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This Sabad is revealed by Guru Arjan Sahib (1563-1606) and recorded on page 1180 of the Guru Granth Sahib. It has four stanzas or four two-liners comprising of sixteen short lines. The stanza of rahau is separate from these stanzas. The Sabad mentions Basant, Phag, and Holi. These three words point towards the feeling of happiness and are associated with ‘Holi,’ the festival of colors.

Holi is an old festival in South Asia celebrated on the full moon day (the fifteenth of Phagan Sudi) that falls in March in the English calendar. On this day, people celebrate by putting color (also known as gulal) on each other.

The festival of Holi starts on Basant Panchami. Throwing of colors and singing of Phag and Dhamar (songs sung during Holi) begins from this day onwards. Due to its celebration in the month of Phagan, the festival of Holi is also called ‘Phalguni.’

According to mythology, this festival is associated with Harnakhash (Hiranyakashyap) and Prahlad, Radha and Krishan, and Shiva and Parvati. According to the first story, a giant (demon) named Harnakhash had received a boon from Shiva that his death would occur neither during the day nor at night, neither inside nor outside, neither in water nor on land, not with any weapon, neither from the hands of a god nor from a human or animal. After receiving this boon, he became hostile toward the gods, especially Indra and Vishnu.

Harnakhash had four sons: Anuhalad, Halad, Prahlad, and Sanhlad. Of these, Prahlad was a devotee of Vishnu. Harnakhash tried to dissuade him from worshipping Vishnu, but Prahlad did not listen. Eventually, Harnakhash plotted to kill Prahlad.

First, Prahlad was thrown into the water and then from the mountain, but he survived. Ultimately, Harnakhash’s sister Holika came to help Harnakhash kill Prahlad. Holika had the boon of a sheet from Shiva, which if she wrapped herself in, she would be able to sit in the fire without being burned. So, Holika wrapped herself in the sheet, took Prahlad in her lap, and sat down in the burning fire, thinking it would burn him while she would be kept from the flames. Suddenly, strong winds began to blow, causing the sheet to fall off Holika’s body and wrap around Prahlad. Holika burned and Prahlad was saved. In commemoration of this event, people, burn firewood and cow-dung cakes and symbolically burn Holika. It is observed one day before Holi. On the day of Holi, this festival of victory of virtue over evil is celebrated by throwing colors and putting them on one another.

The second story is associated with Shaiva-Shakata tradition. According to this, Shiva was sitting in a deep meditative state. His wife Parvati wanted to bring him out of his deep meditative state. Therefore, on the day of Basant Panchami, she took the help of Kamdev (the god of lust). Kamdev broke Shiva’s meditative state through arrows filled with lust. In anger, Shiva turned Kamdev into ashes. Because of this incident, both Kamdev’s wife, Ratti, and Shiva’s wife, Parvati, became restless. Ratti worshipped Shiva for forty consecutive days. Impressed by this, Shiva brought Kamdev back to life. The renewal of Kamdev’s life is also associated with Holi. In South India, this story has a wider acceptance regarding Holi.

In some parts of North India (Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, etc.), Holi is associated with the love of Radha and Krishna. The tale goes that because of Krishna’s dark complexion, he thought that Radha would not like him, which made him sad. When mother Jashodha found out about Krishna’s concern, she suggested that he go to Radha and tell her to apply whatever color she likes on his face. From this context, the use of color during the Holi festival seems to have started. From the above stories, Holi can possibly be associated with all the stories together rather than a single story.

Over time, many awful practices became part of the festival of Holi. Describing these, Bhai Santokh Singh writes:
hinduni ke din holi divālī. Itiyādik din calahiṁ kucālī.
binā lāj te hui nar nārī. karahiṁ kharābā kāḍhati gārī.
(In the Hindu festival days of Holi, Diwali, etc., wrong customs have become prevalent.
Men and women lose a sense of shame. They indulge in mischief and verbal abuse.)

