Among the many folk festivals of Bengal, Gajan festival, Charak Puja and Neel Puja has a special place even in today’s modern age. Although it is celebrated predominantly in rural Bengal, the festival is till celebrated in some pockets of the Metro city of Kolkata.
Hindus celebrate the festival mainly on the last two days of the month of Chaitra.This period is known as Chaitra Sankranti when Sun will enter Pisces sign. Chaitra Sankranti begins on 14th March of every year. People observe fast during this period devoting themselves to their God.
Discussing in details about this festival can take a long space, so I will try to be compact and brief as possible.
Origin and Concept
It is almost impossible to determine the actual period when Gajan started. However , according to some historians , there was a time in middle ages when Buddhism was somewhat cornered in India, Buddhists monks took shelter in many places. One of them was in Bengal where they converted to Hinduism. With them came the Tantric rituals of Buddhism which involving Tantra rituals including severe penance as well as the thought of renouncing worldly pursuits to devote one’s self to spiritual work, which is often referred to as monasticism.
This may be the reason that Gajan started as “Dharmer Gajan” and slowly took its way to “Shiber Gajan” in the later period. In Bengal Dharmathakur is generally worshipped by the scheduled cast like Bauri, Bagdi, Hari, Dom. Dharmathakur may have been originated from Dharmaraj of Buddhism. Although Dharmathakur is identified by a shapeless stone (as seen in Bankura) and its Vahana is represented by terracotta horses , there have been instances where Buddha idol has been worshipped as Dharma Thakur in villages of Bankura.There are still villages where both Dharamraj and Shiva are placed with Gajan offerings.
Gajan is actually linked to persons who are related to agricultural community, directly or indirectly. They pray for the rains and better harvest. Lord Shiva is said to be closely related to this community. It may be worth noting here that Dharmathakur is actually considered to be the God of Fertility.
Gajan festival was and still to some extent a great social leveler. The persons who were involved in the festival become a Shiva Devotee and are respected by all. In earlier days the peasants who were involved in penances which involved piercing one’s tongue with sharp needles to hung oneself from sharp hooks hanging from wooden structures were respected by the Landlord. During Gajon these so called “Low caste” would rise above his own level and be recognized as representative of Lord Shiva.
During Gajan celebration is performed by the devotees signifying marriages of the male forces of Siva, Nil or Dharmaraj with their respective consorts. One way it signifies the union of the forces of sun and earth.
Although the festival takes place in its full intensity for three days, starting before the day of Chaitra Sankaranti and ending the day after, it continues till the beginning on the month of Asharr alias Ashad which signifies the rainy season.
As mentioned earlier, the basic reason for the festival is to worship the deities of the respective devotees for the hope of a better rainy season and good harvest. Also, people believe that the festival will provide them prosperity eliminating from any sorrow and sufferings which they suffered in the past year.
Primarily arranged on the premises of different Shiva Temples, the festival is arranged mainly by mendicants (Persons begging or relying on charitable donations) who are referred as “Gajan Sanyasis”. The festival takes places in open grounds and not in anyone’s residence. In Bengal generally the festival takes place dominant by Scheduled caste Bengali people.
During Charak people dress up as Cosmetic Shiva, Parvati, Krishna and other deities. Usually Rajbangshi caste of persons is allowed to do such acts. They are locally known as “Soung of Gajan” (Soung in Bengali means jester).The word gajan in Bengali comes from the word garjan or roar generated by sannyasis during the festivities. Alternative theory says it is from the from two word Ga (village) and Jan ( People), indicating festival of the people.
Though not seen much in Kolkata, there was a time in the 70s and in the 80s you could see Gajan Sanyasis moving from door to door asking for food and money chanting “Baba Taraknather Seva Laaage… Mahadevvvv” (In the name of Shiva… Taraknath and Mahadev).
