By Jessica Meisman, 12th Grade Student, Miri Piri Academy, March 28 2008
I have seen crowds of people before; India has definitely acquainted me with the masses. But never have I seen as big a group embodying the Cherdi Kala spirit as I did in Anandpur Sahib on Hola Mahala. Hola Mahala is a celebration to usher in the spring, and Anandpur was Guru Gobind Singhs home and fort. Between the Indian capacity for festivity and the religious fervor of the Sikhs, the air was humid with excitement. The school bus weaved through camps of Nihungs, complete with stables and langar kitchens, and drove past public carriers filled with families and pilgrims from all over India. We were making our way to the Siri Singh Sahibâ€™s house in Anandpur Sahib, where we would be staying. After lunger and chai, our group of students, staff and faculty went to explore the bazaar and festivities in Anandpur.
We hustled through the streets connected by an umbilical cord of hazoories, each of us leading and being led alike, trusting that our fearless leader was ahead. Temporary stands lined our way, selling everything from cardboard babies with six legs to karas and tea sets in lime green. Alongside us on tarps were makeshift tattoo parlors with sinister looking needle guns and vacant attendees. A little boy gnawed on kulfi (Indian ice cream) while his father etched an Ek Ong Kar permanently onto his wrist.
As we slowly snaked through the multitudes of bodies, a disfigured form momentarily blocked our path, crawling past us pushing a begging bowl. His legs and arms were bandaged, but even through their dirty shroud the wounds of leprosy gaped at me. I looked into his face; I saw the jaw line that was slowly melting away and humanity seemed to buckle underneath me. The dark winter of his life seemed a stark contrast to the celebration of spring that surrounded him. Yet even as I walked on, shocked, I saw more lepers in less critical condition painted gaily and smiling with their begging bowls.
The next day the festivities that had been ongoing for over a week culminated in a giant jaloose (parade). Once again we left the serenity of the Siri Singh Sahibâ€™s house and headed to join Baba Nihal Singh, Jathedar of the Taruna Dal and a dear friend of the Siri Singh Sahibâ€™s. Everywhere we looked people were preparing for the parade. Younger boys brushed and tacked horses under the watchful eye of the more bearded. The horses were massive, and compared to the workhorses of everyday India, had an almost mythical sheen of health to them. Outside a lungar hall our group of some thirty people squeezed into a room about six by four meters wide to wait for Baba Nihal Singh. We sipped cold, sweet milk with chunks of ice and were joined by an older couple with a drum and metal shakers who had come to lead us in singing shabds and chants. After waiting for an hour Baba Nihal Singh came and blessed each one of us with a saropa and a smile. Our time of lingering was over, and we took off at a steady pace alongside the horses of the Jathedar and his followers.
Sticks thwacked as we sparred, adding percussion to the chanting and shouting. Miri Piri Academy students and Nihungs alike showed off their Gatka techniques and warrior spirit. We ran pressed against each other from all sides, and then we would stop, suddenly bumping into each other like dominoes. Every horse in the parade seemed to be a stallion. I was a little nervous of being kicked, especially when we passed the elephants. Some of the biggest horses were ridden by children who could be no older than ten. They seemed as comfortable on the giant steeds as any American child with a baseball bat. Powdered rainbows occasionally assaulted us, coloring our faces different hues of neon colors. From atop his horse, Baba Nihal Singh threw handfuls of phosphorous pink powder onto the turbans below him as a blessing.
Parched and exhausted, but still excited, we arrived at a large stadium filled with thousands of people and horses. We were welcomed with a supply of water and first class seats on the roof our school bus. From our perch we saw the performance of the many Nihung horsemen. Galloping at top speed, they would lean from the cloth saddle and spear a flag from the ground.
Others rode upon two horses, galloping just as fast. The skill was amazing, but even more amazing was the variety of ages who participated. Adolescents, young warriors, and big bearded, barrel chested elders showed their courage and spirit. As the performance wound down, it became a race to beat the masses. One after the other we climbed from the roof to make our getaway before thousands walked onto the road ahead of us. The day ended in high spirits as we narrowly escaped the crowd of foot traffic, and I knew as I left that this was an experience of a lifetime that I would never forget.