eh mera punjab

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Issued in 1963 from Amritsar (Punjab) a special pilgrim Passport meant for Sikhs visiting Pakistan and A special pilgrim visa meant for Sikhs visiting Pakistan…“Good for single visit to Gurdwaras: Nankana Sahib Dist. Sheikhupura, Dera Sahib Janam Asthan, Shahid Gunj, Cheevin Padshahi (Muzung), Shahid Bhai Taru Singh Ji at Lahore…”

Lohri

An ancient Punjabi farmers’ festival which is particularly meaningful to those families blessed with a recent marriage or birth, or anyone who is celebrating it for the first time. 

The answers to when and why the bonfire festival of Lohri began are lost in the mists of antiquity, but are certainly as old as the story of civilization in the ancient Indus Valley itself. Even for our 21st century selves, it is easy to empathize with the age-old need to believe in the inevitability of life’s renewal during the harshest and most desolate days of winter.

What could have been more natural to Lohri’s creators than the desire to celebrate the spark of fertility and promise of new birth, especially in a place like Punjab, with its deeply-rooted agricultural traditions? What could have been a better vehicle for doing so than fire, with its intrinsic symbolism of transformation and regeneration? And, what could have been a more opportune time than the end of the month of Poh and the beginning of Magh, the point on the calendar when the Earth is at its most distant from the Sun, heralding the start of the spring season?

Like so many other folk festivals, Lohri boasts its own iconic personage: Dullah Bhatti. The “Robin Hood of Punjab”, legends depict him as a Muslim dacoit who lived during the reign of Emperor Akbar. Besides robbing the rich and distributing their stolen wealth among the poor, he is credited with rescuing kidnapped Hindu girls being forcibly taken to be sold in the slave markets of the Middle East, arranging their marriages with Hindu boys, and providing them with dowries.

The hilarious “Song of Dullah Bhatti” recounts one such exploit, where a girl (Dullah’s “daughter”) in disgrace (symbolized by her torn shawl) was not only honorably married off, but provided by Dullah with a sack of sugar as a wedding gift. Prime fodder indeed for becoming a bona-fide Punjabi hero of the people!

Even today, in a practice akin to Halloween in the West, children go door-to-door, intoning the Dullah Bhatti song in hopes of being given money and sweets, and taunting, in rhyming verse, those miserly householders who do not summarily hand over the desired loot.

Not surprisingly, along with the bonfire itself, calorie-rich foods, perfect for generating bodily warmth and energy, play a central role in this festival. With the joyous celebrants gathered together around a crackling blaze, not only Til and Jaggery, but other scrumptious munchies such as Moongphali (peanuts), Chivra (puffed rice), Phuliyan (popcorn) and Gajak (a hardened confection of peanuts and jaggery) are consumed with gusto and, for good measure, cheerfully tossed into the flames.

Quintessentially, Punjabi dishes such as Makki Di Roti (a corn-based bread), Sarson Ka Saag (cooked mustard greens), and Rao Di Kheer (a slow-simmered mixture of rice and sugarcane juice) are also indispensable additions to the communal feast.

Besides the effort of simply staying warm, another way to burn off all these toothsome edibles is enthusiastic folk dancing. Whether it is bhangra for the men or giddha for the women, “shaking a leg” around the bonfire to the hypnotic beat of the dhol is an equally essential and much-loved component of celebrating Lohri.

It seems natural that a festival of jubilation at the promise of fertility and bounty  -  both of crops and of people  -  would be particularly meaningful to those families blessed with a recent marriage or birth. Lohri is no exception to this, with the first Lohri of a newlywed couple or a newborn baby holding special importance.

Another element of Sikh significance may be provided by the fact that Lohri is also the eve of Maghi, the first day of the month of Magh.

On that day, a mela at Muktsar, a district town of Punjab, is held, commemorating the martyrdom of the Chaali Muktae (literally, the Forty Liberated or Immortal Ones) remembered daily in our Ardas.

Fearlessly led by the brave woman General, Mata Bhag Kaur (also known as Mai Bhago), these former deserters, who had previously abandoned the side of Guru Gobind Singh, returned to the battlefield to heroically lay down their lives at Khidrana di Dhab (present-day Muktsar), fighting alongside their fellow Sikhs against the armies of Wazir Khan, the Nawab of Sirhind.