So, this was Nigambodh Ghat, whose memory torments Mushaevery now and then:

Such was the morning at Nigambodh Ghat. As the evening nears, tourists rush towards the Jama Masjid square. As soon as the sun starts setting the tourists’ feet feel compelled to move. The boulevardiers dress up and move straight, like an arrow, towards the Jama Masjid square. The public is assembled there. It is a thick crowd rubbing shoulders with each other.

Saucers make jangling sounds as water bearers scurry around with waterskins on their shoulders. Mister, shall I give you a drink of elixir? There are water stations here named after princes. There is commotion in Chandni Chowk too. But this is something else; even more colourful. Chandni Chowk is a bazaar. The best of them all. Its aura is that of a bazaar.

But the Jama Masjid square has become the cultural centre of the city. What a mosque! Inside people are bowing and kneeling. The sounds of namaaz emanate. Outside, the stairs have been taken over by well-dressed dandies. Colourful sharbats, falooda, kul , seekh kabab, haleem – the gourmands have a range of flavours to choose from here. Those fond of pigeons and lal padri trade the birds. Storytellers tell their tales. A little apart, poetry lovers gather as well. Wearing embroidered angrakhas they are doused liberally in perfume. Upon hearing a good couplet, they get excited and shower the poet with compliments.

But do not go just by the angrakhas. Look at their entire attire. They wear angrakhas on the top; their caps are four-cornered, five-cornered, sometimes round, but mostly two-sided. They wear pyjamas below that are loose, or narrow and tight. And in the case of a pious old man the pyjama is short and doesn’t cover the ankles. This is a shariah-prescribed requirement. It looks like everyone is wearing the same angrakha.

Yes, there is some difference in whether the bells are tied on the left or on the right. If the bell is on the left-hand side then one can assume the wearer is Muslim, and Hindu if they are tied on the other side. But that’s the only difference in how Muslims and Hindus appear here. Everything else – their demeanour, language, fashion – is the same.

To speak the truth, Dilli’s Hindu is no longer the Hindu of the Rai Pithora era. Even the Muslim is not the Muslim who came with the forces of Shahabuddin Ghauri.

A lot of water has flowed under the bridge since. However much the swords had to cross then, it is now all over. After that history has taken a new turn. In brief, there is a tiny and muted pause, together with a lot of fusion. Not consciously, but unconsciously, organically.

Both the religions are where they are, but on the cultural plane the distance has reduced, and an intimacy has developed. But even on the religious plane the erstwhile ideas of identity no longer abound. The religious festivals of the Muslims have acquired an indigenous hue.

In fact, the entire Hijri calendar has taken on local colour. Who these days says Rabi-ul-Awwal or Rabi-us-Saani? Probably only the maulvis and mullas. According to Dilli’s common people, Maah-e-Safar is now the month of Tera Tezi. Rabi-ul-Awwal has come to be known as the month of Bara-wafat. Rabi-us-Saani has become the month of Meeran Ji. Jamadi-ul-Awwal is the month of Madaar. Zulqada has become the month of Khaali. Shaaban is the now the month of Shabraat.

So this is how colours have mixed in this environment. And different cultural forms have coalesced towards unity. Seasonal festivals and fairs can no longer be easily identified as either Muslim or Hindu. What have remained are Eid and Baqreid and Holi and, but even here one participates in the other’s celebrations. And even if there is no participation, religious sentiments of each other are accorded due respect nonetheless.

So there will be no music outside mosques. And sacrifice on Baqreid is not done in a way that it would injure someone’s sentiment and become a cause for friction. If, on Holi, someone threw gulaal on a Muslim s/he would not flare up but rejoice.

Here comes the camel-mounted messenger who had gone to check on the new moon; he has returned with good news. Today is the eve of Eid. Cannons are being fired. Drums are being beaten. If the moon is sighted on the 29th day of the month then, according to those from Dilli, it is a young Eid. If the moon is seen on the 30th of the month then it will be called a venerable Eid.

Young or old, Eid is Eid.

Old and young, children and adults, some by palki, some by nalki, in pomp and glory, and in carriages. Everyone is going to the Eidgah. Even the emperor, riding atop an elephant, arrives at the Eidgah. Namaaz has been offered. Boom-boom, the cannons go off in salutation.

This is a festival of joy. Next, it is Baqreid which too will bring happiness. After that it is the festival of mourning. Common men and elite alike, all houses are filled with sorrow. Children act like they are beggars of the Imam, with green shrouds around their necks, and walking towards the Imambada with their satchels full of sugar-covered cardamom seeds, fennel seeds and poppy seeds. There are water fountains for the thirsty all over. In this ritual Hindus play a prominent role.

