This photographer documents his 18-year-old effort to capture Punjabi festival Hola Mohalla

Oct 23, 2016, 11:06 IST | Anju Maskeri

Ambala-based photographer documents his 18-year-old effort to capture the spirit of the Punjabi festival, Hola Mohalla

The celebration has been recognised as a National Festival by the Government of India and is being celebrated in  Punjab since 1701
The celebration has been recognised as a National Festival by the Government of India and is being celebrated in Punjab since 1701

In the summer of 1998, Maninder Singh Sodhi, a mechanical engineer and photographer from Punjab, decided to accompany his father, BS Sodhi, to witness Hola Mohalla. The three-day Sikh festival is celebrated annually at Takht Sri Keshgarh Sahib Gurudwara in Sri Anandpur Sahib, a holy city in Rupnagar district of Punjab. "My father, a President of India awardee for Excellence in Photography, was told by a friend to cover it. I had always heard of the festival, but never seen it. So, I tagged along on sheer whim," the 53-year-old tells us while chatting over the phone from his home in Ambala.

A Nihang Sikh in  his vibrant attire
A Nihang Sikh in his vibrant attire

As he stood on the banks of river Charan Ganga with his roll camera, Sodhi, in his early 30s back then, was overwhelmed by what he saw. Young men, dressed in dark blue and saffron robes with flowing beards, and conical turbans were performing daring feats and martial arts stunts. "It was a fascinating display of ancient combat skills like Gatka (in which wooden sticks are used to simulate swords in sparring matches), horsemanship, tent pegging (neza bazi) and drum beating (Nagaras), the likes of which I had never seen in my life," he recalls. Although it was crowded to the extent that getting a toehold was difficult, Sodhi managed to captured several arresting images.

Nihang Sikhs carrying swords, daggers and spears
Nihang Sikhs carrying swords, daggers and spears

Since then, he has never missed a single Hola Mohalla And now, Sodhi wants to put this together into a coffee table photo-book, titled The Spirit of Hola Mohalla: Legacy of Sikh Warriors. "It has taken me 18 years, from 1998 to 2016, to document this beautiful festival." Another important reason for documenting it was the fact that not many people outside the community were aware of it.

The weapons have been replaced by guns and pistols
The weapons have been replaced by guns and pistols

The festival, which takes place on the first day of the lunar month of Chet, usually coincides with the festival of Holi.  Talking about its fascinating history, Sodhi says it dates back to 1701 when Shri Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Sikh Guru initiated the first Hola Mohalla at Sri Anandpur Sahib. "He wanted his troops to have mock battles to keep them battle-ready against the Mughals, who were committing atrocities against their Hindu brothers. Today, the festival may have lost its military significance but it maintains and celebrates the spirit of Sikhism," says Sodhi, who first exhibited the photographs in Washington DC in 1999.

The Sikhs prepare Karah parshad, made with wheat flour, ghee and sugar
The Sikhs prepare Karah parshad, made with wheat flour, ghee and sugar

 During the celebrations of Hola Mohalla in the 18th century, the Nihangs (armed Sikhs) were divided into two groups, Baba Budha Dal and Baba Tarna Dal by Guru Gobind Singh. One group of armed Sikhs (Nihangs) would launch an attack at a designated place while the other group would defend the title. "These mock battles would not only let Sikhs hone their martial art skills but also made them courageous and self determining," he says. While majority of the performers are men, the women usually participate in the gatka.  One of his photos showcases the historical weapons used by the Sikhs, while the others are snapshots of the langar (community kitchen) and of men indulging in sword wielding, jousting and other sports.

Sodhi says he did not go about documenting it with the intention of creating a book, but was an idea that evolved over the years. "It was only last year that I felt it needs to be documented because in my recent visits to Hola Mohalla, I have observed that Nihang Sikhs no longer have the same passion as they did.  Their dwindling numbers is also a factor."

Sodhi, however, is crowdfunding  the photobook due to the costs involved. He plans to launch the book on January 5 at Patna on the occasion of Guru Gobind Singhji's 350th birthday.

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