What Is The Lohri Festival All About?

by Rekha Chowdhary

That is a tragedy for the middle class since it takes their children away from a folk narrative of mixed society. This folk narrative is sung by children actually refers to the spirit of Lohri and to the celebration of humanity over anything else.

Preparations are underway for liting the Lohri fire in the JK Bank premises on January 12, 2021. The festival of the plains that marks the end of winter was celebrated for the first time in history in Srinagar at a time when the night temperature has created a record of sorts.

We have a holiday on the occasion of Lohri. That is one of the ways we relate to our festivals – having a holiday. It is not to say that there is no meaning of festivals in our life, but certainly, the meanings are fast changing. No more the purpose of celebrations of festivals is to celebrate our community life, to celebrate our culture and to reproduce our traditions. In the individualised society, the community is fast losing its meaning for the people and culture is assuming new meanings.

With the urbanisation and modernisation, we have either lost or are in the process of losing many traditions which are associated with our festivals. As the culture of consumerism is overtaking us, the festivals have actually become a reason to celebrate the culture of consumerism.  Hence, it is the market element of Lohri that is the most visible one.  It is in our markets that we see the signs of festivity. The market is geared up with gift items. One is actually not surprised finding the  ‘packaged’ Lohri gifts – since the packaging is as important or rather more important than the content in the present-day consumerist society.

Lohri, like many other festivals, is more of a social-cultural rather than a religious festival, which involves the community and invokes a collective sense of community. It is a festival of north India, basically of Punjabis, having many socio-cultural connotations. While it is a harvest related festival, it also has seasonal implications. Falling during the peak of the winter season, it is the last day of the winter month of Posh. The cold is supposed to recede after this day.

The celebration of Lohri would be marked by singing and dancing on the one hand and the bonfire on the other. The sense of community and collective underlies both. The tradition of bonfires is there and continues in many ways as a neighbourhood activity in which more than one family might be involved. But one cannot say the same about the tradition of singing and dancing.

Singing and dancing, in urban places like Jammu city, would be a neighbourhood function. Every Mohalla would have dance groups. The whole day, one would be hearing the drumbeat and the children would run to the roadside to see where the dance party had gone – with one person holding the beautifully decorated chajja and the rest of the group dancing. The dancing party would have made a list of the houses in the Mohalla and gone there to dance and then ask for money. It would be followed by an interesting scene of bargaining between the head of the family and the dancing party. Whatever the Head of the family would offer would not satisfy the dancing party and they would show their protest by continuing to dance on drumbeats. Only after they would be satisfied, they would stop the dancing and the beating of drums. Chajja was the point of attraction and the dancing parties would pay a lot of attention to its beauty and its aesthetic quality. In many cases, there would be a prize on the best-decorated chajja. One rarely sees the chajja and it seems that we have lost this beautiful tradition.

Certainly, not everything was ideal in this tradition. There was an element of patriarchy, which was reflected in all this. The ‘special’ houses celebrating Lohri would either be those where a son was born or where a son had been married during the last year. The celebration was not meant either for the birth of a daughter or the marriage of a girl in the family. It reflected the societal bias in favour of a son who was seen as an asset and against the daughter who was seen as a liability. Unfortunately, we have continued with this bias – as our declining sex ratio shows – even when we may not be continuing with the tradition of dancing in front of the houses with ‘sons’. (Wouldn’t it have been better if we had continued with the tradition and made it inclusive of the celebration of the girl’s birth and her marriage as well!)

An important element of Lohri was door-to-door asking for ‘Lohri’ by small children. This would be done by reciting small couplets. The children of the neighbourhood, without any distinction of class, would form small groups and go around and collect a lot of goodies and some money. They would share the goodies and the money and have fun with it. Children still come to ask for Lohri, but certainly, there is a class factor to it now. The children of the middle class no more are part of it. It has come to be associated with poorer sections of society.

That is a tragedy for the middle class since it takes their children away from a folk narrative of mixed society. This folk narrative is sung by children actually refers to the spirit of Lohri and to the celebration of humanity over anything else. It is a story of the heroism of Dulla Bhatti, a Muslim who is supposed to have been looting the rich to pay money to the poor and who protected the dignity of women. The Lohri couplet is: ‘Sundar Mundari hotera koun bechara? Dulla Bhatti wala! Dulled dhi bihayi  (literally translated it says – “Sundar Mundari! Who is there to protect you? It is Dulla Bhatti. Dulla got a daughter married.”). Dulla Bhatti is a legendry rebel during the Mughal times who is supposed to have saved a Hindu girl from being taken to Mughal harem and acting as her father got her married according to Hindu rituals. As the legend is told through the couplet, he is supposed to have given sugar (shakkar) as a wedding gift.

Rekha Chowdhary

Lohri, if we see it through Sundar Mundari – was a very good example of our community life in which festivals were having more of cultural rather than religious form. It was a celebration of a way of life in which Hindus and Muslims were not two antagonistic communities but an extension of each other.

In the ways the festivals do change according to time – there is one pleasant change that needs to be noted – a new tradition is being introduced related to the birth of girls. There is a systematic effort to celebrate the ‘kudiyan di Lohri’ (Lohri of girls). This concept was introduced in the last ten years in Punjab by social activists and media houses with. a view to fight against the bias against girl children. Gradually this concept is catching up in Jammu as well.

(The author taught political science at the University of Jammu before joining the Indian Institute of Advanced Study as a fellow.)

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