Charak Mela A Slice Of Rural Life

Tarun Goswami

Once upon a time when our city bore closer resemblance with its rural neighbours, it stood witness to a number of festivals, many of which had folk origins. As more and more skyscrapers today stand silhouetted against the grey, polluted skyline a part of this old Calcutta got lost, forever. With city fathers going on renaming sprees, streets and parks not only lost their old names but a part of their identity and history went into oblivion. So happened with Charakdanga Street which got renamed as Tagore Castle Street and Rabindra Kanan which, bestowed with this association with the Nobel winning poet lost its original identity as Charakdangar Math where Charak festival was held every year amidst great fanfare, ahead of the Bengali New Year.

Charak is the oldest folk festival of Bengal which had its origin among Shaiva sects. It is also popularly known as Shiv-er Gajan or Nil Pujo. Held for a whole month, the fair peaks on the last day of the month of Chaitra after which the New Year begins according to the Bengali Calendar. Lord Shiva is also known as Neelkantha among the devotees as the churning of the ocean had yielded a pot of poison and when Shiva offered to hold it in his throat it turned blue because of the effect of the venom. Women also fast on this day for the well-being of their children and pour water on the Shivalinga. During Charak Pujo sanyasis do penance to seek blessings for themselves and onlookers as well.

 Interestingly, the higher castes did not participate in the festivals, nor did the women. Another distinctive feature of the festival is the torture inflicted on the body by those who became Sanyasis who renounced worldly life temporarily during the ritual. They walked on fire, jumped on thorny bushes, pierced their bodies with metal tridents and inflicted bodily pain to do penance. The British frowned upon such practices; Christian missionaries preached against the ‘Hook Swinging Festival’ but it continued to be practised clandestinely.

Kali Prasanna Singha wrote extensively about the Charak Fair held in 19th century Calcutta in his masterpiece tome, Hutom Pyanchar Naksha, frowning upon it as a festival which found patronage among nouveau rich who minted money by becoming agents to the British in the flourishing salt trade in Bengal. But he also gave a glimpse of the rural festivities in the imperial city.

In the past, two days before the festival, the main Sanyasi would go out to beg for food and other necessities. Those participating would wear anklets and thick threads around their necks. Carrying various objects like baan and daslaki to impale themselves they would dance around prostitute quarters, grog shops and courtyards of denizens to the rhythms of drum beats. At Gajantala, the festivities would begin with matha chala, a ritual where the participants would move their heads in circular motions while the priest would pour water over the Shivalinga till flowers and belpata (bael leaf) fall off from the deity. Accompanied by drum beats the participants would jump on thorny bushes or nails.

At the Gajantala a charakgach (a pole) would be erected over which another pole would be hung called the moch. A lot of ghee and bananas would be poured on the pivot as lubricant. At one end of the moch would be the hook or blade which would pierce the body and it would be made to revolve. Apart from hooks, tridents and boti (blades) would be used to pierce or inflict wounds. In the evenings, there would be jatras, panchali gaan. Also, the Kasaripara Swaangs would also perform on the day of Chaitra Sankranti.

The fair used to be really quaint rural one, complete with wooden toys, cane artefacts and those of terracotta, pith and wicker baskets. There would be giant wheels and fried fritters held a great attraction for the children.  Various household objects would also be sold with womenfolk engaged in haggling over prices. Bahurupis decking up as various gods and goddesses of the Hindu Pantheon was an added attraction.

Today, Charak festival has practically disappeared from the city and people keen for a visit for its unique folk character usually prefer those held in districts or suburbs. Yet in a bid to keep the tradition alive it is still held at an open space opposite the Thakurbari of the famous ‘Babus’ of Calcutta – Latubabu and Chatubabu in Beadon Street. The festival was first held in 1770, initiated by Ramdulal Deb (Sarkar) who rose from a very humble position in the employment of the Duttas of Hathkhola and later started his own business.  Kalyan Deb, a descendant rued that due to heavy traffic on Beadon Street police gives permission to hold the fair for just two days. Charak melas are also held at Beliaghata and Bhukailash off Khidderpore.

Pushed by urbanisation and real estate needs cities increasingly encroach upon rural neighbourhoods and Charak Fair – an essentially rustic festival held at the edges – also lose its sheen. In Rajarhat Newtown it survives at Hajra Kali Temple where it is held every year along with animal sacrifices acquiring that quaint touch of a rural fair held among skyscrapers. Indeed, it offers a slice of rural life in urban space.