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Monday, 11 March 2013

Let Basant be celebrated

Let Basant be celebrated

The Lahore skies are not full of kites — or at least not as full as they used to be before the 2005 Supreme Court ban on kite-flying. But is it wise to ban one of the few events which provide entertainment to our people despite the fact that deaths have occurred due to people falling off from roofs and glass-coated threads which have slit throats? Let us look at the history of this festival to find out what the truth is.
One objection to Basant is that it is un-Islamic. There are two reasons given for this. First, that it was a religious festival among Hindus and second, that it celebrates a blasphemer. Let us take them one by one. The word ‘vasanta’ means ‘green’ and’ panchami’ refers to ‘five’ in Sanskrit. This means that it was the fifth day of the month of Magh in the old calendar, which is not used officially in Pakistan but is very much part of the rural worldview. The festival is so ancient that it existed in the Vedic period and it did have a religious significance, as most life events did in the ancient world. It was dedicated to the Hindu goddess Saraswati, the goddess of learning. In time, however, this significance was lost and all communities, Hindus and Muslims, enjoyed it as a time of celebration. Likewise, the Nauroz (new day), now celebrated not only in Iran but also in Central Asia, originated from Zoroastrianism but is a spring festival now — a time of fun and celebration of the spring. Europe’s May Day festivals also date to pre-Christian times and had religious significance to do with belief systems before Christianity. But then, they were taken over and celebrated as secular festivals. These events are part of spring festivals all over the world. From the Kha b’Nisan festival of the Assyrian civilisation to the present-day Chinese spring festival, the Thai Songkran Water Festival and the festival of bonfires resurrected in Luxembourg on February 26, people like to celebrate the coming of life after the winter. Now, the second reason.
It may be true that a local Basant fair at Kot Khawaja Saeed (Khoje Shahi) was initiated by a prosperous Hindu called Kalu Ram, to remember Haqeeqat Rai Bakhmal Puri. Haqeeqat Rai was a Hindu from Sialkot, who had been given the death punishment by Zakaria Khan (1707-1759), the then governor of Punjab, on charges of blasphemy. But it is not true to say that Basant was not celebrated earlier nor is it true that Muslims had not celebrated it. Indeed, there is a lot of evidence that Basant was celebrated by ordinary Muslims in India and even some Chishti saints. The literature refers to the “Basants” of Khwaja Qutbuddin Bakhtiar Kaki (1173-1235) and Sheikh Nizamuddin Aulia (1238-1325). But the best known is the song attributed to Amir Khusrau’s (1253-1325) which goes like this:
Aj basant mana le, suhagan  
Aj basant mana le.
(Today celebrate the Basant Oh! Married girl,
Today celebrate the Spring)
And this is not all. Reports on schools dating from 1852 quote the following lines in Persian:
Basant amad ke sabzan hamachu sad burg,
Kharaman kubaku jama zebe
(Basant has arrived and young boys like a hundred petals,
Strut about the streets in beautiful clothes).
In short, the festival of spring was very much a part of the Indian Muslim civilisation since the medieval age. There were ulema who were against it but then they were against all cultural activities and almost against anything smacking of fun and laughter. During the period of decline of Muslim political powers, such thinking gained strength because when a civilisation declines, people want to know why. And people like Shah Waliullah (1703-1762) said the decline was because of the adoption of Hindu customs. The fact is that most people had converted from Hinduism to Islam and whenever such conversions occur, parts of culture are retained. Nobody bothered about them too much when the Muslims were powerful but now these have become anathema.
The Supreme Court’s reasoning that people die can be dealt with by good governance. Open grounds can be reserved for flying kites and the police should check whether the killer thread is used or not. In short, Basant should be celebrated just as Nauroz and other spring festivals are. Let us reclaim our shared South Asian culture: the festive atmosphere, the skies full of colour, the good food, the girls in yellow dresses and bangles; and the triumphant cries of ‘bo kata’ (I have cut it!).