A spring like no other

March 29, 2020

Probably for the first time in history, Mela Chiraghan, one of the biggest festivals in the Punjab, may not be held

It is difficult to say when Mela Chiraghan was not held last since its inception. This year, on account of coronavirus shut down, may indeed be the first time that the Mela will not be held.

Once billed the biggest festival of the Punjab, it was an occasion to celebrate spring. It probably started soon after the death of Shah Hussain, one of the most celebrated Punjabi poets.

Shah Hussain was a contemporary of the Mughal emperor Akbar. It is said that he was opposed to centralized governance and had sympathized with the likes of Dullah Bhatti, who fought for the rights of the Punjabi peasantry.

The history of the Mela has not been documented in serially. The popular account sounds highly mythical so that it is impossible to separate fact from legends of miracles. It appears that it became huge during the reign of Ranjit Singh. Lahore and the Punjab went through traumatic times after the death of Aurangzeb, as weak Mughal rulers were unable to stop the invasions from the north and north-west. It was first Ranjit Singh and then the British who brought stability to the area and restored order.

The biggest mela of the Punjab. — Photos by Rahat Dar

Shah Hussain was on the wrong side of the monarchy but popular with the people of the area. He had an existence of a folk hero, a poet, a rebel, who took on the high and mighty for the sake of his views. He must have had a following as well. It is possible that the Mela started at a modest level and then gathered moss to become bigger with time, only becoming huge under royal patronage.

Ranjit Singh was a Punjabi, the first Punjabi in a thousand years to rule the Punjab, and it is possible that he courted the legacy of the poet as an example of promoting his own language and culture. It is said that chiraghs (lamps) were lighted on Hussain’s shrine in Baghbanpura before they were taken in a procession to the nearby Shalamar Bagh for the festivities to start. The entire Bagh remained lit for the duration of the Mela which must have been three days and nights.

The entire elite of the Ranjit Singh’s darbar participated in the revelry. The Mela continued to be held in this manner until well after the creation of Pakistan. Then, in the 1960s, it was shifted out of the Bagh to the immediate environs of Shah Hussain’s shrine in Baghbanpura.

Shah Hussain was a malamati sufi which the royal establishment was always wary of owning up and taking full responsibility for. Though he led a very active life, bordering on irreverence, his poetry did not have the violence of Bulleh Shah.

It is possible that the Mela started at a modest level and then gathered moss to become bigger with time, only becoming huge under royal patronage.

Shah Hussain was much more restrained. He paid greater respect to the artistic value of detachment in the arts than his famous successor. He represented the Bhakti worldview. The large-scale migration of Muslims from other countries, a consequence of Mongol invasions, had brought the Indian subcontinent waves upon waves of conquerors, scholars and poets. Among other social influences, this initiated a new culture which found its ultimate expression in the Bhakti Tehreek, based on love, tolerance, and a cross-caste, cross-class, cross-religious worldview.

It was a great confluence of the streams of music, language, religious thought, poetic idiom and artistic sensibility which the sufis employed creatively. They wrote and spoke in local languages, looked beyond the division imposed by ritual and valued the supreme joy of existence. A personalized experience of truth was held more authentic than the sophistry of scholastic reasoning. The lafz and the sur, the istaara and the behlawa came together to form an integrated vision.

The imagistic references in Hussain’s poetry are drawn from everyday life. They are then weaved into a pattern that unfolds multiple layers of meaning. The symbols are open to interpretations that go beyond the finality of the ‘Received Truth’. Living reality thus found precedence over dogma and the process overtook the end. I twas the journey that determined the destination.

The Punjab had three major festivals to celebrate in spring. It kicked off with Basant at three places — the shrine of Shah Hussain, the samadhi of Haqeeqat Rai and the gurdawara at Gurumangat. The second festival was Mela Chriaghan that too started from the shrine of Shah Hussain in Baghbanpura and spilled over to Shalamar Bagh. The third, that rounded off the season, was Baisakhi. It was celebrated on the banks of the Ravi.

Mela Chiranghan became the symbolic reference point for Punjabi culture, and an initiative to revitalize the Punjabi language, to make the Punjabis realize that owning their language and culture was neither backwardness nor treason against the idea of Pakistan. Mela Chiraghan and the person of Shah Hussain have been often cited as the rallying point of Punjabi consciousness. These ideas have surfaced from time to time as validation of the importance of the mother tongue in the cognitive processes and the crucial significance of language in the maturation of a consciousness related to the land and its history.

Today, with greater conformity in trends, Shah Hussain has gone into the background with more compromising historical figures stepping forward to be a part of the mainstream narrative. Shah Hussain was definitely not a conformist. He challenged the status quo not only in the political realm but also in the spiritual and religious aspects.

When the die is cast in favour of revolutionary consciousness in art, culture and politics, Shah Hussain will rise once again to be its representative figure.

Probably for the first time in history, Punjab's Mela Chiraghan may not be held