A Tryst with Tradition

This write up by me appeared in Arbit , Rashtradoot on 26th July 2016

A day before the Chief Election Commissioner announced the schedule for the Lok Sabha elections in 2009, I received an order that I had been transferred as Sub-Divisional Magistrate (SDM), Beawar from my then posting as SDM Alwar. Since I was not expecting the transfer it came as a bit of a bolt from the blue but as is customary in the service I packed my bags and headed off with a wee bit of trepidation to undertake the new assignment. Beawar, I was told by many solicitous senior officers was going to be unlike my first posting in Alwar, more so because it was an independent sub-division far from the district headquarters and because it presented a number of challenges that no other sub-division in the state did.

Beawar, the name itself presented a legend wrapped in the history of the sub-division, one that made me a feel a sense of dread at the prospect of what lay ahead. Upon reaching the new office, the staff and residents of the city took it upon themselves to educate me on the historical significance of the city of Beawar and where it got its unusual name from.  The region where present day Beawar is located was called Magra-Meawara and was ruled by the fierce Kathat tribes and Rawat Rajputs. Despite the efforts of the British to subdue them, these groups continued to present resistance to the British through their guerrilla warfare techniques. Beawar was of extreme strategic importance to the British located as it was at the tri-junction of the states of Jaipur, Jodhpur and Udaipur. Hence a fortified cantonment was built here by Colonel Charles George Dixon (1795-1857) in 1836. As for the rather distinctive name, the legend goes that the British put warning signs of “Be Aware” around the cantonment as an alert to their officers and men leaving or crossing the cantonment. Slowly from these boards the name Beawar was born.

An impending election looming large ahead of me and the legend of Beawar behind me I had a sense of imminent dread yet attempted to be undaunted and felt quite like Frodo Baggins of The Lord of the Rings as he made his way to Modor. If I believed that the  conducting the Lok Sabha election was the biggest challenge before me as I arrived at Beawar and took over, I was wrong, a bigger challenge awaited, one that the staff and other officers of the Sub-Division were fretting about.  Nine days after I joined the new assignment was the day of the Badshah Holi, an age old tradition in Beawar and for the first time one of the main protagonists of the festivities was going to be a lady officer –me.

The Badshah Mela of Beawar dates back around 150 years and finds its roots in a story of Akbar and one of his nine gems Todarmal.  According to the legend, whilst on a hunting expedition Akbar was captured by some bandits who threatened to kill him. He managed to escape with the assistance of Todarmal and in gratitude granted Todarmal the “Badshahi” (power to be king) for “dhai din” (two and a half days). As the period of his Badshahi came to a close, Todarmal led a procession through the city and threw gems and precious stones from the state treasury into the cheering crowds. Finally the procession ended at the palace where the Emperor Akbar welcomed him. To commemorate this event, the Agarwal community of Beawar joins hands with the sub-divisional administration and celebrates the day after Dhulandi, by re-creating a ceremonial procession complete with a person from the community who is dressed like Todarmal and another from the Brahmin community who is Birbal. In Beawar, the procession culminates at the SDM office. Crowds from the town of Beawar, the surrounding villages and even neighbouring districts like Bhilwara, Pali and Rajsamand stand along the roads , on roof tops as the procession makes its way along the traditional route from Bheruji ka Chowk, through Ajmeri gate and onwards to the SDM office. Todarmal rides on an open truck along with other members of the organizing committee. Birbal in traditional wear dances to the gair a dance performed in Rajasthan around Holi. Both Todarmal and Birbal are selected carefully, physical fortitude and a strong arm to throw colour for hours being a primary pre-requisite. Pink gulal or colour is hurled up in little packets of paper by the team atop the truck and in return the people along the roads and the women and children  on balconies throw pink colour on the procession. In a few minutes after the procession starts the whole environment is a sea of pink. Men and women collect the packets, a sign of good luck and keep them in their lockers as a lucky charm that will bring prosperity all the year through.

As the evening advances, the procession and crowds make their way to the SDM office where the SDM and other officers await their arrival on a specially made stage outside the building. A raging battle of colour ensues between the public, the team on the truck and the administrative officers led by the SDM, each hurling colour at the other. Thereafter, Todarmal and Birbal are led onto the stage where Todarmal presents a “farman” or a directive to the SDM ordering him to take certain steps for the welfare of the city. In return the SDM presents a nazarana to Birbal in the form of a coconut .