On 13th April , Bengalis celebrate “Neel Puja”. This puja or worship is done mainly by married woman who fast throughout the day and pour milk over the “Shiva Lingam” at a nearby Shiva Temple. The Puja is done to please the lord and get his blessings for her husband and children. There are many interpretations of “Neel Puja”. The most predominant explanation is the celebration of the marriage of Lord Shiva with Goddess Parvati. Shiva is considered to be Neel here, which is supposed to have been derived from one of his name “NeelKantha” (one having a blue coloured throat). Some refer it as “Neel Shasthi” too. Now at Kolkata, many households celebrate this as “Neel Sasthi”. In this case, an additional worship of a local deity named “Sasthi” is worshiped too. Sasthi is a Goddess who symbolizes betterment of Women, especially of their children both existing and unborn. The deity is made out of the mashed paste of wet rice grains. She is accompanied with a cat and six children
According to Hindu Mythology, when the Devatas (God) and Asuras (Demons) were churning the ocean in order to get “Amrita”, the first thing to come out was “Halahal” – the deadly poison. The toxicity of the poison could have destroyed all creation. However, Lord Shiva came to rescue and swallowed the poison. He did not digest it but kept it in his throat. As a result, the throat became blue and hence Shiva came to known as NeelKantha.
The most intriguing part of Gajan Festival is Chark Puja. The tradition of Charak Puja is all about worshipping the Charak tree and the several penance acts performed by Charak Sanyasis around and on the tree. This act is performed on 14th April every year.
A Charak Tree is actually the trunk of a tree without any roots or branches. The height is around 30 to 40 feet. The trunk needs to be straight. The tree is worshipped by priests and then erected inside a ditch and is balanced by bamboos. Then the Sanyasis perform their penance acts. After these acts the tree is duly immersed into the river which is believed to visit the same ghat of the river next year. The Charak Sanyasis then brings it back to the puja ground, which is a local ground (normally a playground nowadays).
The Charak tree is believed to be the abode of Ardhanarishwar (composite form of the Shiva and Parvati). An Idol or a Mask is first attached to the top of a tree, before the worship and hoisting it up straight on the ground. Several people are engaged to pull it up. In some village, the mask is also referred to be that of Harakali. However, the predominant concept is that of Ardhanarishwar –which symbolizes Purush (Man ) and Prakiti ( Nature) in the deity. A deeper meaning is that Human life coexists with that of nature.
The most amazing part is how sanyasi priests pierce sharp hooks at the bodies of participating sannyasis almost without any cut or injury. The bloodless piercing of sharp metals in the human body by the practitioner priests looks like a magic act. Actually with years of practice, they know how to pierce these sharp hooks without damaging the veins and causing less pain.
It is believed that such acts actually functions as a near role reversal for men attempting to experience the pains of womanhood, including childbirth.
The hook held men then fly in a circular path by the ropes fastened to the Charak Tree on one end and to the hook on the other. After repeated circular motion some fall down from such a height, but surprisingly no one seems to majorly hurt. They seem to be in a trance and do not want to get down. Some get their tongue pierced with multiple needles and move around the Charak tree sitting on the shoulder on other devotees.
While hanging mothers allow devotees to embrace their infant child which is supposed to cause well being to the infants! In some villages other spine-chilling acts take place where devotees lie on the nails of the studded plank, climb onto a bamboo platform on a bed of thorns and in some places their bodies are pierced with arrows having their tip wrapped with cotton which is set on fire.
In many villages, devotees dance with human skulls too. This practice is however coming to end in many places as police has made regular arrest of such ‘performers’
The area where Charak Puja performed is sanctified and protected by fencing, where the Charak tree is installed. The Charak Sannyasis and the sadhu are the only people who can enter into the area.
However, recently they have been liberal with the photographs entering the area with the condition that they will enter barefooted.
Every year many of my photographer friends plus researchers on Folk festival of Bengal asks me about the locations of Charak Festivals in Kolkata and Suburbs. Following is a brief list of places where Gajan Festival takes places in Kolkata and West Bengal.
I have personally visited only three. So most of the photographs here are linked to photographs taken by others
1. ChatuBabu LatuBabur Bajar, North Kolkata
If you are weak hearted to observe such penance act as described in my article and yet want to see Charak Puja, this is the place you should go. Here the devotees do hang from “Charak Tree”, but they are tied with ropes and clothes and not with hooks pierced to their bodies.
