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Tracing the colourful history of rural fairs

Children, who played truant to watch the mela go by, even managed to get pocket money from their parents to buy sweets, chaat and toys from the many hawkers, who thronged the fairs.

RV Smith |

Dussehra is over and so also Diwali, which was followed by scattered melas, or fairs, but what happened to most of the 145-odd listed in the Delhi Gazetteer of 1883-84? They have died a slow death in the wake of modernisation.

Among them were Sitla-ka-Mela, Dussehra Mela and Sawan Bhadon-ka-Mela, except for the weekly one held at Kalkaji Mandir every Tuesday. The Christmas and Easter melas, like the Muslim ones at the shrines of saints, are still held but are devoid of their past glamour like Aligarh-ki-Numiesh or Meerut-ki-Nauchandi.

Before television had made inroads into daily life some families in the Walled City used to eagerly look forward to Sitla-ka-Mela. Four days were set apart for the worship of the goddess, who is supposed to ward off smallpox and measles. From early morning women, girls and children used to head for the temple of Sitla Mata after catching the Delhi-Agra train. They went singing through the city’s bazaars to the distant shrine, each group headed by a man playing the drums and a boy beating time with cymbals.

Some started off from home as early as 4 a.m., when it was still dark. One remembers that long before Partition a crazy nawab had the thornballs, called “gokru”, spread on the pavements on both sides of the road and also on the chabutra¬†(platform) in front of his huge haveli. One morning, when the women came singing, they were suddenly pricked by the thorns, for most of them came barefoot, carrying their shoes on their heads. As they sat on the chabutra, they were pricked by the thorns again. Muttering curses they walked away from the place somehow.

The nawab, who had felt his sleep disturbed, thought he had had his revenge. But that did not stop the women from coming just as early the next fair day; and ultimately the victory was theirs for who could spread basketfuls of gokru every time, even for a nawab. Carrying huge lunch packages of puris and laddoos, they made their way singing the favourite song, “Kuo Waro machal gaya bhagiyan mein”, and the tongawallahs and bullock-cart drivers picked up the refrain, which lasted nearly the whole day till they caught the train back to Delhi.

Children, who played truant to watch the melago by, even managed to get pocket money from their parents to buy sweets, chaat and toys from the many hawkers, who went all the way to the abode of the Kuo Waro near Sikandra. The toys were mostly bought from the phirkee walli, who carried her paper and wood creations on a thatched umbrella-like contraception. In later years this ubiquitous toy-seller was to become the subject of a film song, “Phirkeewalli, tu kal phir aana/yaheen mil jana/ ke tere naina hain bade baiman re”. But in those days one didn’t associate many women with the trade.

The nawab is long dead and the children who bought the phirkees have now graduated to the status of grandfathers and grandmothers. Smallpox, they say, has been eradicated, but measles is still a scourge, claiming many lives in some parts of the country. Sitla-ka-Mela is hardly an attraction now, with just a few families making the trip to the shrine by train, bus or in a Maruti. So one never gets to see the brides of the year passing by on dainty feet in their colourful clothes, escorted by the older women of the family.

The tongawallahs and ekkawallahs have all but disappeared and bullock- carts are a rarity. The gokru, which grew in such abundance, has withered away because the wilderness has been overtaken by concrete jungles. Even Kuo Waro (deity of the well) seems to have felt the snub of modern times and nobody picks up the refrain, for there are few women singing the song to please the deity.

And as for the Walled City of Delhi, very few perhaps remember that their womenfolk once made a pilgrimage to the shrine where four Pirs (Mondays) and an equal number of Budhs (Wednesdays) were devoted to the colourful ritual. By the way, it always rained on a Sitla fair day towards the late afternoon. Now the rain too has gone away so that little Raju can play away with his mechanical toys. No wonder the phirkeewalli too is almost extinct. But Sitla still has the last laugh, thanks to her lingering popularity in Rajasthan, Haryana, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and parts of Madhya Pradesh, besides some pockets in Bihar.

Koela Mata

Among the fairs still held in the western region bordering Delhi is the mela of Koela Mata, one of the biggest in parts of UP and Rajasthan. The Mata is regarded as a form of the goddess Durga and during the mela is adored in every town, village and hut in the region. Another thing worth noting is that Chambal dacoits were among those who visited the fair in disguise to offer bells at the Mata’s temple. A special feature is the taunting of Langooria the ministrant of the Goddess ~ the butt of many jokes by the women devotees.

