You could hear the sound of dhak from far away. You could understand there was a large number of them. It was an almost continuous sound, a sound that called you, a sound that spoke of passionate celebration and even more passionate faith. And it had nothing to do with Durga Puja.
If you had heard the sound then you would have known that this was very different. It had a very different rhythm and style – in fact, the entire pulse was different. During Durga Puja it is quite fashionable to have hundreds of dhakis. But that urban sound now has become professional, even habitual, with trademark beats and the ‘idol immersion dance’ formula.
This was worship.
The ritual, as we were told, is called Megh Garjan (the roar of the clouds). There would be non-stop dhak for the whole day and deep into the night.
Hundreds of groups of dhakis from all around the place would come and play for Dharma Thakur or Dharma Raja. There is no specific figure of Dharma Thakur prescribed by any establishment; the objects that stand for him during worship can be a piece of stone or a wooden slab or any such thing. Sometimes there are idols used. But these idols may represent Dhrama Thakur or possibly his son Lausen.
Dharma Thakur is a deity that comes from the non-mainstream section of Hinduism. Initially he was a tribal god belonging to the Kom tribes. However, now he belongs to the so-called lower strata of Hindu society – the world will always have such classifications in some form or the other – the strata in which you would find the Bagdis, the Bauris, the Doms, the Hadis and such. According to the all knowing internet, this god was allowed a slightly elevated status at some point in history (which point exactly the all knowing did not know, I am sure offline folklore experts will be able to enlighten us), but was kept in the margins because of its hypothetical non-Aryan origin (as against the hypothesis of the hypothetically Aryan gods and goddesses). You can read the Dharma Mangal Kavya which speaks about the iconic Bengali folk hero Lausen (pronounced Laaou Sen) born by the ‘grace’ of Dharma Thakur. On a completely unrelated note let me mention that Hindu mythology does not speak about Immaculate Conception as such. Interestingly, Lausen, even with such a name, is one of the rare martial heroes of Bengali folk-narratives.
Dharma Mangal Kavya does not overtly concern itself with the customary fertility issues even though it is now associated with the Gajan rituals (which are very different from the one we saw). It is one of those few narratives that speak of a contact between the castes and asserts a very martial Kshatriya presence that consciously excludes stereotypical masculine features. I know this is becoming academic (an epithet that can be often replaced by the adjective ‘boring’) and thus I’ll refrain from going into the issue of Sanskritization of earlier folk and all that. Just let me mention that there is a likeness to the story of goddess Manasa (most of us know the Manasa Mangal Kavya in some form or the other) who, like the god Dharma, also had to fight to gain her footing. The zone of influence of Dharma Thakur stays mostly limited to the Rarh area of Bengal.
We had just seen Kopai in moonlight. If you have never seen Kopai in moonlight, please make it a point to do so. Try to go there on a lonely night. Otherwise you will find yourself in the company of a number of enthusiasts who will only manage to ferment your irritation by doing typically Bengali stuff such as talking about young Rabindranath’s adventures across the shallow rivulets and comparing it to that of some Potol Kumar or personage of similar greatness. Passionately sung (unfortunately passion does not automatically include aesthetic merit) Rabindra Sangeet is a must. If you are excessively fortunate you might even have a couple of couples taking coupfies (pronounces Kaafee – etymologically entwined with the much revered word ‘groufie’) with the moon. If you are truly blessed you might even catch a number of theories regarding the now lost Nobel prize.
On our night there were four Totos, a handful of ladies belonging to a more romantic group singing Rabindra Sangeet and our set – this was the entire composition of the moonlit scene that we did not want to leave. We did eventually leave. Apart from the fact that the night was no longer very young, the reason behind leaving the place was the uncanny chill that was numbing us in the last night of March. There was a brief storm which had cleansed the skies, and the clear moon managed to paint everything in lovely shades of darkness. Also, the opaque echoes of the Indian drums were acting as a kind of beacon that we could not ignore.
The Totos could not go far. There was a regular procession of Dhakis. There was literally a non-stop inflow. We managed to stay for almost an hour – there was not a moment’s break in the sound or in the line of musicians coming in. One group would stop playing inside the concrete temple, another one would jostle for a chance to get in.
There were regular dhakis, there were Shongs (Jester figures who do gender-defying masques) and there were devotees who just wanted to see everything.
The whole village was there. The players were not playing for money. They were not playing for fame. But this was their devotion, their offering to the god. Whatever the end promise may be, this devotion had no flaw. Their performance was wholeheartedly for their god – and it showed. When you offer your art to something sublime (religious or otherwise) you are inspired, no commerce can generate that.
Goyalpara is not a large village. And this was its moment of glory.
While returning, quite late in the rural night, we saw hundreds of families walking towards the temple. This was not a big Mela, there were hardly ten shops selling knick-knacks or food, but the attraction was tremendous. In this age of free internet such community feeling does seem extraordinary.
There is another extraordinary point about this ritual. This is one of the few in which there is a custom of a boar sacrifice. Goats and buffaloes are sacrificed quite regularly – I have seen goat sacrifices in Kankalitala (a sacred Hindu shrine not too far away) almost every time I have visited the place – but boar-sacrifice is practically unheard of!
(The newer temple in Kankalitala. There used to be an old temple which was much more beautiful.)
The ritual does not stop there. This story we heard from Chitra-di. We owe this entire experience to Chitra-di. We would never have had this amazing experience if one of us had not shown quite an unusual amount of wanderlust. But it was Chitra-di who suggested that we go to Goyalpara that evening. She told us about the Dharma Puja. Chitra-di is one of the reasons why we always stay in Sonajhuri Atithi Nibas. Let me stop for a moment and speak about Sonajhuri Atitithi Nibas.
This Guest House has its own individuality. Situated a short distance away from the chaos that has invaded Santiniketan, although situated right in the Sonajhuri Haat, this is a small oasis of peace which quite a few of us fall back upon. As long as such places exist, ‘the bliss of solitude’ remains available.
Let me come back to the story: the severed head of the sacrificed hog is placed inside a pond and the whole village gets in the water to look for the head. The head is never found: whether by choice or divine magic is up to you to decide. It is believed that the head dissolves in the water of the pond and that water becomes the Prasad which everyone reverently drinks. Before cringing with disgust remember all religions are based on some kind of sacrifice and a major part of the Hindu religious practice revolves around fifty-one pieces of a woman’s body. This was a body which embodied the love of a god who forgot all his anger once the last piece of that body fell from his possession.
Megh Garjan will remain with us for a long time. In this age of blaring microphones and mobile phones, such purity of music is rare. It did not really make me believe in humanity again, nothing ever will, but it did manage to give us a few moments of delightful amnesia.