My experience of Charak Festival at the village of Batanal

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Unique Rituals of Charak at Batanal

After the huge popularity of my blog post ‘Folk Festival of Bengal – Gajan, Charak and Neel Puja’, many of my readers have requested me to write a blog on my personal experience of visiting a village which has some unique rituals related to Charak. This year the popular folk festival is barely two days away. In this post, I am going to narrate my experience of Charak at the remote village of Batanal which is just 12 km from the Northeast of Arambagh. Toto, Autos are available from Arambag. It is better to reserve one from the town for the journey to Batanal. For accommodation, there are several options at Arambag.

Those who are not aware of the significance of Charak or Gajan, I will narrate here in brief about the festival. 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 known as “Gajan Sanyasis”. The festival takes places on open grounds and not in anyone’s residence. In Bengal generally, the festival takes place dominant by Scheduled caste Bengali people.

The most intriguing part of the Gajan Festival is Chark Puja. The tradition of Charak Puja is all about worshipping the Charak tree and the several penances act performed by Charak Sanyasis around and on the tree. This act is performed on 14th April every year.

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.

Gajan festival was and still to some extent a great social leveller.  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.

Those curious to know about the festival in detail may go through my blogpost on this topic.

Journey to Batanal

The variety of penance acts by Gajan Sanyasis makes the festival more interesting. In some village, the age-old traditional acts of penance are practised, while at some locality the variety of penance draws more crowd. The Sanyasis at Batanal perform some unique way of penance. Also at Batanal, there are artists who do face painting like mythological characters and perform road shows based on folk tales. To visit the village of Batanal for Charak, usually, people stay at Arambag and hire transport to reach Batanal. The rituals usually start just after dawn.

Thankfully my friend Amlan Biswas arranged accommodation in the Batanal village itself. A car was also arranged to pick us from the station. We boarded the Goghat Local train at 09:55 and reached Arambag at 12:00 in the morning. A gentleman was waiting for us at the station in his car. We reached Batanal in no time. Amlan had a friend in the irrigation department. He had done the arrangements for our stay in the village. The house where we initially reached was a typical Charchala Mud house as seen in the village of West Bengal. Though it was hot and humid inside, the interiors were very cool. Electricity has reached in the remote villages of West Bengal, so there was a ceiling fan in the room as well. Lunch was a simple affair, the typical Bengali meal served on lotus leaves. We squatted on the open corridor and ate heartily. This reminded me of my first visit to visiting a Charak Fair at Krishnadevpur, where I was offered such meals served on banana leaves.

Lunch was a simple affair, the typical Bengali meal served on lotus leaves.

Post lunch and an afternoon nap, we went for a stroll around the village. At Batanal, one of the various ways of penance conducted by Gajan Sanyasis is fixing them to a wooden cross in a somewhat similar fashion of being crucified. Here the arms of the devotees were tied to the wooden cross by cloth and spikes were pierced through the upper part of their skin and fixed on the wood. There were numerous such wooden cross being prepared at a centrally located small open area near an Aatchala temple. The temple was locally known as Hathtala Shiva temple. The devotees fixed on the wooden cross would stand on a localized motor van. Then the motor vans would march in a procession to the nearby Buro Ray Pancha Ratna temple and return. There are beds of iron spikes and knives too on which a devotee would lie down and iron spikes would be fixed through the skin on the wooden structure.

There were other small villages too, where similar rituals take place, but not in the grand scale like Batanal. We visited these villages too. In the evening, when we were sipping tea and some snacks in the temple are, we met some of our photographer friends, who have reached Armabag late in the evening and were staying at a hotel at the town. They had come to take a look at the proceedings. We were informed that the procession takes place around 10:00 in the morning. However, there were some morning rituals too which takes place as early as 05:00 to 05:30 in the morning.

Wooden cross where Gajan Sanyasis would be standing with nails pierced on their body

Other than we two, there were only two other photographers who stayed at night in the village. They were the duo of a father and son photographer who had one of their relatives residing at the place. Our night stay was scheduled to be at the palatial house of Kayem Ali, the gentleman who drove us to the village. His family hailed from the lineage of Saint Moinuddin Chisti of Ajmer. Kayem’s wife prepared excellent parathas and chicken curry for us in the night. We took a stroll on their terrace basking in the cool breeze and the moonlight. We visited a local school in the night on 13th April, where participants were busy doing face painting for next day’s shows. There were no other photographers except the four of us, so we took photographs of the artist in peace.

