With its celebration of athleticism, equestrian events and martial arts displays, it is perhaps not surprising that the festival of Hola Mohalla has been described as the “Sikh Olympics”. This description, however, tells only half the tale of a fascinating event that is as rich in religious and cultural significance as it is in physical excellence.
Hola Mohalla – which loosely translates as “mock fight” – dates back to 1701 when it was set up by Guru Gobind Singh as an occasion for Sikhs to demonstrate their fighting prowess. Given that violently expansive Mughal emperors ruled much of India at the time, this militaristic display was far from an idle exercise for the Sikh population.
The precise date of the festival changes each year as a result of the lunar calendar, but it is usually held in March and takes place just after the better-known Hindu festival of Holi. While celebrations are staged by Sikh communities across the world, the main event in is the Punjabi city of Anandpur Sahib, one of the holiest places in Sikhism and the site of the very first Hola Mohalla. Every year hundreds of thousands of Sikhs from across India and around the world – as well as a few adventurous tourists – congregate in the city for the festival.
Sikh warriors – wearing brightly-coloured traditional robes and accompanied by drummers and standard-bearers – take part in evocative processions, ceremonies and re-enactments, with the military order of the Nihangs at the forefront. There are also demonstrations of sword-fighting, archery, wrestling and gatka, a Sikh martial art that involves fighting with wooden sticks.
Some of the most impressive displays are the equestrian events, which include bareback horse-riding, jousting contests, and “tentpegging”, which involves a horseman who is riding at full gallop using a sword or a lance to pick up a target – such as a tent peg – off the ground.
Beyond the physical activities, there is also a range of religious and cultural events including music, singing, poetry readings, chanting, and story-telling. Food is provided by langars, community kitchens staffed by volunteers.
Hola Mohalla – which lasts for three days – ends with an evocative procession to the Gurdwara Keshgarh Sahib, the city’s main shrine and one of the most important Sikh sites in India.
Find out more about visiting Hola Mohalla festival.
Shafik Meghji is a travel writer, journalist and editor, officially based in South London but more often than not off exploring the world. He is the co-author of The Rough Guide to India, The Rough Guide to Nepal, The Rough Guide to Chile, and The Rough Guide to Bolivia, and has contributed to the Rough Guides to Egypt, Paris, Ecuador, Central America on a Budget, and the Baltic States. Shafik also co-writes the Buenos Aires *Essential* Guide app, and has contributed to three travel writing anthologies: Earthbound, Make the Most of Your Time on Earth, and Make the Most of Your Time in Britain. His journalism has been published in numerous newspapers, magazines and websites around the world, including The Guardian, The Independent, and the Evening Standard.