Monday, August 31, 2009

Folk fair: Mela of Chhapaar, Mythology & Memories

The following article appeared in the online publication South Asia Post, Issue 94 Vol IV, August 31, 2009
This was also published in the monthly publication Identity, September 2012

THE civilization of India has been characterised by a uniquely vigorous and ingenious celebration of human life in complete compatibility with all the attendant elements of nature, more particularly the cycle of seasons with the most merciful 'Monsoon Rains' in the prominent focus. The ancient traditions of religious and spiritual domain; long linkages of mysteries of history and mythology; conflicts and co-operation of divides communities; process of continuity and renewal in the realm of folk music & dance; popular entertainments and pastimes in their ever transforming modes including technological developments; the folk fast foods; apparels proclaiming people and commercial wares in their infinite varieties - folk fairs & festivals of India have always encapsulated them all! If the fair of Pushkar attracts people in hundreds of thousands in a rainbow extravaganza amidst the grandeur of beauty of a vast desert, the 12 yearly Maha Kumbh at the civilizational confluence of the trio of sacred rivers has the distinction of being the largest congregation of people for a festival on the planet!

The legendary Panjab, the shield & sword of the ancient land of Bharat and the granary of modern Republic of India, has a proud and rich heritage of fairs & festivals. According to official records, the pre-partition Panjab boasted more than 7,000 fairs; the number was counted 4561 in 1961 for the Indian Panjab. The truncated present Panjab has been left with 2,027 popular fairs. District of Hoshiarpur has the largest - 311 folk fairs followed by Sangrur & Ludhiana, with 136 & 135 fairs respectively. The encouraging trend is that more fairs are getting institutionalised commemorating local heroes and cultural aspects including sports festivals. The generous patronage of rich and famous Panjabis living beyond the seven seas from the soil of Panjab has been imparting a new vitality to the culture of folk fairs. It is also a healthy situation that 750 fairs are held in the rural areas of the state.

Fresco at the Googa Shrine, Chhapar

Mela of Chhapaar, associated with ancient tradition of 'Naag Poojan' i.e. the worship of the deity of Snakes, could be linked to Hindu mythological belief that planet earth is supported by millions of hoods of 'Shesh Naag' - the gigantic snake - whose soft curvaceous body also forms the resting spread of Lord Vishnu, the Lord of Preservation of the entire support system of life in the universe. The process of ploughing, sowing, watering and finally harvesting of crops have all been preceded by 'Naag Poojan' in some form according to ancient traditions of all faiths of India's heritage. The ritual worship of 'Googa Pir' - symbolising human dimension of snake - seems to have developed in North India as a secular tradition in the medieval times. So many intricate tales have got woven around the persona of 'Man-Snake-King' that sifting of reality from myth has been rendered impossible. Interestingly, folk lore even links the place of the fair to the Mahabharat era, being Capital of a powerful Queen, namely Chhapa. Kaul Basanti, the fiance of Arjuna's brave son Abhimanyu, is mentioned to belong to this place. The river Sutluj, it is pointed out, was flowing quite near by in those times. The ancient name of Chhapaar is also mentioned as 'Damrhi Shehar'.

The verifiable references about the Chhapaar Fair indicate that it was in 1833 A.D. that devotees of Googa Pir brought the soil & bricks from the ancient Googa temple in Dadrewa, near Bikaner to construct the present shrine. As the time rolled on, the sand dunes around the shrine were levelled to be brought under plough. The founding of new town of Mandi Ahmedgarh in 1903 at a distance of less than 4 k.m. to be followed by Rail link next year between Ludhiana-Dhuri-Jakhal opened up a whole new world in the region. There is also a reference that in 1914 Maharaja Jaswant Singh of Nabha provided funds for construction pukka shrine and also donated 25 bighas of land to it. The Mahavir Dal has done a lot in recent years to develop the area around the shrine. The two grand statues, one of Googa Pir mounted on his legendary horse and another of Lord Shiva, in his full regalia, riding Nandi Bull have been installed. The devotees offer prayer by splitting soil seven times in a dug up semi circle area in front of 'Marhi' i.e. shrine invoking protection against snake bite. The offerings inside the shrine consist of puffed rice, sugar balls-Patashas-Gur cakes, grains, cash, etc. According to the 1889 District Gazetteer of Ludhiana, more than 50,000 people of all faiths enthusiastically attended the fair - consider,that population of Ludhiana at that time was just 44 thousand (present 35 Lakhs), Malaudh 2889, Kaunke 3,608 & Bassian 2,9621!

I was luckier to experience directly the gusto, colorfulness and pulsating character of the Chhapaar fair when my family shifted residence to Ahmedgarh from our neighbouring village and I was put in the school there in 3rd grade in May 1951. For the next 20 years till 1970, I was a keen witness to the fun fare & splendid spectacles of this land mark fair. The passage of time with attendant socio-economic changes has been transforming the nature of the fair too. The traditional folk singers, rhymesters, minstrels of heroic ballads, artists of 'jinda'-live- dance; jokers, tricksters, tattooists - all have been plying their trades in the best traditions of their skills. The make shift shops selling amazing variety of wares; mechanical swings; Circuses (Gemini & Romon come to mind) with lions, elephants, horses, bears, male/female gymnasts; wells of Death; tented cinemas - all that presented, as if, a mix of Disney Land and Fairy Land - the on-off illuminations were indeed an other-worldly sight for people before introduction of electricity in 1956! My first film 'Koday Shah', shown by my father in company of his friends when I was in 6th grade, still remains my most favorite for delightful comedy in Panjabi and haunting songs. The lyric, 'Jagg wala Mela yaro, thori der da/ hansdia raat langhe, pata nee saver da!' - Fun-fare of the world is too short/ A night full of laughter; morning, we might cease to be! - sung in the soul-ful voice of Mohammad Rafi filled the atmosphere with message of an eternal truth by Sufi saints!!

After Independence, the conferences at the Fair by the political parties have become an interesting integral dimension of the fair. The Congress & Panthic Parties have been vying with each other in putting up larger Shamianas & ensuring that top leaders do come to address this popular open forum of people. It was, however, the make-shift stage of the Communist Party (when it was united) under the starry and moonlit sky that used to exercise a magical magnetic pull for the people. The gifted and dedicated group of Party's artist-activists including Joginder Bahrla, Balbir 'Mast', Narinder Dosanjh and many more inspired a generation of masses of Malwa region to adopt progressive ideals. When CM Captain Amarinder Singh failed to attend the Fair twice, in 2005 & 2006, while P.S. Badal was thundering there, the verdict of elections of Feb 2007, according to Fair loving Panjabis, had become a forgone conclusion!

It was on 21st October 1997 that as Indian Ambassador to far off Panama - the bridge land between the two mighty oceans - I persuaded visiting eminent thinker-dancer Sonal Man Singh to go to the annual folk fair at the church of Black Christ in Portobello, an ancient port city in mid-Caribbean. The fair, representing African connection of Christianity, simply overwhelmed Sonal who said, "It was such an impressive spectacle of devotees, dressed in purple and maroon colors, dancing all the way...that my Krishan Kannahiya would appear in this way before my eyes, I had never imagined this to happen in Panama!" Perhaps, similar mystical experiences are blessings of those who, purged of all pride & ego, mingle themselves among the multitudes of people brought together by feelings of love and friendship, in Mela Chhapaar or in any other similar folk fair!

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