When I heard the story, I felt vaguely anxious, facing a crowd of around one lakh people hurling packets of colour on me sounded like a litany of torture. The staff at the office too was in a conundrum, a lady officer had never been at the receiving end of the Badshah tradition. “Would madam want the Tehsildar to stand in for her?” was the query whispered to me by a sympathetic official. However, being eager to banish any misogynistic theories perpetuating patriarchy I was quick to snap back, “of course not!” There was to be no debate or discussion, I was taking up the gauntlet and would stand and receive the procession as was customary.

As D-Day dawned and the rest of the country slept after the Holi frivolities, officials and staff from the municipal board arrived to set up the stage and large halogen lights outside the office. I inspected their work in frenzied anticipation only to be informed by a cheerful official that two years ago the stage had collapsed under the then SDM and his staff as the crowds approached. The thought was unsettling to say the least and I looked on at the pillars and poles under the stage with consternation. A trip into the market was in order as preparations by the Agarwal community began early in the morning. Gallons of thandai were being made in the inner lanes, to be served to the milling crowds. The organizers unaware of my dread seemed infused with transcendent joy as they went about with their preparations for the day. In my office, a small room had been converted into a war room- staff and my orderly sat on the floor squatting between packets of colours, making small packets, their fingers and nails a bright shade of pink. Animated chatter prevailed; everyone seemed to be galvanized with a new vigour and energy in preparation for the evening completely oblivious to my disquietude.

At around four in the evening the procession began slowly weaving its way through the streets. The police bandobast was in place and intermittent messages on the wireless system reported its location.  I sat in my chamber trying to keep my legs which were quivering like a jellyfish by then steady. My orderly Ram Singh made his way into the chamber, with a pair of transparent plastic glasses, much like divers use for deep sea diving, a cap and a pair of plastic gloves. During the course of our training at the Mussoorie Academy, I recalled how during the lecture on law and order management we had been strictly told not to step into any law and order incident without being armed with the necessary paraphernalia – read helmet and jacket. Possibly these glasses and gloves were the requisite battle armaments for this battle. I gratefully took them from the orderly, blessing his sagacity. A little later a head bobbed into the office, wrapped in a yellow cloth, eyes hidden behind a pair of black glasses; it was my Tehsildar, also prepared for battle.

Nightfall approached and the bags with packets of pink colour were carried onto the stage. For the umpteenth time I asked the Junior Engineer to check whether the stage was strongly erected. After what seemed like a geological epoch we began to hear drum beats in the distance as the procession approached. My orderly stepped in quietly and whispered to me, it was time. I stepped out into the open as a crowd of people were marching and dancing into the office compound. In the bright yellow halogen light a mist of pink was visible. My newly acquired battle gear in place on my nose and head, I climbed up the stage along with the team of officials. As I looked on into the crowd, the truck with Todarmal made its way slowly towards the stage, its occupants barely recognizable in the layers of pink. An exhausted looking Birbal continued to dance in front of the truck. The first packet of colour hit me on my leg and dissolved into a heap of pink at my feet signaling the start of the battle. My orderly held out a packet to me and I hurled it out with all the strength my shoulder could accord. Very soon packets of colour were flying in both directions; the stage held out and was soon covered in a layer of pink. It was an experience like no other. The drum beats reached a crescendo and the crowds cheered as packet after packet were hurled between the administration and the public.

At the end an exhausted Todarmal and Birbal were led up the stage with the farmaan. Both the SDM and the stage had survived the exhilarating adventure. As I wiped the colour off myself that night I realized that administration was not just about files and orders. Instead it meant connecting with the people, their traditions, understanding them and being a part of the history of the place. A year later I was still in Beawar, to face yet another unique Badshah Mela.  For the people of Beawar, Badshah is a time honoured tradition, celebrated by the entire town with much energy and joy, all communities and the administration coming together for an unforgettable evening of enthusiasm, harmony and joie de vivre.  For me, it was an insight into the heritage of a unique town where I learnt some valuable lessons on administration.

 

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