Essay, Lifestyle & Culture

Two Different Fires: Little India Riots 2013

Published at

8 December 2013


“Can we make a move? Grab dinner and get out of here? I’m exhausted.”

The bride and groom had completed the last of their seven perambulations around the sacred fire. Behind a large red cloth to keep away prying eyes, he marked the parting of her hair with orange sindoor. The couple sought blessings from their elders by touching their feet in the presence of guests and gods at the Lakshmi Narayan temple along Chander Road in Little India.

It had been a long Hindu wedding. The monsoon rain had just let up after 5 hours of steady downpour. The overall mood of marital bliss and cool rainy weather was working its lethargic magic on my limbs.


We piled our plates high with palak paneer, chapatti, creamy raita, chick pea curry and a serving of bhel puri – fried hollow crackers stuffed with potato, sweet sauce and yoghurt, topped with a sprinkling of coriander and finely ground black pepper. Crispy, sweet-sour, juicy and beautifully messy. That bhel puri was a winner. Long after the riot police wrapped up the chaos on its way to the temple’s doorstep, the one thing I remember with longing was that bhel puri.

The fourth floor of Lakshmi Narayan temple was empty except for the servers. As a common room for refreshments, steel tables and plastic chairs had been arranged for guests to sit and have a meal. Wire mesh windows lined the walls.

Pop pop pop pop

What’s that?

Don’t know. Some people having fun. More bhel puri?

Oh yes oh yes.


The party on the ground floor was getting noisy. People started shouting. Silence, then more shouts. We didn’t think too much of it.

I was wiping my mouth of the yoghurt that lost its way when the elevator doors slid open to reveal the aunt and uncle of the groom. The first thing they told us was: “There are riots outside.”

What? (Not a surprised what or even a shocked what because surprise and shock are emotions that imply an understanding, no matter how vague, of the situation. My what was more like request of a definition: What riots? It was the worst sort of what, the one says You might as well be talking to me about quantum physics or neurobiology because I have zero understanding of the word.)

Yes, real riots.

Is there a rooftop?

Two floors up.

What do you mean riots?

Pop pop pop. Again that sound. More distant yelling.

The cameraman for the wedding and a couple of other guests jog towards the stairs, but not before the elevator doors yawn open again and deposit the bride and groom, their faces blanketed with frowns of worry. They are accompanied by the groom’s brother, who everyone calls Bhaiya because he is the oldest.

“We’re locked in,” he announces. The newly married couple find a chair each and sit down. The henna on the bride’s hands is glowing, the tips of her fingers coloured the deep dark brown of earth.

What riots? What happened?

Real riots. (Again, that phrase.) Someone got knocked down by a bus and died on the spot.

Locked in. Real riots.

In the finery of our sarees, sherwanis and Anarkalis, anklets tinkling, bangles jingling, earrings gleaming, we run up the stairs to the rooftop.

Photo by Vinod Rai Sharma.

Photo by Vinod Rai Sharma.


It is dark on the sixth floor. Large and empty, except for wedding guests, temple staff and priests gathered at the wire mesh windows. It is impossible to make out anyone’s face here. My eyes adjust slowly to the night, my feet tread carefully. I am paranoid about falling down and breaking my leg.

Pop pop pop. Fweeeeeeee.

In the distance, a car is on fire. On Racecourse Road, a crowd gathers around a police vehicle. Encouraged by cheers and whistles, it is pushed over and (set on?) catches fire.

Above the susurration of our urgent whispers, the jarring whistling and cheering on the streets and the unexplainable popping sound is a dismal wail of a car horn screaming into the night, unstoppable, as though someone’s unconscious hand (head?) was pressing into it.


Is that another staircase?

Hidden in a small corner and obscured by the night is an old-school winding spiral staircase that opened up to an open-air rooftop. There are already at least ten people crowding the high cement stairs. Modesty forgotten, I hitch up the folds of my long dress and climb up into a crowd of friends and guests.

A wave of vertigo rolls over me as the stairs opened up to fresh air and an unrestricted, unhindered view of the chaotic scene. The corrugated roof sheeting is so close that I can leave my purse there as I fix my center of gravity. There is nothing for me to hold on to other than the corrugated roof sheet in front of me and the wedding cameraman beside me, who is recording the footage of the scene, his camera swivelling left to right, right to left, as the rooftop witnesses give real-time updates of the events.

At times, there are pockets of silence when everyone lapses into silence and looks unbelievingly at the mayhem surrounding the temple. The mournful wail of the car horn rises into the night. Again, that pop pop pop.

It was a real riot that was beginning to feel unreal.