Reach Girish Park Metro Station. Start Walking towards the direction of Shovabazar. After Few minutes of walking you will get Ramdulal Sarkar Street on your right. Walk into it. The Bazar or Market falls on your right. Inside there is a big open area where this act takes place.
2. Patua Para, Kalighat, Kolkata
If you are interested in devotees dressed up as cosmetic Shiva, Parvati , Krishna head for Patua Para at Kalighat.
Reach Jatin Das Metro Station. Walk towards Hazra crossing. Start walking towards Alipore walking on Hazra Raod. Soon you will come to PatuaPara at Kalighat Road.
3. Krishnadevpur, Burdwan
If are strong hearted and wish to experience the total essence of Gajan Festival, this is the place you should go. From Devotees dressed up as Sang to all kinds of body piercing you want to experience (!), you get it all here. The Gajan of this place is becoming popular day by day.
Take any local train going to Katwa from Sealdah /Howrah. Get down either at Ambika Kalna or the next stop Baghnapara. From there take a local conveyance and head from Krishnadevpur High school. The ground of the school conducts the function. Head for the village temple where you will find people doing makeup to dress up as Krishna, Shiva , Radha, Kali
Other than the usual rituals of Gajan which takes places, Shantipur has a unique performer here named “Nara Rakkash” ( Human Demon)
Take any Train from Sealdah to Shantipur. Get down at Shantipur and ask for buses going to Charaker Math
Famous for Gajan festival, other than all usual rituals of Gajan, devotees here walk with Human Skull. There was a big ruckus on this last year, and some reported to me that some sanyasis have been arrested on this. It is an unconfirmed report, so the practice may be still going on. People dress up as Krishna, Shiva , Radha, Kali too.Press reporters National and International visit here regularly during Charak.
Take any train from Howrah To Burdwan. At Burdwan go to Tinkonia bus stand. Take a bus going to Kurhmun village. It only 17 km from Burdwan
The notable thing about this place is that people pierce their faces with big sized Pins during Charak.
Take any train from Sealdah to Baruipur. Get down at Baruipur , cross Railgate and head for the Auto Stand. Hire an Auto Rickshaw and ask to go to “Rash er Math”. This is where the Charak Festival happens. The locality of the place is known as Subbudhipur
Here Fire play display during Chark is the most notable display.
Take any train going to Diamond Harbour from Sealdah. Get down at Gurudas Nagar, which is the penultimate station before Diamond Harbour. From the Station where the Charak festival takes place is very close.
8. Beldanga and Kandi, Murshidabad
The Charak of Beldanga is very pictorial. Most number of people swings from the charak tree as the design here is unique from the other charak trees.
The most famous Chark at Beldanga is that of HarekNagar and Begunbari while at Kandi the Charak festival happens near Rudradev Shiva Temple. Kandi is close Baharmpur
There are several Lalgola passengers going from Sealdah and Kolkata Stations to Beldanga and Bahrampur Court. However, it is advisable to stay at a Hotel at Bahrampur and venture these two places as it may be hectic for venturing any of these places in one day.
9. Jayanagar Majilpur
This is famous for devotees jumping from Chark Tree on sharp weapons
Take a train from Sealdah going to Lakshmikantapur and get down at Jayanagar Majilpur Halt. The Charak Maidan is 10 minutes walking distance
10. Bainan, Bagnan
Various activities from tongue piercing to fire acrobatics takes place here
Take a train from Howrah to Bagnan. Buses are available from Bangnan Station to Bainan
11. Panchal, Bankura
One of the oldest Charak Festival takes place here
You need to reach Bishnupur at Bankura the earlier night and stay at a lodge. Next day, Hire a car and head to Panchal. Driving towards Sonamukhi you have to take a left turn and drive to reach the village. It is around 22 km from Bishnupur
1. Banani Bhattcharya for explaining me some rituals of Gajan
1. Human Fertility Cults and Rituals of Bengal: A Comparative Study by Pradyot Kumar Maity
2. The Bengalees: Glimpses of History and Culture By Samaren Roy