Why We Celebrate Lohri ... MANJYOT KAUR
Friday, January 13
An ancient Punjabi farmers' festival which is particularly meaningful to those families blessed with a recent marriage or birth, or anyone who is celebrating it for the first time.
This is my first Lohri.
As a "newly-minted" Sikh of non-Punjabi origin (having formally embraced Sikhi through taking Amrit this past Vaisakhi), it is of utmost importance to me to seize every opportunity to explore the incomparably beautiful heritage that I have been blessed by the Guru to legitimately claim, along with all of the customary cultural trappings it has accrued.
So, with Lohri fast approaching, I set out to discover whatever I could about this Punjabi festival, and to try to devise ways to meaningfully relate it to my own sense of spirituality and my everyday life in the North American milieu.
Here's what I found out about Lohri, which occurs on January 13 this year.
The answers to when and why the bonfire festival of Lohri began are lost in the mists of antiquity, but are certainly as old as the story of civilization in the ancient Indus Valley itself. Even for our 21st century selves, it is easy to empathize with the age-old need to believe in the inevitability of life's renewal during the harshest and most desolate days of winter.
What could have been more natural to Lohri's creators than the desire to celebrate the spark of fertility and promise of new birth, especially in a place like Punjab, with its deeply-rooted agricultural traditions? What could have been a better vehicle for doing so than fire, with its intrinsic symbolism of transformation and regeneration? And, what could have been a more opportune time than the end of the month of Poh and the beginning of Magh, the point on the calendar when the Earth is at its most distant from the Sun, heralding the start of the spring season?
Some believe that Lohri derived its name from Loi, the wife of Sant Kabir ji, for in rural Punjab, Lohri is pronounced "Lohi". Some think it comes from loh, a thick iron tawa used for baking bread. Others speak of the mythological sisters Holika and Lohri; the former perished in the fire (now commemorated in the Indian festival of Holi), while the latter survived.
Then, there are those who opine that the names of two foods associated with the day, til (sesame seeds) and rorhi (jaggery or sugar syrup), combined to become "tilorhi", which eventually got shortened to "Lohri".
Like so many other folk festivals, Lohri boasts its own iconic personage: Dullah Bhatti. The "Robin Hood of Punjab", legends depict him as a Muslim dacoit who lived during the reign of Emperor Akbar. Besides robbing the rich and distributing their stolen wealth among the poor, he is credited with rescuing kidnapped Hindu girls being forcibly taken to be sold in the slave markets of the Middle East, arranging their marriages with Hindu boys, and providing them with dowries.
The hilarious "Song of Dullah Bhatti" recounts one such exploit, where a girl (Dullah's "daughter") in disgrace (symbolized by her torn shawl) was not only honorably married off, but provided by Dullah with a sack of sugar as a wedding gift. Prime fodder indeed for becoming a bona-fide Punjabi hero of the people!
Even today, in a practice akin to Halloween in the West, children go door-to-door, intoning the Dullah Bhatti song in hopes of being given money and sweets, and taunting, in rhyming verse, those miserly householders who do not summarily hand over the desired loot.
Not surprisingly, along with the bonfire itself, calorie-rich foods, perfect for generating bodily warmth and energy, play a central role in this festival. With the joyous celebrants gathered together around a crackling blaze, not only til and jaggery, but other scrumptious munchies such as moongphali (peanuts), chivra (puffed rice), phuliyan (popcorn) and gajak (a hardened confection of peanuts and jaggery) are consumed with gusto and, for good measure, cheerfully tossed into the flames.
Quintessentially, Punjabi dishes such as makki ki roti (a corn-based bread), sarson ka saag (cooked mustard greens), and rao di kheer (a slow-simmered mixture of rice and sugarcane juice) are also indispensable additions to the communal feast.
Besides the effort of simply staying warm, another way to burn off all these toothsome edibles is enthusiastic folk dancing. Whether it is bhangra for the men or giddha for the women, "shaking a leg" around the bonfire to the hypnotic beat of the dhol is an equally essential and much-loved component of celebrating Lohri.
It seems natural that a festival of jubilation at the promise of fertility and bounty - both of crops and of people - would be particularly meaningful to those families blessed with a recent marriage or birth. Lohri is no exception to this, with the first Lohri of a newlywed couple or a newborn baby holding special importance. (Hence my delight, as a nascent Sikh, that I found out about it just in time!)
