Hola Mohalla 2013: Jo Bole So Nihal!

Guest Post and Photographs by Priyanka Bhaskar, a DelhiByFoot community member about our first ‘Out-of-Delhi’ Event of 2013 done earlier in March.  Additional pictures by Ramit Mitra, founder of DelhiByFoot and organising leader of this 2-day trip.

Priyanka is a true-blood travel and trekking enthusiast, having completed tough treks like Everest Base Camp (2013), Chadar Trek (Ladkah, 2011) and photo-documenting Alleppey’s famed Snake Boat Race among many regular travels. When she isn’t out exploring India, she sits at her office desk in an IT company in Gurgaon, day-dreaming and planning about the next trip across the length and breadth of India!
Hola Mohalla
Being educated in a Sikh school, I wasn’t a stranger to the Hola Mohalla festival. While studying Sikh history, we had learned that Guru Gobind Singh ji laid the foundation of Khalsa panth to fight Mughals and Rajputs at the same time. In the early years of the 18th century, he started the tradition of Hola Mohalla, a festival to celebrate the warrior-ship of Sikhs. Hola Mohalla is a three-day festival to showcase the bravery and regalia of the religion, which was established with valour as its fundamental principle.  It is a practice that has withstood the test of time for over three centuries with all its colors, moods and heroism.

Finding it on the event list of DelhiByFoot’s ‘out-of-Delhi Events’ gave me a chance to experience the enormity of the event in person. Though it meant skipping the festival of Holi with family, for a more masculine Hola festival, it was worth taking the chance!

Hola Mohalla 2013
Style Quotient!

A day before Holi on 26th March 2013, the team gathered at Patel Chowk metro station in Delhi to board the Tempo Traveller arranged by DBF on way to the small town of Anandpur Sahib, in Punjab near the foothills of Himachal Pradesh. The incoming reports from the town suggested that huge crowds, upwards of 2.5 million people, are expected to visit the place during Hola this year, and finding accommodation in the place had been a real challenge for the organizers. But, we realized that Ramit, the founder of DelhiByFoot had skillfully organized a smooth landing and comfortable stay for all of us in the small town.

Amidst the constant chant of ‘Guru-baani’, the ‘too-much-to-handle-small-town’ traffic and golden lights of beautifully lit Gurudwaras, we reached our destination around 5am in the morning. “Sambhal ke rehna aap log, yahaan rang bhi bohat chaltaa hai aur bhang bhi bohat chaltii hai”, with this (pleasant!) warning from our driver, we got off the bus to a homely, clean and cozy guest house. After a couple of hours rest, we were all set to ‘chase the light’ before it transformed into harsh afternoon light. That was the first photography ‘mantra’ from our Photography coach, professional photo-journalist and documentary maker, Prashanth Vishwanathan.

We caught breakfast in one of the langars (Community Lunch-houses), a hearty serving of Pakodas and Jalebis with a perfect cup of milky chai to raise the spirits.
Hola Mohalla
Devotees carry freshly cooked ‘Guru Ka Prasaad’ for serving at langars

The ‘mela’ was essentially devoid of ‘shutter bug tourists’ and was mostly flocked by locals of nearby villages and foreign tourists . The lanes and bylanes of the town were marked with arrays of make shift shops selling trinkets, colorful chakriis, dholaks (drums), bubble making loops, children’s plastic toys and other typical ‘Village Mela’ kind of knick-knacks.

Hola Mohalla 2013
The regular appearance of Nihangs with their massive, colorful turbans got the entire group go shutter-happy after them. The fancy turbans boasting of several hundred meters of cloth and kilos of weight wrapped around their heads were incredible!

After walking around for a couple of hours, it was clear that we were in for a raw, rustic and earthy ‘mela’ experience, which was far removed from the urban fare that we city buffs were used to at the Dilli Haat Melas & Fairs! The constant chant of Shabads, the hustle and bustle of vehicles marking influx of devotees and chaotic Brownian movement of villagers on the narrow streets – it all set the scene for two days of hyper activity. Ramit, in typical ‘DBF-walk style’ kept up a constant stream of stories, anecdotes and historical information flowing about the place, the festival and its passage over time, while Prashanth added his dose of photography tips. And we were loving every moment of it!

We had a quick indoor session to brush up our basics and learn tips-and-tricks from Prashanth. He showcased his shots from that morning to support the theory, and a group member commented, “We too traversed the same streets and roads yet we didn’t see all this that you have captured”. Needless to say, we were in for some good learning, qualifying the trip to be an ‘Outdoor on-ground photo workshop’. We even found many inter-village sports event to practice what we had learnt that morning. Kabaddi and wrestling tournaments were being held in the town, and well, those were some action packed events! We practiced to our hearts’ content, capturing motion and emotion at the same time, ensuring to be on the right side of the light and being cautious at the same time to not fall into the ring!!

Later that afternoon, we witnessed the Gatka (mock warfare encounters) competitions. Even the audience was equipped with assorted varieties of arms, let alone the participants- spears, ‘desi’ guns and swords to name a few. We felt like we had been tele-ported back in time. Ramit had fortunately enough, got us special ‘Press’ access on the stage to witness the event from close quarters. There were numerous such moments when I would miss a beat and forget to click.

