The Subaltern Deities of Bengal Are up Against Aggressive Hindutva Now

The tradition in Bengal was to not bring out weapons to intimidate others, for none will believe that Bhagawan Ramachandra ever did so.

The unprecedented display of aggression witnessed in Bengal in April in the name of Rama Navami, has perhaps distracted the Bengali people from the good old traditional deities of Chaitra. This month, from mid-March to mid-April, has always belonged to Shiva, Shitala, Annapurana or Basanti and the very indigenous Dharma-Thakur. Bengalis were very clear that Durga came home only in Ashwin and reserved ten full holidays to rejoice in her name. What lent most colour to this month was Gajan, which is so similar to Taai-pusam in Tamil country. Throughout the month, several people dressed up as Shiva-Parvati, and wandered around streets and localities: singing, dancing and invoking Mahadev. It was the Bengali way of taking a religion to the streets, with devotion and pantomime, not with swords and threats.

From the reports of 19th century British and Indian ethnographers, we read a lot about Rama Navami being celebrated in North India, and also from other pockets, but do not find any mention of it in Bengal. There are countless mahallas or localities in the state that proudly carry the names of so many deities – Manasa, Shasti, Chandi, Dharma-thakur, Shitala – all of who are from the pre-Brahmanised indigenous pantheon. We even come across many named after Jagannath’s Rathas, but we hardly ever come across Hanuman-localities or medieval Rama-mandirs. Exceptions do exist, like the Ramarajatala Rama Mandir of Howrah, but they are very few, and even this temple was set up by a North Indian family.

In any case, we need to be very clear that there is a big difference in celebrating Durga’s victory and the nine days leading to Rama’s birth. The two traditions are quite distinct and they cross each other primarily at the junction of Akal Bodhan in Ashwin.This was when Rama is said to have prayed to Durga for her blessings – the two do come face to face briefly, but say goodbye to each other immediately thereafter. While most Indians observe the Ashwin Navaratri and Dusshera in the name of Lord Rama, Bengalis do not worship it in Rama’s name: they pray to Durga, Durga and only Durga. Bengalis have this strange trait of choosing to differ in every possible domain. In politics, for instance, they have created a Guinness record by electing those parties to power for forty long years, who were invariably opposed to those who assumed power at the Centre. Even, when all Indians actually “go and fly kites” on Makar Sankranti day in mid-January, no self respecting Bengali would ever do so, even with woollen mufflers and caps that would do justice in the North Pole. So, the congenitally different Bengalis fly kites in September in honour of their variant of Vishwakarma, a post-industrial god of machinery. And they fly kites with the full gusto of football matches, as if East Bengal and Mohun Bagan were fighting with little flimsy coloured paper, high in the skies. We shall soon see more such ‘differences’.

At this juncture, let us remember that the Ramayana was not the property of any particular region or language. In fact, the Tamils were the first to celebrate it in their own style and profusion of emotional expressions, with their Kamba-Ramayanam that was created in the 12th century, full four hundred years before Tulsidas’s Ramcharitmanas swept the Ganga-Yamuna belt. There are other versions that also precede Tulsidas’s poem, like the Telugu SriRanganatha Ramayanam, the Assamese Kotha Ramayana and even a Jaina Ramayana in Kannada. These regional traditions underline the beautiful plurality of India and are excellent examples of our ‘unity in diversity’. They combine, quite adroitly, local cultural preferences and legends within a broad national framework that was initiated by the Sanskrit Ramayana – and none of them was more ‘national’ than the other. Tulsidas’s Ramcharitamanas of the 16th century was not in Hindi, but in the very sweet Avadhi dialect and it became immensely popular among the masses in the north. This created an ambience for “Rama worship to be very widespread in north India and the places associated with his life (became) great places of pilgrimage, while his birthday is a day of great rejoicing”. As this report of 1921 reveals, the East and the North East may have missed out on the Rama Navami tradition of fasting and reciting sacred texts, perhaps because Ramchandra did not pass through their lands.

Durga and Rama hardly ever meet in the Bengali tradition. Credit: Kunal Gupta, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Durga and Rama hardly ever meet in the Bengali tradition. Credit: Kunal Gupta, Flickr CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The Bengali Chaitra tradition

So what exactly did the Bengalis worship in Chaitra? Well, it was Shiva and not Rama who loomed large, for it was primarily his month. But this Shiva was not the all powerful and often-fearsome Rudra of Kailash. This Shiva who ruled Bengal was a very peasantised mutant: a jolly, ganja-loving, pot-bellied, playful leader of mischievous ganas. From medieval Bengali literature, the Mangal Kavyas folk ballads, that were so popular between the 15th and the 17th centuries, we find that the ‘high god’ version Shiva was repeatedly losing out to the ‘ugly’ indigenous deities of popular religion in Bengal. It was only when Shiva discarded his regal demeanour and transformed himself into a poor rice-cultivating peasant did he win the votes of the masses in Bengal. People simply loved his mingling with the common distressed folk, dressed in a tattered gamchha, chased around with a jhaaru quite often by an exasperated Durga. It is the same Bengal that lionised the farmers of Singur who shooed away the mighty Tatas, and even punished their own indulgent Communist comrades after three long decades, for even dreaming of re-industrialisation! By the way, the Bengali Durga is quite also different, as nowhere else in India does she appear with her full family: even though one wonders why all her children look the other way as she fights the terrible Mahishasura.

