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Gajon – vibrant rural folk festival of Bengal

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If you happen to visit Bengal in the last month of the Bengali calendar, you will often see Gajon Sanyasis begging from door to door, asking for alms and food-grains. Clad in a simple robe and some with body adorned in ash, while some having faces covered in various motifs, Gajon Sannyasis represent one of the biggest rural folk festivals of Bengal. The last month Chaitra ushers in Poila Baisakh or the Bengali New Year and these alm-seekers move around the city and towns of Bengal for a month. 

Shib er Gajon as it is popularly known as, ends with Charak Puja. Incidentally this festival is a great social leveller and includes all strata of a caste ridden society of India – from Harijans to Bagdis, from men to women and even having a non-Brahmin priest. Gajon is related to Lord Shiva, Neel and Dharmathakur. It is the celebration of the marriage between Lord Shiva and Parvati. On 26th Chaitra after taking bath in the Ganges, the Gajon sannyasis wear the holy thread by chanting a mantra Atma gotra porityajya, Shiva gotra probeshito (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, it means the Lord has given them the permission to be a sannyasi for a month. But if the flower does not fall, 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 Agun Jhanp.

This is followed by the deadlier Kanta Jhanp (jump over Bonchikanta, a type of very spiky thorn) and Boti Jhanp (standing on a sharp vegetable cutting knife or bonti). Bengali mothers also celebrate Neel Puja or Neel Shasti on the same day to get Lord Shiva’s blessings for their children. On Sankranti, the Gajon Sannyasis bring out a procession known as Maro-Veto (they visit all the Shiva Temples of the locality). The Kotal Bhakt or the main Sannyasi holds a long bamboo stick and on the top of the stick he ties a red gamchha (Bengal’s form of towel) like a flag and the other Bhakts and jester, are dressed as Hindu Gods and Goddesses –Shiva, Kali, Nandi-Vringi, Durga. They take part in this procession. They play the Dhak and dance. In the evening they celebrate Charak Puja.

The festival Gajon was started as Dharmer Gajonor Dharmadel. 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 belief related to harvesting in primitive days. Historian Suniti Kumar Chatterjee says, “Dharma who is described as the supreme deity and creator of the Universe, is 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 Gajon 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 to create a favourable climate for agriculture. According to Dr. Ashutosh Bhattacharya, “Gajon is a rain invoking festival of the primitive society. In an agro-based society, it is not surprising that they worship the god of agriculture which is also the god of fertility.”