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From Akbar’s court to Bulleh Shah couplets, how colours of India’s many religions blended over Holi

While Akbar energetically participated in Holi, Jahangir continued to toe his father’s line in a more expansive manner and was followed by his son Shah Jahan.

Written by Nilosree Biswas | New Delhi |
Updated: March 19, 2022 2:28:18 pm
Holi, Mughal Holi, Holi images, Holi date, Holi 2022, eid-e-gulab, holi in mughal miniatures, akbar playing holi, mughals and holi, holi history, holi news, Indian ExpressRich in visual narrative, these artworks often depicted the emperors participating in the festival of colours, playing Holi in the open spaces of the zenana with much gaiety. (Wikimedia Commons)

Shan Sarang Surat Singh, a petty official at the Mughal court, and Abdul Karim, a scholar, were lifelong neighbours in Lahore during Shah Jahan’s rule. The two men and their families lived next to each other in the same mohallah, the details of which have later been mentioned in Surat Singh’s manuscript titled Tazkira-i-Pīr Hassū Telī, an account about Pīr Hassū Telī.

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Singh and Karim were no exceptions — such proximity was a common feature of Mughal urban centres like Agra, Shahjahanabad, Fatehpur Sikri, Lahore, Cambay, Surat, Banaras and more. Intermixing was a way of life till the 18th century, points out historian Ali Nadeem Rezavi. “This inter-mixing of various religions in the same neighbourhood was not confined only to professional and mercantile classes. The houses of Hindu and Muslim nobles were close to each other too.”

The idea of a composite culture had been steered by the conduct of the Mughal Emperor ,with its beginning associated to Akbar. Audrey Truschke in her ‘Culture Of Encounters- Sanskrit At The Mughal Court’ talks of Akbar being initiated into practices like veneration of the Sun god. The emperor had learnt to recite 1,000 names of the sun from Bhānuchandra, a Swetamvara Jain ascetic from Tapa Gaccha order. This was around 1587.

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Earlier, Portuguese missionary Antonio Monserrate (1536-1600), belonging to the first Jesuit delegation to the royal court at Fatehpur Sikri, noticed how two occasions, namely Holi and Muharram, were conspicuously observed with much intensity in all towns that he travelled through during his engagement with the Mughal court between 1580-82.

Monserrate describes Holi as “plastering mud” on anyone the players met, and mentions a red dye being used. Pertinently, the Jesuit had travelled from Goa to Fatehpur Sikri in1579 and was later appointed tutor to Akbar’s second son Murad. When he returned to Goa, he began writing his ‘Commentarius’, completing the text in 1590.

A young nobleman enjoying Holi with his consort. Attributed to the artist Nidhamal, Lucknow, C. 1760-5 (British Library)

If Akbar’s learning to coexist was more of a politically aligned behaviour, one cannot brush away the priest’s observation as only limited to the court. Travellers were visiting Mughal India and as such many of them noticed the proximity between religions. There were several schools in centres of scholarships across the humongous empire where Hindus and Muslims studied together. In Shah Jahan’s regime, Sanskrit scholars like Pandit Jagannatha Panditaraja and Kavindrachandra Saraswati were prominent intellectuals at the court and were generously patronised.

A lot of this syncretic atmosphere is now less recognised in public narratives as also being owed to the mahol of mass education then. Everyone, irrespective of their faith, was encouraged to go to the many maktubs (school) around. This certainly brought about impactful everyday cultural infusions amongst the commoners.

Within the domain of Mughal private lives, Akbar’s wife was a Rajput princess of the Amber clan, identified in history mostly by her Muslim name Mariam-uz- Zamani. Her paternal clan, Ambers, were devout Vaishnavas known for their veneration of Krishna, the Hindu God whose religious narrative places Holi as the spring festival of colours. Expectedly, both Rajputana and Brajabhumi (where Krishna was born on earth) celebrated Holi as one of their biggest festivities. Following the footsteps of the royals celebrations, similar festivities would hit the roads, touching the lives of the commoners.

