalon ki Sair, Mehrauli