The Mela is held twice a year for a full fortnight, sometime in the months of April and October in village Koela of Karauli and in the district of Sawai Madhopur in Rajasthan. Hundreds of thousands of men, women and children make their way to the shrine of the goddess, dancing and singing in groups. Women predominate and married ones are all dressed in white, green bangles on their arms, their hair unplaited and their feet painted, according to journalist Tim’s 1973 article in the now-defunct Citizen.

Historically speaking, “the temple of Koela Devi was taken over by Raja Khinji in AD 1230 and enlarged. In 1257 it was taken care of by Mukanddas Khinji and in 1421 it became the official temple of the reigning Yadav dynasty. It is now in the charge of the ex-Maharaja of Karauli. In 1521 Maharaja Gopal Singh improved the temple and his successor, Raja Bhanwarpal Singh, added a big dharmashala and other buildings to it”. But no such patron has emerged for the Sitla Mata fair.

While tracing the history of melas, one is instinctively drawn to Bateshwar, with which Atal Bihari Vajpayee had close links as he spent his childhood there and the history of which is worth repeating. Off the Agra- Bah Road, 46 miles from Agra, in the country of ravines, thugs and dacoits, is the ancient and legendary city of Bateshwar, the city connected with the heroes of the Ramayan and the Mahabharat, Capital of the kingdom of Vasudeo, Krishna’s father. In the fourth century BC, Megasthenes, the Greek Ambassador to the Court of Chandra Gupta Maurya, visited the place and has written about it. The Jains believe that Neminath was born at Bateshwar, observed the late historiographer T Smith.

“All this and more is quite believable when one visits it braving all the hazards of the trip,” he wrote. “The river takes a turn near Bateshwar and on the bank stand a number of temples, said to be more than a hundred once upon a time ~ six, including two made out of marble, are considered more important. They are architecturally of a high order and contain some priceless pieces of sculptures in the form of statues. The main deity known by various names ~ Bateshwar Nath, Gauri Shankar and Bihari Raj ~ is Shiva. The Maratha Sardar, Naro Shankar, also built a temple there in memory of the Marathas, who lost their lives at Panipat in 1761.”

How near the church the devil lives can be seen at this hallowed and ancient site. The most popular temple known as Bateshwar Nath, is full of bells offered as a gift to the diety. In the forecourt of the temple, hanging from trees and brackets, are bells of all kinds, some of them with the names of desperados like Man Singh. The main room of the mandir also is stacked high with bells. Besides the lakhs of people who visit the temples at the time of the annual fair, the outlaws patronize the place as their hideout. They are the regular clientele of the temples and consider themselves under their protection.

Bateshwar is a wonderful place; it possesses an aura of awe and sanctity. Sikander Lodi and Shershah Suri maintained garrisons here to keep the outlaws in check. In the 16th and 17th centuries it was centre of Maratha campaigns. Raja Bedan Singh of Bhadawar built the Bateshwar Nath temple in 1646.

According to legends, the Maharajas of Bhadawar and Mainpuri were constantly at war. Wise men of the area suggested that they could live in peace by marrying off the children of the two females. Unfortunately, however, girls were born to both. But Bhadawar announced that a son was born to him and as agreed, a wedding was arranged with the daughter of the Raja of Mainpuri.

Bhadawar sent his daughter dressed as a young man. The girl was greatly embarrassed and when the marriage procession reached the river, she jumped into it, and lo, Lord Shiva appeared. He lifted up the girl and changed her into a boy. Thereupon, Bhadawar, out of gratitude, erected the temple and in order to ensure that the river always flowed by it, built a two-mile dam diverting its course.

Like Banaras, Bateshwar was a seat of learning. The chief spoken language of the place was Soreseni, which has developed into Brajbhasha. The great Goswami Tulsidas, author of the Ramayan, “roamed here and did penance”. Because of the inroads of crime and the difficult terrain, it is no longer a populous town but it is still held in high esteem and vast multitudes of people visit the temples during the Kartika Purnima. As of old, it revives itself as a big trade centre; at the fair held on the occasion, hundreds of thousands of animals, from goats and donkeys to elephants, exchange hands. The fair is reckoned as the biggest of its kind in Northern India, according to “TS”.

Bateshwar, he said 48 years ago, is also sacred to the Buddhists. ASI’s Director General Cunningham, who explored the area in 1871, discovered some Buddhist relics, a coin of Apollodotus and some Parthian money in the vicinity of the temples. It is, therefore, a place of pilgrimage (during which fairs spring up) of all sects of the Hindus and one of great interest to archaeologists.