Gatka or Mock Martial Fights
Gatka Competitions of various Martial Fighting styles
Not for a moment did any fight seem to be a mock battle of strength or agility, each fight was done with so much vigour and fierceness!
Not for a moment did any fight seem to be a mock battle of strength or agility, each fight was done with so much vigour and fierce power!

The events continued till late evening, giving us a chance to shoot in the changing outdoor’s light. Our mentor, Prashanth continuously reminded us the lesson of using correct white-balance as afternoon gave way to evening which turned to night.Hola Mohalla

The weapons of Gatka, swords, sticks, spears, small daggers and many more.
The weapons of Gatka competitions, swords, sticks, spears, small daggers and many more.

Day2:  Lazy start to the day. The grand finale of the event was scheduled for the later half of the day. Ramit had managed to get our group invited to the house of one of the locals of Anandpur Sahib who as a gracious host had invited us for tea and then presented each of us with a traditional ‘saffron’ colored cotton scarf which meant that most of us took advantage of the morning’s free time to get some turban tying done. We were now a team of ‘Rajnikath-for-Bhagat-Singh’, ‘almost-convincing-Sukhdev’ and a ‘genuinely-turbaned-Sikhnee’ in the group.

Hola Mohalla2013
Shri Narender Singh ji giving us a dose of his gracious hospitality at his home. And then the turban-tying fun began!

We ambled at comfortable pace, walking past the campsites of Nihangs, dodging the few rare occasions of Holi colors of ‘Gulaal’ being applied and braving the sudden unexpected rains.


Hola Mohalla

Members of our Gang pose with some of the Nihangs at their camps
Members of our Gang pose with some of the Nihangs at their camps

It was time for yet another photography lesson before the mega horse-riding events – the lesson of panning. Panning essentially is an art to make moving objects look static and static background look as if it is zooming past. So there we were, all of us standing in a queue beside the lane, and not just focusing the camera on every passerby but also moving it at the speed they were moving. Well, what we were unable to master with gently moving humans, we were hoping to attempt with lightning speed horses. Pipe dreams!

Hola Mohalla
Best panning shot I could get during our practice sessions!

The procession of participants of the grand finale was to start soon and there was a palpable sense of excited anticipation among the people on the streets. Although  spirits were a bit dampened by the unseasonal rain that delayed the whole event by almost an hour, however all gloom was lifted as soon as the procession hit the road! We ran hither and thither to keep pace with the bustling energy of the procession. The mock battles, the warrior dances, the rhythm of the Dhols, the war-cries of ‘Jo bole so nihaal’ and breath-taking stunts – to capture all at once was challenging for the best of us.

Hola Mohalla DelhiByFoot
We followed the procession for about half a Km, and then we fell out of the parade to secure our place in the actual venue for the grand finale of the event.
DelhiByFoot Hola Mohalla
The procession had people walking, dancing, riding horses and even camels, all bedecked in battle-finery and war regalia!
Gatka-style stunts
Gatka-style stunts, as we walked with the grand procession. Age was evidently no bar, as chubby youngsters aged 7-10 yrs and seasoned gray-haired veterans held their ground equally.

Soon the hordes of Nihangs riding on their neighing horses, led by their dera heads arrived at the venue alongwith flashy cars and modified Bullet Bikes. The much awaited equestrian sports began. Crowds lined up on both side of the alley in which the tent pegging event was to happen. And then came the array of mounted horsemen, riding at full gallop, using lances(spears) to scoop up grass bundles from the ground. Even with my camera set in a continuous shooting mode at an interval of 2 seconds, the horse was at the entry point in one shot and out of the frame in the next! Many photo enthusiasts, including myself, were dragged away and saved just in time from being trampled under the furiously driven horses’ hooves as we lost all sense of speed and time behind the cameras! I think I was right in abandoning the dream of panning shots.

DSC_4134Hola Mohalla DelhiByFootHola Mohalla DelhiByFootThen came the turn for bare back horse riding – one rider and one horse; one rider, two horses and hands up in the air; and finally hold your breath, since it was one rider, three horses and hands up in the air! Although I had seen the photos of this event many times, it was no match for the rush of adrenaline when experienced in person!!  After going click-click for a few rounds , and almost getting trampled by the oncoming fast horses, as I kept trying to get good shots, I gave up and decided to give my camera rest and take it all in with my eyes!

DelhiByFoot Hola Mohalla
Yes, almost like this I also had rush out of the path of the fast horses to avoid being hit by them as they galloped past us!
Rider on two horses
Rider on two horses balances his 2 feet on the backs of 2 horses
a thrill which is beyond words....when a Nihang rider balances his 2 feet on the backs of 2 horses, whilst they run at top speed...
The adrenaline thrill which is beyond words! When Nihang riders balance their two feet on the backs of three horses, whilst they run at unbelievable speeds

A gala finish to a gala event. The event left the whooshing sound in our heads for quite some time afterwards. The small town was enveloped in peace and quiet again, but our memories were well-preserved in our hearts and cameras as we departed for Delhi. Tired but overwhelmed with the experiences, we seemingly returned to present-day reality from a time-travel back into history.