The Gajon festival is a celebration of Lord Shiva’s wedding with Parvati, also known as Neelavati, which is celebrated all over Bengal under various monikers. It is Gaajon in South Bengal, Gambhira in North Bengal and East Bengal (presently Bangladesh), Gamira in further North and simply Neel in East Bengal. The customs and rituals may vary according to the predominant regional practices. But weddings in Bengal have always been like that. Despite the presence of a Brahmin priest or a Qazi, weddings essentially have less to do with rituals and more adorned with a string of traditional customs rooted not in religion but a primordial sense of magic, sorcery and spirituality.
Lord Shiva is believed to be born in the month of Shraabon and his wedding is celebrated during the month of Chaitra. However, the festival of Gaajon which is a celebration of the latter varies often. Usually, it is the last three days of Chaitra. Now, being a celebration of wedding, the groom is supposed to arrive with his kin and relations or rather people from his village. The term Gaajon, rooted deeply in the notions of a folk fest, actually reflects on this idea. (‘Gaa’ is the colloquial Bengali term for village while ‘Jon’ is a reference to general populace) Gaajon thus becomes a carnival of the groom party laced with mirth, shrieks and screams.
Although Gaajon had always been a carnival for the lower class and lower caste, there had been instances in the past of the established class of society participating, especially the Babus of old Kolkata. The 19th Century had even witnessed processions of clowns and jesters to celebrate Gaajon. Although it had always been a festival for the lower classes, the educated sections have attempted to give it a seal of distant approval by terming it ‘Folk Culture’ as a part of the larger canon of folk festival, with a clear interpretation of folk as lower, uneducated mass.
It is a common practice, all over Bengal, to worship Lord Shiva as Shivalinga, the phallic form of masculinity. Most of these are found to be parabolic black rocks. This custom can be traced back to the Bengal’s anthropological roots and an agrarian past. During those times, in the absence of the scientific and technological advancements, the land used to be tilled with the help of a rock attached to one end of a thick branch, an ancient form of the plough. With time, the rocks were made sharper. Ownership of land came to be determined by the hands that moved the plough. Now the analogy to be noted here is between the firm and rigid piece of rock that enters the land to produce crops and the male organ, ‘rigid as a rock’ that penetrates the female body, ‘fertile as land’ to produce an offspring. And in those ancient times, when there were hardly any means to fight the calamities of nature, both crops and offspring were treasured resources. Thus, a piece of rock becomes a totem for magical powers. These ‘Holy’ rocks are spread all over Bengal, under the trees or on open air altars. Even Lord Dharma (Dharmathakur) of Bankura or Bardhaman district is also a Shivalinga, a medium sized rock, untouched by any aesthetic ideas of any artiste. The primal belief thrives in its primal form itself. However, the torch bearers of the Brahminical religious culture intervened into it and altered the form and shifted it into the darkness of the temple tomb, cutting it off from nature and people.
It is difficult to speculate or comment about the similarity between the Mahadev of the Brahminical tradition and the Shiva, mentioned above. However, there have been attempts to explain the tradition of Gaajon, to absorb the folk practices into mainstream religion. One of the main attractions of Gaajon is Charak. Charak is said to be derivative of the word Chakra. Those who participate in Charak, irrespective of men or women, make a wish and take a vow in the name of Lord Shiva. Such customs of indulging in local practices that thrived in Bengal resulted in it being shunned by the Brahminical tradition. The Charak devotees make a display of their self-restraint by undergoing through various punitive and painful measures administered on one’s own body. Often they pierce their body with a metal rod and encircle a wood and bamboo framework, a sacred symbol of the occasion. Now such primal and marginal practices are hardly compatible with Brahmin traditions. In 1865, this was declared to be an unlawful practice by the British Government, based on petitions by Brahmin organizations and leadership.
Whether it’s the Bengali Gaajon, Gambhira or Neel; they are primal and violent. But they are charged with a sense of spontaneous humanity. Can we connect ourselves with that humanity which is primitive and kinetic?