** Warning: Some of the photos are very brutal and traumatizing. Proceed at your own risk**
I came to learn about Gajan Festival through a few photographers in West Bengal. The traditions and rituals seemed out of this world. It was nothing that I had heard or seen in the past. Despite the fact that I had been through North East and has seen their culture and traditions, this one felt more hard and rigorous.
Then the year went by and I forgot about it.
This year, I was in Assam and was looking for my next destination. Election season was on head and I lacked options for places to travel in North East. So I search and found out that Gajan Festival is in West Bengal and I can reach the best venue in a day or two.
I spoke to a few friends and I was suggested to go to Ambika Kalna to attend the festival. Kalna’s Gajan Festival is one of the oldest and still follows the same rituals that has been around since the ancient times. I reached Kolkata from Guwahati and after spending a day, my friend and I left for Kalna.
The train between Guwahati and Kolkata costed me more than the flight ticket. Always search for flights first.
Bengal is known as a land of festivities. The quote ‘baro maase tero parbon (‘13 festivals in just 12 months’)’ is often associated with this state because the number of festivals outnumber the months in a calendar year.
Gajan Festival also coincides with the beginning of Harvest season in East and North India. Gajan is celebrated on the last day of Bengali New Year. This is a pre harvest season festival celebrated in order to please Lord Shiva. This is why the festival is also known as Shiber Gajan and this song is popularly associated with the festival.
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
Gajan Festival is divided in two parts, Neil Puja and Charak Puja. On 13th April, Neil Puja is held. Participants, dance around in makeups of Shiva, Kali and many other gods and goddesses. Most of the rituals of the festival are carried during the night time. For me, it became extremely difficult to go to the location where it was being held. Instead, I decided to rest for the night and see whatever I could attend the next day.
Day 2 is when Charak Puja is held. It involves a charak tree and many sanyasis are suspended on the branches one by one. 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 is supposed to be straight in order to qualify for the festival. The tree is worshipped by priests and then erected inside a ditch and is balanced by bamboos.
People insert spikes in your mouth and backs and run around chanting the name of Shiva. Charak Puja is also about the test of human strength and faith that makes people do incredible things. Some also say that such acts are a form of role reversal for men who try to attempt to experience the pains of womanhood, including childbirth.
Personally, I always feel conflicted when I come across something like this. Devotees running on burning coal, people hurting themselves to prove their devotion, women rolling on hot marble floor and so much I have seen that I now just accept everything as a part of local traditions. Until I don’t come across something that involves harming someone else or an innocent animal, I don’t think I will have an issue with the festival.
Where to attend Gajan Festival
Gajan is a festival of rural Bengal so it is celebrated widely in different villages. The best way to see the rituals of the festival is by visiting some place near Kolkata.
Ambika Kalna is the best place to see the rituals of Gajan Festival. Travel to the village on a local train in the morning of 13th April, stay there and then return to Kolkata by an evening train of 14th April.
Other places to attend Gajan Festival
ChatuBabu LatuBabur Bajar, North Kolkata
Close to the city, it is easy to travel here from Kolkata without spending 3-4 hours on train. It is also perfect for those who are weak hearted and don’t like brutal practices.
ChatuBabu LatuBabur Bajar, North Kolkata
Here, you’ll find a lot of opportunities to click portraits of people dressed up as Shiva, Kali, Parvati, etc.
Charaker Math near Shantipur is also known for a unique Gajan Ritual.