While regular people relished celebrating Holi, mystics and poets of the time held the holistic essence of this socio-religious climate in their poetry.

Syed Ibrahim Khan (1548 – 1603), also known as Ibrahim Raskan and a contemporary to Akbar, was an ardent devotee of Krishna. Raskan, who spent most of his life in Vrindavan, is best remembered for verses, in forms of dohas, padavalis and padas, depicting the romance of Radha-Krishna.

The mystic describes ‘Shrimati Radha is in whom love of this universe dwells’ and on another instance he refers to Holi as ‘Its Holi today O Mohan, it’s Holi (‘Aaj hori re Mohan hori’ ).

The padas and dohas bring to fore how Brajbhasha was gaining importance in the Mughal court from the days of Akbar. “Dozens of tales chronicling encounters between Braj poets and Mughal emperors have come down to us. A famous example is Caurasy Vaishavan ke Varta that relates how Surdas enchanted the emperor and then refused to perform at the Mughal court.” Rezavi furthers this by clearly emphasising the rise of Brajbhasha poetry, identifying the poetic discourse as ‘a desired commodity’ at the Mughal Court.

It would not be a far-fetched assumption that later court poets like Jagannatha Panditaraja, Chandrabhan, Nanda Rai or Kavindrachandra Saraswati would conceive poetry around the love of Radha-Krishna and Holi themes would be one of the elements.

Interestingly, a slice of these poetic creations has survived, trickling into the arena of popular public entertainment; thumris like ‘ji na maro pichkari, kanha’ (don’t shoot colours from your squirt gun O Krishna) or ‘Shyam Mori Gali Aaja’ (Krishna please do visit my alley), immortalised by finest Thumri artists Siddheshwari Devi, Nirmala Devi and their likes.

By the time this poetry written in Brajbhasha integrated with Mughal intellectual narrative, the emperors themselves were fairly conversant in Hindi and or Hindavi and for them, appreciating these verses would have been experiential.

Playing It Regal and Personal in the Mughal court

While Akbar energetically participated in Holi, Jahangir continued to toe his father’s line in a more expansive manner and was followed by his son Shah Jahan. Curiously, not much is known about Dara Shikoh’s engagement with Holi, though he is known to have been one of the most syncretic among the prominent Mughals.

While Akbar’s participation is documented in court-affiliated biographies like the Akbarnama, Jahangir and Shah Jahan’s participation are showcased through the robust visual archives of Holi, in many styles of miniature paintings.

Jahangir celebrating the festival of Holi; Govardhan C. 1635 (Chester Beatty Library)

Rich in visual narrative, these artworks often depicted the emperors participating in the festival of colours, playing Holi in the open spaces of the zenana with much gaiety. Musicians-singers, surahis full of wine, refreshments of fruits, attendants and women of the harem feature in these wholesome artworks. The absence of other male figures in most of these artistic depictions is rather striking. The pattern does not change in later Mughal period, where emperor Muhammad Shah is shown celebrating Holi.

Being such amazing patrons, who themselves were inclined to poetry, both Jahangir and Shah Jahan approved of mushairas on the evenings of Holi. Rezavi mentions, “Surat Singh (as in the beginning of the piece) describes a poetical session which he attended in that city (referring to Agra) during the reign of Shah Jahan. In the mushaira, an equal number of Hindu and Muslim poets of that period are described.”

Through these paintings, mushairas and love for other languages beyond Persian, one understands Mughal cosmopolitanism and its transcultural tryst, a signature of Indo-Persian times until Aurangzeb, only to be later revived by Rangila (emperor Muhammad Shah’s popular name) and Bahadur Shah Zafar as well as provincial territories like Awadh.

