On Navratri every year, Amritsar has its own celebration of a different kind: the Langur Mela, which is 10 days of fun and frolic, rituals and ceremonies, as children dress up as Hanuman and visit the ancient Bada Hanuman temple.
The mela tradition, according to historical chronicles, started centuries ago with the belief that couples who pray at the temple for a male child would have their wish fulfilled. The couples thus blessed then bring their children dressed as langurs to the temple as a way of saying “thank you”.
The temple is situated just outside the old walled city of Amritsar, adjacent to the more popular Sri Laxmi Narayan temple (also called Durgiana Mandir), and less than 2 km from the Golden Temple.
It is one of just three temples in India that has the idol of Hanuman in a state of resting, the other two being the Hanuman Garhi temple in Ayodhya and the Hanuman temple in Prayagraj, both in Uttar Pradesh. According to legend, the shrine was erected at the spot where Rama’s sons, Luv and Kush, and their mother, Sita, once resided. When Hanuman arrived to take them back to Ayodhya, the twins bound him to a banyan tree. The temple administration protects a tree on the grounds of the temple as that tree.
Parents believe that if their children pray at the temple during Navratri dressed as langurs, they will have Hanuman’s blessings for the rest of their lives. Both children and their parents have to adhere to a rigid schedule and perform the rituals that Brahmcharis, or vowed celibates, perform for those 10 days. They sleep on the floor, walk barefoot, consume only satvik cuisine, forego finery, and offer daily worship at the temple.
The outfits the Langurs wear are usually red or have red in them, the colour associated with Hanuman. It is mainly boys, infants to teenagers, and in some cases a few years older, who dress as Langurs. Many of them have a Vaannar Sena (Hanuman’s army) and dholis (drummers) around them, all hired by their parents of course, and these groups are led by adults, also in langur attire to add entertainment value to the occasion.
There is another tradition linked with the mela: a group of devotees (about eight to 10 people) associated with smaller Hanuman temples dress up like the Hanuman Sena or the Bajrangi Sena and dance in procession to drumbeats all the way from the base temple to the Bada Hanuman temple.
They do this every day throughout the Navratri festival. The leader of the group usually wears a round, red mask that is different from that of the others. Narinder Kumar Suri, the leader of one of the groups, said his mask was more than 400 years old (picture alongside) and had been handed down across four generations in his family.
For devotees, the more the number of Hanumans the merrier the 10 days, with rituals and festivities spilling over from one day to the next at the Bada Hanuman temple. According to locals, lakhs of devotees visit the temple during the nine days, mostly from Amritsar and adjoining towns. A small number are also from other parts of the country while some are non-resident Indians visiting just for Hanuman’s sake.
Raminder Pal Singh is an independent professional photographer of international repute based out of Amritsar, Punjab. He worked as a photojournalist for the European Pressphoto Agency (EPA) from 2005 to 2021 and was on the EPA’s India Photo Desk from 2008 to 2021.