Over the course of one decade, Photocircle artist Jagdev Singh documented the Sikh festival Hola Mohalla with the intention of documenting and capturing its wild and sacred execution, to present a holistic and well attuned portrait of this gathering. This summer, he finished his project in the form of a photo book.
The Hola Mohalla is a three-day religious event taking place at the shrine of Keshgarh Sahib in the Sikh holy town of Anandpur Sahib (the “City of Bliss”) in Punjab, India. It’s been celebrated every year in March for more than 300 years. The main attraction of the festival is the procession of Nihangs (a distinctive order among the Sikhs) sporting massive turbans with Sikh symbols, and their performances of ‘Gatka’ ( mock encounters with real weapons ), tent pegging and bareback horse-riding.
The custom originated in the time of Guru Gobind Singh Ji, who held the first mock fight event of the sort in Anandpur in 1701. Two years prior, in 1699, the tenth Sikh Guru – a spiritual master, warrior, poet and philosopher – had founded the Khalsa Panth, which is the modern day Sikh religion (after his father had been beheaded for refusing to convert to Islam, the Guru was formally installed as the leader of the Sikhs at age nine).
People come in millions from all over the world to pray, meditate, offer selfless service and celebrate during the festival. Day and night, hymns are read and sung from the Sikh holy book at scores of tent shelters and free food is served 24 hours at those places called ‘langar’.
I planned the ‘Hola Mohalla Project’ as a vibrant photo documentary about the unconditional love and faith that people have for their guru”, says Jagdev. “It was the year 2011 when I first went with the mindset of capturing the spirit of the blissful event. I interacted with devotees, became a part of the flow and made two intense portraits.
Coming back, I tried to disconnect with the portraits – but instead, the connection with them became even stronger and deeper with time. The thirst to experience the bliss and flow yet again intensified, and in 2013, I was inspired to cover the event for several years. From then on, I witnessed it every year till 2020.
With every passing year, the number of visitors has grown phenomenally. Foreigners as well as locals from India have been pulled by the magnetism of the event. The grounds on the inner roads, where different groups carry out several congregations, prayers and serve free food have become more, too. On the lighter side, when you are in the masses, you don’t need to walk: the flow carries you forward.
Learnings from my years there, in the true sense, are very very subtle experiences, humble interactions with strangers, which have left indelible impressions on my mind. Every picture framed beholds a lovely story of the moment, which goes beyond the visible image in black and white. I feel like every frame of the series is loaded and raring to spring to the viewer’s
heart with bliss.