It must be said that, as traditionally practiced, Lohri has often reflected the deeply unfortunate cultural predilection of many families for a male child. While it must be kept in mind that Lohri is a Punjabi cultural festival of non-Sikh origin, these overtones of discrimination, anathema to Sikhi, have led some Sikhs to feel they must abstain from commemorating the holiday.
Other Sikhs have taken the stand that, instead of boycotting it, events marking the day should be used to voice outrage against the odious practices of female feticide and infanticide that continue to infest Punjab and elsewhere, and to push for much-needed reforms.
Happily, in keeping with the gender equality that is at the very core of Sikhi, innovative ways of enjoying the festival have been devised that place it in a context more acceptable to many Sikhs. To give just one example, the Trinjan Punjabi Folk Academy in British Columbia, Canada has sponsored a Kuri Munday di Lohri ("Girls' and Boys' Lohri"), celebrating both males and females equally.
Another element of Sikh significance may be provided by the fact that Lohri is also the eve of Maghi, the first day of the month of Magh.
On that day, a mela at Muktsar, a district town of Punjab, is held, commemorating the martyrdom of the Chaali Muktae (literally, the Forty Liberated or Immortal Ones) remembered daily in our Ardas.
Fearlessly led by the brave woman General, Mata Bhag Kaur (also known as Mai Bhago), these former deserters, who had previously abandoned the side of Guru Gobind Singh, returned to the battlefield to heroically lay down their lives at Khidrana di Dhab (present-day Muktsar), fighting alongside their fellow Sikhs against the armies of Wazir Khan, the Nawab of Sirhind.
The changing of the month at the confluence of Lohri and Maghi also might lead one to blissful vichaar on two particular sections of Guru Granth Sahib: the Baran Maah ("Song of the Twelve Months") of Guru Arjan (pages 133-136) and of Guru Nanak (pages 1107-1110). Consider the following exquisite excerpts from the parts on the months of Poh, the last day of which is Lohri, and its successor, Magh, the first day of which is Maghi.
Pokh tukhaar na viaapaee kanth miliaa har naahu
Man baydhiaa charnaarbind darsan lagrhaa saahu. (...)
Maagh majan sang saadhooaa dhoorhee kar isnaan
Har kaa naam dhiaaay sun sabhnaa no kar daan.
"In the month of Poh, the cold does not touch those whom the Husband Lord hugs close in His Embrace.
Their minds are transfixed by His Lotus Feet. They are attached to the Blessed Vision of the Lord's Darshan. (...)
In the month of Magh, let your cleansing bath be the dust of the Saadh Sangat, the Company of the Holy.
Meditate and listen to the Name of the Lord, and give It to everyone".
(GGS, M5, p. 135)
Pokh tukhaar parhai van tarin ras sokhai
Aavat kee naahee man tan vaseh mukhay. (...)
Maagh puneet bhaee tirath antar jaaniaa
Saajan sahj milay gun geh ank samaaniaa.
"In Poh, the snow falls, and the sap of the trees and the fields dries up.
Why have You not come? I keep You in my mind, body and on my lips. (...)
In Magh, I become pure; I know that the sacred shrine of pilgrimage is within me.
I have met my Friend with intuitive ease; I grasp His Glorious Virtues, and merge in His Being".
(GGS, M1, p, 1109)
[Both transliterations and translations courtesy of SikhNet.com]
So, as a "newborn" Sikh, whose initial introduction to the golden fields (and festive bonfires!) of Punjab is still only a fond dream, what does my first Lohri mean to me?
Exulting in the "spiritual fire" of His Word.
The joys of "beating the chill" through the wonderful warmth of sangat.
The promise that bleakness invariably transitions into regeneration.
Hopes for personal transformation and renewal.
And the certitude that, no matter the season, our Eternal Guru always sustains us and provides everything we need!
First published, January 9, 2008
Re-published on January 13, 2017
Conversation about this article
1: Roshan Kaur (Oakville, Ontario, Canada), January 09, 2008, 5:54 AM.
Looking out of the window, it's the tundra out here. We need to revive the tradition of Lohri in these northern climes ... it'll help to hasten the winter away!
2: Amrik Singh (New Delhi, India), January 09, 2008, 5:56 AM.
