For a long time now, Lohri has been considered the ‘son festival’ where celebrating the birth of a boy over the birth of a girl took precedent. Despite this sexist custom, historically and now in modern times, young girls and women have always been important to the festival.
When it comes to gender then, what does Lohri truly represent?
Lohri, Makar Sankranti and Pongal are all festivals celebrated on the same day every year. They carry significant rituals across various communities in India and the Indian diaspora but all follow the course of the sun to mark its special day annually.
Lohri, is the Panjabi festival that follows the course of the sun on the north Indian cultural calendar. It marks the end of winter (Poh) and celebrates the beginning of pre-spring (Magh). Lohri is a popular festival predominantly observed among Sikh, Ravidassia, Hindu and Christian Panjabi’s in various parts of northern India and across the diaspora. The celebration is not religious in nature but cultural, with festivities taking part every year on the 13th of January and is typically celebrated as a festival marking the birth of a boy.
The folklores sung by women on Lohri pay homage to Dulla Bhatti. I wrote about this in some detail in a previous blog: Lohri was originally a women-focused festival. He was a Muslim Panjabi landlord from the rajput caste who took from landowners to give to the labourers, Hindu girls and the poor. He was a bandit turned hero as hailed by the songs sung about him by women who kept his story alive through their folklore. He is a feminist figure for 16th century Panjabi women. This was about their resistance against the Mughal emperor Akbar, it was a fight against the greedy and unjust landlords and landowners of their time and was a fight against the sexual violence women faced at the hands of lustful men from the middle east who came to India, and in their time there were seeking concubines.
In a society that considered women a cultural liability and a financial burden, Dhulla Bhatti was their protector and ally and these women and girls had accepted him as a respectful father figure. This history is about the honour, religious integrity and social standing of women from impoverished families in a classiest and castiest society. It is about their emancipation from a life of sexual slavery and servitude to one of dignity with a happier and better future ahead.
Over four hundred years later, here we are talking about the history of Panjabi women in a pre-partitioned India on Lohri but by only centring the men, Akbar and Dhulla Bhatti, instead of remembering the women’s history that is integral to this celebration.
This festival was never traditionally about celebrating the birth of a boy over the birth of a girl. Lohri was about women resisting sexual violence and attaining a sense of freedom by escaping Akbar and his men. It was about women and young girls singing folksongs to commemorate their history in a way that would live on through intergenerational stories. It was about inspiring generations of girls and women. Many women have been associated with Lohri throughout, yet the stories of Panjab’s females are told less and men and boys are centred more.
Dhulla Bhatti is a feminist figure for reasons of female empowerment. He is respected as an ally by women, for women and is thus claimed by women through choice. Dhulla Bhatti gained the popularity that he has in folklore and in Indian history because of the women who immortalised him in their stories. Women have given Lohri its rich cultural history through their resistance against tyranny and sexual violence and the right to choose a life away from submission, and yet the celebration is recognised and remembered as the ‘son festival’. Which patriarch started off that rumour?
Other lesser considered ways that women are central to Lohri
Lohri is also commemorated to welcome newly-wed brides into the family. The newly-wed bride and groom are gifted new clothes as a gesture of acceptance into the groom’s family. The idea behind this is that she is being embraced as a new family member. It also celebrates her fertility as a woman who may potentially choose to continue the family line. Sadly, what we see in society is a focus on women as the child bearer who must be able to give the family a son (for others it may just be a healthy child), but the pressure to produce an heir can be experienced by many women at the time of Lohri, instead of a focus on her ability to choose motherhood. Again, a deviation from the stories of the women central to Lohri who fought for their rights. Choice is key here and it is clear that there is still work to be done with respecting a woman’s right to choose.
Money is gifted to daughters and nieces on Lohri by their parents and elders as a form of blessing or ‘pyaar’. Growing up I often heard the expression ‘kudia nu pyaar dey dha lohri te’ meaning, on Lohri we give blessing to the girls and women in the form of a gift. A tradition carried on from the villages of Panjab. In the old times this would have been considered a sense of creating some financial independence for women as they had no assets or financial independence of their own. In present times this tradition represents love and respect of the daughters. This demonstrates how the theme of promoting independence for women and for holding respect for the girl child has always been a part of Lohri’s traditions. However, it has been consistently overlooked by us.
Other stories of women in history continue to point to the key feminist attributes of this celebration. The saint and religious poet Sant Kabir had a wife called Loi and many say that Lohri is named after her but little is known about this beyond folklore. Another history lost. Another lost heer.
Sisters Sundari and Mundari are famously remembered in our songs about Lohri. There is a legend about the sisters Holika and Lohri where Lohri survived a trial after being made to sit in a fire by her sister Holika. With Prahlad, a devotee of the Hindu god Vishnu, the three of them entered the fire. Lohri and Prahlad survived while Holika perished.
Lohri is a celebration of the unity of Panjabis where Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims and minorities in Panjab hold appreciation to that which is communal and unified. After the partition of India in 1947, Lohri was celebrated mainly by the Sikh, Hindu and other Panjabi minorities in India alone.
When we interrogate the history of Lohri it becomes apparent that the festival has always been about women and girls. The emergence of the son festival came about in a heavily patriarchal society as an invented tradition. Was the women centric festival of Lohri a threat to men’s authority and control over women? Is the emergence of celebrating boys over girls a way of reminding uprising women of their position in a male dominated society?
With the introduction of the Pink Ladoo Project in 2015 there has been a global shift in the way Lohri is now being marked as a celebration for girls too. This has been long overdue and rightly reminds us that there is a feminist history to this celebration. In essence, the protest for equality through the pink ladoo is not really about readjusting the narrative on gender equality but is actually about reclaiming the feminist roots of Lohri itself!
Indian college girls in traditional Punjabi attire perform the ‘giddha’ folk dance around a Lohri fire during the festival celebrations in Amritsar, India on 13th January 2015. Photo credit: Narinder Nanu/AFP/Getty Images.