Lohri was originally a women-focused festival

Traditionally, Lohri is celebrated as a festival acknowledging the arrival of a son. However the emergence of this festival as the ‘son festival’ as it were, is not necessarily true in history. Academic Navtej K. Purewal, author of Son Preference: Sex Selection, Gender and Culture in South Asia argues that if we pay attention to the Panjabi folk songs about Lohri, one can not help but notice the celebration of Panjab’s daughters in them.

‘Lohri as a festival has come out of a merging of a hegemonic culture of son valuation with a deification of this. (83, Purewal, 2010).

Lohri itself marks the end of winter (Poh) and celebrates the beginning of pre-spring (Magh) in the Panjabi calendar. It is a popular festival that is observed by (predominantly) Sikh and Hindu Panjabi’s in India and the diaspora. Panjabis take part in the festivities every year on the 13th of January. Traditionally, Panjabis cook up a dish called saag and makhi dhi roti and gift monkey nuts, jaggery, sesame seeds and rehria to their family and friends, wishing them good fortune and happiness. Girls and daughters are also gifted money from their elders as it is seen as a blessing to do so; but young girls and women are important to this festival in other ways.

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Whilst there has been more than one explanation as to why Lohri is celebrated, the principal belief behind the festival lies in the tales recounted in folklore around Dulla Bhatti. Dulla Bhatti was born in the mid-sixteenth century hailing from a Muslim Rajput family in pind (meaning village) Bhatti in Panjab. Folklore tells us that Dulla Bhatti was a landlord considered a hero by Panjabi Muslim, Hindus and Sikhs for famously rebelling against the tyranny of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. According to Panjabi traditions, Dulla Bhatti rescued two Hindu sisters Sundri and Mundri from the emperor who wished to keep them in a separate part of his household reserved for his concubines and female servants – in former times this was known as a harem.

According to academic Navtej Purewal, post 2006, Lohri saw a significant shift in the way in which it was being celebrated because of the re-interpretation of Lohri itself. Purewal goes on to argue that one must look to the origins of why Lohri was celebrated and the many interpretations of the festival that followed before it became associated with the custom of celebrating the birth of a boy.

What is interesting to see is how the festival became known for celebrating the birth of a son and not a daughter. Lohri actually evolved into a festival about sons over time. With patriarchal and misogynistic values dominating 16th century India, society would have struggled with associating the traditions and customs of Lohri to the female sex, let alone allowing it to evolve into a celebration of girls or worse, even both sexes thus hereby permitting gender equality.

Another such story about Lohri that is popularly circulated, carrying with it themes of feminism, is that of two sisters named Lohri and Holika who were hurt in the Holi (a hindu festival celebrating the arrival of spring) fire. Holika died and Lohri survived. If this is one such belief to abide by, then the festival of Lohri itself is named after a woman, nevertheless this story is seldom shared. Another story suggests that Loi was the name of Sant Kabir’s wife (a respected Indian saint) and that the name Lohri was derived from her name (261, Singh,2009).

There has however been a significant change in attitudes towards the festival in Panjab and in Panjabi culture in general. Consider this alongside the global introduction of the pink ladoo campaign in 2015, and a new wave of Lohri celebration is underway. The founder of Pink Ladoo, Raj Khaira, initiated the idea that pink ladoos must be distributed at the birth of a girl to counteract the golden-yellow ladoo traditionally given to friends and family at the birth of a boy. The idea is simple and effective – promote gender equality in the South Asian community.

With more Panjabi Sikhs now celebrating the first Lohri of their daughters we are seeing a rise in the sale of pink ladoos and pink Indian sweets to include in Lohri festivities. This shift in attitudes is a positive step towards embracing the woman-centred origins of Lohri as outlined above and also provides a platform for Panjabis celebrating the festival to really re-evaluate its origins.