The horn stops abruptly. Another vehicle catches fire. Occasionally there is the sound of something breaking, smashing, followed by loud cheers.

Bloody Bangladeshis.

No, they’re not Bangladeshi. Most likely Madrasi.

What makes you think they are one or the other?

Because the Bangladeshis don’t come to this corner of Little India.

That’s a far stretch.

No, seriously. This is where the workers from India have a drink on weekends.

Boy, are they pissed.

They’re just drunk.

They’re not all this angry. I know this guy, Suresh, who helps us out all the time. He calls his wife in India every night, without fail.

Everyone needs a catalyst.

Photo by Vinod Rai Sharma.

Photo by Vinod Rai Sharma.

10:55pm or thereabouts

The fire on our left has grown bigger, yellow-orange flames leaping, jumping. The cloud of black fumes is indistinguishable from the night sky. Then, a high-pitched sound like a pressure cooker letting off steam. A mechanical, non-human whistle. The music of quickly impending danger.

The first explosion, when it came, erupted in mushroom of smoke and sent a shockwave of heat towards the rooftop. My knees grow weak.

Someone says, What heat? I don’t feel any heat and I’m standing right here.

Someone else says, It’s a shockwave.

I can feel what I feel. Who wants to make up shit like this?

11:15pm or thereabouts

The second explosion comes from the vehicle on our right, further up along Racecourse Road. By this time, I am numb. The fires rage on and on. A group of policemen jogs away in earnest, away from the rioting crowd. More raucous cheering and whistling.

Are they running away, someone asks.

Cowards, someone mutters. (Or maybe no one said that and what I’d heard was the whisper of our hearts.

But I’d run away from this madness, too.)

11:30pm or thereabouts

Flashing lights in the distance, beyond the smouldering embers of the vehicles. Charred mechanical skeletons by this time.

Photo by Vinod Rai Sharma.

Photo by Vinod Rai Sharma.


At some point, we received news that it was somewhat safe – or safer, in any case – to make our way home. We cleared from the roof and joined the majority of the guests on the fourth floor. Parched throats (from talking, excitement, heavy breathing) called for water.

Someone led us through a labyrinth of stairwells and dark rooms to the ground floor.

How do you know your way around here so well, asked a French lady from Brittany, one of the guests at the wedding.

I used to play here as a kid.

You play in a temple?

My parents dragged me here every Sunday. It was boring for a kid, so I ran around a lot. It’s nothing new, really.

We passed the mandap, where the bride and groom were making their rounds around a different sort of fire a few hours ago. Where an Indian priest from Uttar Pradesh in north-west India uttered the sacred verses of the Vedas in a language that has remained unchanged for thousands and thousands of years. Jasmine flowers and unidentified flower petals littered the area around the mandap, which guests had thrown onto the bride and groom in a shower of blessing.

Festivals, Lifestyle & Culture, Photography

How to Walk on Fire & Other Lessons

The escalator deposited us at the train station’s waiting area together with thirty other stranded souls. Outside, the weather had turned foul. Tea-coloured puddles gathered around curbs and corners. Unperturbed by the torrential downpour, the yellow-robed firewalkers went about barefoot and without umbrellas. All of them, without exception, held on to a stalk of neem leaves and one yellow-green lime. One guy had tucked his neem into the gathers of his yellow robe around his waist. Shoeless, he waded across a calf-high puddle without concern, his double-folded dhoti coming up to his knees. An Audi slowed down for him as he crossed the street, eyes gleaming and a steadfast purpose in his stride.

Much later in the night, pressed up against hundreds of unyielding bodies, standing next to a man sipping at a straw (I’m pretty sure it was vodka) from a paperbag, a Chinese lady asks me, “What is this all about?”

She had heard about theemithi from her friends, about how the firewalking ceremony is a huge event in Singapore’s Indian community. Thousands show up to rally their support for the firewalkers. Hundreds brave the journey across the burning coals. Standing across the street and looking up at the live feed set up from inside Sri Mariamman Temple, jostled around like a ragdoll, it’s obvious that this was not the experience she signed up for.

“So all of this starts with the Mahabharata. It’s considered the greatest Indian epic.”

“Like a story?”

“Yes. Like a story, except it’s a poem and some people think it really did happen.”

So I tell her about Draupadi, the heroine of the Mahabharata, and how she was almost publically disrobed in the court of the Kauravas, who were her husbands’ enemies. Krishna, the sweet and occasionally cheeky god so dark-coloured that he is depicted with blue skin, steps in and saves her from humiliation. This incident was arguably the catalyst that sparked off the Mahabharata, the great war between the Pandavas and the Kauravas, blood cousins and bitter enemies.