Principal Satbir Singh believes that Brahmins are behind these awful practices. According to him, the message of Holi was that although the truth is as humble, feeble, and gentle as Prahlad, and falsehood is as strong, hard, and powerful as Harnakhash; still truth always triumphs. The Brahmins realized that if Shudras understand the deep meaning of Holi, the grip of Brahmins on society would be loosened. Therefore, the Brahmins restricted this festival for the lower castes to throw dirt, talk dirty, make jokes, and have fun. As a result, on this day, people even started throwing animal dung and excrement on each other. Men and women sometimes resort to obscene acts, which lead to fights and quarrels.

Guru Gobind Singh introduced the tradition of playing ‘Hola-Mahalla’ parallel to the Holi festival, to train the Sikhs in martial arts while getting rid of the awful practices associated with it. In this context, the statement of the poet Sumer Singh is particularly noteworthy:
auran kī holī mam holā. kahyo kripānidh bacan amolā.
Others’ Holi, my Hola. The Treasure of grace (Guru) made this precious statement.

Scholars differ on the date of commencement of Hola-Mahala. W. Owen Cole showed it in 1680, Dr. Harjinder Singh Dilgir on 3rd March 1702, Bhai Randhir Singh on 29th March 1701 (samvat 1758), and Dr. Ratan Singh Jaggi in 1700. But more acceptable is 1700. The reason behind this is that the inauguration of the Khalsa is considered to be in 1699, and ‘Hola-Mahalla’ was started one year later, that is 1700.

Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha and Bhai Vir Singh have given the meaning of ‘Hola-Mahalla’ as ‘attack’ and ‘the place of attack’ or ‘fictitious battle.’ Thus, the word ‘Hola’ (masculine) is derived from the word ‘Holi’ (feminine) and used to express the idea of a big mock attack on the day of Holi.

The semantic change in the word ‘Holi’ was made by Guru Arjan Sahib in the Sabad ‘Holi Kini Sant Sev,’ which is under consideration. By taking the symbolism of Holi in this Sabad, the Guru has stated that we are celebrating Holi together in the company of the lovers of IkOankar, and we are imbued with the color of the Divine through the Wisdom (Guru): holī kīnī sant sev. raṅgu lāgā ati lāl dev.2. -Guru Granth Sahib 1180.

But the transformation of the word ‘Holi’ and the festival was done by Guru Gobind Singh Sahib by initiating the joyful and energetic festival of Khalsa ‘Hola-Mahalla.’ Through this, the Guru shook up the oppressed mentality of the people, who were busy throwing color and mud on others. He showed the people how to enjoy ‘Holi’ through the battles being waged by the Khalsa for truth and justice. An example of this is found in this chand of Krishnavtar in Dasam Granth:
bān cale teī kuṅkam mānahu mūṭh gulāl kī sāṅg prahārī.
ḍhāl mano ḍaph māl banī hath nāl bandūk chuṭe pickārī.
sraün bhare paṭ bīran ke upmā janu ghor kai kesar ḍārī.
khelat phāgu ki bīr larai navlāsī līe karvār kaṭārī.1385. -Dasam Granth, Krishnavtar, Chand 1385.
The arrow that is fired consider it, as saffron sprinkled. The spear that is raised, look at it as scattering gulal with one’s fists.
When the shields are brought forward, consider it as if a garland of tambourine has formed. The guns and carbines that are firing, see them as color thrown from a water gun.
The warriors’ clothes, which are covered with blood, think of them as being covered in saffron.
What a sight it is that it is not clear whether the warriors, carrying swords and daggers, are fighting, or throwing soft blossomed flowers at each other.

