Lohri was originally a women’s 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 Punjabi folk songs about Lohri one can not help but notice the celebration of Punjab’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 Punjabi calendar. It is a popular festival that is observed by (predominantly) Sikh and Hindu Punjabi’s in India and also around the world. Punjabis take part in the festivities every year on the 13th of January. Traditionally, Punjabis 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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Whilst there has been more than one explanation as to why Lohri is celebrated, the principal belief behind Lohri 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) Bhutti in Punjab. Dulla Bhatti was considered to be a hero by Punjabi Muslim, Hindus and Sikhs for famously rebelling against the tyranny of the Mughal Emperor Akbar. According to Punjabi 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, 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 Punjab and in Punjabi 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 Punjabi 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 Punjabis 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 Punjabis for over four hundred years and with them, the tales of Dulla Bhatti have travelled overseas as Punjabis 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 who stole from the elite to pay for the dowry of the daughters of poor families 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. This act acquired him with the hero status by Muslim, Sikh and Hindu Punjabis and to show their gratitude to this bandit turned hero, Punjabis pay homage to him in the folk songs sung by women commending him 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 then it did to men. I would even go as far as saying that the origins and story of Lohri is an example of what both men and women can achieve together when striving for equality and justice.

“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, vert recently.” 83, Purewal, 2010).