Theemithi – the actual fire-walking ceremony – is only the culmination of several religious rituals, all of which mark the Pandavas’ eventual victory of that war between kin. In the Mahabharata’s grand finale, Draupadi walks on fire to prove her chastity and virtuosity. She emerges unscathed, without a single singe on her body.

Every year, tens of thousands of believers and devotees all over the world follow Draupadi’s example and brave the journey across hot coals in memory of that victory of light over darkness, of good over evil.


Firewalkers within Perumal Temple. Singapore. © Preet Kaur 2013

Firewalkers within Perumal Temple. Singapore. © Preet Kaur 2013

Potbellied and lean, hairy and smooth-skinned, young, old, tattooed, pierced, white bearded, clean shaven and ash-smeared – there is no standard stereotype of a firewalker, except that they are all dressed in saffron and yellow robes, now wet and clinging to their bodies. A crowd of men, hundreds of bodies, pressing in and moving about; the perennial dodging of elbows and polite (sometimes exasperated) excuse me’s had started. Hearing a woman’s voice, most stepped aside respectfully; others, not so. Such was the chaotic scene within the tented compound of Perumal Temple.

Vendors distributed Bandung – a pink coloured beverage of rose syrup with milk, a Singaporean favourite – and lukewarm chai. Also up for grabs: Styrofoam packets of rice and lentils. While the vegetarian food was primarily for devotees, firewalkers and their families, a few vagrant immigrants had wandered into the tented compound and were attacking the free vegetarian meals with gusto. They clustered in groups along the tent’s perimeter, uncaring of the puddles that leaked onto the tarpaulin. Some stood. Plastic chairs, placed at random locations, were occupied by women and the elderly. Human traffic flowed in every available direction. There was no method to this madness. I kept my elbows out and eyes alert.

Presiding over this utter mayhem was what sounded like devotional music. Devotional music sung by an exceptionally enthusiastic – but still quite tone-deaf – bearded man, and accompanied by an electronic keyboard. Everyone with neem stalks was waving them in the air, over their heads. Those without neem stalks were waving their hands. No one noticed that the music sounded like a rock band gone bad. No one else noticed that faint hint of marijuana in the air either. Odd, that.

The crowd within Perumal Temple. © Vinod Rai Sharma. 2013

The crowd within Perumal Temple. © Vinod Rai Sharma. 2013

A man stood guard near the entry into the main temple compound, where the firewalkers were praying in preparation for their sojourn across burning coals later in the night at another temple. An important-looking card hung around his neck. We made eye contact, and I approached him.

“Hi,” I smiled, presenting the most pleasant side of my personality.

“Hi,” he smiled back. Great start, I thought to myself, until he pointed at my camera and said, “You can’t go in. You need a media pass.”

“But I am documenting an important Hindu festival. More people need to know about this.”

He shook his head. “I’m very sorry, but you need to present a media card. There is no other way in.” He seemed genuinely apologetic.

“What happens after this?”

“The priest will start the prayers soon, then he will lead the whole procession towards Sri Mariamman Temple.”

“With the firewalkers?”

“With the firewalkers.”

“What time exactly, you think?”

“Hard to say exactly but maybe 6 o’clock the prayer will start. Half an hour later, the priest will start walking.” My watch read 5:57pm. Okay, I thought. Sounds reasonable.


Singapore. © Vinod Rai Sharma. 2013

Traffic wardens in ponchos, Singapore. © Vinod Rai Sharma. 2013

I make my way outside, find shelter beneath the shophouses across the road. The monsoon scene made everything look like a parody. Traffic wardens in plastic ponchos and temple officials carrying stately black umbrellas.

Travelling in a single file in front of the temple were firewalkers draped in yellow and saffron robes. I peered through the viewfinder of my faithful Nikon. I need to take a step forward, to get a better angle, but find that my left foot is fastened to the ground. Stuck and… sticky? Definitely facing resistance. I look down and find my slipper wedged deep in a pile of something brown, black and resembling excrement. Definitely human.

I look up to my partner, unbelieving. “Find a puddle. Wash it.” Having dispensed with this ground-breaking advice, he snaps a photo of me looking dismally at my foot sunk in shit. Something for my wall of shame.


The downpour eventually calms into a steady drizzle; the sky deepens to a twilight blue. The humidity of the mushrooming crowd is tempered by a gentle, flirty breeze.