Mahima Prakash, Singh Sagar, Sri Gur Pratap Suraj Granth, Guru Kian Sakhian, etc., texts contain the celebration of ‘Hola-Mahalla’ in detail. According to ‘Mahima Prakash,’ on the day of Holi, the Guru and the sangat wore red attire. The sangat first sprayed saffron on the Guru’s clothes. Then the Guru, scattering the colors, went to the banks of the river Sutlej. Millions of injectors of color turned the river water red and clouds of color began to fly in the sky. The Guru called Bhai Nand Lal ‘Goya’ at this time and lovingly colored him too. Bhai Nand Lal ‘Goya’ has also recorded this in his ghazal:
guli holī babāghi dahir bū karad, labi cūṁ ghuṁcā rā farkhandā khū karad.gulābo ambaro mashko aberī, cū bārāni bārish az sū basū karad.zahe pickārīe pur zuafrānī, ki har beraṅg rā khushraṅgo bū karad.
gulāli afshānīi dasati mubārik, zamīno āsmāṁ rā surkharū ālam gashat raṅgīṁ az tuflaish, cū shāham jāmā raṅgīn dar gulū karad.
kase kū dīd dīdāri mukaddas, murādi umar rā hāsil niko karad.
shavad kurbān khāki rāhi saṅgat, dili goyā hamīṁ rā ārzū karad. -Bhai Nand Lal ‘Goya,’ Ghazal 33.
The flowers of Holi filled the garden of the age with fragrance, made the closed buds like lips ecstatic.
He scattered roses, raisin, camphor and saffron all around like rainwater.
What to say of the saffron filled sprinkler? That he made every colorless being colorful and fragrant.
The sprinkling from his blessed hands turned the earth and the sky red.
By his grace both worlds became colorful, he put colorful garments around my neck like kings.
Whoever had his sacred sight/vision, as if, got the best wish of their life fulfilled.
May I be a sacrifice to the dust of the path of the congregation/Sangat, that is all the heart of Goya desires.

According to ‘Singh Sagar Granth,’ the Guru started ‘Hola-Mahalla’ from Kesgarh Sahib in the month of Phagan. Many troughs were filled with colors and the ragis (professional singers of Sabads from the Guru Granth Sahib) sang Rag Basant.

The narration of ‘Mahima Prakash’ of blowing colors and putting them on of each other is also found in this text. It also gives a brief description of the return of the Guru and the Khalsa to Anandpur Sahib after a military exercise (Mohalla) on the river Charan Ganga, from Kesgarh Sahib to Holgarh.

Nowhere in ‘Sri Gur Pratap Suraj Granth’ is the word ‘Hola’ or ‘Mahalla’ found, but only the words ‘Hori’ (Holi) and ‘Phag’ are used. The context in this text related to Holi is also a detailed explanation of the context of ‘Mahima Prakash.’ It includes details of sangat reaching Anandpur Sahib long before Holi, arranging colors on a large scale by the order of the Guru, participation of the Guru himself in this festival, and doing kirtan along with playing with colors. The detail of the ghazal of Bhai Nand Lal ‘Goya’ is given only in the context of Holi in this text.

Bhai Vir Singh has used the word ‘Hola-Mahalla’ in his footnotes while editing this text. At the same time, he has written an explanation of the above ghazal of Bhai Nand Lal ‘Goya’:’ This ghazal of Bhai Nand Lal is historical proof of the existence of Hola. Alta, Atar, Ambir, Gulab, Gulal, Diwan, Kirtan, and Mohalla (field of battle), have been performed in the court of the Guru. The new members of Akali (a political party), ignorant of history of the Guru and under the influence of the West, while removing the bad customs from Sri Harimandar Sahib, stopped many old and good customs without the permission of the Panth (Sikh collective or community). What has been done in connection with Hola is contrary to the proceedings in the Guru’s court witnessed by Bhai Nand Lal. The thing to get rid of was filth and savagery. But the means that facilitate happiness, bliss, joy of spring, love of the virtuous beings’ company that leads to high spiritedness and spiritual exuberance, should remain. The performing of Mohalla has been re-started with the initiative of Singh Sabha (a Sikh movement) and on this day the custom of bathing in Sri Harimandar Sahib has also been re-opened due to the insistence of the Sangat.

