Who killed Dahi Handi?

I remember as an 11 year boy in 1989 when our family moved to Mumbai, I witnessed my first Dahi Handi celebration during Janmashtmi. Belonging to a middle class Hindu family from North Bharat, my exposure to festivals till then was limited to Deepawali, Holi and Raksha Bandhan.

Maybe it was my exposure for 4 years in Convent missionary run schools or the lack of knowledge imparted at home about Hindu Dharma, but I had no clue as to why Janmashtami was celebrated or what the Dahi Handi represented. I remember being surprised at the fervent excitement over Dahi Handi all around the suburb of Ghatkopar, Mumbai where I lived. It was then that I learnt the Dahi Handi/Janmashtami festival celebrated the birth of Bhagwan Krishna, who as a child used to mischievously steal curd & butter along with friends in his village of Vrindavan.

On the day of Janmashtami, I looked out from my 3rd floor apartment window at the cheering, happy faces below shouting “Govinda Aala Re” while a group of boys formed the human pyramid to break the Dahi Handi dangling just below my eyeline. For many youngsters, the festival held a special attraction as there was a sense of adventure associated with the handi breaking attempt. The Dahi Handi festival brought together our entire housing complex – families of ordinary mazdoors, clerical staff, officers.

Yes, like every other festival, Janmashtami too has become more commercialized over the years with large sums of money being offered to competing teams – but then which sphere of human activity or profession has escaped this fate? It does not diminish the essential vibrancy of this earthy festival and its ability to generate goodwill & cheer in Hindu society.

But that vibrancy and sense of expectation around Dahi Handi is in grave danger of being diminished by the Supreme Court (SC) ruling on the eve of this year’s celebration, accepting the earlier High Court (HC) verdict restricting the height of the Dahi Handi human pyramid to 20 feet and barring those under 18 years from taking part. From what one gathers, this ruling has come as a result of a PIL filed in 2014 by NGO Utkarsh Mahila Samajik Sansthaa to prevent injuries to Dahi Handi participants, especially children.

First, lets discuss the point about under 18 children: yes, there is a risk of serious injury in Dahi Handi pyramids, but we must remember that this is a voluntary activity – children who play sports like cricket, football, gymnastics etc all take some risk. The Olympic gymnast Dipa Karmakar, who has been practicing the sport  since she was 6, is known for performing the Produnova, known as the “death vault”. As a kid, I also jumped from the 10 metre (33 feet) swimming pool diving board, which carries serious risk if the landing goes wrong. We can introduce safety features like helmets, harness, soft landing cushions etc to lower the risk of Dahi Handi, but is depriving willing children from an annual activity which holds such rich cultural significance for them the only solution?

And while barring those less than 18 from participating in Dahi Handi, SC has for some reason suspended the HC direction to amend the existing law to bar children below 18 years of age from participating in other dangerous performances. Why this special treatment or double standard for Dahi Handi?

But Dahi Handi mandals are willing to accept the 18 year age restriction – what really kills the sport for them is the restriction of the pyramid height to just 20 feet. This is what Bala Padilkar of Dahihandi Samanvayak Samiti has to say

““20 feet dahi handis are nothing. From before the birth of any of the Govindas and Gopikas here, dahi handis have been towering above 20 feet in every nook and corner of Mumbai. This is our tradition. The government shouldn’t overlook the youth and the sport. With these restrictions, the fun will fizzle out of the festival,”

Mumbai-based Jai Jawan Krida Mandal Govinda Pathak says, “If there is no adventure in a game, then there is no point in celebrating it.” 

Even a plea of Maharashtra Govt to raise the limit to 25 feet was not acceptable to SC bench.

The most bewildering aspect of this whole judgement is that the HC judgement upheld by SC restricts the height of human pyramids to 20 feet only for Dahi Handi – the judgement is silent on such pyramids when formed for other purposes such as reality TV shows, acrobatics, circus etc. Remember, we are talking about adults voluntarily forming a human pyramid for a deeply cherished religious festival – this is what the Courts are regulating, while being silent on the other instances where such pyramids can be formed.

And does it behoove SC judges to pass such flippant rhetorical remarks while judging such a sensitive issue affecting millions: “Are you getting an Olympic medal also for this? Then we will be happy.”

Dear Judges, Hindus do not practice their religion & follow traditions to impress anyone or win medals, but because they believe in their way of life, in Dharma. Would the SC bench of Justice A R Dave and Justice L Nageswara Rao ask such flippant questions during a hearing affecting minority religious communities? Is the issue of Dahi Handi so pressing that HC and SC have held multiple hearings on it over 2 years, rather than worry about the 3 crore case backlog which has broken people’s faith in justice delivery? 

The tradition of forming human pyramids for celebrations or sport is not unique to Bharat – other countries like China, Czech Republic, USA, Spain too have variations of the same. Coming on the back of court judgements on Jalikkattu, Sabarimala temple entry, use of temple elephants, and now this Dahi Handi restriction..it is hard to escape the feeling that the judiciary is bludgeoning away at Hindus while  being discreet and mindful of the sensitivities of other communities. Hindus are not saying that we won’t listen to valid criticisms and concerns – but surely we deserve the space to find our own solutions, such as this volunteer-driven effort to have a clean waari this year? 

We are being openly told on our faces that we no longer have the adhikara (authority) to decide how to celebrate our own festivals, that we are fanatic savages who are unable to discriminate between right and wrong.

I am writing this as a mostly deracinated Hindu who doesn’t understand his religious-cultural traditions like his forefathers did. I have a very rudimentary grasp of Dharma, but I do understand what Dahi Handi means to millions of Hindus. For many urban ‘modern’ Hindus, myself included, Dahi Handi is just another festival that will come and go – our routine of 45 hour work-week, and weekend relaxation through movies, malls, eating out will be unaffected – but this festivals means a lot for the poor Hindu family living in a chawl of Dadar..they probably wait in anticipation the whole year for their neighborhood Janmashtami celebration and the Dahi Handi competition. Those poor people can’t even express their arguments in HC or SC because they can’t speak English and don’t have the network and resources that the NGO ecosystem enjoys.

And it is because of such public celebrations that people like me get a chance to show my child what Hindu culture is. It is this living, breathing  tradition that gets killed if the spirit of Dahi Handi is killed. If this continues, Hindu civilization will one day end up in the museum like the Romans, Greeks and Egyptians. This much is obvious even to a lapsed Hindu like myself.

  • Arya.Singh

    Get ready, another Sukha & Jinda are coming।। There is reason their jail in Pune, celebrayes their Shaheedi।ਵਾਹਿਗੁਰੂਜੀਕਾਖਾਲਸਾੂ।।ਵਾਹਿਗੁਰੂਜੀਕੀਫਤਹਿ।।

  • malavika

    The tragedy is that supposedly Hindutva govt is allowing this steady dismantling of Hindu traditions and culture and destroying Hindu schools through RTE.
    If Modi admin showed 10% of the concern it showed towards Sonia Maino when she fell ill in Varanasi towards its Hindu constituency we, Hindus would have been far better off.

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