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Ever wonder where the customs of Lohri– the bonfire, the singing and dancing, the sweets — come from? There are many different stories, and here’s one: the story of Dulla Bhatti.

Dulla Bhatti (Rai Abdullah Khan Bhatti) was a legendary sixteenth century outlaw from the Sandal Bar area of Punjab, between the Ravi and Chenab rivers, in what is now Pakistan. He led a rebellion against the Mughal emperor Akbar, and is a popular folk hero in Punjab because of his Robin Hood-like acts of kindness to the people. Dulla and his bandits regularly looted the tributes and taxes sent to the Emperor and redistributed them among the poor. Some people say that the Lohri custom of giving money or sweets to the children who go singing from door to door is in honor of Dulla Bhatti’s acts of generosity.

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Dulla Bhatti was born into the Rajput clan that ruled Pindi Bhattian; his grandfather and father also led rebellions against the Mughals, and were eventually captured and executed. One version of the legend says that Emperor Akbar took Dulla’s mother Ladhi to be the wet-nurse to Akbar’s son Salim (who later became the Emperor Jahangir). So Dulla and Salim grew up together, until eventually Ladhi and her son returned home. Presumably, that’s when Ladhi told her son how his father and grandfather died.

There’s a version of the story that says Salim eventually had a falling out with his father, over Salim’s affair with Anarkali, one of Akbar’s concubines (or Akbar’s favorite wife, in some stories). Salim then left the palace and joined Dulla and his guerrillas.

Another part of Dulla Bhatti’s legend is that he rescued girls who had been abducted by Mughal soldiers, often to be sold as slaves. One story (my favorite) says that Dulla Bhatti spirited away a young Hindu woman — at her father’s request — to keep a Mughal official from taking her for his harem. Another version of the story says that Dulla Bhatti took in the girl after she had been raped by a Mughal soldier, disgraced and abandoned.

In any case, Dulla Bhatti took the girl to his fortress hideaway and arranged for her to be married to a young Hindu man. Dulla himself gave the girl away in place of her father, and officiated the wedding ceremony. Part of the Hindu wedding ceremony involves the bride and groom making offerings to the sacred fire, and walking around the fire to finalize their marriage. And of course, the priest is supposed to chant blessings on the couple. Since Dulla wasn’t a priest, nor even Hindu (he was Muslim), he didn’t know the proper prayers, so he sang a nonsense song instead. This one, in fact:

Sunder mundriye ho!
Tera kaun vicharaa ho!
Dullah Bhatti walla ho!
Dullhe di dhee vyayae ho!
Ser shakkar payee ho!
Kudi da laal pathaka ho!
Kudi da saalu paata ho!
Salu kaun samete!

Which translates roughly into something like:

Beautiful girls [Sunder and Munder are two girl's names]
Who will care for you?
Dulla Bhatti will!
Dulla married off his daughter
He gave her one ser of sugar! [about a kilo of jaggery]
The girl is wearing her red wedding suit
But her shawl is torn! [possibly a reference to her being assaulted]
Who will stitch her shawl?! [who will restore her reputation?]

And so some people say that the custom of throwing food offerings into the Lohri bonfire, singing this song (and others) and sharing jaggery and other sweets all come from that original wedding.

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Whatever the real story or stories behind Lohri are, it’s still a joyous time to celebrate the waning of winter, new marriages, and new families. Happy Lohri!