Centuries of small gods

Let us now return to the other folk deities that the Bengalis have worshipped for centuries in the month of Chaitra. From John Murdoch’s well-known Hindu and Muhammedan Festivals of 1904 we learn that Basanti was worshipped in Bengal from the 7th day of Chaitra Shukla Paksha and that “this yellow goddess was the third of the seven Shitala sisters invoked during dreadful diseases”. She was Sanskritised later as ‘Durga’ and worshipped in Chaitra, but as the report says, her celebration was “not with such pomp and universality” as thereal Durga’ of autumn. Incidentally, people invoked another goddess, Shasthi, on the 12th of Chaitra that was known as A-shoka Shasthi, the sixth lunar day that drives away shoka or bereavement. This poor goddess lost her popularity quite a bit once better medical care ensured greater chances of infants surviving that dreaded ‘post-natal mortality’ phase. The local goddess of small-pox Shitala’s ratings also dipped as this terrible disease has been eradicated. And then came family planning that propagated the two-child norm while hard economics ensured that one single child became the rule. Being Bengalis, these poor kids are trained rigorously from birth to excel and be first in everything, from studies to music – but avoid physical stress like the plague. Unlike the south, where one Mariamman takes care of several diseases like a ‘general physician’, finicky Bengalis require a whole pantheon of choices of deities who were like mono-ailment specialists, much like the annoying narrow expertise that modern doctors flaunt.

But the most popular ancient folk god of western Bengal was Dharma-thakur and his name is an obviously Sanskritised one. It was he who reigned supreme during Chaitra, before being unseated by a more strategic Shiva. Their inter se relations are rather complex and difficult to understand. Let us remember, establishing Brahmanism in Bengal was really an uphill task for several centuries, as was for most of India that lies beyond the ‘Aryavart‘ heartland. Vedic gods were hardly known in this state except in pandit-sabhas and the Puranic deities that Brahmans introduced could not stop Buddhism from ruling Bengal for four centuries, at the time of the Palas. Their repertoire was just not attractive enough to compete with the charismatic Pirs who came up after Islam stepped in. We need to recall that ultimately two-thirds of the Bengali-speaking people voted for Islam. As hinted, the mighty Shiva and his wife were continuously beaten in the game of one-upmanship by Dharma-Thakur as well as by the local snake deity, Manasa. The medieval ballads of Kalketu and Phullara actually represented the rise of the darker people, the hunters and herdsmen who turned to farming, blessed as they were by another Bengali folk goddess Chondi. This autochthonous deity took care to retain her original name through a prefix – like betai, pagla, shibai, khyepa, olai, etc to denote madness – to distinguish herself from the Brahmanical Chandi. Dharma or Dhammaraj ensured that his devotee, the local folk hero, defeated a mighty chieftain, who had made the mistake of choosing an ‘up-country’ goddess.

When learned Brahmans could not win over the masses with their Sanskrit Puranas and later the Upa-Puranas, it were the rural purohits took up the challenge as it was their livelihood that was at stake. They simply switched deities and started singing in praise of local gods and goddesses. Medieval Bangla literature reveals that almost all kavis were from the upper castes. As they absorbed “the gods of small men”, the worship of ‘crude stones’ and sacred groves was considered as legitimate as praying to Brahmanic images in temples. Incidentally, the tradition of placing terracotta hathi-ghora under trees, as mannat, can be traced through the entire Deccan right upto the east, which thus represents a common cultural sub-strata. It was often retained by many who took to Islam, as their ‘the horse of the Pir saheb’.

A boy dressed as Lord Shiva stands inside a temple during Mahashivratri festival in Trakeshawar, about 50 km (30 miles) west from Kolkata February 6, 2008. Credit:Jayanta Shaw/Reuters/Files

A boy dressed as Lord Shiva stands inside a temple during Mahashivratri festival in Trakeshawar, about 50 km (30 miles) west from Kolkata February 6, 2008. Credit:Jayanta Shaw/Reuters/Files

Intermingling traditions

Before concluding, we need to unravel how thepeasant god’ could make this break-through in Bengal with a new brand of mass-level Shaivism. Before this, the Go-kshetra inspired Naths of the Gorakshanath cult had tried with their Yogis and mendicants, but could not win. It is fascinating to note that the main intersection in Calcutta is still between Chowringhee road, named after a Nath-guru, and Dharma-tala where the ancient shrine of Dhrama-thakur stood. It was later shifted to a site a kilometre away. The Bom-Bhola Shiva did the trick in Bengal by subsuming large doses of the autochthonous Dharma cult. For instance, the popular folk rituals of Dharma, including the festival of Gajan and the ritual of Charak were associated with Dharma. Peasants carried out these rites during blazing summer as prayers to the sun – to move on and crack the clayey earth with so well that the plough and its accompaniments could break down the soil with lesser effort. Ralph Nicholas of Chicago University, who spent many years on folk gods in Medinipur, was among the earliest to notice the striking similarities in the worship and rituals of the earlier Dharma deity and the peasant Shiva. The main attraction for the crowds at the Charak ritual was to see how devotees swung high in the air with ropes that had big hooks inserted into their backs. Though this was officially banned for a century, some of Dharma’s worshippers and Shiva’s still risk the law and their lives, in the name of god. The rites of self torture are still quite gruesome, as devotees push sharp big needles into their tongues, cheeks and bodies or rollover thick prickly bushes or dancing on burning flames and red-hot coals for never-ending periods.

But, all said and done, the tradition was, and is, to inflict a lot of pain but on their own bodies. They did not bring out weapons to intimidate others, for none will believe that Bhagawan Ramachandra ever did so.

Jawhar Sircar was culture secretary and CEO at Prasar Bharati. He writes on history of religion.