After ninety minutes of standing around, there is finally sign of activity: a traffic warden waves his hands and whistles for the traffic to stop. The temple gates open a fraction and eight men in dhotis march out. Spearheading the group is a man with a coco broom sweeping the ground in rapid strokes as he walks. He is followed by another man carrying a fire torch. The torch bearer is closely followed by a man with a small drum and another carrying prasadam in a steel pail. The rest appear to be just accompaniment. The entire procession hurries past as though they’re late for an appointment.

I am confused, irritated and a little angry. Was this it? This little 30-second performance was what I waited for all this while?

The three women on my right had staked out their spot around the same time as us. Up till now, they were engaged in a riveting conversation in Tamil. One of them turns to face me, perhaps sensing my irritation.

“What just happened, Aunty? Do you know?”

“Warding off evil, girl. Cleansing the path. After this, the priest will come.”

Warding off the evil eye, Singapore. © Preet Kaur 2013

Warding off the evil eye, Singapore. © Preet Kaur 2013


Again, it is the traffic warden’s cue that draws attention to the fact that something is about to happen. By this time, we had been standing for three hours. We entertained ourselves in every possible way: sang Hindi songs, played iPhone games, pointed at cars, watched YouTube videos and experimented with camera settings in low light conditions, all the while standing. The both of us are past irritation and well into exhaustion.

Finally, activity: about 50 firewalkers emerge from the temple and form a group. They are all skilfully draped in their yellow and saffron robes, foreheads and forearms smeared with ash. They deliberate, look around and talk to each other, generally appearing quite important.

The chief priest then arrives, heralded by a huge flame. He comes with a bunch of elderly men smeared with more ash than the first group and garlanded with jasmine and roses. One priest carries a statue in the likeness of Goddess Durga. He is surrounded by men holding sky-facing swords pierced with lime. The whole procession ambles down the road, keeping within the iron barricades, towards Sri Mariamman Temple 4 kilometres away.

The head priest arrives, leading the procession.. © Preet Kaur 2013

The head priest arrives, leading the procession.. © Preet Kaur 2013


We arrive by bus, catching the 147 from Little India to Chinatown, where Singapore’s oldest Hindu temple is located. Ah, life’s little ironies.

Theemithi, or firewalking, has been practised at Sri Marimman Temple since 1840.  Given that, one would expect crowd control contingencies to be made for the day. Instead, all I see as I approach the temple is a wall of people. There were easily thousands packed into nearby lanes and standing on the curb, with more pouring in every minute. The air was thick with sweat and breath.

We pushed ahead as far as we could go but the crowd would not give. I saw maybe a total of ten women in all that time. There was no mayhem here, as opposed to the earlier madness at Perumal Temple. Most people stood rooted in their position, calmly watching the live feed on the huge screen. Occasionally, they clapped solemnly when a firewalker actually walked across the burning coal pit, as opposed to dashing or jogging. The clap was respectful, united, as though acknowledging the difficulty of what they were seeing.

Singapore. © Vinod Rai Sharma. 2013

Singapore. © Vinod Rai Sharma. 2013

I clapped, too. Seated on a beer drum belonging to a bar opposite the temple, beside a drunk but friendly old man who was sipping from a paperbag containing a mysterious but definitely alcoholic drink, I was glad to bear witness to the night’s events. The screen was perfectly visible from where I sat, which gave me a chance to analyse firewalking techniques. Some ran, others skipped. A select few walked across slowly like they didn’t feel the pain at all.

Later on, on my way home, I spoke to a firewalker. Kumaresan, 22 years old, has participated in the annual firewalking festival ever since he was 16. Every year, Kumar fasts for 48 days prior to the festival. He eats only vegetarian food and tries to stay clean in mind and body. A gleaming gold stud shines from his right earlobe, and I notice several tattoos on his chest and wrist.

Kumaresan, the firewalker. © Vinod Rai Sharma. 2013

Kumaresan, the firewalker. © Vinod Rai Sharma. 2013

“Doesn’t it hurt? Don’t you feel the heat?” I asked.

“Every firewalker will tell you the same thing. Your mind switches off. You cannot feel anything.”

“You mean like being in a trance?” I had heard about people going into trances before, but I was sceptical about the phenomenon.

“It’s not like entering a trance. I mean, sometimes people do get into a trance but the priests won’t let you walk on the coals if you are. They will wait for you to come out of it. Your mind has to be here. But you can ask anyone – you don’t feel anything. Like the pain, at that moment, does not matter.”

We stayed for a while, watching the screen, oohing and aahing with the rest of the crowd when a brave soul walked across the coals with the nonchalance of a man strolling in the park.

