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Holi among Lucknow’s Muslims

By Himanshu Bajpai

What should I tell you of Holi in Lucknow! More than a festival, it is the crowning glory of Indian multiculturalism and religious bonhomie.  Those, who think that Holi is an exclusively Hindu festival,, need to visit the bylanes of Old Lucknow on the day of the festival itself. Of the hundreds of faces drenched in colour you come across, you’ll be hard pressed to differentiate between the Hindu and the Muslim revelers.

The joy, the enthusiasm, and the energy with which Muslims in Lucknow have been known to celebrate Holi is one of the reasons why Lucknow has long been famous for its communal harmony. In the heart of the old city, Chowk’s famous Holi-baaraat (marriage procession)  has been supervised and arranged for by Hindus and Muslims together since 1947. This procession, a symbol of Lucknow’s shared festivals, passes through predominantly Muslim areas like Chowk, Victoria Street, Akbari Gate, and Raja Bazaar. The Muslim population of these areas not only takes part in the procession with full gusto but also showers the procession with scented colours and flowers from their balconies and terraces. Lucknow has been celebrating this shared Holi for hundreds of years.

The nawabs of Lucknow are largely credited  for being the harbingers of Lucknow’s cultural and religious harmony. Mr. Jaafar Mir Abdullah, himself a descendant of the erstwhile nawabs of Lucknow, says, “Not only do the Muslims of Lucknow celebrate Holi, but their own festivals have also been affected by it. The Iranian New year, Nauroz,’ falls around the 21st of March every year, the same month as Holi and, although, it is celebrated throughout the country and beyond, it is only in Lucknow that people play with colours on this day, just like Holi. The nawabs of Oudh were known for their stupendous Holi celebrations. Actually they did not want any major festival of Lucknow to remain constricted to any one particular community.” Since the times of the nawabs, Lucknow’s Hindus and Muslims have celebrated the festivals of Muharram and Holi together. The Urdu poetry of Lucknow bears testament to the same. Several Muslim poets of Lucknow have spun beautiful verses around Holi in their oeuvre.


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When the incomparable poet, Meer came to Lucknow from Delhi, he witnessed the then Nawab, Asaf-ud-Daula, celebrating the festival of colours with such fervor that he wrote an entire masnavi on his holi celebrations:

Holi khele aasafuddaula wazir

rang saubat se ajab hain khurdopeer

kumkume jo maarte bharkar gulaal

jiske lagta aan kar phir mehadi laal

(Asafuddaula vizier plays holi,

Drenched in colours the young and old,

Throwing colours that leave a perfumed spot,

The one being hit goes red like mehendi).

In later years, Meer was so enamored of Lucknow’s Holi that it often reflected in his poetry:

Aao saathi bahaar phir aayi

holi mein kitni shadiyaan laayi

jis taraf dekho marka sa hai

Shahar hai ya koi tamaasha hai

thal bhar bhar abeer late hain

gul ki patti mila udaate hain

(Come mates, it’s spring again,

Holi has brought forth so many joys,

A war of sorts as far as the eye can see,

Is this a city or a circus?

They bring discs loaded with colours,

And throw them mixed with petals).

Not just Meer, another famed poet, who travelled from Delhi over to Lucknow, Saadat Yaar Khan “Rangeen”, was also drenched in the spirit of Lucknow’s holi:

Bhar ke pichkaariyon mein rangeen rang

naazneen ko khilaayi holi sang

baadal aaye hain ghir gulaal ke laal

kuch kisi ka nahi kisi ko khayal

bhar ke pichkaari who jo hai chalaak

maarti hai kisi ko door se taak

jisne daala hai hauz mein jisko

woh ye kahti hai kos kar usko

ye hansi teri bhaad mein jaaye

tujhko holi na doosri aaye

(With spray guns full of colors,

They play Holi with delicate beauties

Clouds of colour burst forth

Nobody cares for anything or anyone

The crafty ones load their spray guns

And ambush others from afar

The one who has been thrown in the tub

Curses the one who throws her

May your laughter go to hell

May you never see another Holi).

One of the biggest names from the Lucknow school of poetry, Ustad Khwaja Haider Ali “Aatish” also could not remain unaffected by his city’s Holi:

Holi shaheed-e-naaz ke khoon se bhi kheliye

Rang ismein hai gulaal ka boo hai abeer ki

(Play holi with the blood of the martyrs of love,

It is the colour of Gulaal and has the perfume of Abeer). 

