• Welcome to all New Sikh Philosophy Network Forums!
    Explore Sikh Sikhi Sikhism...
    Sign up Log in

Festival Of War - Hola Mohalla


Jun 1, 2004
With shining swords, long spears, conical turbans and twirled-up moustaches, Nihangs gallop past on frothing horses, raising clouds of dust, as they celebrate Hola Mohalla every March in Punjab. Coinciding with Holi, the festival of colour, it reminds the people about the tradition of meaningful festivity, and displays the valour inculcated in the Sikh community by Guru Gobind Singh, who took to armed struggle against tyranny.

The foothills of the Shivaliks in Ropar district of Punjab's north-eastern region, especially around the historic townships of Anandpur Sahib and Kiratpur Sahib, have, since 1701, been playing host to Hola Mohalla. Recently, the Indian government accorded it the status of a national festival. During the festival, a sea of humanity descends on these towns, which are currently preparing for the mega celebration of the 300th anniversary of the Khalsa order.

Guru Gobind Singh re-christened the Holi festival by the end of the 17th century as Hola Mohalla, to use the opportunity to train his forces in the art of warfare. Near the fort of Holgarh in Anandpur Sahib, his headquarters, the Nihangs, as the Sikh warriors were called, divided into two groups and engaged in mock battle. The military exercise, which was personally supervised by the guru, was carried out on the bed of the River Charan Ganga with the famous Hindu temple of Mata Naina Devi in the Shivaliks as the backdrop.

Faced with the might of the Mughal Empire, the guru felt the need to create a typical martial vocabulary, differentiating it from the local dialect, to ensure the permanence of chardikala (high spirits) among his men. Several words that were then considered weak were tampered with to give them a male gender and make them sound more militant. Thus, Holi became Hola. Similarly, the katar (cutlass) became katara, teg (sword) changed to tega, and barchhi (lance) to barchha. Certain other words were also changed to deceive the enemy spies -- chane (grams) began to be called badaam (almonds) and roti (bread) became pershad.

Subtly, Guru Gobind Singh also made another change. While celebrations of Holi, like that of Sater Lania for the Roman slaves, were restricted to the lower castes, Hola was associated with the revelling that followed victory over the tyrant. Amohalla (procession) to symbolise liberty, freedom, bravery and wisdom was made part of the celebration. Scholars have related that the word mohalla has its roots in the Arabic mahalha, which means a place for celebrating victory.

Hence the festival, which was sectarian and reminded revellers of their slavery, was transformed into an occasion to celebrate victory. The tradition of spraying colour continued, even as Guru Gobind Singh began using this activity to train his men in the tactics of war. Once known as the Guru di ladli fauj (the Guru's beloved army) the Nihangs are the main attraction of the present-day Hola Mohalla celebration. The Nihangs attempt to preserve their heritage and tradition by strict observance of rehat maryada (the religious code of social conduct). They still live in camps called chhaawni (cantonment), eat in iron utensils (batta) and move in formations.

Hola Mohalla is an occasion for them to display their preparedness for war and exhibit their skills in martial arts. But one is not surprised to see a Nihang zip past on a motorcycle or a scooter. Jeeps, On the second day of the festival, political parties set up stages to convene conferences and give a message to the people. Guru Gobind Singh also initiated this tradition of using a religious festival for giving out a political message and the practice has now spread to all melas in Punjab.