travelling monks : gajan charak festival

Evolution of Gajan & Charak- some interesting insights

“When Brahmanism was introduced into this land, Bengal was permeated with Tantric Rites and Buddhist idea. Later, Buddha was transformed into Dhrama. which became the most prominent social deity in every village. Songs and festivities in honour of Dharma Thakur became the craze of people. The festival , Dharamer Gajan was, in later times, converted into Siver Gajan, Siva having replaced Dharma under the influence of Brahmanism”

 “A religion of sexo- yogic practices fused with animistic beliefs thus developed in Bengal after Buddhism came under the influence of Tantra. The male and female principles ( of Buddha and Sakti), later became identified as Siva & Sakti.” – The Bengalees by Samaren Roy

It is interesting to note that one of the two ‘pats’ (a piece of polished wood having a breadth of  eight to ten inches and length of six feet. Its one end is wide and the other end is in the form of a triangle which is nicely engraved with figures & symbols of Sankha, Gada, Chakro, Vishnu, Horgori, Kaal, Manasa, etc) – for there are two in the Charak festivities of the Rajbanshi’s where we are headed, has an idol of what is purported to be Shiva with tied up dreadlocks in meditation, which could easily be said to resemble Buddha.

Gajan Charak as Human Fertility Cult

In rituals observed throughout the world particularly in Africa and India female infertility is considered to be a great curse, and the cause of much consternation an persecution of the woman. This dread of bareness has led to the development of various magi-co religious rituals in order to increase human fertility. The women is also considered to be symbolically linked to the fertility of the land, and hence spring is the time when human fertility rites are in order. The Gajan Charak Festival, is one such ritual. Shiva, arguably has been considered as the symbol and perpetrator of fertility, one who brings aakar ( form ) to the niraakar (formless). The female is considered as the niraakar (formless). Hence as Shiva and Sakti (Parvati), gets married, as they do in Gajan, the resultant benefits accruing to the land & its people is the boon of fertility. But, that is not that simple, as the appellants would have to undergo a ritual to be granted the boons of fertility. Hence, there is a elaborate festival laid out, which brings together people of all caste’s & creed to temporarily shed their profane existence and assume the sacred identity of ‘gajan sanyasis’.

Shiv was a Zamidar (landlord)

In interviews with the local head priest to conduct the Charak festival, i was told, “Shiv was a Zamidar (landlord)”. This is probably a folklore which has come down through generations. After all, it is true that the Zamidar’s or the landlords, sanctioned & established the worship of various gods & goddesses in their areas & indeed did build the temples and sponsor festivals. So , without the Zamindar’s there would be no Shiv in the public domain. Fertility of land & its people much have been of paramount importance to the Zamindars. It is interesting how money and capital has been symbolically represented in the Gajan Charak festival.

 In search of Bairagi (The Jester)

The devotee, selected to be the Jester on the last day of the Charak celebrations, is dressed up as a clown or jester, face painted, as he to go around the streets , clowning and making fun of things. Clowning started in Europe (maybe Italy), if i’m not wrong, how old then is this tradition of Bairagi. Quite old i suppose. But unfortunately here the Bairagi is no more. Perhaps, talking to the community, one gets the feeling that they have themselves forgotten about him. Maybe he’ll be back next year??

Today’s Charak 

Would I ever hang from a pole with hooks running through my body. No never, not for fertility, not for money or power or pleasure or he love of any god. Its simply impossible. Is it then faith which drives young people to this ritualistic surrender to pain and possible fatality. It’s not money, nor fame nor anything , but is it for the sake of fertility, not really, from what i could gather speaking to them. Then what?? An young man of 26, Bapi Rajbanshi, tuition master & the head of the Charak festival committee grins tacitly, ” Well, we just do it, since childhood”. “For nothing”, I probe. Someone joins in protest, “No, its never for nothing, we have private prayers”, he says. “How have the rituals and the festival changed”, i ask an older man. “Not much”, he says. The priest though differs, “lots of change – in tantra, mantra, bhojon, sadhana”, he opines, which i guess is a metaphor of change in attitudes and approaches which i could easily put down to a generic statement of the ever present generation gap. “But”, i probe further, “What about the musical instruments”, pointing to the drums, silvery steel trumpets and the rest which basically is a marriage orchestra, belching out Bangla & Hindi numbers of the 80’s, “have they not changed”. “Yes and No”, he says, getting a hint of what i’m referring to, ” They used to be hired & still they are”. This was the first day of Charak, the inception & the ‘Pats‘, have been extracted from the Kali temple & laid in its courtyard under the ‘Maha Neem Tree’. Trishuls, eighteen of them of different sizes, have been planted behind the ‘Pats‘. Before it , an assortment of items.

Pigeon Sacrifice

As tradition would have it pigeons were sacrificed at the beginning and end of the festival. But, we didn’t see this rather extreme ritual of ‘sacrifice’, on our visit, so i asked the chief priest all about it. He is outside the temple, as i approach him. he signals me to move inside the temple. Another priest playfully blocks the way. He asks  “Did you eat non veg in the last 4 days ?”.  “Of course not , we’re fully vegetarian”, i retort quickly, as last night’s “chicken methi malai “churns in me. He seats me in the temple, and soon a few boys in red robes huddled around and we started talking. ‘pigeons’, he said, ‘are there’, pointing to a piece of cloth covering a mound. I repeat ‘ i mean pigeons’. He nods, asks the boys to fetch it. One of the boys very enthusiastically removes the cover & brings two pigeons out from a cage under the cloth. There is a black pigeon and a white pigeon. They are baby pigeons. I stare helplessly at him, now the ‘chicken kadhai’, at my throat. ‘Don;t worry”, he smiles mischievously, “nowadays we just let them go free”.


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