In the existing political and social climate of the country, borders between religious groups are stiffening. Or at least the way the media flames embers into fiery pits of hell, it’s easy to believe that the entire country is up in arms against each other on the basis of religion. And the religious intolerance debate has only grown and raged further as the year has gone by, thanks to a new government that critics warned were heavily biased towards the idea of a hindutva nation. Yet while this polarisation or ‘invented polarisation’ increases, there are multiple examples of people still come together barring religion, caste and age, and one such place is at the famous Nauchandi Mela Of Meerut, Uttar Pradesh.
Taking place a week after Holi, this month-long extravaganza is a cultural melting pot attracting attendees from all over the country. Hundreds of stalls selling textiles, perfumes, jewellery, handicrafts, and numerous other artifacts take over the four-and-a-half square kilometer stretch of the Nauchandi ground that gets overrun with sounds, scents and a kaleidoscope of colours. Circus performers, traditional dances, nautankis, ferris wheels, jhoolas, fluffy cotton candy and paan stalls; with hundreds of tube-lights and bulbs of different colours, the entire area is lit up; with a grandly decorated main entry-gate the mela has the feeling of a typical old-school rustic Indian fair, with blaring loudspeaker announcements and everything.
Rebelling against a common enemy
There are many stories and legends that surround the original conception of these festivities. Some say it started in 1672 for cattle traders, others believe that the mela was a revenue-collection fair that was set up around 1800 by the British. There is also a legend that goes along the lines of it being a religious festival fair that started in celebration of the temple built in honour of goddess Chandi by devotee Mandodari, the wife of Ravana. The mela came into play during the 1857 rebellion against the rule of the East India Company when Nana Saheb attended the fair and called for the locals to raise arms against the British.
Meerut saw a series of violent communal clashes in 1987. Over time the tension calmed, but after the riots, the crowds at the mela dwindled with traders, artisans and tourists staying clear of such mass gatherings out of fear. “Outsiders may think that the Hindus and Muslims of Meerut are completely divided. But the truth is that the relations are normal unless politicians and goondas create trouble,” Saba Naqvi quotes Santosh Mehra, a young lawyer, in her book titled In Good Faith.
At the Nauchandi Mela you can bare witness to one of the country’s greatest examples of religious co-operation and harmony. The compound of Nauchandi ground is home to the Chandi Devi temple and the dargah of Bale Miyan. Both lie almost opposite each other and open their doors to devotees of all religions that come to pay their respects at both the shrines. The mela commemorates both Navratri revelry and the Urs festivities at the dargah. The dargah was constructed by Qutb-ud-din Aibak in 1194 in memory of Ghazi Saiyyed Salar Masud. Bale Miyan, as he was lovingly called, was the nephew of Sultan Mahmud Ghaznavi, the most prominent ruler of the Ghaznavid Empire, and traveled to the South Asian regions with his uncle Salar Saifuddin in the early eleventh century for the propagation of Islam. He was only eleven years old when he fought in the invasion of Somnath with Mahmud Ghaznavi.
A foundation of non-violence
One of the stories say that at a young age he renounced violence and became an ascetic. He lost a finger in the course of a battle and the spot where his finger had fallen is where the mazar is said to have been built. Mufti Mohammed Ashraf, trustee of the dargah and descendent of Bale Miyan’s brother, speaking to Times of India about the dargah says,”Hazrat Bale Miyan was killed on a new moon night on Friday, which is considered the holiest day of the month. The night was also termed ‘Naya Chand raat’. The date was April 12, 1034. Coincidentally, there was a temple right in front of Bale Miya’s mazaar, Chandi Devi Mandir, which is there even today.” Ashraf adds: “During navratras, a large number of devotees assemble in this temple and also visit Bale Miyan’s dargah to pay respects to the saint. Gradually, it became an annual affair, known as Nauchandi (New Moon) Mela because a large gathering would attract vendors also. In 1880, then district magistrate of Meerut FN Right realized the importance of this fair, and the administration too began to participate in it. Even today it is managed by the district administration. The name Nauchandi Fair stuck, as Hindus also liked it for it resembled the name of the temple.”
As the festivities thrive and flourish with performers, traders and tourists, the sound of temple bells and the azaan draw you into a sense of syncretic harmony. Managed initially by the landlords of the region, today, it’s organised in an exemplary manner by the local municipal corporations to host hundreds of stalls and thousands of people. Despite the uncertain history and numerous legends surrounding it, the Nauchandi mela has been a tradition for hundred of years and stood the test of time to become a symbol of cultural and religious solidarity. Perhaps more powerful today, as the levels of intolerance are seemingly on the rise.
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