Strange. I've seen Lohri celebrated all my life, and never thought to find out more about it. This piece is most enlightening. Thanks.
3: Gurjit (Delhi, India), January 09, 2008, 6:22 AM.
4: Kaviraj Singh (Boston, MA, U.S.A.), January 09, 2008, 12:27 PM.
Manjyot Kaur: Great article! It is great to see that being a non-Punjabi who was only recently inducted into Sikhi, you have done the research and have more knowledge and excitement for Lohri than those of us who are Punjabi and have been Sikhs for many years.
5: Satvir Kaur (Boston, U.S.A.), January 10, 2008, 8:32 AM.
Very nice article! Reminded me of all the Lohris I've spent in india, with my extended family.
6: Baljit Singh Mann (India), January 10, 2008, 9:39 AM.
Manjyot ji: your articles capture Punjabi and Sikh culture so well. Also, our beliefs and traditions. Thanks for doing this and educating us all.
7: Brijinder Khurana (Delhi, India), January 11, 2008, 2:57 AM.
Manjtot Kaur ji, Thanks for providing such a deep and rich knowledge about Lohri. A Happy Lohri to all of you!
8: Gurpal Singh (Wolves, U.K.), January 11, 2008, 4:12 PM.
A most timely article, as we get ready for a big Lohri party on sunday! I never knew so much about it.
9: Baljit Singh (Malton, Canada), January 13, 2008, 4:28 PM.
At first, I was very skeptical of this article, thinking "Oh no, this is another "western" Sikh who is mistakingly trying to connect to Sikh heritage through Punjabi cultural traditions," but actually you have shown your understanding of the history and culture behind Lohri and differentiated between culture and faith, and provided a very inspiring description of the month of Magh as presented in Gurbani. Thank you for the pleasant surprise.
10: Harpreet Singh (Cambridge, MA, U.S.A.), January 14, 2008, 2:01 AM.
Dear Manjyot: Thank you for this reflection. The wonderful warmth of sangat radiates from your person.
11: Bhupinder Singh Ghai (New Delhi, India), January 14, 2008, 2:43 AM.
Thank you,Manjyot Kaur ji, for such an interesting and knowledgeable article. It is an eye opener for all of us who are blndly apeing the West without the knowledge of our own culture. The Sikh/Punjabi/Indian culture is so rich and diverse, but unfortunaltely is being lost. I think this is primarily out of ignorance and nothing else. If we become aware of our past and our tradtions, we cannot but be immensely proud of it.
12: Gurbachan Singh (Michigan, U.S.A.), January 18, 2008, 4:27 PM.
Kudos to you, Manjyot Kaur ji. Thank you very much for your detailed and authentic research on the subject of Lohri. Guru Mehar Karey.
13: A. Kaur (U.S.A.), January 21, 2008, 12:24 PM.
Thanks, Manjyot, for writing a very intersting, informative and soulful article on Lohri - a festival we've been celebrating for ever, but without giving it much thought. However, in accordance with equality of the sexes, we did celebrate the first Lohri of my niece.
14: Neha (New York, U.S.A.), January 22, 2008, 4:16 PM.
Thanks for this, Manjyot! I'm used to turning to the internet for information on anything these days. But when I received an invitation to a lohri event last week, I googled the holiday and found nothing as helpful! Your article provides important historical context for those of us not raised in Punjab, but whose traditions continue to include beautiful festivals like this one.
15: Gurjit (Malaysia), January 08, 2009, 9:14 PM.
Very informative and excellent research. Happy Lohri to everyone.
16: Amarpreet Singh (India), January 09, 2009, 8:54 AM.
On Lohri, we used to fly kites when I was kid ... I was born and brought up in Batala, Punjab.
17: Harinder (Bangalore, India), January 09, 2009, 12:21 PM.
The best part of Lohri as a child was the small sum of money we used to get from neighbours on singing the song of Lohri. Similar to Santa Claus giving gifts to children during Christmas!
18: Harbinder Pasricha (Chappaqua, U.S.A.), January 12, 2009, 11:30 AM.