In this moment of grief, the emperor’s participation is also paramount. On the sixth of Muharram he is handed two elegy sticks, and a chain of silver is put around his waist. Two Saiyed boys hold the chain on either end and pull the king. Thereafter this chain is put around the emperor’s neck.

On the seventh, the royal procession commences at the fort and proceeds towards the Imambada. Lights in front, followed by spreads of henna and malida, musical instruments, and tableaux that have been lit up. Behind these walk the emperor and the royal women. On the night of the eighth, the emperor plays the role of Hazrat Abbas as a waterman. Putting a waterskin on his shoulders he offers sharbat to children. On Aashura, there are different rituals in the fort and taziyas form part of different processions in the city. As they pass through Hindu neighbourhoods and lanes, the processions are welcomed with water and sharbats.

After the month of Muharram, it is the month of Tera Tezi. And brings along the ceremony of the last Wednesday. Next month is the month of Bara-wafat. The series of milad congregations that start on the first do not end before the twelfth. On the twelfth night there is a festival of lights. The king pays homage at the dargah. Qawwalis are held. Sweets are distributed. After this, the month of Meeran Ji. On the eleventh there is a lot of celebration. A bungalow, called Mehndi, is created with bamboo sticks covered in red paper. It is illuminated at night and an offering of sweets is made here.

In brief, every month used to come with news of a festival. Every festival had its own rituals. And at every such happy moment, the participation of the emperor was customary. And not only in Muslim festivals, even in Hindu ones. In the Saloney festival the participation of the king became important because a Brahmin woman called Ramjani, after identifying the dead body of Alamgir, the second looked after it for one whole night. Shah Alam, after assuming the throne, paid her debt by making her his sister. And for Ramjani, after becoming the king’s sister, it was only natural that she would tie a rakhi on his wrist on Saloney. And in this way the Saloney festival found its way into the Red Fort.

But even in other festivals the emperor would participate with a lot of enthusiasm. And along with him all the Muslims of the city. Muslims were enthusiastic spectators during Dussehra.

But it was organised in a special way inside the fort. A special court was held. The emperor played the part of releasing the Neelkanth bird. Then eagles and soldiers assembled before him. As the day progressed, elephants and horses lined up too. The emperor even carried out an inspection [of the army].

On the night of Diwali the entire city sparkled with the light of diyas. In the fort as well, there would be a festival of lights, while drums were beaten, and the emperor was weighed in gold and silver.

And what do you ask of Holi. There would be so much abeer and gulaal the air itself would appear red. Earthen pots were filled with palaash flowers. The waterguns are full of coloured water. Whoever comes to the fort gets drenched. Songs are sungaccompanied by the Sarangi, Duff, Manjeera, and Chang.

Groups of revellers are out with drums. Every group will go and stand under the emperor’s jharokha. The emperor, his queens and princesses wait for these groups and shower them with prizes. And the emperor did not merely compose ghazals. At the time of Holi, he composed Horis as well.

But Holi would come later. Before that it was the time for Basant Panchami. For Hindus, Basant Panchami. For Muslims, Basant Mela.

Basant marks the end of winter. This was a festival of the season. But according to Hindu traditions, seasons too are willed by gods and goddesses. So flowers are offered to idols in the temples. Mustard flowers and marigold. Prayers and supplications are offered to Goddess Saraswati. Here at the holy Qadamgah too bunches of mustard flowers are offered. Rosewater, orris water and musk is sprinkled. Qawwalis are sung.

On the second day the fair moves to the shrine of Khwaja Bakhtiyar Kaki. From there it moves towards Chiragh Dilli. The next day the crowd arrives at the shrine of Hazrat Nizamuddin Aulia. It was by the grace of all these khwajas that the Basant Mela acquired so much popularity among Muslims. The day after connoisseurs of Basant congregate at the shrine of Shah Hasan Rasul Numa.

The day after that everyone flocks to the shrine of Shah Turkman. Five days pass like this. On the sixth day the city’s rich and esteemed citizens go to the court to deliver Basant greetings to the emperor.

Now let me tell you about the seventh day. A shrine of Hazrat Azizi was known to be a sanctuary for drunkards. So the drunkards assemble here on the seventh night. Feasting and drinking. Singing and making music. Absolute ruckus.

In this way the entire city is the colour of Basant. What Hindu, who’s Muslim – everyone wears Basanti clothes. Th Basant fairs at the dargahs only grew in scale. Today it is Basant of Harey- Bharey Shah. Tomorrow, Basant of Sarmad the martyr. Then singers started celebrating Basant of their masters.

Excerpted with permission from Once There Was a City Named Dilli, Intizar Husain, Translated by Ghazala Jamil and Faiz Ullah, Yoda Books.