Gajon festival of Bengal is a great social leveller
“Amraduti bhai, Shiber Gajon Gai
Thakumagechhe Gaya-Kashi dugdugi bajai”
Those two lines that we sang since childhood. Or even the typical loud harmonious chanting “Baba Taraknather Seva Laaage…...Mahadeeeev” (In the name of Taraknath (Shiva), Mahadev (Shiva), very common chanting during the Bengali month of Chaitra. Gajan Sanyasis are seen moving from door to door, asking for alms and chanting the above.
The festival of Gajon is celebrated in the last week of the Bengali month of Chaitra and it ends on the last day of the month, known as Chaitra Sankranti by celebrating the festival of Charak Puja. Shiber Gajon is a festival celebrated largely in West Bengal. Charak Puja is the last festival of the current year, or the last parvan of Bengali’s Baromashe tero parvan(the Bengali proverb for celebrating 13 festivals in 12 months of a year). Participants of this festival who take monkhood during this month are known as sanyasi. There is no gender discrimination among sanyasi. Gajon is related to Shiva, Neel and Dharmathakur. It is the celebration of the marriage between Lord Shiva and Parvati or Horo-Kali or Leelabati. It starts from 26th Chaitra or 10th April. The sannyasis form the barjatri or the bridegroom’s party of Shiva. In Dharma’s Gajonor Dharmadel which is celebrated in the month of Vaishakh (mid-April to mid-May), people celebrate the marriage of Dharmathakur to Mukti.
On 26th Chaitra after taking bath in the Ganges, the Gajon sannyasis wear the holy thread or poite with the help of Brahmins and by chanting a mantra Atma gotra porityajya, Shiva gotra probeshito (means we left our own gotra at this moment and enter into the Shiva gotra). Then they perform a ritual called Phool Karan. They put flowers and the leaves of wood apple on Shivalinga and if these flowers or leaves drop down from the Lord’s head that means the Lord has given them the permission. But if the flower does not fall off, then they perform another ritual called Matha Chala (all the sanyasis nod their head until the flower drops from the Shivalinga. When the flower drops, the next ritual starts. It is known as Jhool Jhanp or Hindol Jhap or Agun Jhap.
On 27th Chaitra or 11 April they perform Kanta Jhanp (they jump over the Benguch or Bonchikanta, a type of very spiky thorn). On 28th Chaitra they perform Boti Jhanp while chanting: Horo Gouri Pranonath/ Matharopor Jagannath/ eibar udhhar koro Shib he/ Bom Bholanatho (I got this with the help of my friend Amitavo Purokayastho) and they stand on a sharp Bengali vegetable cutting knife called bonti and the miracle is that no harm is done after standing on the sharp knife. On 13th April (Bengali 29th Chaitra) the Bengalis celebrate Neel Puja or Neel Shasti. This puja is done by married women, who fast throughout the day and break their fast after pouring milk over the Shiva Lingam. The puja is done to please the Lord Shiva and get his blessings for their children. Neel Puja is the marriage ceremony of Lord Shiva. Shiva is considered to be Neel or “Neelkantha”. Gajon is the greatest celebration of Shiva worshiping. The last day of Gajon is celebrated as Charak.
On Sankranti, the Gajon Sannyasis bring out a procession known as Maro-Veto (means they visit all the Shiva Temples of the locality). The Kotal Bhokta or the Pat Bhokta or the main Sannyasi holds a long bamboo stick and on the top of the stick he ties a red gamchha (Bengali towel) like a flag and the other Bhoktas and jester, are dressed as Hindu Gods and Goddesses –Shiva, Kali, Nandi-Vringi, Durga(Traditionally Durga was not the part of this procession as it was a part of Lord Shiva’s bridegroom’s party) etc. They take part in this procession. They play the Dhakin a high pitch and dance. In the evening they celebrate Charak Puja.
There are different takes on the etymology of the word Gajon. Some said Ga in Bengali means village and Jon means Janasadharon or people. That means Gajonis the song of the village folk. Some say Gaa means gaan or song and Jon is derived from Mahajon, or noble one. Gajon thus becomes the ‘song of Mahajon or the great lord, Mahadev.’ The word however might have its origin in the Sanskrit word Garjon, meaning roaring or a song which is sang loudly. During Gajon, devotees shout loudly in praise of Lord Shiva.It is speculated in the Middle Ages when Buddhism was on the verge of decay in the Indian subcontinent and Hindu revival movements took place, a mystic form of Buddhism developed in Bengal. It was during the Pala period and its profound impact entirely changed the course and history of Buddhism. After the end of the Gupta Empire (c. 320–650 CE), the royal power was decentralisedand Buddhism lost the financial support of rulers. This disintegration was responsible for the rise of regional sects such as Shaivism, Vaishnavism, Bhakti and Tantra, along with Hinduism. The Brahmins were gaining power and developed a new equation with the rulers. The fusion between Shaktism and Buddhist mysticism gave rise to new schools of Shaktism, called Tantra or Tantric rituals. The Tantric-Buddhist tradition is known as Bajrajan. This Tantric form of mysticism reached a stage in Bengal in the hands of the Siddhas or Tantric Acharyas. The festivals like Gajon, Charak, Alkap etc were actually developed as a part of this Tantra based Shaktisism.
The festival Gajon was started as Dharmer Gajonor Dharmadel in the month of Vaishakh converted into Shiber Gajan. Dharmathakur is generally worshipped by scheduled castes like Bauri, Bagdi, Hari, Dom, Koibortya etc. Dharmathakur originated from Dharmaraj of Buddhism and is just a shapeless stone and its Vahana is represented by terracotta horses. Gajon started with the magical beliefs related to harvesting in primitive days. Suniti Kumar Chatterjee says, “Dharma who is however described as the supreme deity, creator and ordainer of the Universe, superior even to Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva and at times identified with them, and he has nothing of the abstractions of Buddhist Dharma. ”He has further opined that songs and dances linked with Gajon of Dharma is clearly non-Aryan in origin. It could be Dravidian or Tibeto-Chinese. In some places the skull dance is a part of Gajon. Though it is a rural festival but it is also celebrated in Kolkata since the birth of the city.
Lord Shiva is a non-Aryan, folk god and the oldest among folk gods. He is shown as the god of the peasant class or agricultural community in the old Bengali literature. Some social scientists say that it is an agro-based festival, with a mixture of witchcraft and fertility cult. The objective of this festival is to regulate the heat of the sun by magical power or by what is known as “Sympathetic Magic” and to create a favourable climate for agriculture. According to Dr. Ashutosh Bhattacharya,“Gajon is a ‘rain invoking’ festival of the primitive society. In an agriculture based society it is not surprising that they worship the god of agriculture which is also the god of fertility (both agricultural and human). Lord Shiva is said to be closely related to this. One way it signifies the union of the forces of sun and earth. People also believe that this festival will provide them prosperity and eliminates the sorrow and sufferings which they suffered in the past year.”
The festival of Gajon has a huge social significance on the caste system. Gajon festival is to some extent a great social leveller. It is the festival of Hari, Bagdi, Dom, Sutrodhor, Koibortya etc Schedule Caste communities. It is a festival where the Brahmans have no importance and the priests of this festival are chosen from these Schedule Caste communities.