When I jumped off my makeshift seat to head home, I heard the drunk old man behind me saying goodbye. He motioned someone else to take my place. It had a good view.

Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore. © Vinod Rai Sharma. 2013

An idea of the crowd at Sri Mariamman Temple, Singapore. © Vinod Rai Sharma. 2013

Books & Reading, Lifestyle & Culture

Confessions of an E-book Convert

I never thought I’d ever say this but e-reading isn’t all that bad.

I’m not talking about reading a New York Times article or going through the occasionally horrible grammar on Times of India (you wonder what the editor is doing) on your smartphone. I’m not talking about reading Facebook or Twitter updates on your mobile device. I’m not talking about texting or Whatsapp-ing. Technically, the above may, in some narrow definition, count as “electronic reading” but that’s not the sort of e-reading I’m taking about.

I’m talking about the sustained and prolonged reading of a central plot or thesis spanning a few hundred pages on an electronic device.

I used to wage loud and indignant wars against e-reading devices, citing the following points:

  1. The death of tradition!
  2. E-reading is not real reading!
  3. What happened to touching a book? Flipping pages?
  4. Technology is going to ruin us all!

Then I bought my first smartphone and mellowed a little. Occasionally I would rise to defend the demise of print, occasionally I would grow indignant at the thought of bookshops closing their doors, but mostly, I was content in my efficient, comfortable world of bookish apps like Goodreads, Evernote, Time Mobile and Guardian. I was still against reading e-books, but I was quieter about it.

Today, I’ve happily completed Ring by Koji Suzuki. My first e-book is a work of Japanese horror. I have Ryu Murakami lined up, and maybe I’ll finally tackle that Steig Larsson series that has everyone from here to the North Pole positively wetting their undies. But first, I’ll take a breather with my childhood fantasy sweetheart, the Belgariad series by David Eddings. I have only fond memories of Belgarath, Polgara and Garion and encountering them on a slick and shiny page as wide as my palm doesn’t diminish my joy in anyway.

How did my sudden conversion occur? It all started when a good friend of mine (who chooses to remain anonymous) opened up her Calibre server to her friends for a period of 3 days, thereby securing her place at the top of my Very Short List of Friends. There were 329 e-books and PDFs. I thought to myself, “It couldn’t hurt to just look.” I accessed the link on my smartphone, downloaded a few while repeating “It couldn’t hurt” like a mantra in my head. I mean, I just looking right? Before I knew it, I had about 10 shiny new e-books and PDFs on my reading app and I’m thinking – well, I’ve always wanted to read Koji Suzuki’s novel. It really couldn’t hurt.

Funny thing is, it didn’t. In fact, it was great! The novel, I meant. It was a page turner with a gripping premise and the twist about the videotape in the end made me exclaim aloud: “It was a virus! A virus!”

I read with the lights off at night, delighting in the goosebumps that rippled across my skin at every mention of Sadako (ominous, utterly ominous name that is…). Once, I woke up in the middle of the night, unable to sleep any further, and simply turned around, picked up the phone and continued where I left off. I didn’t even need to switch on the light.

Does this mean I’ll stop going to bookshops? No. I fully intend to buy books I consider a work of art, or books that have sentimental value. David Edding’s Belgariad series, for example, is something I definitely want in my library so I can pass it down to my children. Anthologies are a great thing to have in your physical library as well.

Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges

Collected Fictions by Jorge Luis Borges

For my 26th birthday, my sister bought me The Collected Fictions of Jorge Luis Borges. It is one of my most prized books in my library.

One week ago, a book I ordered through a friend of a friend finally came down from Delhi. Princes & Painters in Mughal Delhi 1707-1857 is full of beautiful paintings, illustrations and photographs, accompanied by well-searched and erudite explanations of the Mughal context. This book is a work of art containing works of art. I cannot imagine reading something like this on an electronic device. I’m not sure I would enjoy it at all.

Princes & Painters in Mughal Delhi by William Dalrymple

Princes & Painters in Mughal Delhi by William Dalrymple

(detail) Princes & Painters in Mughal Delhi by William Dalrymple

(detail) Princes & Painters in Mughal Delhi by William Dalrymple

(detail) Princes & Painters in Mughal Delhi by William Dalrymple

(detail) Princes & Painters in Mughal Delhi by William Dalrymple

Then again, it is also my secret desire to collect everything written by William Dalrymple, snuggle with the books, sharp angles and all, roll around in dreams of Delhi and Mughlai magic, and wake up perfectly restored. Because William Dalrymple is my rockstar. But that’s a topic for another day.

