‘Poila Boishakh’, which falls on 15 April each year, heralds the Bengali new year or the Nobo Borsho. It is time for new clothes, gifts, sumptuous food, delectable sweets and then some more food! In the past decade or so, the Bengali’s love for excesses on Nobo Borsho has been tapped into by corporate marketeers, as is evident by a flurry of consumerist temptations around that day.
In the midst of all these festivities, a significant day that almost sneaks past quietly is Chaitra Sankranti, or the last day of the Bengali calendar. Equally quiet is the passing of the week of gajon, which ends with Charak puja and coincides with Chaitra Sankranti. The folklore and cultural significance behind gajon is fascinating, but it is difficult to find people within the urban milieu who know of the festival, especially among millennials and beyond. One of the reasons could be the shadowing of the subaltern by elitist culture.
“Ganja’r chirol-chirol paat, ganja khiaya mogno hoiya naache Bhulanath…” is one of the better-known songs of gajon, which describes the slender leaves of the marijuana plant and how Bholanath/Shiva dances in trance under the influence of it.
There are two theories about the origins of the word ‘gajon’. Some believe it is derived from the word garjan or roar of the sadhus during the festivities. Some say that it is a combination of the words—ga (village) and jan (people), thus becoming a festival of village folks. Though it isn’t clear how far back in history was gajon celebrated, it has references in the 17th-century Dharma Mangal kavya, which is dedicated to Dharmathakur, a folk deity worshipped in Bengal. He later got assimilated into the Brahmanical pantheon and often gets interpreted as a form of Shiva.
Gajon is celebrated in two forms—Dharmer gajon, which celebrates Dharmathakur’s wedding to Mukti, and Shiber gajon, which celebrates Shiva’s wedding to Parvati. In both forms, it celebrates the union between two equal halves—female and male.
Some historians believe that Dharmathakur, and by extension gajon, emerged from the rising influence of tantric Buddhism in Bengal. In fact, there are instances in the state where Buddha is worshipped as Dharmathakur. Then there are villages where Dharmathakur and Shiva are worshipped together. Gajon thus stands both as a symbol of assimilation and tug-of-war between Brahmanical beliefs and subaltern deities.
In Shiber gajon, goddess Kamila Debi is invoked during the first major ritual to come and unite with Shiva. Interestingly she is both the mother and a figure of destruction (kharap biddya). Communities closely entwined with mother nature recognise both these powers.
In essence, this is a pre-harvest festival of the rural, agrarian community, featuring ritualistic prayers for rains and harvest. Dharmathakur is considered to be the god of fertility. Interestingly, those who perform the rituals of gajon, the mool sanyasi (main priest) and the gajon sanyasis (those who perform gajon) are from those that are considered as lower in the caste order. During gajon they acquire the same social and spiritual status as Brahmin priests and are treated as embodiments of Dharmathakur or Shiva. This makes gajon stand apart from any other Hindu religious festival.
On the final day of gajon a ‘charak’ tree is worshipped. This unique gamar tree is thorny and branchless, with a white, straight trunk resembling the ash-smeared Shiva. The tree is believed to be a symbol of the Ardhanarishwar, who is imbued with the ultimate power.
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The last I witnessed a gajon celebration was more than two decades ago when my father was posted in Silchar, Assam. Commercialisation hadn’t yet creeped into the sleepy little town, and hence the locals gave festivals such as gajon with due importance. Young boys and men would dress up as Shiva, Parvati, Ganesha and Kali, and then roam around in the neighbourhood, singing gajon songs. They would be given money at the end of their performance by families to get their blessings. The made-up faces of the boys in garish colours of blue and yellow, armed with crude wigs and tridents, invoked both fear and excitement. Gajon is still celebrated in parts of Kolkata and rural Bengal. One hopes that the tradition is preserved for the sake of heterogeneity and as a recognition of an order beyond the restrictive Brahmanical norms.
While gajon is awe-inspiring, Chaitra Sankranti is personal and comforting. It is not just the last day of the Bengali calendar, but it is also believed to bring spring to a close. To me, the day is associated with a unique food ritual, which hails from my maternal side of the family. I still remember the morning of Chaitra Sankranti, when summer fruits such as water melon, water chestnuts, cucumbers, dates were offered to the house deities and then passed on to the children as prasad. A breakfast of flattened rice, curd and jaggery was also served. This was accompanied by sharbats of chhatu (roasted gram flour) with cold milk and bananas, bael (wood apple), and mishri (rock candy sugar).
This offering of sharbats have mythological significance. As per the Mahabharata, Bhishma Pitamah, while lying on the bed of arrows, felt thirsty on the day of Chaitra Sankranti. On learning this, Arjuna struck an arrow deep into the earth. Cool sweet water sprung from the furrow and entered Bhishma’s mouth, quenching his thirst. Satiated, Bhishma declared that anyone offering cool water on this day would be absolved of sins.
After the partaking of sharbats, in our household, a vegetarian lunch was prepared. It began with neem-begun bhaja. My grandmother would pluck young neem leaves, nearly red in colour, from the tree to be crisped up and the mixed with fried, cubed eggplant and a dash of salt and ghee. This was followed by roasted moong dal cooked with roundels of tender bitter gourds, tempered with panchphoron in ghee. The accompaniment was usually mashed potato with a dash of pungent mustard oil. Next came motor dal (split peas) cooked with unripe, green mangoes from that one tree which had fragrant, kacha-meethe (sweet when unripe) fruits. This was accompanied by potol bhaja (fried pointed gourds) and sesame fritters.
This was followed by a personal favourite, sojne data'r chorchori (stir fried drumsticks with pumpkin, potatoes and other vegetables cooked in mustard paste). Each vegetable would be cut into equal sized batons, cooked tender but not mushy. The final item on the menu was the pièce de résistance. Unripe jackfruit curry made with ghee and freshly ground spices that separated the great cooks from the good ones.
The meal is not just meant to satiate the appetite but also tell a story. It symbolises all the tastes of life—bitter, sweet, sour, pungent, spicy—and is an ode to a year well spent. The platter signifies acceptance and acknowledgement of everything that life sent our way during the year.
Tanushree Bhowmik has nearly 20 years of experience as a development professional, working with international agencies on energy, infrastructure and gender. She also wears the hat of a food historian and runs ForkTales.