Bahadur Shah Zafar (1775-1862), the last Mughal emperor often called Zafar the badnaseeb (the ill-fated), celebrated Holi with all zest. Addressed as Eid-e- Gulabi, Holi was celebrated in Red Fort, the official imperial residence, as gloriously as Eid. Bahadur Shah, himself a poet of finesse, wrote several special shayari, poems like Horiyaan to commemorate the occasion. Even in the times of unabated decline, Zafar did not hesitate to bring on Holi as royally as it could have been.

Shahjahanabad would set off its celebrations marked by fairs, gatherings, mobile entertainers and musical performances by legendary courtesans, continuing for days.

Holi in the court of Wajid Ali Shah

No one possibly believed in these cross cultural engagements more than Wajid Ali Shah, the last king of Awadh, about whom Abdul Halim Sharar, the historian and commentator on Lucknowi culture, notes “pleased with the amatory dalliances that he devised a drama about them and he himself played the part of Kanhaiya (Krishna) and the decorous and virtuous ladies of the palace as gopis, milkmaid loves of Krishna. Ordinary people of the town were allowed to take part in these pastimes but only on condition that they came wearing clothes dyed in red ochre”.

Holi as painted by a Lucknow painter. (Wikimedia Commons)

Such gaiety was palpable in the Holi celebrations of Wajid Ali Shah. A practising Shia Muslim, Shah never hesitated to participate in any transcultural event, often giving them a unique take of his own.

If Shah was the most notable one, his ancestor Asaf-Ud-Daula was no less. Known for his benevolence, the people-friendly ruler would spend lavishly on Holi, making sure to reward the musicians and courtesans in gold and silk, and most importantly, freely distribute sweets and thandai (a drink with cooling properties) across his Kingdom of Awadh.

The Sufi influence

Quoting the politician Rasheeduddin Khan, author JJ Roy Burman in his essay writes, “Indian civilisation had been profoundly affected by two fundamental traditions: the India-aryan cultural stream which provided Vedic philosophy and the Indo-Muslim strand of culture based on the intertwining of ‘bhakti marg’ and Islamic Sufism.”

Khan describes this intertwining leading to the composite in his work ‘Composite Culture As National Identity’, “It is not surprising therefore that to realise this composite culture in India, originated in an environment of reconciliation, rather refutation, cooperation rather than confrontation.”

The understanding permeated through Khan’s arguments about how India remained pluralistic and composite and can at the ground level be deciphered through Sufi philosophies from the 12th century onward. Holi, an indispensable cultural element in Islamicate North and North western India, was played with great verve at more than one Sufi shrine.


In this context, the dargah of Sufi saint Nizamduddin Auliya, a cult site now that had been mostly a pioneering spiritual venue, is famed for its celebrations of Basant (Spring) and Holi. With the arrival of spring, the jiarat (pilgrimage) would have an unending flow of pilgrims, its courtyard transformed into a meeting point of one and all, echoing soulful compositions by Auliya’s disciple Amir Khushraw. This popular one is a part of its musical repertoire even today.

Aaj rang hai, maa ri aaj rang hai
Morey khwaja ke ghar aaj rang hai
(O mother it’s the day of colour today, it’s such a day of colours at my beloved’s ).

In the 18th century, the Sufi saint and poet from undivided Punjab, Bulleh Shah wrote:

Hori kheluungii, kah Bismillah.
Naam Nabi ki ratn chaRii,
Boond padi, Allah Allah.

I begin playing Holi with a Bismillah.
Wrapped in the glow of the Prophet’s name,
Showered by blessings of Allah

With a host of Mughal emperors celebrating Holi all out and Sufi saints participating, as a continuity to their spiritual expressions of love and tolerance, curbs on religion, caste and class were thrown open. For that day and few more all were equal; free from any social restraints. In a nutshell, anyone could hurl a handful of gulal at the other and the emperor was no exception.

In years preceding 1857, a day of Holi would mean Bahadur Shah Zafar riding his imperial convoy through the streets of Shahjahanabad all smeared in red, green, and yellow ochre; the aromatic air laden with scents of saffron and palash; along with travelling entertainers following the Badshah.

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