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Destinations, Guides

When to Visit West Bengal

With its head high up in clouds perched on Himalayan peaks and its toes in the tropical waters of the Bay of Bengal, West Bengal is unlike any Indian state. Numerous rivers crisscross the flat plains that are redolent with paddy, then golden wheat and corn. Acres of bright yellow mustard. Every summer, we rode the Darjeeling Mail from Calcutta up the spine of the state to the township of Siliguri to seek relief in the murmuring rain of the foothills. My grandparents lived in a town named Haldibari. Once a rickety train with green cars and open windows chugged from Chilahati across the border in Bangladesh to Haldibari. During the annual Huzur Sahib’er Mela hundreds rode the train. Further down, in Malda where my father’s grandparents settled post partition are memories of Bengal’s Islamic past. There’s so much unexplored treasure in the Bangali’s backyard, places we are yet to visit and cultures we are yet to taste. The countryside is peppered with ruins of erstwhile rajbaris, marvellous temples, and folklore. Bankura, Aninda’s maternal home, and the famous temples of Bishnupur boast of the region’s architectural brilliance. Throughout centuries, Bauls, or minstrels, have been traveling from village to village in Bengal’s heartlands thrumming their ektaras and singing folksongs. Further west, in Purulia one can see geological features of the Chota Nagpur Plateau and partake of tribal celebrations. The land fans into an estuary in the south, into a wilderness of crocodile infested mangrove and transforms into a dynamic landscape governed by tides. The Sundarbans is as beautiful as it is treacherous. Rivers swallow islands and entire villages vanish overnight but it is also from these tiger-infested forests that you can see a lunar rainbow. Rural Bengal’s culture, especially along the porous border with Bangladesh, is shaped as much as by its native populace as it is by immigrants. When my ancestors arrived from riot torn East Pakistan to Malda, they were sheltered by a Muslim family, distant relatives of the family of Ghani Khan Choudhary. The border ran right through their courtyard! Bengali culture is a celebration, an amalgam of Hindu and Muslim cultures, a culture that Bengalis are proud of. Even our biggest religious festival, Durga Puja, is more a carnival than a set of strict laws governed by religious ideas.

The Bangali Backpacker condemns political parties and people whose selfish agendas include attempts to stir up communal discord in various parts of India, including Bengal. We demand you take a break and travel to escape your constricted field of vision. Step out of your house, your neighbourhood, your town, your state, your country. Step out of your community for a while. We guarantee that the people you will meet are people just like you. They might worship differently and have a different diet but they have exactly the same number of bones, the same organelles in their cells as you do and they want the same things: The right to live a good, peaceful life and the right to respect.

Join us on our quest to experience Bengal’s regional flavours. And here’s a calendar!

January| February | March | April | May | June | July | August | September | October | November | December

January:

Bangalis whine all year about the muggy heat of Calcutta but come winter, they wrap themselves up in layers of sweaters and mufflers and don monkey caps instead of enjoying the sweet chill but winter is also the time for Poush Parbon, as Makar Sankranti is known as in most parts of Bengal. It is the time for dipping your fingers in pots of delicious nolen gur and licking them clean: a moment of Bangali nirvana as complex notes of fruity sweetness unfurl on your tongue. Poush Parbon is also the day to gorge on delicious pitha, a family of Bengali sweets made of flour, coconut, milk, khoya, and sweetened with gur.

Head north from Kolkata into the foggy landscapes of Bengal’s heartlands, the laal maati’r desh where Joydev Kenduli Mela, an annual fair, is celebrated for 3 days on Makar Sankranti in the village of Kenduli in Birbhum on the banks of the Ajoy River. This sleepy hamlet that bustles with life during the fair is the birth-place of the 12th century poet, Jayadeva, who is known for its masterpiece, the Gita-Govinda. Bring your warmest winter wear and indulge in nightlong sessions of musical ecstasy. Songs and poetry of the legendary Lalon Fakir, Haure Goshai, Podo, Jadubindu, and Panju Shah fill the atmosphere. Bauls (from the Sanskrit vatul meaning mad) are traveling minstrels who roam from village to village in rural Bengal singing songs of love, peace, and divine union. In dreadlocks and loose robes, they dance barefoot and sing while strumming an ektara or thrumming a duggi. Famous singers like Sadhan Das Bairagi, Halim Fakir, and Chand Biri perform at this fair. Kabiyals, kirtaniyas, and folk performers will send you into raptures with their ecstatic performances. Akharas dole out delicious khichuri-alur dom. You can find anything from kitchen knives to terracotta jewelry in the stalls here.

