About the Book
The rituals and narratives of Gajan dominate the spring season in the villages of Bengal. It is a ritual of the common village people created from indigenous sources and heavily laden with symbols of fertilization and reproduction.
Rites of Spring analyzes the meaning of these narratives and their social and historical contexts. In origin, Gajan was a type of worship peculiar to Dharma Thakur, a form of the Supreme Being not known outside Bengal. Today it is commonly associated with the worship of Siva, who has gradually replaced Dharma as the presiding god of the Gajan. But he is the Siva of the rural people: a householder, a beggar and poor provider for his family, shamed by his wife until he turns to farming.
As the end of the annual calendric cycle approaches, ordinary cultivators and householders turn from their daily work to become Gajan sannyasis. When the Gajan is done, they give up their sacrificial identities, rejoin their families, and return to their daily work. While they are sannyasis they undertake arduous ordeals that mimic the self- sacrifice of Lausen, epic warrior-hero of middle period Bengali Dharma Mailgal-kavya literature.
Through its dramatic actions, the Gajan lays out the beliefs of ordinary Bengali villagers about their lives, their families, and their work.
About the Author
Ralph W. Nicholas is William Rainey Harper Professor Emeritus of Anthropology and the Social Sciences at the University of Chicago. He began anthropological research in Bengal villages in 1960 and this field remains his foremost intellectual concern.
He has long been active in the American Institute of Indian Studies, and in 2002 became its President. His studies combine detailed fieldwork with overarching concerns of Anthropology and South Asian Studies.
Ralph W. Nicholas received the Rabindra Puraskar in 2006 for his book Fruits of Worship: Practical Religion in Bengal also published by Chronicle Books.
David Curley is Associate Professor in the Department of Liberal Studies at Western Washington University.
My first encounter with a performance of the Gajan rites was unexpected. In the spring of 1961 I was doing research for my doctoral dissertation in two adjacent villages in what is today the East Medinipur District of West Bengal. I had been resident long enough to be familiar to people, and people evidently thought I was good-natured enough to provide some public amusement. The san spectacles that punctuate the difficult ordeals of the ascetics during the evenings of the Gajan are light-hearted skits, poetry contests, dancing, and other performances. My long time research partner and guide, Tarasish Mukhopadhyay, then a Junior Technical Assistant in the Anthropological Survey of India, created a script and I played the role of a man asking his wife not to interfere with his plan to go to his Vaisnava guru, who finally reveals that the guru's ashram is full of women seva dasis. (I can still remember some of my lines.) My fieldwork at the time did not involve much study of rituals, but I could not resist the Gajan, for reasons that I hope will be explained in the following pages. I wrote one paper about the Gajan based on that brief and incomplete encounter with the rite (Nicholas 1967). I wish I had waited until I had done the work described here before I wrote that paper.
In 1968-70 I returned to East Medinipur with the intention of studying rituals. The present work is one result of that research. The symbolic richness of the Gajan, its apparently ancient and indigenous character, and its exceptional length and complexity have led me in several directions. I have felt that my first obligation is to provide a detailed ethnographic account of the performance of the ritual. After that, I attempt to interpret the ritual based on the conviction that people do not do things that do not have meaning for them. In attempting to learn the meaning of each of the principal elements of the Gajan, my first resort, the preferred method of ethnographers, was finding out what the participants understood themselves to be doing. Besides on-the-spot enquiry during the Gajan, after it was over we interviewed participant , particularly the man who was Syam Sannyasi in 1969. But there were some ritual objects and gestures for which the participants provided only apparently superficial interpretations. I have had to pursue some explanations by consulting other accounts of the Gajan, by reference to the related myths and to other rituals, and by contextual interpretation.
The myths related to the Gajan constitute a very interesting problem in their own right. Most Gajan performances in Bengal today are dedicated to the god Siva, as is the one in Kelomal, but there are many others dedicated to the god Dharma. References to Gajan as a form of worship occur in the middle period Bengali narratives of Dharma and not those pertaining to Siva. It appears that Siva has gradually captured the Gajan, pushing the non- Sanskritic deity Dharma into the shadows, though not eradicating him. Trying to understand the Dharma Mangal narratives led me to consult two scholars of middle period Bengali literature, Aditi Nath Sarkar of the Dhirubhai Ambani Institute, and David Curley of Western Washington University. David's lucid interpretation of Dharma Mangal Kavya is contained in this volume. He shows that the composition of all of the versions of this narrative occurred within the Rarh region of West Bengal and mainly in the eighteenth century. For the people of Kelomal and surrounding areas, the Dharma Mangals are especially salient because they are set in the immediate locality. Lausen's capital, Moyna, is nearby and is noteworthy for its still visible double moat. As David shows, these narratives deal with the politics of kingship and the wars between small regional powers, all related in the quest for kingship of the heroic Lausen. The self-sacrificing Lausen is the exemplar for the participants in the Gajan, even though they are seeking the attention of Siva and not Lausen's chosen deity Dharma.
Beginning in 1960 I worked closely in the field with the late Tarasish Mukhopadhyay, who was born and raised in Tamluk, now the headquarters of East Medinipur, then the headquarters of the subdivision bearing its name. Tarasish's deep understanding of the locality and the people have been the keys to my own understanding ever since. In 1968-70, we were joined by my wife Marta, whose capacity for diligent enquiry is unequalled. During the Gajan of 1969 my friend and colleague Clinton B. Seely, now Professor Emeritus of Bengali at the University of Chicago, stayed with us in the village and contributed his eyes, ears, and knowledge to the study. The four of us sat together at intervals between the periods of intense activity in the Gajan to compare notes and to create an amalgamated record of activities. There were many different things going on simultaneously, and we often surprised one another with our reports. The observations belong to all of us. I cannot say who was witness to what, but I can say that I am truly grateful to Marta, Tarasish, and Clint, who have a large share in this. And Marta, in addition, is its exacting editor.
