Modern-day Pakistani society is suffering from crises like terrorism, extremism, intolerance and polarisation. In this context, a cultural festival with indigenous roots can serve as a salve. Such an indigenous festival carries a strong narrative based on two components missing from our mainstream discussions: folk wisdom and collective interest.
Lohri is a cultural and indigenous Punjab festival celebrated on the 14th of January, or according to the traditional Punjabi calendar in the month Magh. The general understanding of Lohri is that it is a celebration of the harvesting season. That may be a linear interpretation, but significant context and narrative are tied in to this festival.
During winter, young people and children form groups to collect different edible items and stocks of wood from the neighbourhood and surrounding area. The wood is meant for a bonfire. It is a gathering of friends, relatives and neighbours, and they sit around the fire. Mostly, young people sing folk songs and dance in a circle. The most popular form of folk dances are Bhangra and Gidda on the beat of the Dhol. For their part, elders sit and enjoy the warmth and folk songs. The gathering from different homes has symbolic importance to foster a sense of collectiveness; in Punjabi it is called Saanjh.
Another perspective is that the Lohri festival is basically commemorating the 16th-century rebel leader and folk hero Abdullah Bhatti, alias Dulla Bhatti (1547-1589). There is a legend in the cultural memory of Punjab that Mughal imperial forces kidnapped two Hindu Brahmin girls. When Dulla Bhatti came to know about it, he encountered and fought with these army men for the honour of those girls and saved them. The respectable return of these was celebrated by lighting bonfires and singing songs. Further, he took responsibility for the marriage of two girls. That is how, the story goes, the festival of Lohri started.
Later on, as the story runs, Dulla Bhatti challenged Emperor Akbar’s rule and revolted against him. The primary reason behind this revolt was the exploitative tax policy on the peasants. Thus, Dulla emerged as a strong voice for the rights of the agricultural classes. In a historical context, Dulla Bhatti is considered as a symbol of resistance against the Mughal empire. Though he was executed by the authorities, his message of resilience to tyranny is vividly remembered. Yet in colonial British sources, Dulla Bhatti is often depicted as a plunderer.
In Pakistani Punjab, unfortunately, the festival of Lohri is not celebrated on a larger scale because a significant chunk of the population has been given to perceive it as a “non-Muslim” festival. This, of course, points to the larger phenomenon where Punjabis in Pakistani are somewhat reluctant to own their language and culture – or in the most extreme cases, know very little about it.
According to the 2017 census of Pakistan, Punjabi is the largest spoken language in Pakistan. It is the mother tongue of 38.77% of Pakistanis, which means it is the language of upwards of 80 million people. However, it is struggling to be owned on a national level.
Acknowledging and mainstreaming indigenous festivals like Lohri, Nowruz etc. can prove to be an antidote to intolerance that marks Pakistani life today. An indigenous and regionally grounded sense of culture can collectively strengthen Pakistan’s sense of self. On the part the government, the National Heritage and Culture Division has to remake an effective and vibrant culture policy which can give a more accurate picture of Pakistan’s past, and its heterogeneous and multicultural society.