Dear Manjyot Kaur, I salute you! Being a "new-born" Sikh, you have done a remarkable job in enlightening us about the cultural and spiritual aspects of the festival. The thing which impresses me the most is your research into Gurbani and enlightening us with the spiritual significance of Lohri and Maghi. I am sure it has inspired lots of people as it has me to celebrate Lohri by exulting in the "spiritual fire" of His Word and striving for personal transformation and renewal. Happy Lohri, our "new born" Sister, and all the best in your future research into the treasures of Gurbani!
19: Kuldeep Singh (Newcastle-upon -Tyne, United Kingdom.), January 11, 2010, 4:33 PM.
Having been brought up in the U.K., I find this website very informative about my own religion. It's the best thing I do when I get home and read all I can read from this site.
20: Avtarmeet (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), January 11, 2010, 5:08 PM.
Very well explained. Learned a lot today. God bless you.
21: Gurdip Kaur (New York, U.S.A.), January 07, 2012, 4:18 PM.
Thank you for re-publishing this piece. Lohri is obviously widely celebrated in Punjab, but today I have learned much about it. I am totally for the celebration of males and females during Lohri, because in Sikhi we are strictly enjoined to observe gender equality.
22: R. Singh (Canada), January 09, 2012, 4:55 PM.
Just a little correction: Dulla Bhatti was not a dacoit, but the descendent of Sandal Khan Bhatti, the ruler after whom the area of Sandal Bar got its name. He used to rescue women who were abducted by the Mughals from his area. This was during the reign of Akbar. He put up a great resistance, but was betrayed and eventually put to death on one of the gates of Lahore. He was celebrated for his non-communal championship of the people. Some how history is getting muddied, and no one knows much about this great hero nowadays. So much so, Dulla Bhatti is being referred to as bhathi-wala.
23: Jimmy (Hamilton, Ontario, Canada ), January 16, 2012, 3:42 PM.
My father passed away and his funeral service spanned Lohri and Maagh. I can't quite grasp the symbolism yet, but I've got this overwhelming feeling that there is some link, given the way everything unfolded and coincided with this holiday.
24: H. Kaur (Canada), January 12, 2013, 11:21 AM.
Excellent article, Manjyot Kaur. I can appreciate the use of fire as a symbolic weapon against old man winter. The fertility aspect seems a bit odd to me. I would think spring would be the time for that with vegetation taking birth and all kinds of animals having their young. Maybe there is some unearthed history to make that link, maybe not. Dullah Bhatti seems like a very admirable Robin Hood. I don't even judge him for providing dowries for in his time he didn't have the tools to think that way, I suppose. There is something similar that I despise. All these charitable people with Sikhi bana like raagis and others winning applause for helping the poor marry off their daughters. On the one hand it is good. On the other it is really perpetuating a problem. Weddings shouldn't be so expensive that so many people can't afford them or cheap weddings become such a stigma that people need to rely on charity to marry their daughters off respectably (note one does not hear of them helping poor people marry off their sons though I understand they also have to dig up some funds). I also wonder about this boy and girl lohri celebration in British Columbia.Is it really because of Sikhi that girls are also being celebrated or the ethics of the wider community being embraced by young girls. I'm sure in India they probably still celebrate mainly boys (the odd girl might be one whose mother finally is able to have any child after being barren or some very lucky young lady with unique parents). While they continue to slaughter 35% of the girls before birth (I saw some figures on BBC about Punjab a few days ago, if Indian stats can be trusted in the first place but we know they kill a lot of girls before they are born), I just can't see them introducing gender equlity into it. It is also another day to keep the Dalits in their place in the villages. I was just at one lohri celebration in my life, in India. Some colourfully dressed young women came to my relative's home, apparently to celebrate my brother (he was 8,but since this was the first time he was in India they felt a belated lohri was in order). I asked my second cousin or whatever she was, whose whose it was, if the girls who came included any Dalits. She angrily repied they were all jutts. Some Dalits did come. Like me they kind of hovered in the periphery of the courtyard. One's child fell and I picked him up. I was asked by the lady of the house how I could touch him and if I didn't feel grossed out. I never ever celebrated lohri after watching that (not that I had sons, not that I had anything for I chose not to marry, not to be a part of this Indian system that makes women into slaves and servants and people supposed to give birth to at least one son). I like the verses of the Gurbani, but then there are some for every month of the year. Yes fire and warmth is nice, but what about the beauty of winter? No snowflake is like any other, a testament to God's infity. Look at the icicles, are they not the crystal parts of myriads of chandeliers created by God. Look at the cloth of diamonds glittering in the snow, nore splendid than any royal bride's train. Look at the vines and flowers of the frost on windows, carvings etched by the Great Artist. It is not just fire one needs in one's veins but also ice and cold, especially if we came to this marvellously cold country of Canada. And there is no sound more beautiful than melting snow, the sap of life for me. In winter I would rather appreciate winter and in spring ,spring. No need of lohri for me except to appreciate an ancient people's sentiments for the return of warmth.