The Gajan of 1969 in Kelomal came to an end on the first day of Baisakha. The town of Bishnupur, in Bankura District, a renowned repository of Bengali Hindu tradition, observes a repetition of the Siva Gajan during Baisakha. In 1969 Akos Ostor and Lina Fruzzetti were conducting fieldwork in Bishnupur. They invited Marta and me to join them at the Abar Gajan in Bishnupur. Apart from the ethnographic value of witnessing a performance of the Gajan that has since been superbly described and analyzed (Ostor 1980), the hospitality we enjoyed then began a life-long friendship.
In 1971 I moved from Michigan State University to the University of Chicago, where I became preoccupied with work that took me away from the Gajan. However, Tarasish Mukhopadhyay continued fieldwork in the same locality throughout the 1970s. In 1981 I was able to return to East Medinipur briefly during the month of Caitra. Tarasish took me to some spectacular events, including the Nila Puja in the villages of Dihi Gumai and Dharinda, and, in another village, the traditional carak, in which the participants are suspended by iron hooks in their backs. I also saw some of the Gajan in Kelomal and in Tamluk during this visit. Another anthropologist, Prafulla Chakrabarti, since retired from the faculty of the Indian Statistical Institute, who had been studying Tarakesvara and its pilgrims for some years, took me to that famous temple. He was in very good standing with the Brahmans who control that institution; we were immediately brought into the presence of the svayambhu Siva amidst the extreme congestion of the "fair of the easterners" (pubmela). There were many pilgrims performing the dandikata circumambulation of the deity. One of them, a mature woman, prostrate on the ground, saw two large white feet before her and mistakenly identified them as belonging to the god himself. She was strong from a life of hard labor, and she got a very firm grip on my feet. Addressing her politely as "Mother," I urged her to let go. She never looked up, but addressing me (or, at least, my feet) with fervor as "Father" asked for a boon that I was regrettably in no position to give. Prafulla remains a good friend and counselor.
In 2004 I had the good fortune to meet Mr. Jawhar Sircar, IAS.
At that time he was the Education Secretary of the West Bengal Government. He had begun his career in the Indian Administrative Service in rural district administration. In those days his attention was attracted to the numerous temples dedicated to the god Dharma. With an enquiring mind and critical intelligence, he began photographing and collecting information about the images of the deity housed in these temples. By the time I met him, his enquiries had gone well beyond the issue of iconography, although his still- unpublished work on Dharma images is quite important. He has published a monograph based on his research (Sircar 2005) but the main body of his work remains to be published. I have read his unpublished work; he is an outstanding historical and interpretive anthropologist with a brilliant career in administration standing in the way of his scholarly work. I have benefited greatly from my conversations with him and from his wide-ranging intellectual engagement in the history of Bengali religion and culture.
Obviously, the gap between the fieldwork and this publication is quite long. While I can account for my time in the interval, I cannot claim that it was all spent as fruitfully as if I had used it to write. But some of that time has been occupied in reading the extensive but fragmentary accounts of Gajan in books on Bengali folk culture and presenting pieces of this work to various audiences. In June 2003 I had the valuable pleasure of speaking about "The Place of the Gajan in Bengali Culture" to the Asiatic Society in Kolkata. In July of 2006 I had the honor of delivering the annual Tarapada Santra memorial lecture on "Gajan and the Common People of Bengal" at the invitation of Dr. Gautam Sengupta, Director of the Center for Archaeological Studies and Training of the West Bengal Government in Kolkata. Tarapada Santra was an indefatigable chronicler of Bengali rural life and one of the foremost commentators on autochthonous rites that continue to be observed in villages. Both of these occasions brought significant additions to my knowledge of this rite, and I express my gratitude to both of these scholarly organizations for these valuable occasions.
In the summer of 2004 I was able to bring my collaborators, Aditi Nath Sarkar and David Curley, to Chicago for a week of intensive work on the Bengali literature that pertains to the Gajan. We gathered copies of all of the published versions of the Dharma Mangal Kavya and compared the narrative and (where there were such) liturgical portions of these works. The fruit of that effort are explicitly represented in the essay David prepared for this volume. Aditi Sarkar's contributions are diffused through both my hare of this book and David's. My debt to both of them is particularly large.
Through most of my career I have had the pleasure of working with and through the American Institute of Indian Studies. I have held various offices in this organization, a consortium of leading American educational institutions that support programs of teaching and research dealing with India. Dr. Pradeep R. Mehendiratta served the Institute for more than 40 years, for most of those years as Director General. Since he retired to become Vice President in 2004, Ms Purnima Mehta has been Director General. My debt to them, and to the AIlS, for help and support is profound.
Especially in view of the time gap between the fieldwork and its publication, the reader may find my use of verb tenses confusing. I have used present tense for practices that I think continue to prevail today and past tense for practices, observations, or facts that belong to the past, whether 1968-70 or earlier. In a sense, all ethnography quickly becomes history. There are things that change between the time of observation and the time of publication. In this era of globalization, when people in Kelomal can watch American television, and Americans (often unwittingly) have telephone conversations with people in India, we sometimes think that everything in the world has changed. However, American anthropologists, even as early as the 1930s, understood that cultures are very conservative: native American cultures bounced back from conquest and confinement to reservations, and distinctive features of West African cultures survived the Middle Passage. We often mistakenly apply terms like "tradition" and "custom" to practices of quite recent origin. However, we also often mistakenly assume that all of the old customs have been swept away in a tide of "cultural change." The present work is historical but it is the history of something that has endured for some centuries.
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