From community meals to decorated turbans, rural sports, mock fights and bhang ceremonies, this city of bliss in Punjab celebrates the spirit of the khalsa at Hola Mohalla for three days around Holi
March 2014, a sunny day when I began the drive for Hola Mohalla. I didn’t know then that the land would call me again and again. While I had heard about the festival of Hola Mohalla, I was taken aback to see the entire state of Punjab land in Anandpur Sahib, the city of bliss. The colours of Holi are different here.
Considered the Mecca of gurudwaras, Anandpur Sahib is the place where the khalsa was formed on 30 March 1699 by the 10th and last living guru, Guru Gobind Singh. The khalsa or the panj pyare (five beloved ones) was then responsible for all executive, military and civil authorities in the Sikh community. The brotherhood of the pure ones was formed in response to Mughal invasions. The army, known as the Nihangs, has been at the heart of the khalsa ever since. Hola Mohalla celebrates this spirit, the brotherhood and the sacredness of the place.
Hola is a masculine version of Holi and Mohalla comes from the Arabic root hal (alighting or descending). This Punjabi word means an organised army procession. Decades ago, Hola Mohalla was a 10-day affair, slowly it became a five-day festival and then the festivities shrunk to three days. The festivities begin a month earlier from Harminder Sahib (the Golden Temple in Amritsar) and end at Takht Shri Damdama Sahib in Bhatinda on Baisakhi (in April).
Anandpur Sahib is home to one of the power spots: Takht Keshgarh Sahib. Here, the weapons of the guru are displayed every evening. Located atop a hill, this serene space offers a breathtaking vista of the surrounding hills.
Unlike most towns which are built by rulers, Anandpur Sahib was founded by the ninth Sikh guru, Guru Tegh Bahadur, in 1665 and was then known as Chakk Nanaki (the guru’s mother was Nanaki).
The road from Delhi to Punjab is lush. We stop for breakfast at Zhilmil Dhaba near Murthal for its butter-laden stuffed parathas, and lassi. During the drive, close to Punjab, every few metres, we see fresh oranges piled high in baskets. Right behind the juice-seller is a shack where villagers make jaggery. They stir the sugarcane molasses in a large iron vessel and put the thick syrup in a flat one to dry. Once dry, this fresh jaggery is up for sale.
Hola Mohalla Begins
Village after village comes in trucks, their makeshift home for three days. It is quite a stupendous sight–ladders, baggage, bunkers, sacks of food for langar, lights, and men, women and children just packed into this small space, all full of joy in the little town that sleeps the year through. It’s an outdoor life for them, bathing in the canal, cooking food for the community and sharing it with all tourists and visitors. As many as 1 million pilgrims and visitors from all over the world come to the holy towns of Anandpur Sahib the adjacent Kiratpur Sahib a week before Holi.
Guru da langar… aayo jee, aayo jee… loudspeakers reverberate in the little town. Hands folded, the hosts-young and old Sikhs–stand in the middle of the road cordially requesting people to eat at their camps. Children shout “Guru dee fauj, karegi mauj” as a row of warriors cross. The army of the Guru comes from all over the world to celebrate their rich past and reap the blessings of their Guru. Young bikers roar by, displaying the flag of the khalsa. It is Hola Mohalla, after all.
It is a massive affair, there are stalls selling bhang, an intoxicating plant that grows in abundance here. Streets are lined with people selling clothes, weapons religious objects, holy CDs and books. Shabads fill the air 24X7.
Men in blue robes with embellished saffron and blue turbans, swords hanging by their side, are the Nihangs. They make their own iron utensils. The Nihangs wear magnificent turbans embellished with the khalsa symbol and steel finery. I remember the famous 70-year-old Jathedar Balbir Singh Chakarvarty from Patiala wearing a turban weighing 57 kg that had 750 m of cloth!
The colour of the festival is about immersing yourself in the spirit of the guru, listening to shabads (hymns), eating together, serving the gurudwara and showing their prowess by mock martial battles and different rural sports such as wrestling, kabbadi, horse riding, motor bike stunts and more. Different regional teams display their expertise in martial arts.
The crowning glory of the festival is the culmination of the walk at the Charan Ganga stadium where thousands throng to watch the camps participate in sword-fighting, tent-pegging and bareback horse-riding. The procession, which begins from Keshgarh Sahib Gurdwara, comes on with elephants, camels, horses and jeeps.
The Nihangs are the brightest stars of the martial show as their followers cheer. Small groups involved in mock battles stop as the horses enter. A line is cleared for the riders to show their skills-a young Nihang stands tall, riding three horses at the same time! As the horses slow down, the show comes to an end with the setting sun.