25: Bhupinder Singh Mahal (Dundas, Ontario, Canada), January 13, 2013, 10:52 AM.
A message from Chaman Lal, Professor & Former Chairperson, Centre of Indian Languages, JNU, New Delhi: On the occasion of Lohri - Greetings! Lohri and Maghi festivals are known as symbols in Punjabi culture for the onset of warmth, community feeling of closeness, the enthuse to fight/die for human rights and the challenge for fighting against oppression. In Lohri, the folk songs of Dulla Bhatti have remained a part of Punjabi mentality as fighters against state oppression. The Maghi festival in Muktsar, a city in Punjab, held in memory of the 40 Muktas - the Liberated Ones - reminds us of Mai Bhago who had challenged the men retreating from a war against oppression, deserting Guru Gobind Singh and his forces. Current goings on in India (rapes, violence agaibst women, etc) show that the country is forgetting the lessons from its history. The festivities of Lohri and Maghi are meaningful only if we will make sincere efforts for communal amity, struggle for human rights and fight for the dignity of our women! Mai Bhago is the symbol of the brave and fearless woman who made the forty soldiers of Guru Gobind Singh come back to fight with him, while they were retreating out of fear of death. Later they all sacrificed their lives in the righteous war and were given the title of Muktas - the Liberated Ones - by Guru Gobind Singh himself. They died near Muktsar, where every year on Maghi day, a big mela is held.
26: R Singh (Canada), January 16, 2015, 8:33 PM.
Great write-up. Just to put Dulla in perspective, he was the grandson of Saandal Khan Bhatti after whom the Saandal bar area is named. His father was tortured and put to death by Akbar, the Mughal Emperor. He was not a dacoit, but a benevolent ruler of his area. He would rescue girls from marauding troops of the emperor. He took to attacking caravans that passed his area. He became an icon for all the people.
27: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), January 17, 2015, 4:13 AM.
Eons ago as kids in Lyallpur (now inPakistan): Just a week or two before Lohri, we kids organized ourselves to collect or plunder firewood while lustily intoning 'Dullahi Bhatti Wala' and went door to door for firewood fife. Most of the housewives were sweet and not only contributed firewood but also gave us treats like 'ravorriaa(n)' (sesame coated sweets), gachak, chewrra, etc. Occasionally, the door would be opened by a harried, dour housewife in her working petticoat and hands smeared with aatta (flour) with the tandoor blazing behind her with her own mini-Lohri. She would shout, ordering us to get lost. While we faced her tirade, a few of the kids would slip upstairs where the firewood was normally stored and start throwing whatever we could over the wall. Our principle was simple: If they don't give it, just take it. The mohalla square would be piled up on the eve of Lohri, creating a warm central heating in the freezing weather for all to bask in. Manjyot ji, what an exquisite piece you have produced. At 82, it is a revisit to the Lohri of our childhood.
28: Dya Singh (Melbourne, Australia), January 14, 2017, 5:44 PM.
I was virtually born in a gurdwara in the old Malaya (now Malaysia) and never knew of Lohri until I visited Punjab in January at age 19! I always thought of it as a Hindu celebration for new born sons (NOT daughters). But, Manjyot has certainly done some research, and though she has overlooked that Hindus and, sadly, some Sikhs, celebrate new born male children, I guess I shall accept her findings on the celebration of Lohri - even the attempt to celebrate all children in the general Sikh community. After all, we found the excuse of Guru Hargobind and His release from Gwalior as an excuse to celebrate Divali, why not Lohri. May I request, in the spirit of celebrations that we celebrate Vesakhi and Khalsa Day with even more pomp and ceremony than Lohri, and Divali? That does not happen in Punjab or India, or for that matter anywhere else except perhaps at Keshgarh and Nanded? Happy Celebrations, folks!