Monday, April 20, 2009


The word GAAJAN is from garjan– the soul-stirring cry of the mendicants. It is the roar of the lion – the spine chilling call of the mythical God Siva. The festivals continue for a month starting from the last month of the traditional almanac, Chaitra and ends with the beginning of the New Year in the month of Baisakh. Summer is then is at its peak. Another name for the festival is Charak coming from chakra or the wheel – the circle of the movement of the Sun. It is symbolized by the setting up of a high pole from which hangs a devotee. With the help of a strong rope he swings himself in space going round and round the pole. It is a difficult and dangerous feat.
Sociologists opine that this festival, which can be seen even in some pockets of an urban jungle like Calcutta, is predominantly linked to the agricultural community. The farmers are being baked in the sun. So they pray for the rains. Siva is said to be very close to the tiller of the soil. Both Hindu and Buddhist influences have left their stamp on the bloody festival of Gaajan.
In mythological tales Bali was the King of the Asuras (demons). His son Baan was a devotee of Siva and together with his subjects offered blood to appease the god. According to legend Usha, the daughter of Baan, fell in love with the grandson of Krishna, Anirudha. A bloody feud ensued. Finally Krishna negotiated and brought about an amicable settlement by which Baan came to be recognized as one of the first ranking disciples of Shiva.
According to historians when during the middle ages the Buddhists came to be cornered in India and specifically West Bengal, they sought shelter under the banner of Hinduism. But they brought with them certain Tantric rituals of Buddhism, which involved bloodletting as well as mendicancy. Buddha laid great stress on monasticism and that is why during Gaajan, ordinary householders become mendicants for a month, put on ochre robes and beg from door to door. Dharmaraj is the Lord of the Buddhists. In some places the Gaajan offerings are divided into two with a drawn line – one side is for Shiva and the other for Dharmaraj.
Most of the villages of across Bengal the mendicants go early in the morning to the cremation ground to collect the skulls of the dead(This is apecial ritual at the villege Kurdmun). Sometimes they collect it from the morgue of suburban government hospitals. After dancing around with these, the skulls are again returned from where they were brought. From other sources it is learnt that dakinis and yoginis (female witches) would dance naked with their bodies smeared from top to toe with vermillion.
Today they wear saris bordered with red. Others walk over nails or hot coals and some have their nostrils and tongue pierced with rods. Alternative versions of the same theme are observed in festivals stretching from Myanmar to Japan speaking of a strong Buddhist influence.
The Gaajan festival was a great social leveler. The humble downtrodden peasant who are called Bhaktaa(the worshipers) acquired Shiva-hood(Shiva Gotra), for one day to one month depending on the traditions and rituals. When he appeared in the sitting room of the Landlord with holy bel (wood apple) leaves in his ears and his palm the landlord had to get up and touch his feet. Such was its force and impact. The farmer, the oil-maker, the fisherman, the potter, the cobbler, the barber, the scavenger, the undertaker – all became intoxicated for a month and were given due respect.
In 1012 King Dharmapal II after being defeated in war went into hiding. His wife Queen Saphula cut off her two breasts during Gaajan praying for the welfare of her King and Kingdom.
The bloody aspect of inflicting self-injury greatly disturbed British rulers. In 1864 the government banned some gory acts. In due course the festival lost its ferocity but retained its strength in observing a month of austerities and discipline, which is always good for the body and mind. A question arises today – in bygone days the blood that flowed was self-inflicted; the roar was that of the self-sacrificing mendicants and not the guns of self-seeking political hoodlums staining the green villages red right across the globe.
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