Lifestyle & Culture, The Mughals in India

For the Love of Poetry: Mughals & Mushairas

Urdu is arguably the most romantic language of the Indian subcontinent. Acoustically, it is light and lilting, delicate on the ears and sophisticated even in simple sentence constructions. When expressed with skill in Urdu, the complexity and nuance of an emotion deepens. It is the language of love and poetry. That my late grandfather could speak, read and write in Urdu was and remains a matter of pride for me. Unfortunately, very few native speakers of the language remain in present-day India, a far cry from the 18th century when it was the national language of the region.

Urdu Shairi & the Ghazal

Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775 – 1862)

Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775 – 1862)

Urdu poetry or shairi as we recognize it today took its final decisive shape in the 17th century when Urdu was declared the official language of the Mughal court. The following decades witnessed a phenomenal rise in Urdu poetry and ushered in the age of legends such as Ghalib, Zauq and Mir.

Urdu shairi is based on a system of measure, and has a very rigid form. There are several types of Urdu shairi, one of which is the hugely popular ghazalGhazal literally means “to talk to/about women”. Traditionally, ghazals mainly deal with the topic of love – more specifically, unattainable love. The poet is the distraught, spurned lover who tries to gain the affection of an aloof, disdainful, sometimes cruel beloved. Each verse of a ghazal is a complex but complete description of the topic. It requires great skill on the part of the poet to reduce the most complex of emotions into the fewest of words while maintaining sophistication of thought and word.

Kahan woh maha jabeen aur hum, kahan who wasal ki raaten,
Magar hum ne kabhi tha ek yeh bhi khwaab saa dekha,
Zafar ki sair is gulshan mein hum ne par kisi gul mein,
Na kuchh ulfat ki boo paai, na kuchh rang-e-wafa dekha.
Whither I, whither my moon, and whither those nights of love?
But to see such a dream had once been my fate;
Although, I (Zafar) combed the garden, I didn’t see one bloom,
Not one lively scent of love, not one streak of faith.
– Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775 – 1862)

Mushaira: The Poetic Symposium

Zafar Khan and his brother in the company of poets and scholars in a garden. c. 1640-50/

Zafar Khan and his brother in the company of poets and scholars in a garden.
c. 1640-50

The proliferation of media outlets and rapidity of communications today would be shocking to the public of late 18th century India, when newspapers and modes of communication were limited to the local-run Delhi Urdu Akhbar and the British-run Delhi Gazette. Over time, Urdu poetry evolved to become a more intimate and personal way of responding to the social and political tribulations of the period.

The commonest form of poetry recital was a mushaira, or a poetic symposium, where poets would gather to read their compositions crafted in accordance to a strict metrical pattern, agreed upon beforehand, even while meeting a certain loftiness of thought.

The intensity of the mushairas that developed in Delhi were legendary, helping popularise Urdu as a language of poetry in the Mughal court. A culture was built around taking lessons in poetry writing; it even became fashionable for royalty to learn Urdu shairi. Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal Emperor of India, was an accomplished poet in his own right. He had a habit of setting his court difficult poetic tasks, such as the challenging art of tazmin – the adding of an extra line to the couplet so as to turn it into a three-liner without losing the sense of rhythm.

Zafar also received his own pupils for composition and helped correct their verses. The court diary records him as taking “A khasburdar and a female – Piram Jan – as pupils in poetic composition.” From her name, Piram Jan appears to be a courtesan, and the fact that Zafar publically tutored courtesans is interesting evidence of the high social status that better courtesans enjoyed in Mughal Delhi, and the degree to which many of them were renowned for their poetic talents.

The novel was made into a movie starring Rekha. Umrao Jaan, 1981

The 1899 novel Umrao Jan Ada was made into a Bollywood movie starring Rekha. (Umrao Jaan, 1981)

In what is widely considered Urdu’s first novel, writer Mirza Hadi Ruswa tells the story of a cultured courtesan-poetess named Umrao Jaan. The novel, titled Umrao Jan Ada, was published in 1899 and presents a lavish portrayal of mid-19th century Lucknow’s decadent society and the mushairas of the time. In fact, the narrator of the novel meets Umrao Jaan at a mushaira, where she first coquettishly hides behind a purdah (curtain) and invisibly calls out her praise with wah-wahs. Later, Umrao Jan emerges and, at the request and subsequent delight of the crowd present, recites the following lines:

Galat andaaz hii sahii voh nazar
Kyun mere haal par nahii hotii
Ay adaa ham kabhii nah maanenge
Dil ko dil kii khabar nahii hotii
Even if that gaze is brazen,
Why does it not rest upon me?
Oh Ada, we shall never concur-
A heart knows nothing about a heart.

