The traditional Sikh greeting recognised by tens of millions of Sikhs worldwide was greeted by a chorus of the refrain Sat Sri Akal, and a spattering of mumblings by non-Sikhs in the Rich Mix club in Bethnal Green.
My parents are Sikhs from the Punjab, which infers a cultural identity on me. I know when to say Sat Sri Akal. Our place of worship is the Gurdwara. Men wear turbans, we all recognise the Five Ks (the insignia of a practicing Sikh), and Punjabi food is a particularly green, vegetable-heavy concoction, without the strict compulsion for vegetarianism of our Hindu neighbours (chicken curry, mince lamb (keema), etc)
But even I hadn’t heard of Hola Mahalla. Approaching Darshan Singh, the Bradford-based director of Hola Mahalla: The Forgotten Festival and curator of this exhibition, I tried letting the phrase roll off my tongue. Turns out it’s pronounced Hoola Mahalla.
Hola Mahalla is a one-day festival, the final part of a 3-day fair that has been celebrated for over 300 years in the town of Anandpur in Punjab, India. And it’s little known by many in the Sikh diaspora.
It was founded by Guru Gobind Singh, the tenth Guru, in a town flanked by mountains as a show of strength to neighbouring Hill Rajputs and Mughal forces. Mock battles in this valley and military parades were a way of warding off enemy attacks, but also more crucially to lay political and cultural claims on the territory.
It’s a Spring festival, and the colours of the Hindu Holi festival are mimicked throughout the town and mock battlefield. Darshan’s excerpts from his documentary, shot in Anandpur over a two-year period, are extraordinary. The festival is a veritable time machine into the 18th century.
Different battalions – archers, horsemen, lancers – showcase their skills and use of weaponry. A particular focus is given to horse-riding, an essential skill in the ancient Sikh khalsa army. Riding horses while standing is a unique skill, particularly when Mughal battalions of elephants render traditional lancing and archery methods defunct.
Expert lancers on horseback were effective in unpegging enemies’ tents at night, and this particular skill is mimicked today using small bales of hay – the faster the rider, the more skilled he is.
And then there’s the fighting.
If cinematic representations of battles, even a mere brawl, are to be believed – fighting is a lengthy struggle between two steely foes.
One look at the gatka, performed by the Akaal Sahai Gatka Akhara of Southall, and that fantasy plummets to earth. Per man, each encounter on the battlefield must have lasted seconds. The might of the Sikh army lay in its speed, and the ability of individual warriors to take on multiple foes at once.
Touch the ground and raise your hand to your forehead. The nagada (kettle drum) plays as the participants parry, swivel, spin, strike, dodge, weave. Sometimes, a third fighter joins the gatka, and a two-on-one scenario commences, heightening the pace of the flurried attacks. And at the end of it all, the participants shake hands and embrace.
An impressive and flowing dance, it’s easy to see how these gatkabaji were once some of the most feared fighters in South Asia. Here, they were performed on stage by young children and adults from Southall, armed with shields (good), sticks (fine), spears (careful!), daggers (ouch) swords (woah), razor-sharp discs (this is scary) and in once case, a spiked ball on a chain (ducking under my seat).
A demonstration of Sikh martial prowess. A day of beards and swords, it was like watching the illegitimate children of Gimli and Aragorn fighting ghost Orcs.
The documentary was eye-opening and the event was impressive. I recommend it to all, although the exhibition has now come to an end, you can watch the film here.