horses

Horses of Hola

This short documentary offers a little snapshot of the Hola Mahalla festival. If you have the privilege of attending be careful of where you stand - you don't want to be in the path of galloping horses!!! 

This video and write up are part of an ongoing series exploring Hola Mahalla and the Sikh diaspora. Footage from the Hola Mahalla documentary has been used for this short documentary. 

There are more documentaries and short films coming soon so keep an eye out on the website and various social media channels. 

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Hola Mahalla is a little known Sikh festival that takes place annually, in India with an estimated attendance of over a million people travelling to see the week long festival. Dubbed the Sikh Olympics, it involves sword fights, daring horse stunts and a dab of spiritualism that are with an ever decreasing number of nomadic Sikhs.

The festival was established in the 17th century in Anandpur Sahib, the 'City of Bliss'. It is celebrated during the Indian month of Chet, which falls in spring during either March or April. 

Initiated by Guru Gobind Singh (the tenth Sikh Guru), Hola Mohalla, which means ‘mock fight’, was used to ensure Sikhs were spiritually and physically ready for battle. The festival was an integral part of Sikh and Punjabi culture in India, encouraging Sikhs to come together to maintain their martial skills and participate in spiritualism. Traditionally the festival held such importance that all Sikhs were required to attend and those who did not were assumed to have merged with God.These days people attend the festival to witness two distinct activities the Sikh martial art of Gatka and the horse stunts that vary from a basic level to advanced. For example standing on a horse whilst it is stationary. It is said that this technique was used in the past during battles. Senior officials such as generals of the enemy would be on elephants and Sikhs would attempt to climb up the giant animal by standing on their own horse. 

The more skilled Nihangs have developed this technique further and utilised it whilst riding two horses. The riders are stood on each horse with their bare feet and either hold the reins in their hands or in between their teeth. Its all quite dangerous especially when spectators try to get a closer look and stand in the path of galloping horses!!!

Stepping back in Time

When I was at Anandpur filming the Hola Mahalla documentary, a horse came galloping past with a young woman on its back. I'd spent all day filming different people but not seen any women horse riders so I quickly tried to film as much of her as I could.

A week or two later I bumped into the young woman, Harsangat Kaur at Harimandir Sahib, Amritsar along with Angad Singh and few new friends. Harsangat now goes by the name Raj Kaur and I eventually got to interview her about the festival. She provides a brilliant first hand account of Hola Mahalla, I loved the energy that she was able to get across recounting her story.

This video and write up are part of an ongoing series exploring Hola Mahalla and the Sikh diaspora. There are more documentaries and short films coming soon so keep an eye out on the website and various social media channels. 

Below is a write up of the interview with Raj Kaur.


I only knew some of the history of it, but I've never been there so I didn't know the experience, but I remember driving there and seeing all these people. People on the backs of lorries, trucks and tractors coming to Anandpur Sahib, that was so cool. I just thought it was a family affair. You know, in the west “yeah we're going in our RV and going camping" but it was kind of like that.

 

When I got to Anandpur Sahib, I was like “Wow' the energy of it was just... Yeah when I saw your film it just reminded me of all the energy. 

I was with a group of people who had been there many times. So we're going through the procession and I saw horses and I was like “oh man”. Cos' I've been riding since I was five years old and you know... all I wanted to do was jump on somebodies horse the whole entire time I'm just staring at the horse like “when am I going to ride? Can someone get me a horse?”. “Yeah, yeah penji we'll let you ride later”, you know its like whatever. But I was really serious and I'm very stubborn sometimes. So I had to repeat myself a lot of the times but being in that energy though with the Singhs it felt like it was back in time, you know like in a story book of the history of the Sikhs. 

 

We got into the field, it was all these horses running past and it was you know - really dangerous not knowing where you're going, theres no orgnisation at all.

I knew a couple of Singhs, still there. They were like "oh here's a horse" but it was a huge horse. This horse... nobody was riding it... it was kind of showcased, like "oh look at this huge amazing horse".

It was probably one of the biggest horses I've ever gotten on. So he jumps onto his back legs. Twice!!!  

I'm like "alright, now I know what I'm working with".  So I remember the horse, he goes down the second time, decides to turn around and RUN!!! Just full on race horse running. Not galloping, not canter, just run!!!

I was like "okay full throttle". There's all these people all over the field and I was like "oh my god".

I knew a certain method of stopping a horse on that kind of issue by my own trial and error, working with horses like that and so I stopped the horse. 

 

I was kind of shaken up a little bit. It was a powerful horse. I felt really honored. It was a beautiful experience and next year I rode again, but this time I raced. No one got me a horse, I still had to go to try and get another horse and five minutes before I got a horse and ran down the field, you know, with all the other Singhs this time and by Gurus Grace I was alright.  


Check out more interviews on the website exploring the Sikh diaspora with visual artist Rupy Tut, free spirited painter Jag Lall and Australian Sikh rapper L-FRESH The LION.