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PHOTO ESSAY

Hooked on tradition: This festival in rural Bengal is both dramatic and bizarre

Print edition : Jun 18, 2022 T+T-

Hooked on tradition: This festival in rural Bengal is both dramatic and bizarre

On a “charak tree”, which is any thick and tall tree trunk, this young man hangs by a rope fastened to hooks pierced on the skin on his back, only one of many who so seek Siva’s blessings for a bountiful harvest during the Charak and Gajan festival held on the occasion of Chaitra Sankranti and the Bengali New Year.

On a “charak tree”, which is any thick and tall tree trunk, this young man hangs by a rope fastened to hooks pierced on the skin on his back, only one of many who so seek Siva’s blessings for a bountiful harvest during the Charak and Gajan festival held on the occasion of Chaitra Sankranti and the Bengali New Year. | Photo Credit: Joyeeta Ghosh

A festival in rural Bengal, considered essential to usher in a bountiful harvest, is marked by plenty of rituals, some of them dramatic but bizarre.

The Charak and Gajan festival is to rural Bengal what Durga Puja is to Kolkata. Siva and Parvathi (incarnated as Kali) are at the centre of the celebration held on the occasion of Chaitra Sankranti, the last day (April 14) of the month of Chaitra, which is followed by Poila Baisakh, or Bengali New Year. On the occasion, village folk atone for their sins and seek divine blessings for a bountiful harvest in the coming year, The three-day festival, which is also celebrated in Tripura and Assam, ends on the last day with some mind-numbing rituals.

Straining on a hook to hug a child and bless it, and even swing with it around the charak tree.
Straining on a hook to hug a child and bless it, and even swing with it around the charak tree. | Photo Credit: Joyeeta Ghosh
His face pierced with multiple needles, all done without spilling any blood by experts, this  man prepares for his routine of paying obeisance to Siva.
His face pierced with multiple needles, all done without spilling any blood by experts, this man prepares for his routine of paying obeisance to Siva. | Photo Credit: Joyeeta Ghosh

In one of these, young men, at times boys, with hooks pierced into the skin on their backs swing by ropes tied to a bamboo pole that rotates on the tip of a “charak tree”, which is any thick tree trunk that rises to the sky. These men do not go into a trance but are said to be responding to the call of Siva. They chant his name as they are propelled round and round the tree trunk. They hug children to themselves, as a way of blessing them.

Raising the heavy “charak tree” with a helping hand from all present.
Raising the heavy “charak tree” with a helping hand from all present. | Photo Credit: Joyeeta Ghosh
At the venue of the main charak festival, the sanyasis tie the bamboo poles to the tree trunk so that it rotates freely and is heavy enough to bear the weight of the men who hang from it on ropes fastened to hooks pierced on their backs.
At the venue of the main charak festival, the sanyasis tie the bamboo poles to the tree trunk so that it rotates freely and is heavy enough to bear the weight of the men who hang from it on ropes fastened to hooks pierced on their backs. | Photo Credit: Joyeeta Ghosh

In another ritual, women lie on the ground, next to each other in a row, waiting to receive Siva’s blessings. This comes to them from Gajan Sanyasis who, said to be possessed by Siva, walk on the women.

A “fire spewing” Gajan Sanyasi gives his blessing to the women on the ground by walking on them, in this age-old ritual at Kalighat near Kolkata.
A “fire spewing” Gajan Sanyasi gives his blessing to the women on the ground by walking on them, in this age-old ritual at Kalighat near Kolkata. | Photo Credit: Joyeeta Ghosh

Gajan, a portmanteau word of gram (village) and janasadharan (ordinary folk), is also the time when children and other village folk paint their faces black, blue or red, dress up as Kali or Siva, and go around seeking biksha or alms while breaking into dance, song or prayer. The extremely artistic face painting is done by villagers who have learnt the skill from their parents and who will pass it on to their children. It’s the same kind of hereditary skill that those villagers show who pierce the hooks and spears on to the backs and faces of men without spilling a single drop of blood.

Krishna and Balarama painted in amazing detail. The villagers who do this painting have learnt the skill from their parents and will pass it on to their children.
Krishna and Balarama painted in amazing detail. The villagers who do this painting have learnt the skill from their parents and will pass it on to their children. | Photo Credit: Joyeeta Ghosh
Siva in painted form, near Bardhaman. They go around the streets seeking alms while dancing and singing.
Siva in painted form, near Bardhaman. They go around the streets seeking alms while dancing and singing. | Photo Credit: Joyeeta Ghosh
While the boy waits for the paint on his face to dry during the Charak festival near Bardhaman, in the mirror is a reflection of the man he would perhaps grow up to be.
While the boy waits for the paint on his face to dry during the Charak festival near Bardhaman, in the mirror is a reflection of the man he would perhaps grow up to be. | Photo Credit: Joyeeta Ghosh

Different regions of West Bengal have their own unique Gajan rituals. In the Kalighat area of Kolkata, for instance, sanyasis have a fire ritual where they tie a post or pole to their hips, which is then set on fire. They use dhuno or frankincense to fan the flames. The dance is done facing the temple where the god Siva resides.

The man on the ground is rotating the sanyasi hanging by a rope and throwing prasad, which the people eagerly pick up and eat.
The man on the ground is rotating the sanyasi hanging by a rope and throwing prasad, which the people eagerly pick up and eat. | Photo Credit: Joyeeta Ghosh

In some villages, the men dance with human skulls and even partly decomposed bodies. Sanyasis pick up bodies and skulls, including those of children, from burial grounds, quite illegally. Often, they get the skulls before the festival and hide them outside the village. The use of skulls is believed to have its origins in tantrik Buddhism, later adopted by some Hindu sects.

A march with skulls at 4 a.m., in a village near Bardhaman. The preparation begins early the previous night. Along with the putrefying skulls that give out a fetid smell, the men also carry weapons as they make their way through the village.
A march with skulls at 4 a.m., in a village near Bardhaman. The preparation begins early the previous night. Along with the putrefying skulls that give out a fetid smell, the men also carry weapons as they make their way through the village. | Photo Credit: Joyeeta Ghosh

At the end of these three colourful albeit gory days, rural Bengal considers that the new year has had an auspicious start. The villagers bring the Charak down, in anticipation of when it will rise again the next year.