In Farhatullah Baig’s The Last Mushai’rah of Delhi, Baig presents a fictionalised but well-informed account of how enchanting a Mughal mushaira must have been:

The courtyard has been filled so as to raise it to the level of the plinth of the house. On the wooden planks were spread cotton rugs. There was a profusion of chandeliers, candelabra, wall lamps, hanging lamps and Chinese lanterns so that the house was converted into a veritable dome of light… From the centre of the roof were hung row upon row of jasmine garlands… the whole house was fragrant with musk, amber and aloes… Arranged in a row, at short intervals along the carpet, were the huqqas, burnished and brightly polished…
The seating pattern was arranged so that those assigned places on the right of the presiding poet had connections with the Lucknow court, and on the left were seated the Delhi masters and their pupils.

Hookahs, paan and sweets would be passed around. A spirit of friendly competition and camaraderie would emerge. After the Bismillah was proclaimed, the personal representative of the Emperor arrived from the court with the Emperor’s own ghazal. Verses and couplets were passed back and forth, one inspiring the other, and while the others shouted their approval with wah-wahs, lesser skilled poets grew silent and reticent. The recital would continue till dawn, and climax with the mushaira’s most accomplished poet reciting his verses.

Hazaaron khwahishen aisi ke har khwahish pe dam nikle
Bahut niklay mere armaan, lekin phir bhi kam nikle
A thousand desires like these, each desire enough to consume me,
Many wishes have been fulfilled, yet many more still remain.
– Mirza Ghalib (1797 –1869)
Lifestyle & Culture, Mughal History, The Mughals in India

Anarkali and Salim: A Mughal Love Story

“Emperor Akbar was so enamoured of her ravishing beauty that he named her “Anarkali”, meaning “pomegranate blossom”, for her flushing red complexion.”

There is a mausoleum in the south of Lahore’s Old City, a site of immense speculation and mystery, and, if rumours of 1611 are to be believed, the only remaining sign of a bitter argument between father and son. The mausoleum is an elegant octagonal white-washed stone building with 8 corner turrets, each topped with a domed kiosk, a masterpiece of solid masonry work of the early Mughal period.

Photo by Junaid Hussain

Photo by Junaid Hussain

In the mausoleum sits an extraordinarily beautiful sarcophagus, a tomb of pure marble and exquisite workmanship, “one of the finest pieces of carving in the world”, according to some 19th century scholars. This tomb is the final resting place of Anarkali, the protagonist of our great enigma, one half of our 17th century royal romance riddle, and the point where all the threads start to unravel.

On the sarcophagus are etched the 99 names of Allah. Two years, namely Hijra 1008 and 1024, are also inscribed, which correspond to AD 1599-1600 and AD 1615-1616 respectively. On the northern face of the sarcophagus is the following inscription, written in Persian:

Ta qayamat shukr goyam kard gar khwish ra

Ah! gar man baz beenam rui yar khwish ra

“Ah ! If could I behold the face of my beloved once more;

I would give thanks unto my God

Unto the day of resurrection”

Accompanying this eternal profession of love and passion is the inscription Majnun Salim Akbar which can be translated as “The profoundly enamoured Salim (son of) Akbar”.

And so the plot thickens.

Key Players

There are three main characters in this love story.

  1. Anarkali
  2. Crown Prince Salim; Future Emperor Jahangir (1569 – 1627)
  3. Emperor Akbar (1542 – 1605)

The Mughal-e-Azam Version

The most popular version of Anarkali and Salim’s illicit love story was immortalized in one of Bollywood’s greatest epics, Mughal-e-Azam (1960), “The Emperor of the Mughals”. Mughal-e-Azam was the highest-grossing film of its time and is popularly regarded today as the greatest Bollywood film of all time.

(I’ve seen it at least 3 times; my father, while waiting for his tea to boil, still drums out the tune to “Pyar kiya to darna kya”, a song that’s become a popular way of laughing off romance-related woes.)

Dilip Kumar as Prince Salim; Madhubala as Anarkali in Mughal-e-Azam (1960)

Dilip Kumar as Prince Salim; Madhubala as Anarkali in Mughal-e-Azam (1960)

According to this version of the royal romance, popularised by the Bollywood movie, Anarkali’s real name was Nadira Begum. Originally of Turkmen origin, Nadira came to Lahore with a traders’ caravan. She held a mujra (dance performance) in the court of Emperor Akbar, where the latter was so enamoured of her ravishing beauty that he renamed her “Anarkali”, meaning “pomegranate blossom”, for her flushing red complexion.

