Festivities: the lost culture in Pakistan

Festivities: the lost culture in Pakistan

By Mona Hassan

March 9, 2015


Two of my favorite festivals are Holi (the festival of colors) and Diwali (the festival of lights). Both are traditional Hindu festivals linked with religion and mythology.  Diwali always reminded me of that episode of Mirza Ghalib musical from 80s. In one episode after playing a board game with friends on Diwali Mirza thanked two male helpers of his Hindu neighbor who have sent Mithai (sweets) over to his house. An elderly Muslim neighbor playing a wisecrack, objected over Mirza’s being Muslim consuming Mithai from Diwali festival. Mirza laughed questioning the elderly Muslim man if Mithai was Hindu or Muslim.  It’s a strange notion. We conveniently reject many festivities and celebrations by declaring them Hindu and not Islamic.

Past weekend I went to my very first Holi celebrations with my friends. I have yet to be at a Diwali festival to experience the celebrations of light over darkness, prosperity and wealth myself but I am determined to attend one this year.  I have seen it many times in the Bollywood movies but never had an experience to attend one personally. This Holi event was ticketed. Me and my friends got there about an hour after it had already started. The ladies at the front desk dressed in shalwar qameez, let us in without paying for the tickets, they wished us Holi. Seeing we have no color with us and none was left on the table to sell, one of those nice ladies offered to us the last packet of yellow color that belonged to her. It was a modest size crowd of young men and women, kids and families. They had food and water stalls, DJ was playing back to back great Bollywood songs and everyone was happy and dancing.

All the participants were covered with different colors, going around putting it on each other. As soon as we got close to the crowd, people approached us, wished us Holi and put different colors on us one after the other. There was so much life, energy and happiness in that crowd. We didn’t know anyone there and they didn’t know us either but it is safe to assume that if not all, majority of them were somehow connected to Hindu religion and/or from India.

DiwaliI noticed that each color had its own significant fragrance. Reds and pinks smelled like roses, greens smelled like sandalwood, yellows spelled like Ubtan so on and so forth. I was very intrigued by the whole idea and fascinated particularly by the behavior of people. Being a culturally ignorant myself in many ways, I decided to do some research and found a few things. Originally, Holi used to be celebrated with natural colors such as turmeric, sandalwood, roses or extracts from leaves and plants. As the demand grew with the popularity of the festival, synthetic colors replaced the organic colors. That’s probably why each color had its own fragrance.

Holi is an ancient religious Hindu festival that celebrates spring, colors and love according to different sources. Out of these, one sates that it celebrates unity and brotherhood where people get together albeit differences. It’s a day to forgive and forget, kind of like Thanksgiving. Couple of legends are associated with it namely the legend of a divine dance arranged by Lord Krishna for the benefit of his devotees, the Gopis but most popular one is the Puranic legend of Holika that I found in one of the sources.Holika was the sister of demon-king Hiranyakashipu. The demon-king punished his son, Prahlad in a variety of ways to denounce Lord Wishnu. He failed in all his attempts. Finally, he asked his sister Holika to take Prahlad in her lap and enter a blazing fire. Holika had a boon to remain unburned even inside fire. Holika did her brother’s bidding. However, Holika’s boon ended by this act of supreme sin against the Lord’s devotee and was burnt to ashes. But Prahlad came out unharmed.”

There are many legends associated with this festival and each has different variations but that doesn’t change the fact that Holi is a wonderful festival to celebrate life and its many colorful aspects such as love, brotherhood, unity, spring and harvest. Being a Pakistani and an assumed Muslim in the crowd full of Indian and Hindus, I didn’t feel different, superior or inferior at all. None of that love, hospitality, respect, friendly atmosphere was strange or new to me. Those people embraced us like their own, no one even bothered to ask who we were or cared where we were from. They just invited us in the group dances and put more color on us. There were lots of young girls and boys in the crowd but there was no pushing, shoving or inappropriate touching and no one tried to misbehave. Every male who came to put color on me or my friends, asked for our permission before they did that.

The whole ambiance projected our own culture. Yes, I said “our,” all of ours, Pakistani and Indian culture. The intermingling, the hospitality, the mutual respect and most of all, the celebrations; we culturally celebrate everything. From weather to special occasion, everyday we find a new excuse to celebrate on both sides of the border. This connects us together, not the LOC or that we used to be one country. Whatever is celebrated in Pakistan now is heavily Islamized or whatever we used to celebrate is being prohibited as unIslamic. Everything is tied to Saza and Jaza (Punishment and reward). Now people don’t even wish each other Christmas or Valentine’s Day out of fear of Blasphemy. Your Ahmadi, Hindu, Christian or even Shia friends are now afraid to be friends with you.

ChaiLiving in Pakistan Hindus became minority. The dominant religion of Pakistan pushed them into fear and darkness. Just last week some students formed a human shield to protect Hindu community celebrating Holi in Pakistan just like few days ago around Imam Bargah and Church before that. It’s both very sad and refreshing at the same time. Sad because it has come to this in this country that, citizens had to be protected by the other citizens just to practice their religion or to celebrate spring.  Refreshing because citizens of Pakistan have started to realize that there is a great need to built sense of community, to eradicate religious discrimination and stand up together against the elements killing Pakistanis left right and center.

Our (Indo-Pakistan) culture didn’t come in Quran, Bible or Geeta. It came from our people who used to practice it in all aspects together. It came from the language they speak, Hindustani, now Urdu and Hindi. From the clothes they wore, from the food they ate, from the little street games to colloquial lingo only Desis could understand. From haggling tricks at the local grocery stall to the home décor. Ghazals to bhangra, from Besakhi to Basant, from chai to mithai, from pakoray in monsoon to cold bottomless tubs of juicy mangos in hot summers before Islamists hijacked it. Now, whatever we celebrate has to have a divine stamp on it. It either must be for God, or nothing. It’s either for divine reward or to seek forgiveness of sins or just because Allah knows the best. Pakistanis have stopped celebrating life and happiness since long. Now we only mourn and blame external elements for our misfortunes. It shouldn’t be like this. Life has no religion, happiness is not Muslim, love is not kaafir, and culture is not atheist. It should be exactly how Ghalib said about himself that he believes in all traditions and that’s why he isn’t convinced to just follow one.


Happy Holi to all.



Mona Hassan is HCMA (Humanist & Cultural Muslim Association) Communications Manager and Human Rights Activist; Author “Barely Legal”. Follow her on Twitter