The Apeejay Kolkata Lit Fest is another one of the much celebrated gatherings that make stories, be it fiction or not, their central themes but goes above and beyond to become a cultural study of current on-goings in the world of literature, films, music and more. Over the years, events have been organized at venues like the Victoria Memorial, St. Paul’s Church, Indian Museum, and Max Mueller Bhaban. Events range from book releases and readings to panel discussions, open mike poetry readings, film screenings, and plays. The added attractions are the stalwarts of the literary world who are ever ready to give you their autograph and encourage you on your explorations.

From talks about literature, film, and music to book readings and Q/A sessions with your favourite writers, there’s something for everyone at the Tata Calcutta Lit Meet (Kalam) held in Calcutta. Also part of the festival are spoken word performances (Tishana Doshi and Rupi Kaur were esteemed guests in the latest edition), music performances, films, and plays.

Before slipping into the tropical waters of the Bay of Bengal, the Ganges lazily flows by Sagar Island, 89 km south of Kolkata, where on Makar Sankranti believers and non-believers, young and the old all congregate to take a dip in the holy river to wash away their sins. Then there are others who skip the icy dip and wander through the crowd seeking tinctures for the soul. Naked Naga sadhus smoking chillums, holy men clad in saffron robes, agitated youngsters, women in brightly coloured saaris, photographers shoving the lens up your nose, writers starving for stories, the old and the sick some of whom are carried by bearers in makeshift chairs– all flock to the Gangasagar Mela. In the cacophony of conversations and announcements over loudspeakers, one can often hear the baul singers. Everybody you meet in this fair– second only to the Kumbh Mela in terms of footfall– are seeking something, and often that something is family members who are lost in the crowd, who die in stampedes that happen almost every year despite crowd-control measures.

Celebrated by tribal communities along the eastern edges of the Chota Nagpur Plateau (parts of the districts of Purulia, Bankura, and Midnapore in Bengal), Tusu Parab is a month-long harvest festival that starts on Aghrayan Sankranti and culminates on Makar Sankranti with immersion of choudalas in rivers and streams. Made of bamboo and decorated with colourful papers, dolls, flowers, etc. the choudala is considered an embodiment of the deity. According to folklore, soldiers of some Nawab kidnapped a beautiful Kudumi girl, Tusu. The Nawab objected to this and punished his soldiers and released the girl but her family did not accept her. The girl, now a pariah, jumped in the Damodar and ended her life. The women in the community mourned her death. Today, Tusu is almost entirely a women’s festival. Like most deities in the Bengali household, Tusu is considered a member of the family, more a friend than a Goddess. Check out Anirban’s blog for some stunning photographs.

February:

The world is not a stranger to book fairs and yet The International Calcutta Book Fair, or Boi Mela as the city calls it, is certainly one of its kind. Traditionally, held between the months of January and February, this is the world’s biggest annual gathering of book sellers, buyers, and lovers. And it is not the large publishing houses that draw the Boi Mela loyalists from near and far year after year, it is the small independent presses that work tirelessly in nooks and crannies of this city, who work to ensure that Calcutta keeps pulsating with literature, poetry, and art. If you are a fan of media and literature, then this might be your mecca! If you are a struggling author, you might end up finding a publisher! Book launches, debates, celebrity author sightings, international guests, civic movements, all find a home here. Instead of limiting itself to only books, the fair seems to equally celebrate food, friendship, nostalgia and all good things alike. The inherent charm of the Boi Mela lies in the sheer amount of love, be it for books or for discovering the language of bhalo laga.

Boi Mela, post crowds

Boi Mela’s biggest draws are not large publishing houses but small presses and indie publishing houses like this that have forwarded the cause of Bengali literature

Saraswati Pujo aka the Bangali’s Valentine’s Day is a day dedicated to the Goddess of Learning but ironically you do not touch your books on this day; instead you lay them all at Maa Saraswati’s feet for her blessings and hit the streets, decked up in saaris and panjabis like the traditional Bangali child you are, and check out your crush between gorging on khichuri bhog and street food.

