For most Delhiwallahs swimming time comes with the monsoon. This age-old sport gains momentum when the ponds and tanks start filling up and there is no scorching wind (loo) to keep people indoors. The rainy season is one of traditional revelry and swimming an essential part of it.
There are swimming events almost every day with the young and old making for the flooded Jamuna and the few ponds that still remain in and around the Capital ~ the inexperienced armed with dried gourds or tumbas and the regulars with their confidence. There was a time when swimmers floated on their backs with iron spits on their chests, on which kebabs were fried.
But that was before the Partition and since then many famous swimmers have passed away, including the legendary Master Qamaruddin, uncle of Ismat Chughtai, the Urdu novelist and short story writer, who used to swim from Agra to Delhi whenever the mood seized him. In Mughal times, the art of swimming reached its zenith with swimmers from Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Armenia and Afghanistan coming to compete with those of the Capital; swimmers enjoyed royal patronage and there was one who was given the title of Mir Machli. (Master Fish).
There used to be a huge tamarind tree on the other side of the river in Sayyid-ka-Bagh at Agra, under which was the grave of a saint where chiraghi (earthen lamp lighting) was done by both the initiates and other swimmers accompanying him. To negotiate the rain- swollen Jamuna and reach that place was a real test for the best "tairak", who had to swim through whirlpools and chaddars (rapid sheets of churning water) to prove his skill.
Crossing the "bhanwar", as it was known, was akin to crossing the Razor’s Edge and once that was achieved the Sehra (turban) of Ustadi was tied on his head, after which he salaamed (saluted) his old gurus and the assembled crowd, in which the District Commissioner was the most prominent invitee.
At least one life was lost in the attempt every year, which the superstitious believed to be the annual tribute taken by the spirits of the water. That Imli tree had a twin growing some distance away, under which also there was a grave.The one in Sayyid-kaBagh was struck by lightning during a monsoon shower and ripped into two. But the other tree survived and was the subject of an article by the late journalist "TS".
"The tree was old," he wrote. "And at least four generations of Ghatia neighbourhood had attachment to it, and yet it had stood majestically and flourishing until a land-owner butcher cast his evil eye on it and felled it to make a few thousand rupees, not satisfied with the property of the shrine he had obtained by hook or by crook.
"The tamarind tree towered over a stunted but equally aged gondi tree. Both seemed to have been planted by the side of the ancient tomb to provide it shade. The rest of the square was once laid out with a garden and a beautiful baradari, a complex enclosed with a wall. People visited the shrine and offered flowers and agarbattis (joss-sticks). "It was the takia (seat) of a Sadaswag ~ a sect of faqirs that generally practised celibacy, kept long hair and a beard and dressed in a kind of a feminine dancing costume. They lived on alms and were respected.
"Itinerant members of the fraternity would come and stay at the takia from time to time and on occasions the Urs (saints' anniversary) was held with fanfare, an important element of it being the singing and dancing by a bevy of danseuses, including some of the more beautiful ones from Seh-ka Bazaar. They drew huge crowds but charged nothing for the performance, even the tips offered them they made over to the shrine."
The old residents nostalgically remember the takia as it once was and how in their younger days they climbed the imli and the gondi to play lapak-danda(a game like rounders but played with a two-foot rod-like stick). Alas, the very look of the takia is now changed. The transgressor started a sawmill in it, bringing card-loads of felled trees, apparently stolen in collusion with villagers. The business flourished and with the money thus gained he started on other exploits ~ along the side, facing the road, several shops were quietly built and given on "pugree" and rent.
"The next victim were the two trees, first he killed the gondi and then gradually the majestic imli. The locality is congested, houses are cheek by jowl, there is no breathing space now nor any trees. They talk nostalgically of the imli that not only shaded the takia of the Sadaswag (forever in marital bliss) but eye-soothing green of its thick foliage when it is burning hot and the scorching "loo" blows.
"A well and piau, which philanthropist Yasin Khan had made there and where old Alladin served water to passers-by, have all disappeared ~ the well filled up, the piau(water-hut) turned into a shop and Alladin dead of broken-heart."
But as they say, Nemesis will ultimately have its way. The butcher was shot dead, one of his sons fatally stabbed and another jailed for life in a murder case. The only male survivor of the family was externed from the Wazirpura locality, once famous for its butchers and "tairaks", who worshipped at the shrines of Imli saints, supposed to be guardians of swimmers, who braved the swollen waters of the Jamuna during the monsoon. Now Tairaki melas in Delhi and Agra are no longer the craze they once were, with the young and old marching to the riverfront with the a green Nishan (flag) carried by the Khalifa or Ustad.
Among them one remembers Parmal Khalifa and Mushtaq Ustad, who led the swimmers to the beating of drums and shouts of "Nare Taqbi", "Ya Husain", "Jaya Mahadev" and "Jaya Bajrang bali". They entered the river in a group but if one of the members got drowned, the drums were not beaten and the swimmers trooped back in silence, after retrieving the body of the dead "tairak".
However, such instances were rare for the Khalifa or Ustad made sure that not one life was lost. There were four melas, or swimming fairs, every Thursday in the month of Sawan, the last one being the most popular, when flowers and Kheel-hatasha were offered to one and all, and housewives celebrated the safe return of family swimmers with songs and special dishes like kheer, halwa-puri, pakoras and ghewar.
Now all this is a fading memory and few lamps are lit at Sayyid-ka-Bagh.