According to Guru Kian Sakhian, the sangat gathered near Fort Anandgarh with the permission of the Guru, prayed, and resounded the sky with a Jaikara. By the order of the Guru, the Khalsa got on horses. Bhai Daya Singh filled five fistfuls of red color and threw them towards the Guru, and the Guru also threw one fistful of color towards Bhai Daya Singh. Bhai Daya Singh recited this Savaya aloud:
māgh bitīt bhae ruti phāgun āi gaī sabh khelat horī.
gāvat gīt bajāvat tāl kahai mukh te bharūā mili jorī.
ḍārat hai alitā banitā chaṭikā saṅgi mārat baisan thorī.
khelat sayām dhamār anūp mahā mili sundari sāṁval gorī. -Dasam Granth, Krishnavtar, Chand 225.

At the end of the Savaya, Bhai Man Singh, the sharpshooter first got on the horse at the resounding of the Jaikara. After that, Bhai Daya Singh and the five beloveds pulled out their swords, recited the Sabad ‘khag khanḍ bihanḍaṅ…mam pratpāraṇ jai tegaṅ’ (The sword chops well… it is my preserver, hail the sword), and rode their horses to move in front of the Guru’s blue horse. The Khalsa followed the Guru. Bhai Udai Singh was traveling to the right of the Khalsa (entourage). Having arrived at Takht Sri Kesgarh Sahib, the Khalsa galloped their horses on the orders of the Guru. However, out of respect for the Guru, no one went beyond the Guru’s ride. At that time, the weapons, and armors of the Khalsa were surpassing even the blackness of the rainclouds of Savan and the brightness of the lightning. Thus, the Khalsa reached the field of Holgarh. By the order of the Guru, Bhai Daya Singh recited the above ghazal of Bhai Nand Lal ‘Goya.’

After this, in the field of Holgarh, the Khalsa showed their skills at arms. The Guru then ordered the Khalsa to return. After performing a supplication (Ardas), the entire Khalsa marched towards the river Charan Ganga. The Khalsa beat Kesari Chand Jaswalia’s shrine with shoes and sticks on the way and returned to Fort Anandgarh after visiting places like Damdama Sahib. The festival ended with the supplication.

In the old texts, while the use of colors and the description of martial arts on this day are found to be almost equal, in the writings of modern scholars such as Dr. Hari Ram Gupta and Dr. Surjit Singh Gandhi, the mention of throwing colors is secondary and the description of martial arts is given primacy. Bhai Kahn Singh Nabha did not mention throwing color. Sohan Singh Sital and Dr. Harjinder Singh Dilgir have described coloring as contrary to Sikh doctrine.

The places where Hola-Mahalla is celebrated
At present, ‘Hola-Mahalla’ is a big festival of Sikhs. ‘Hola-Mahalla’ has become a three-day festival, celebrated mainly at Anandpur Sahib from one day before to one day after Holi.

Apart from Anandpur Sahib, it is also celebrated on a large scale at Paonta Sahib (Himachal Pradesh) and Hazur Sahib (Maharashtra). It is believed that, at Paonta Sahib, this festival has been popular from the time of Guru Gobind Singh. The Guru stayed here for about four and a half years from 1685 to 1689, and he started the tradition of poetry at the court here. This festival has been going on ever since. On this day, poets celebrate ‘Hola-Mahalla’ by reciting their poems, and Nihangs (armed Sikh warriors) show their martial art skills. At Hazur Sahib, this festival is celebrated in a unique way. A horse believed to be a descendant of the blue horse of Guru Gobind Singh is decorated and leads the procession. As soon as a Sikh fires in the air, the horse runs very fast, and the entire Sangat runs after it. This is called ‘Mohalla.’

Due to the grandeur of the festival, the day was declared a public holiday by the British government in 1889 with the efforts of the Khalsa Diwan, Lahore.