Bengal is known as a land of festivities, where religious ceremonies outnumber the months in the calendar: baro maase tero parbon (‘13 festivals in just 12 months’) is a proverb every Bengali child grows up hearing. These festivals trigger interest not only because of their number and variety but also because of the ways in which they are linked with the social reality of the Bengali-speaking community, spread across the state of West Bengal in India and the People’s Republic of Bangladesh. It may be argued that these ways are not peculiar to Bengal but are observable in other parts of India also. Indeed, this is one of the reasons why the shared cultural panorama of South Asia must always be borne in mind while discussing the texture of Bengali life and cultural practices. However, this does not deny the specificities exhibited by the constituent parts of South Asia. On the contrary, it tells us something more about the very concept of sharing itself, the consequence of which is not homogeneity but plurality. The idea of plurality, thus, is at the heart of the lived reality that we call South Asia. Discussion on any aspect of this reality only strengthens this idea and does not weaken it. One may also contend that it is only by looking more closely into particular aspects of this reality that we can conceptualize South Asian plurality in broader terms. Hence, we must discuss the nature and practice of Gajan, a festival of Bengal, against the backdrop of a historically lived tradition of plurality, within which subsist various tensions, conflicts as also possibilities of reconciliation and co-existence.
According to Ashutosh Bhattacharya (2008:85–102), festivals in Bengal can be divided into two broad segments, those observed before the annual agricultural work begins and those observed afterwards. Pre-harvest festivals are generally related to various fertility cults, and are directed towards the regeneration of life and land—both inextricably linked in an overwhelmingly agrarian society. Gajan is a pre-harvest festival that takes place in the month of Caitra (March-April) in different parts of western Bengal and sometimes, under different names, in the neighbouring states of Jharkhand and Orissa. It is mainly observed by lower-caste Bengali Hindus who regard themselves as worshippers of Shiva. Hence, in many places Gajan is alternatively called Shiber Gajan (‘Shiva’s Gajan’). The popularity of Shiber Gajan can be grasped from a short verse (ছড়া) sung by Bengali children:
Amra dujon bhai
Shiber gajon gai
Thakuma gelo Goya Kashi
We two brothers
Sing gajan-songs for Shiva
Grandmother has gone to Gaya and Kashi
So we play the dugdugi (small drum) in joy
Like other pre-harvest festivals, Gajan is also aimed at regeneration. Its objective is to bring back fertility to the soil, and this intention is reflected in all its rituals. The significance of this becomes clearer if one keeps in mind that the western part of Bengal, called the Rarh region, is particularly hot and dry during the month of Caitra. Through its elaborate and highly complicated ritual structure, Gajan seeks to restore moisture to the soil, the principal source of life and livelihood in an agricultural society.
Preparations for Gajan continue for almost the whole month of Caitra, culminating on the final day of the Bengali calendar—known as Caitra Samkranti. Most Bengali households observe some ritual or the other on this day, followed as it is by Poyla Baishakh—the auspicious first day of the Bengali year. Caitra Samkranti, nevertheless, is most famously associated with the hook-swinging ritual or Charak. It is the concluding ritual of Gajan and probably the most well-known aspect of it. Even those who are the least involved in the month-long preparations gather to witness the awe-inspiring spectacle of Charak. As the last sun of the final day of the year prepares to set, one or more Gajan sannyasis are suspended from the top of the Charak tree with the help of a rope. On one end of this rope are two iron hooks which are pierced through the backs of the sannyasis; the other end is tied to the head of the Charak tree. It is in this state of suspension that the sannyasis start revolving around the Charak, well above the ground as well as the heads of those who gather to watch this feat. No wonder that most other aspects of Gajan are overshadowed by this remarkable spectacle of human strength and devotion.