Langar at Keshgarh Sahib
The busy community kitchen is run by hundreds of volunteers and feeds 5-6 lakh people daily. They come from all over the country. Kamaljeeet Singh and Brig. Premjit Singh had come with 80 volunteers from Delhi. They had brought truckloads of bread and other edibles. Their group also feeds over 2,000 people in Delhi daily. Twice a year, on Hola Mohalla and Baisakhi, they come to offer their services. An elderly gentleman was making jalebis, having come with his group from Jalandhar. The rule for those eating: nothing must be wasted.
Gold sways in the fields. The wheat is ready for the sickle. Well, machines now. Gone are the days of the sickle for most farmers. This is my fourth visit to the sleepy town of Anandpur Sahib in Punjab, but it was the first time I was seeing golden wheat. Far beyond the trees, the sun seems happier. Baisakhi is also when farmers come to take the guru’s blessings before beginning the harvest of their fields.
Besides Takht Shri Keshgarh Sahib, the other attraction here is Virasat-e-Khalsa Museum. Known as the Khalsa Heritage Complex, here we learn about 500 years of Sikh history. An architectural marvel, the building, spread over 100 acres, is in the shape of hands folded in prayer. Inside, the music and the excellent use of multimedia ensure that the day was spent learning tales of valour, sacrifice, goodwill and hard work. There is also a souvenir shop here to take some memories back home.
Ropeway to Naina Devi Temple
The revered temple of Naina Devi is an hour’s drive from Anandpur Sahib, in neighbouring state of Himachal Pradesh. Hailed as a shaktipeeth or power centre, it is where the goddess is said to have defeated the demon Mahishasura. There are several other legends associated with it. According to one, Shiva was going beserk, roaming around earth with the corpse of his wife Parvati on his shoulder. The gods asked Vishnu to intervene, who cut the corpse into 52 pieces with his sudarshan chakra. And the eyes aka Naina fell here on this hilltop.
Up the winding roads, the evening sun sheds its rays, and we watch the play of light. The ropeway is on its last journey with us. Up some steps, into the shrine, we are bowled over by the view. We enjoy a cup of evening tea and drive to our resort, as the light of the full moon slips through the leaves, turning the golden tips into silver.
Morning Walk by the Canal
The next day begins before sunrise; ducks are busy foraging in the river Sutlej while we watch from the river bank. During the rains, this streams wells up. And the fertile land has different crops then. Birds call out, as we begin the drive to the canal nearby, watching the sun rise.
Land of Gurudwaras
The area round the city of bliss is dotted with gurudwaras. Sisganj Sahib is where the head of the ninth guru Tegh Bahadur was cremated in 1675. Guru Ka Mahal was the residence of the guru. Part of Guru ka Mahal, Bhora Sahib was where the guru would go to meditate. He used to deliver his sermons from Gurudwara Thara Sahib. The 10th guru addressed the congregation at Gurudwara Akal Bunga Sahib. Guru Gobind Singh’s sons used to study at Gurudwara Manji Sahib. There is also Gurudwara Mata Jit Kaur Sahib on the outskirts.
Guru Gobind Singh also built forts in the region: Holgarh Sahib, Lohgarh Sahib, Fatehgarh Sahib and Taragarh Sahib. Lohgarh Sahib is now a gurudwara and this is where the weapons were made during the battles with the Mughals.
Besides Virasat-e-Khalsa or Khalsa Heritage Memorial Complex, one can also go to the Dashmesh Academy.
Panj Piara Park at the entrance is where the world’s tallest khanda, approx 70 feet high, is installed. It is a good place to just watch the world go by.
The main market is where one can buy cheap clothes and trinkets. A local amusement park of sorts can also be seen here.
The Ropar wetlands for nature lovers are about 40km away. One can also go to the Bhakra-Nangal Dam (37km).
The road home is long as I carry some bliss with me. We cross young boys on motorcycles with the khalsa flag flying high on their vehicles. Our langar this time is sugarcane juice on the highway. We buy the jaggery too, the fields are bereft of the swaying gold, as it now lies on the ground.
How to Reach Anandpur Sahib
Anandpur Sahib is around 320km by road from Delhi. A drive from the capital takes nearly six hours. Take the NH1 out of Delhi past Karnal and Ambala. Head on to NH3 near Chandigarh to reach Anandpur Sahib. For the first two hours out of Jalandhar, the road to Anandpur runs through a flat landscape, before the Shivalik foothills start to appear.
I wrote two articles on Anandpur Sahib, one in the May 2014 issue of the now defunct Harmony magazine and another for Outlook Traveller in August 2017.