Emperor Akbar’s eldest and heir apparent, Prince Salim, fell in love with Anarkali, but his father did not approve of the relations between the two. The dancer was of low birth and not fit to be the queen of the future emperor of Hindustan. The lovers ignored Emperor Akbar’s disapproval and continued to meet clandestinely. Unable to punish his own son, Akbar took his wrath out on Anarkali and sentenced her to death by being bricked alive in a wall.

(In the 1960 movie, because Indian audiences can hardly bear to see heroines die, Emperor Akbar releases Anarkali at the last minute, in exchange for banishment from the kingdom. Which really wouldn’t explain the tomb in Lahore at all. Or fit with the personality of an Emperor. But never mind all these glaring discrepancies, because I don’t buy this version at all.)

The Version Where Anarkali is Killed Over A Smile

A Mughal harem in the miniature style of the time.

A Mughal harem in the miniature style of the time.

So, the rumour in the walled city of Lahore was that Emperor Akbar had a special liking for Anarkali, as she was well-versed in poetry, literature and music, all of which were dear to the emperor.

She was admitted into the Mughal harem and became a concubine of the emperor’s. It was a well-known fact that the entire court knew Anarkali was the emperor’s “most favoured person”.

One day, while seated in a room lined with mirrors, Emperor Akbar noticed Anarkali returning Prince Salim a smile. Akbar, who knew the character of his sensuous son better than anybody else, was outraged by the suspicion of an affair between the crown prince and his own slave girl.

In fact, Akbar was so infuriated that he ordered her to be built alive into a wall. After all, if word got out that his concubine was sleeping with his own son, the Shehenshah-e-Hindustan (King of Kings of Hindustan) would become the laughing stock of his own land. Salim, unable to save her from this cruel end, commissioned a tomb to her memory in Lahore after his accession to the throne.

(This is more in keeping with the personality of an emperor, and Akbar did have a reputation for arrogance. Besides being a delicate nest of politics, a royal harem is, after all, a symbolic manifestation of the Emperor’s libido, and hence his “manliness”.)

The Semi-Incestuous Version

The earliest mention in historical record of the love affair between Anarkali and Prince Salim comes from the account of one William Finch, an English merchant who arrived in India in 1608, 3 years after Prince Salim ascends the throne as Emperor Jahangir.

Finch’s story, though the first, is by far the most scandalous version of the love affair between Anarkali and Prince Salim. In 17th century English, Finch notes:

“a faire monument for Don Sha [Daniyal] his mother, one of the Acabar his wives, with whom it is said Sha Selim had to do (her name was Immacque Kelle, or Pomgranate kernell); upon notice of which the King [Akbar] caused her to be inclosed quicke within a wall in his moholl, where shee dyed, and the King [Salim: Jahangir], in token of his love, commands a sumptuous tombe to be built of stone…”

So it turns out that Prince Salim was having an affair with his father’s wife! Oh my, does it get much more scandalous than this? We know her name was Anarkali because Finch mentions that the mother of Prince Daniyal bears a name meaning “Pomegranate Blossom”. Upon notice of the affair with the Crown Prince, she was enclosed within a wall of the palace on Emperor Akbar’s orders, where she died. Later, as a token of his love, Prince Salim alias Emperor Jahangir builds a grand marble tomb in her name.

Photo by Junaid Hussain

Photo by Junaid Hussain

(It’s clear to me that Akbar and Salim were enamoured with the same woman, Anarkali. I can’t imagine the epic Mughal-e-Azam reflecting this version of history where father and son fight like roosters over the same woman. But I’d pay good money to see it.)

Lifestyle & Culture

5 Tales about the Festival of Rakhi

Photo by musical poet ( CC-BY-SA 2.0     Sisters tie an elaborate thread of cotton or silk around their brother’s wrist in a prayer of longevity.

Photo by musical poet ( CC-BY-SA 2.0
Sisters tie an elaborate thread of cotton or silk around their brother’s wrist in a prayer of longevity.

Indians will look for any excuse to celebrate. No one really knows the official number – I’m not sure if there even is one – but according to some national sources, every state observes different public holidays. India cumulatively celebrates an average of one festival every 2.5 days!

So, it’s that time of the year when sisters extract copious amounts of money from their brothers in exchange for tying a little silk thread around their wrists. I’m talking about the festival of Raksha Bandhan aka rakhi, of course, and I wrote a little something for the guys Little India Directory.

I asked my mother once, “Why do I tie rakhi?” The best answer I received was “So that your brother will protect you. It is a tradition.” 

Read the rest here.