In fact, the display of human strength combined with one’s devotion to the worshipped deity is at the very centre of Gajan. Apart from the power of endurance on the part of the devotees and their willingness to go through extreme physical suffering to please the godhead, there are very few elements that can give Gajan a common universal structure. It is observed in different ways in different villages. Even the dates for the constituent rituals vary from place to place. That is because the two most popular forms of Gajan—the one in which the central position is occupied by Shiva and the other where Dharmathakur is the central deity—are organized according to the solar calendar and the lunar calendar respectively. This explains why, in some places, the final day of Gajan is observed on the first full-moon day of Caitra or Baishakh. In some other localities another variety of Shiva Gajan takes place in Baishakh, which is called Abar Gajan (‘Gajan Again’). Perhaps very few other religious festivals in Bengal are observed on so many different dates and in so many different ways. No two villages enact the rituals of Gajan in exactly the same way. Wherever Gajan is observed, it is the local atmosphere that dictates its ritual structure. There are various reasons for this exuberance of local elements in the enactment of Gajan. The two most important are the near absence of any written document laying down the rules of worship, and the disjuncture between the rituals of Gajan and the mythological system supporting these. These two reasons are critically linked. But before delving into this further, it is important to understand the location of the people, who observe Gajan, in the history and social hierarchy of Bengal.
Ralph Nicholas (2008:14) writes that when he first saw Gajan in East Midnapore district in 1961 he felt that he was ‘looking back into the past of the Rarh region of Bengal, the area that did not become Muslim, which preserved practices belonging to the common people of a much earlier Bengal for whom “Hindu” was not a meaningful label.’ The reason why ‘Hindu’ is not a meaningful label for those people is simply that it is anachronistic, and even when we use this label today we must be conscious of the colonial baggage that this word carries. Throughout the history of pre-colonial Bengal one witnesses the slow but gradual infiltration of Brahminical religion in Rarh Bengal, a region that ‘did not become Muslim’, as Nicholas points out. With this gradual introduction of an organized and institutionalized religious structure, the Rarh region, where no such unified structure existed earlier, gave in to the process that we call Sanskritization. Sanskritization, however, cannot be conceived merely as a one-sided imposition of Brahminical values on an apparently unstructured communal life. Instead it is a narrative of interaction and occasional collusion between the desi/local and the margi/trans-local traditions—also sometimes called (not very satisfactorily) the ‘little’ and the ‘great’ traditions. It is this process of interaction, which turned violent in many instances, that at once posits and undermines the validity of the category ‘Hindu’ or ‘Hinduism’ for the people engaged in this interaction. What we see in case of Sanskritization is a constant negotiation between opposite forces trying to come to terms with each other, negotiation between Brahminical religion with its Vedic and Puranic pantheon, and non-Brahminical belief systems (including Tantric Buddhism) with their own sets of local gods and goddesses. Texts belonging to the Mangalkavya genre, the most dominant literary form of medieval Bengal, bear witness to the gradual assimilation of local gods and goddesses (e.g. Manasa, Candi, Annada, Dharma) into the Sanskrit pantheon. Inevitably the expansion of the Brahminical pantheon also meant the slow assimilation of the worshippers of these local deities into the structure of Brahminical religion, so that they too partially adopted the practices of Sanskritic Brahminism, either as a result of coercion by caste Hindus or as a way to avoid coercion. Gajan is probably the best example that shows the continuation of this process which characterizes social organization in Rarh Bengal. It is not surprising, therefore, that the supporting mythology of Gajan as well as the name of the ceremony itself is found in Dharma Mangal Kavya.
Gajan is preeminently a festival of village Bengal Those who perform the rituals of Gajan are mostly unlettered and live on the margins of Brahminical society. Most of these people are associated with agriculture, a ‘low’ profession judged by Brahminical standards. Some are related to even ‘lower’ occupations, such as the barbers. Brahmins and other high caste people are not barred from the ceremony but in the main stand outside the ritual processes. This is quite different from other Hindu religious festivals of Bengal. Usually it is women who perform most of the essential rituals in household pujas. But in the case of public religious ceremonies it is only a Brahmin priest who can offer prayers to the deity on behalf of the worshippers. In direct contrast to this stands the mool sannyasi (chief Sannyasi) of Gajan who is responsible for the proper execution of all the Gajan rituals. The wellbeing of the Gajan sannyasis, when they go through the arduous physical rites, depends as much on the worshipped deity as on the purity and mortal integrity of the mool sannyasi, an unlettered lower-caste person. Although a Brahmin priest is involved in some of the rituals, the utterance of Sanskrit mantras while worshipping the Sun god for example, his role is anything but primary. Similarly, the principal protagonists of Gajan, the Gajan sannyasis, are also people from the lower castes. During Gajan they acquire the same social and spiritual status as enjoyed by the Brahmins.
