12 minutes, Betacam, 1977
Sufi Basant at the Chishti Dargahs
North India wakes up from the chilly winter. It’s spring again. The yellow of mustard flowers covers miles on end. It’s time to celebrate joyful Basant with singing and dancing.
Few know that Basant is traditionally celebrated not only by Hindus, but also by many Muslims in India. It is believed that the Chishti Sufis may have begun the celebration of Basant among Indian Muslims as early as the 12th century.
The legend goes that Delhi’s Chishti Saint Nizamuddin Aulia was so grieved by the death of his young nephew Taqiuddin Nooh, that he withdrew himself completely from the world for a couple of months. He remained locked in his room or sat near his nephew’s grave. His close friend, disciple and famous court poet, Amir Khusrau, could not bear his pir’s absence any longer. He began to think of ways to cheer him up.
One day, Khusrau met a few women dressed beautifully, carrying colourful flowers and singing. He asked them what they were up to, and the women told him it was Basant Panchmi, and they were taking the offering of Basant to their god. Khusrau found this fascinating; he said, smiling, “Well, my god needs an offering of Basant too.” He dressed himself like the women, and walked toward the graveyard where his pir was sitting alone; he carried some mustard flowers and sang the songs the women he met were singing. Nizamuddin Aulia did not recognise him at first, then smiled in recognition. It was a smile that came to his face after two months. Amir Khusrau and other Sufis and disciples sang Persian couplets in praise of spring, and the mustard flowers were offered at Nooh’s grave.
They may have sung the Persian lines:
Ashk rez aamad ast abr-e-bahaar Saaqia gul barez-o-baada beyaar
Or, Arab yaar tori Basant manayi
Or Hindi couplets like:
Sakal bun phool rahi sarson
Ambva borey, tesu phooley,
koyal boley daar daar, Aur gori karat singhar,
malania garhwa le aayin karson
Sakal bun phool rahi sarson
The celebration of Basant became an annual affair in the Khaneqah (monastery) of Nizamuddin Aulia, and later, in other centres of the Chishti order all over the country. The local Muslims affiliated to all those Dargahs and Khaneqahs took to the tradition of celebrating Basant. In the Mughal era, this tradition probably evolved into a major public festival. In his book Alam Mein Intekhab: Dilli (1987) Maheshwar Dayal describes one such Basant in Delhi at the time of Bahadurshah Zafar:
…the chill was on the decline. The spring had arrived. Dilli wallahs were setting up the fairs for Spring, as usual. Many were offering flowers and ittar on the Qadm Sharif (a sacred space in Jama Masjid). When people heard the announcement of Bahadur Shah Zafar’s birthday, they gushed forth with joy. It was Thursday. There was such a crowd that not a hair’s breadth of space was empty on either the Red Fort maidan or the shore of Jamuna. The curtains of houses, the Chadurs of women, the turbans of men, and the clothes of children, everything was dyed Basanti – even the candles hanging from the rampart were Basanti. It was as if mustard was growing in every nook and corner. Indoors and outdoors, people danced the whole night. Thousands of giant balloons made of mustard coloured paper, with candles lit inside, were being flown in the air. By four o’clock in the morning, the whole sky became Basanti. It seemed as if mustard was flowering in the eyes of the sky.
Compared to the glitter of Basant in the past, what we find today in the Dargah of Nizamuddin at Delhi seems more ritualistic, though it is festive. On Basant Panchmi, some qawwals from Dargah visit a village in nearby Haryana to collect mustard flowers. On the way back, they offer these first at the tombs of many saints related to Nizamuddin Aulia’s order, including Naseeruddin Chiraghe-Dehli and others near Mehrauli. Back in Basti Nizamuddin, some interesting rituals take place — dyeing of the clothes in the Basanti colour being the most exciting one. One can see hundreds of people wearing Basanti scarves, handkerchiefs, chadurs and caps, almost dancing to the tune of Basanti qawwalis. They take out a procession, offering flowers and fateha on every little grave present here. The beautiful Hindi and Persian qawwalis sung here — mostly ascribed to Amir Khusrau himself — praise the coming of spring and the disciple’s longing to meet his pir.
Sufis have a long tradition of adapting to the local culture and language of the places they visited to spread their message. The Chishti sufis too have not only tried to relate to Indian culture and music, but also enriched the various cultural forms with their experiments. Basant is a living example of this. Today, when communities are increasingly polarised, Muslims celebrating Basant or Hindus taking part in Eid may sound like a dream. But in the past, it was these Dargahs and Khaneqahs which served as platforms where the twain could meet. Don’t we need that same inclusive spirit of the old dargahs today?