This article has appeared in February 2016 issue of ‘Smart Photography’ – India’s leading photography magazine!
Hola Mohalla at Anandpur Sahib – Watch Out For Your Camera!
I was worried about my photography gear. It happens to the best of us when we step out to shoot the popular Indian festival of colours – Holi. Whether the colour is dry or wet, it is not known to mix well with electronics. Hence, I was justifiably apprehensive. At this stage I had no idea that I should be worrying about my camera gear for an entirely different reason.
Just four days before Holi, a few of us decided to travel to Anandpur Sahib and capture a tradition that started over 300 years ago – Hola Mohalla. Its raison d’être was readiness for war. Guru Gobind Singh Ji had decided to use the festivities of Holi to turn the spark of patriotism into a raging bonfire. To this day, the tradition of this display of valour continues. Festivities entail mock battles, dare devilry, a religious procession, patriotic and religious poetry recitation – all in the spirit of general camaraderie and bonhomie while people sprinkle colour on each other.
Anandpur Sahib, the seat of one of the 5 holiest of all holy shrines of the Sikhs – Takht Sri Keshgarh Sahib – is a sleepy little town in Punjab’s Roopnagar district and lies on the border of Himachal Pradesh. Having passed through this town during my drive to Dharamshala, I knew that a drive to this place would be a piece of cake. And sure enough, our drive from Delhi was uneventful – with predictable stops for Paranthas at Murthal and Kinu juice along the highway. We by-passed Chandigarh in our excitement to reach Anandpur Sahib and made it to this holy city in good time. As we entered town, the unexpected hit us squarely in our face.
We found both sides of the dual carriageway lined with trucks, tractor-trolleys, bullock carts, cars, bikes and hawkers. To further compound the confusion, enthusiastic Sikhs of all ages were energetically trying to flag down our car – not to harm us, but to feed us Langar (community feast) that had been lovingly prepared by Kar Sevaks (volunteers) from hundreds of villages and towns of Punjab. They had all come here in hordes for the celebrations. Thereon, our progress to our campsite was tedious. It took us 90 minutes to navigate through those last 3 kilometers, which was teeming with vehicles and humanity. Thankfully, the campsite – which was on the banks of a shallow canal we had to drive through – was an oasis of calm in comparison.
After a quick lunch at camp, we made our way into town. The walk was a veritable photo-op at every step. Despite it being Holi, no one had messed with us and my camera gear was safe. During this walk, we realised that the parked vehicles were the campsites of the villagers who had poured into Anandpur Sahib for celebrations. The occupants of each vehicle had taken up a few hundred square feet of area around their vehicles and set up stables for horses, cattle and camels, kitchens for their meals, and tents for protection from the elements. The entire town had transformed into a makeshift fair ground.
Wherever we went we found small stalls, set up by the locals as well as visitors, selling handicrafts, mock weapons, foodstuff, clothes, toys, religious souvenirs, etc. As we were nearing the shrine, we found a religious procession making its way there. Close by, another large ground had religious plays and skits in progress. Many monks camping along the road were merrily smoking pot, making bhang pakoras (marijuana cutlets), bhang thandai (a marijuana milkshake of sorts) and generally being pleasantly loud.
Next morning, after more of what we experienced the previous day, we slowly made our way to the huge open ground generally referred to as the ‘stadium’. We reached there around noon and the place had a couple of thousand people patiently waiting there. Gradually, the stadium started to fill up. Our enquiries revealed that the event would start in another hour or so.
Soon, the loudspeakers started to crackle and went live; the commentator plunged into elaborate welcomes for the various Nihang Jatthas (Warrior Sikh Groups) that started to pour in with great fanfare. Some groups rode in on their horses, while others engaged in mock duels as they made their way towards the stadium stand.
Over the next half hour, the stadium ground was nearly full with almost twenty thousand people milling about and another eighty thousand in the stands or peering over the rooftops of the houses that surrounded the stadium. Mock duels were happening all around us. Holi colours were being sprinkled on one and all – but everybody had the admirable discipline of not throwing any colour on strangers. I breathed a deep sigh of relief, as there was seemingly no danger to my camera gear.
The commentator announced the commencement of the biggest event – Show Riding. The stadium burst into a huge roar and an adrenaline rush engulfed the throng. The crowd in the ground peeled its collective eye in anticipation and the atmosphere went electric with the thunderous sounds from the hooves of hordes of galloping horses. Suddenly, all hell broke loose.
Few show riders were riding a single horse. Most of them were riding two or more horses, the maximum number being four. Here, I use ‘riding’ as a euphemism as they came charging in on these galloping beasts standing upright astride 2, 3 or 4 of them. The rider’s control over these galloping horses was minimal and they were merrily cutting through the crowds. Result? Scared flanks of masses were swaying to and fro to make way for these almost out-of-control galloping steeds. This is when I really got worried about my camera equipment!
The Show Riding event went on for about an hour. When it ended, we realised that there had been a few mishaps – 3-4 people were injured and a massive galloping stallion had stomped upon a photographer’s camera leaving it fit only for a junk dealer.
In summation, the experience is enthralling if you are watching it from the sidelines. But if you are on the stadium ground, it sure is not for the faint of heart. Do go there and experience it for yourself; but one word of caution – watch out for your camera gear while on the stadium ground.