It must be remembered, however, that in the context of Gajan the meaning of Sannyasa is not same as it is in Vedic Brahminical religion, where Sannyasa is considered the fourth and the last stage of one’s life, preceded by Brahmacharya, Grahasthya and Vanaprastha. In this scheme, known as the Caturashrama system, it is mandatory to perform one’s own death rites before stepping into the life of Sannyasa because for a person to undertake Sannyasa means to renounce worldly life (samsara) once and for all. For a Sannyasi, who must have been born into one of the higher varnas, there is no return to his purvashrama or preceding stage of life. A Gajan Sannyasi, on the other hand, undertakes Sannyasa only temporarily. During this period of temporary Sannyasa, he takes on the sacred thread, renounces family life and all other kinds of worldly pleasures and goes through great physical suffering to awaken the godhead. A Gajan sannyasi knows that the elevated social position enjoyed by him during this period is supposed to last only for a brief period. Perhaps that is the reason why self-immolation and physical suffering acquire such heightened importance for him. His ability to endure immense physical pain, as demanded by the various rituals of Gajan, attests his sincerity as a worshipper even though he is not a Brahmin and therefore, not trained in the sophisticated rituals of Sanskritic Brahminism. His medium of worship is his body on which he inflicts all kinds of pain during the short period of Sannyasa. In the belief system of Gajan, it is through the grace of god (babar kripa) that the Sannyasis become capable of not just surviving but bypassing any possible injury when their tongues are pierced with sharp iron rods during the ritual of baanphonra or when they jump on the bed of thorns from high above as part of the ritual of kantajhanp. The Sannyasi’s power of endurance proves that his god is pleased with him, and that he has not committed any mistake while performing the rituals. A Gajan Sannyasi believes that Shiva (or on other occasions, Dharma) will not let any injury touch him if he has not committed any sin, has performed his tasks sincerely and has absolute faith on the power of Shiva/Dharma.
This stress on the body as the primary medium of invoking the godhead may also explain the near absence of any written manual of worship for Gajan. As the main actors in this festival are mostly unlettered village folk, a written manual is far less important to them than their own bodies which acquire sacred dimensions after they put on the upavita through the ritual of taga paridhan.
Written manuals, nevertheless, are not totally absent. The earliest manual for the rites related to Shiva Gajan, Kalarkarudra va Charakapuja Paddhati, was compiled by Nrisimha Chandra Vidyabhushana in the first decades of the 20th century. Needless to say the tradition of Shiva Gajan had already existed for over a few centuries by this time. Scripted instructions for the performance of Dharma Gajan, on the other hand, date back to a much older time. Dharma Puja Vidhana and the Shunya Puran, attributed to Ramai Pandit, are supposed to have been composed in the 11th century. This has led many to conjecture that the tradition of Dharma Gajan is more ancient than Shiva Gajan and that the latter began only as a part of the Sanskritization process. The decaying popularity of the Dharma cult and the gradual assimilation of Dharma into the figure of Shiva can also be ascribed to this process which has been underway for many centuries. The Dharma cult, Shashibhushan Dasgupta notes, ‘developed in Bengal out of the admixture of some relics of decaying Buddhism, popular Hindu ideas and practices, a large number of indigenous beliefs and ceremonies, and ingredients derived also from Islam’ (Dasgupta 1995:259). The worshippers of Dharma belonged to the lowest castes—Hadi, Dom, Bagdi, Kahar, fishermen etc. Thus, their relationship with the ceremony of Gajan, a festival of the lower social groups, can hardly be overlooked. Even today temples of Shiva and Dharma exist side by side in many villages, at times the