Face Painting at Batanal
Devotees in front of a board of nails

Charak Rituals at Batanal

After a sumptuous dinner, I slept like a baby. The room where I stayed at Kayem’s house had large windows. The pollution free air did the trick. I slept past 4:30 .am. , despite my mobile’s alarm shrieking at full speed. I did not wake from sleep until Amlan’s voice replaced the alarm. “Wake up lazybone. The rituals have already started”. Startled, I woke up and gazed at the clock. It was 10 minutes to five. I could hear drumbeats and a whole lot of commotion. It was 14th April – the day of Charak Sankranti.

“What, already?” I hurriedly pushed myself up. Now I was fully awake. Quickly I brushed my teeth and hurried downstairs. Kayem was waiting outside in his car. The temple was bit far from his house. He dropped us on a village pathway near the temple. “We cannot go in front of the temple. The road will be blocked there.” Kayem said to us.

We hurriedly got down from the car. As we went towards the path, I saw an amazing sight. Several Gajan Sanyasis were running down the pathway. They were all bare bodied. The only clothing they were wearing was a kaupina or langot as we see pehelwans alias Indian wrestlers wearing during Kusti alias traditional Indian wrestling in the akhara (wrestling ring). What separated them from wrestlers were that long iron bars were pierced from one part of their mouth to the other. The rods were dangling dangerously from both sides. It looked impossible to run with them without getting injured.  Several Photographers were standing at a strategic position on the pathways with cameras.

I thought for a moment and then ran on the pathway beside them keeping my head low. It was an extremely dangerous thing to do, but I knew to get some unique shits I need to do this. I relied on my lightweight body and ran. Often I stopped at a vantage position to take some shots and then continued running. There were many of them and I wondered how much time took to prepare them. Fixing the rods between the two parts of their mouth was an expert job and to do such a task with so many sanyasis was a mammoth task. The Gajan sanyasis ran from Hath tola Shiv Mandir to a nearby small temple and then returned in a circle to their original destination. There they started dancing facing each other. It was an amazing sight to behold. The rituals lasted for one hour and then slowly the devotees started replacing the iron rods from their mouth. Earlier I saw no blood in their mouth, but now I could see faint traces of blood in some of their mouths. Immediately they were provided with some leaves which they thrashed in their mouth. I do not know the scientific names of these leaves put locally they were known as Kala Puspa. Its job was to reduce bleeding and pain.

Devotees With Iron Rods fixed on their mouth

Devotees running in unison

After the morning rituals, there was a gap for about two and a half hours, during which we had our morning tea and breakfast at a local shop. Many photographers had come from Kolkata of which quite a few were known to me. The preparation for crucifying rituals started around 9:00 and by 10:30 everybody was ready for the procession. Some lied down on a wooden framework with huge nails fixed on their body. They were carried by people on their shoulders. I found the people fixing nails on their body and tieing them with a cloth to the wooden cross at a brisk speed.

Crucified Devotee

As the cycle vans with ‘crucified’ persons started moving towards Baba Buro Ray temple, there was a huge commotion as village people and the photographers ran with them in unison. There was an octagonal rasmacha near Baba Buro Ray temple. The vans and the devotees went in a circle around this structure and returned back to the Hat Tola Shiva temple. By 11:30 the total ritual was finished.

The procession
Gajan Sanyasi fixed with iron spikes
The procession around Rasmancha

It was extremely hot and people were pouring water on the body of devotees during the procession. The trick of taking good photos from elevated view is to get up on the octagonal Rasmancha near the Pancharatna Temple and shoot from there. One needs to run fast from Hat tala temple to the Ras Macha to get a vantage point as soon as the procession starts.

Roadshow playing Rupban Kanya

Post lunch there was a road show with performers who had done face painting the earlier night. There were scenes from the famous folk play named Rupban Kanya. There were singers who sang folks songs with the play. The most hilarious part was that a very old man played the role of a 12-year-old boy.

Devotees hanging from Charak Tree. Photo courtesy: Amlan Biswas

Perhaps the anticlimax was the main part of Charak rituals itself, where people hang from the Charak tree and go around in a merry go around. I expected a bigger charak tree, but it was rather small and people were hanging from a rather low position contrary to that I have seen in places like Krishnadevpur, Baruipur or near Beldanga.

We said goodbye to our friends at Batanal and Kayem Ali dropped us to the Arambag station just in time to catch the Arambag Local in the evening.

Special Thanks

  1. Amlan Biswas
  2. Residents of Batanal Village


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