Some may agree that Dulla Bhatti’s life accounts are seemingly missing from officially documented histories. Despite this, his tales have lived long in the minds and hearts of Panjabis for over four hundred years and with them, the tales of Dulla Bhatti have travelled overseas as Panjabis started to migrate across the world (90, Singh, 2009). This is how the story of Lohri has travelled far and wide, surviving many generations.

Dulla Bhatti was a Robin-Hood like character. He stole from the elite and Akbars landowners (zamidaars), to pay for the dowry of the daughters of poor families, thus rescuing Hindu girls who were forcibly taken to be sold on as slaves to lustful men in the middle east. After rescuing them, Dulla Bhatti would arrange their marriages to Hindu boys with a Hindu wedding ceremony and covered their cost of dowry as a father would his own daughters. This act acquired him with the hero status by Muslim, Sikh and Hindu Panjabis and to show their gratitude to this bandit turned hero, Panjabis pay homage to him in the folk songs sung by women commending Dulla Bhatti for assisting in supporting the voice of oppressed women under Akbar’s rule. Purewal points out, if we look deeper into our history and attempt to understand the context of some of these folk songs, one will begin to understand how Lohri initially held more relevance and importance to women than it did to men.

It is also worth noting that Dulla Bhatti’s mothers name was Ladhi. Could her name also coincide with the name of the festival alongside the other women? Given that it was women who kept these stories alive, and that Ladhi’s son was respected and praised by the women he helped, this is a possibility.

Dulla Bhatti was eventually captured and hung to death by Akbars men in 1599 due to his ongoing rebellion against the Mughal Emperor. His grave is now at the Miani Sahib Qabristan in Lahore but his folksongs are still sung by women and panjabis celebrating this festival today. 

The folklores of Lohri continue to act as a reminder of what men and women can achieve as a collective when striving for justice against gender inequality. The origins of Lohri consistently points to the importance of women throughout the history of this festival. From Sant Kabir’s wife Loi, the sisters Sundari and Mundri to sisters Lohri and Holika, Lohri is very much about panjabi women. With many girls celebrated today through the encouragement of campaigns like the pink ladoo project  –  this is still the case today. 

Lohri is an indigenous festival and a tradition kept alive through women sharing the stories of all of the above. The origins of these tales stand as a reminder of the challenges that were faced and countered by the women these folklores pay homage. It outwardly acknowledges their resistance with a celebration of them. The patriarchy however would have it, that Lohri would evolve into a celebration of boys and son preference and not one of equality between the sexes despite its women-focused history. 

“The gratitude which is mimicked in the songs and tales of Lohri to Dulla Bhatti for saving the girls of Punjab says just as much about the appreciation of daughters as that of having sons. Yet, Lohri evolved as a celebration of the idea of the ‘son’, until of course, verY recently.” 83, Purewal, 2010)

Sundari Mundariye: A famous folk song sang on Lohri

PanjabiEnglish Translation
Sunder mundriye ho!

Tera kaun vicharaa ho!

Dullah Bhatti walla ho!

Dullhe di dhee vyayae ho!

Ser shakkar payee ho!

Kudi da laal pathaka ho!

Kudi da saalu paata ho!

Salu kaun samete!

Chache choori kutti!

Zamidara lutti!

Zamindaar sudhaye!

Bade bhole aaye!

Ek bhola reh gaya!

Sipahee far ke lai gaya!

Sipahee ne mari itt!

Bhaanvey ro te bhaanvey pitt!

Sanoo de de Lohri, te teri jeeve jodi!
Beautiful girl Sundari and Mundari

Who will think of you?

Dulla of the Bhatti clan will

Dulla’s daughter got married 

He gave one seer of sugar!

The girl is wearing a red suit!

But her shawl is torn!

Who will stitch her shawl?!
The uncle made choori! (a dish prepared with roti, desi ghee and sugar)

The landlords looted!
Landlords are beaten up!

Lots of simple-headed boys came!
The soldier arrested him!

One simpleton got left behind!
The soldier hit him with a brick!

Whether you cry, or bang your head later!

Give us Lohri, long live your union (sang to married couples)