Akbar Shah Saani (the second) ruled over a rapidly disintegrating empire between 1806 to 1837. It was during his time that the East India Company dispensed with even the fig leaf of ruling in the name of the Mughal Monarch and removed his name from the Persian texts that appeared on the coins struck by the company in the areas under their control.
Bahadur Shah Zafar who succeeded him was not Akbar Shah Saani’s choice as his successor, Akbar Shah was, in fact, under great pressure by one of his queens, Mumtaz Begum to declare her son Mirza Jahangir as the successor. Akbar Shah would have probably accepted this demand but Mirza Jahangir had fallen foul of the British and they will have none of this.
The Phool Walon Ki Sair or Sair-e-gul-Faroshan that is celebrated with much fanfare and official patronage had its beginning in a fracas between Mirza Jahangir and Sir Archibald Seton, the then British resident at Delhi. According to contemporary records of the event, Mirza Jahangir was extremely resentful of the manner in which the British threw their weight around the Red Fort and violated all customs and traditions. He was a strong man, moved around with a band of his followers and kept getting into arguments with the Goras.
No one, except those of very high rank in the court, could ride upto the Naubat Khana or the Deodhi inside the fort. People were expected to dismount at or near the Haathi Pol and proceed on foot. The British resident rode his horse right up to the Deodhi and refused to dismount despite being challenged by Mirza Jahangir who happened to be in the vicinity.
Seton paid no heed and Mirza Jahangir pulled out his revolver and took a shot at him. According to some accounts Seton’s orderly was hit and died while other accounts talk of the the prince only succeeding in dislodging the Resident’s cap. The prince also called him a Lullu (wimp). It has been reported that the prince pointed towards Seton and derisively shouted Lullu hai be. A badly shaken Seton left in a rage and returned shortly with reinforcements, Mirza Jahangir was arrested and exiled to Allahabad.
Mirza’s mother travelled to the Shrine of Khwaja Qutub-ud-Din Bakhtyar Kaaki, the patron saint of Delhi and prayed for the release and returned of her son. She also vowed that she would offer a floral chhadar to the shrine if her wish was granted. Mirza Jahangir was allowed to return to Delhi on the condition that he mend his ways. The grateful mother kept her promise.
The return of Mirza Jahangir was clebrated as a great event by the residents of Delhi and thousands walked from Shahajahanabad to Mehrauli carrying flowers, fans made of leaves and overlaid with flowers and all manner of other decorative elements including embroidered chhadar’s. A chhadar was placed on the shrine of Bakhtyar Kaaki and a floral pankha was presented by the Queen at the temple of Yog Maya, located close to the tomb of Adham Khan.
This was the origin of the Sair-e-gul-Faroshan and became an annual feature where people belonging to all communities came together in a ritual that had an anti-British under current. The Phool Walon Ki Sair gradually turned into a major three day celebration during the time when Bahadur Shah Zafar, son and successor to Akbar Shah Saani ruled from Delhi.
Zafar used to move his court to a building adjacent to the Shrine of Bakhtyar Kaaki and stayed at Mehrauli for a week during the celebrations. The building where he stayed during the period was originally built by his father and Zafar added an impressive gate and a Baaraadari to the structure and renamed it Zafar Mahal.
The celebrations spread out in different parts of Mehrauli with the Jahaz Mahal, (a Lodi period structure, that was once in the middle of the Hauz-e-Shamsi but is now at one end of the much depleted Hauz) becoming a center where Qawwali mehfils would be organised while the Jharna, built by Firoz Tughlaq and later added to by Akbar Shah II became a place where the women of the court relaxed.
The Jharna is now the location from where the procession of floral chadars and pankhas, led by Shehnai players begins to wind its way to the shrine of Bakhtyar Kaaki and the temple of Yog Maya, the other two places which were thronged by the multitudes in times gone.
The Phool Walon Ki Sair came to an abrupt halt in 1942 when the British refused permission for the festivities. The Sair was revived in 1961-62 by Pandit Nehru as a symbol of the unity of the people of Delhi.
The initiative to ask Pandit Nehru to revive the Sair was taken by Yogeshwar Dayal, Maulana Ahmad Saeed and Barrister Noor-ud-din, the then mayor of Delhi.
Yogeshwar Dayal was the moving spirit of the Anjuman-e-sair-e-gul faroshan (the association that used to organize the flower sellers’ walk to Mehrauli) Maulana Ahmed Saeed the founding general secretary of Jamiat-ul-Ulamae Hind, was a disciple of Mufti Kifayat Ullah, the founding president of the Jamiat. Both were devotees of Bakhtyar Kaaki, and are buried next to each other between the shrine of Bakhtyar Kaaki and Zafar Mahal.
The Sair-e-gul-Faroshan has now taken the form of a sarkaari tamaasha with pankhas and chadars coming from more than a dozen states. A festival that brought together all the people of the city in a celebration of harmony and anti-colonial solidarity is now reduced to a stage managed show conducted by professional impresarios. What is heartening however is the fact that the recent ‘low-intensity’ explosions right outside the Jahaz Mahal have not succeeded in triggering a “communal backlash” or in disrupting the celebrations of Harmony.