villagers paying very little attention to this. Dasgupta further comments, ‘It seems that the followers of Dharma suffered much for their religious beliefs and practices from the caste Hindus and when the Mahomedans entered Bengal as a conquering power, the Dharmites took shelter under them, and when the caste Hindus were being persecuted in the hands of the Mahomedans for their beliefs and practices “the ancient grudge” which the Dharmites had against the Hindus was laurelled' (Dasgupta 1995:265). The chapter, ‘Niranjaner Rushma’ in Shunya Puran records this response of the worshippers of Dharmathakur to Brahminism as well as Islam (for a translation, see Sen 1911:36–37, online at Internet Archive):
eiroope dwijagan kore srishti samharan
i boro hoilo abichar
baikanthe Dharma mone ta paiya marma
mayate hoilo andhakar
Dharma hoila jabanroopi mathae ta kalo tupi
Hate shobe trikacha Kaman
chapia uttam hoy tribhubane lage bhoy
Khoday boliya ek nam
Niranjan nirakar hoilo bhesta abatar
Mukheta bole ta dombodar
Jatek debatagon sabhe hoiya ekmon
anandeta porilo ijar
Brahma hoila Muhammad Bishnu hoila pekambar
Adampha hoilo Sulapani
Ganesh hoia gaji [ghazi, warrior of Islam] Kattik hoila kaji
fakir hoila joto muni
tejiya apan bhek Narad hoila shek
Purandar hoilo Malana
Chandra Surjya adi debe padatik hoiya sebe
sabhe mile bajay bajna
apuni Chandika debi tinhu hoila Haya bibi
Padmabati hoila Bibi Noor
jatek debatagan hoiya sabhe ekmon
prabesh korilo Jajpur
deul dohara bhange fadya fidya khay ronge
pakhor pakhor bole bol
dhoriya Dharmer pay Ramai Pandit gay
i boro bishom gondogol
As a result of this history of persecution, the followers of the Dharma cult had to take shelter under the image of Shiva. Probably that is the reason why, despite the immense popularity of Shiva Gajan, the mythological bedrock of Gajan is found not in the Shaiva texts but in the Dharma Mangal Kavyas. But the fact that the Dharmites disguised themselves as followers of Shiva is not merely coincidental. The image of Shiva one encounters in Gajan has little resemblance with the Puranic Shiva, the god of destruction who lives on the Mount Kailasa. On the contrary, the Gajan Shiva is a householder who does agricultural work, smokes cannabis and goes from house to house begging for alms. The short paalaas (plays) which are performed in some places during Gajan foreground this typically Bengali image of Shiva the poor householder who is constantly upbraided by Parvati for sitting idle at home all day and not managing to bring in enough food for his children. This further underlines the rural imagination at work in Gajan and proves that it is overwhelmingly a festival of the common people living on the fringes of Sanskritic Brahminism.
The main constituent rituals of Shiva Gajan are:
- The day of fasting (upos), when the Shiva Sannyasis do not drink even a drop of water
- The day of Habishyi, when the Sannyasis put on the sacred thread
- Mahahabishyi, the day of great fasting
- Phala Utsav, the festival of fruits
- Nila Puja, the day when Shiva is ceremonially married to his consort Nilavati
- Charak, the final day of Gajan
Bhattacharya, Ashutosh. 2008. ’Folk Festivals of Bengal’, in Festivals in Indian Society, ed. Usha Sharma. New Delhi: Mittal Publications.
Dasgupta, Shashibhushan. 1995. Obscure Religious Cults. Calcutta: Firma KLM Private Limited.
Nicholas, Ralph W. 2008. Rites of Spring: Gajan in Village Bengal. New Delhi: Chronicle Books.
Sen, Dinesh Chandra. 1911. History of Bengali Language and Literature. Calcutta: Calcutta University Press.
 The fact that Charak can also be witnessed in many parts of North Kolkata does not contradict this fact. The establishment of Kolkata can hardly be delinked from the Permanent Settlement Act of 1793 which resulted in the migration of the land-holding classes (the zamindars) into the bourgeoning colonial city. Along with them came a large number of village men, dependent on the Babus in some way or the other. Thus many of the habits, practices and ceremonies of village life carried over into the emerging urban life. If Charak is one such ceremony, the other is Durga Puja.