Few things can compare to an ektara being played at dawn on a foggy morning in the courtyard of one of Bishnupur’s stunning terracotta temples. At the Bishnupur Music Festival, recently recognized as a National Fair, you can acquaint yourself with the music of some of Bengal’s finest musicians and the Bishnupur Gharana of music. Once the seat of power of the Malla kings, Bishnupur boasts of architectural treasures and handloom. At the fair, you can find stalls selling handicrafts and Bishnupuri silks.

Huzur Sahib’er Mela is held in the tiny town Haldibari on the Indo-Bangladesh border in the district of Coochbehar. Despite partition, the fair retains its original fanfare. Camel traders come all the way from Rajasthan. The fairgrounds take the shape of a massive menagerie! Cattle, countless species of birds, and sheep are sold. Colorful stalls selling anything from woollen chadors to toys do brisk business. Mounds of fried food, delicious sweetmeats doused in sugar syrup, and vats of fragrant biriyani tease the tongue. Tucked in a corner of the grounds and lit in bright green lights is an old mosque revered by followers of all religions. It is said that a wish made at the grave of the pir on this occasion always comes true.

March:

To mark the advent of spring, Santal and Munda tribes around Bengal celebrate the Baha Parab, or the festival of flowers. The men collect flowering branches of the sal tree (Shorea robusta) and the priest goes around the village offering a flower to each family. The lady of the house welcomes the priest and receives the flower in the folds of her sari. Archery competitions are often held. Women dress in traditional costumes and wear silver jewelries and flowers in their hair and dance to beats of earthen drums. This festival is all about celebrating man’s communion with nature and the beauty of spring.

Celebrated in the beautiful campus of Viswabharati University in Shantiniketan, Basanta Utsav is an ode to spring. Man and women dress in basanti (a shade of yellow) ensembles and sing and dance to Rabindra Sangeet under flowering boughs of krishnachura, palash, and simul trees. Dance dramas are performed. Students recite Tagore’s poetry. The entire community participates in abir-khela in the afternoon. Splashes of bright yellow, pink, and red adorn the premises of the university.

April:

Celebrated towards the end of the Bengali calendar, Gajan is a folk festival. It is suggested that Gajan began with the contact of tantric Buddhism with Hinduism in rural Bengal. Tenets of Buddhism require its followers to undergo severe penance in order to achieve Nirvana. Gajan might have started off as Dharma’r Gajan (from Dharmathakur or Dharmaraj in Buddhism) and over time as the influence of Buddhism decreased, it became Shiva’r Gajan. The etymology of the word Gajan is highly debated with some scholars proposing that it came from the Sanskrit Garjana or loud clamour and some saying it comes from two words Grama, village and Jana, the community implying that it symbolises a village festival. In rural Bengal, skits are organised and performers paint their bodies and dress up as Shiva, Parvati, and other deities. Palagaan and jatras are also organised as part of the celebrations.

Celebrated on 14th of April, Charak Puja concludes the three day long Gajan festival. A Charak tree– a straight trunk with no branches– is erected in an open field. It is believed to be the abode of Ardhanarishwar, a composite of Shiva and Parvati, and after the rituals are over it is immersed in a river. In line with tenets of severe penance, some worshippers and sanyasis pierce their bodies with sharp hooks. They are then hung with ropes strung to the top of the Charak tree and set in circular motion. Many will pierce their tongues with multiple needles. The piercings are bloodless and the atmosphere is one of religious trance. Some ethnographers remark that Charak is associated with fertility and male body piercing is a way to let them feel the pain of child birth. Mothers with infants will request sanyasis to touch their touch and bless them. Charak festivities at Beldanga in Murshidabad, Jayanagar Majilpur, and Panchal in Bankuru are worth experiencing.

May:

June:

July:

August:

Celebrated in mid-August in the district of Bankura, Jhapan is a harvest festival in honour of Manasa, the snake goddess.  Images of Manasa and Manasachali (a small terracotta figure or a group of three figures with rows of snake hoods fanning out in a half moon shape) are made by the potters of Sonamukhi and Panchmura for this festival. Snake charmers perform at the local fairs and jatras are organised.

September:

October:

Annakut Pujo, also known as the Govardhan Puja, is celebrated by the Vaishnav sect. Annakut symbolises the day when Lord Krishna defeated Lord Indra by lifting up the Govardhan hill on the first lunar day of Shukla Pakshya in the Hindu calendar month of Kartik.

Chhat

November:

Teesta Tea & Tourism Festival

December:

Chhau

Poush Mela

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