The last Nawab of Oudh, Wajid Ali Shah, was himself a major Holi enthusiast. He not only played it with gusto, but has also written several compositions.  One of his Thumris:

Moray kaanha jo aaye palat ke

abke holi main kheloongi dat ke

unke peeche main chupke se jaake

ye gulaal apne tan se lagaake

rang doongi unhe bhi lipat ke

(When my Krishna comes back to me,

I’m going to play Holi with him with intensity,

I’ll sneak up on him from behind,

I’ll cover myself in gulaal,

And I’ll colour him with my body)

Another anecdote associated with Wajid Ali Shah and his love for Holi goes thus:

During his reign, there was once an occasion when Holi and Muharram coincided on the same date. Adhering to the impeccable chivalry and manners that Lucknow is known for, the Hindus decided not to celebrate Holi that year in support of their muslim brethren. The  Muslims, on the other hand, refused to let one festival suffer for the other and wanted the  Holi celebrations to go on as planned. Wajid Ali Shah then announced separate timing schedules for the Holi revelries and Muharram mournings.  This way the entire Lucknow took part in both the festivals together. The historical authenticity of this story could not be verified, but every Lucknowite believing in the shared heritage of the city accepts and shares it proudly as a symbol of Lucknow’s cultural harmony.

Another notable name from the world of Urdu literature, Insha Allah Khan “Insha” has thus described Nawab Saadat Ali Khan’s Holi celebrations:

Sang holi mein huzoor apne jo laavein har raat

kanhaiya bhanein aur sar pe dhar levein mukat

gopiyaan daud padein dhoondein kadam ki chhaiyan

baansuri dhun mein dikha devein wahin jamuna tat

gaagrein levein utha aur ye kahti jaavein

dekh toh holi jo bazm hoti hai panghat

(As he brings me with him every Holi night,

He transforms into Krishna as he puts on his crown,

The cowgirls run around looking for his shaded feet,

He shows them the banks of Jamuna with his flute’s tune,

They pick up their pitchers and sing along,

It is Holi that converts the humble well-bank into a party).

Even after the Nawabs departed, Muslims in Lucknow have continued to celebrate Holi and to write poetry on  the revelry like before. The freedom fighter and poet, Hasrat Mohaani,  wrote:

Mohe ched karat nandlal

liye thade abeer gulaal

dheeth bhayi jinki barjori

auran par rang daal daal

(That Krishna teases me,

He stands with Abeer and Gulaal in his hands,

He has become shameless in his teasing,

He has coloured so many before me).

Poet Baasit Biswani, from the neighboring district of Lucknow, came to Lucknow and never went back. He too found himself celebrating Holi  in his verses:

Holi tan man phoonk rahi hai door sakhi girdhari hai

dil bhi tukde tukde hai aur zakhm-e-jigar bhi kaari hai

haaye akeli khel rahi hoon saari doobi saari hai

khoon-e-tamanna rang bana hai, aankhon ki pichkaari hai

(This Holi is burning up my body and soul, My Krishna so far away,

My heart is in pieces and the wound is too deep,

I’m playing by myself, my Saari is completely drenched,

The blood of my passion is the colour here and my eyes are the pichkaaris).

Famous for his satirical writings, Saagar Khayyami and his brother Naazir Khayyami were two other Holi revelers, who hosted lavish Holi parties. Saagar Khayyami says:

Chhayin hain har ik simt jo holi ki bahaarein

pichkaariyaan taane who haseenon ki kataarein

hain haath hina rang toh rangeen fuwaarein

ik dil se bhala aarti kis kis ki utaarein

chandan se badan aab-e-gul-e-shokh se nam hain

sau dil hon agar paas toh is bazm mein kam hain

(Holi has brought spring to every nook and cranny,

Those lovely lasses with spray guns loaded,

Their hands, the colour of mehendi,

How many can I welcome with a single heart

Bodies of sandalwood are drenched in the perfume of flowers,

If I had a hundred hearts, they would have been insufficient for this party).

These are but a few verses from numerous couplets that Muslim poets have written as a tribute to this festival and its Lucknawi heritage. There are hundreds of others who have in one way or another expressed their love for this  festival and the unmatched revelry that it inspires. There  is no doubt, at least in Lucknow, that Holi is a festival for the entire city, rather than for just one religious community. In the end, Naazir Khayyami expresses best the message of solidarity that Holi brings:

Eemaa’n ko eemaa’n se milaao
irfaa’n ko irfaa’n se milaao
insaa’n ko insaa’n se milaao

geeta ko kuraa’n se milaao
dair-o-haram mein ho na jang
holi khelo hamre sang

(Let conscience meet conscience,

Let spirit meet spirit,

Let man meet man,

Let Geeta meet Quran,

May there be no wars within temples or mosques,

Come, let’s play Holi together).


Himanshu Bajpai is an independent journalist and researcher.



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