The land of Festivities

Bengal, or today’s West Bengal, celebrates more than any part of India. The festivals range from cultural to religious to social. Every religion has its place in the sun in this state.


By Journey Man

The popular Bengali adage, ‘Bangalir, baro mashe tero parbon’, literally meaning that a Bengali celebrates 13 festivals in 12 months, is actually an understatement. There are many more.

With the arrival of spring Bengal celebrates Basanta Utsav or the Spring Fest which is a close rendition of Holi. Basanta Utsav was introduced first by Kaviguru Rabindranath Tagore in his Vishwa Bharati University at Shantiniketan and has with time become an integral part of Bengali culture.

At Shantiniketan, during the Basanta Utsav students dressed in bright yellow attires stage various cultural programmes and play Holi, smearing abeer (coloured powder) at each other.

In Purulia on the other hand spring fest is known as Chaitra Parva, and is celebrated in a different manner. As a part of the rituals men and women dressed in elaborate costumes and giant masks perform the traditional Chhau dance to the accompaniment of shehnai (Indian clarinet), dhol and dhamsa (drums).

The celebrations start late in the evening and continue through the night. Another significant festival of rural Bengal is the autumnal harvest festival called ‘Nabanna’.

Rabindranath Tagore’s birthday, on May 7, is a day of joy in Bengal. Known as Rabindra Jayanti, Kolkata, as well as the state, celebrate the day with music, dance, enactment of the poet’s plays and much more. Celebrations are huge in Shantiniketan, where Vishwa Bharati is.

Another great festival comes to town from its origins in the town of Puri in Odisha (Orissa). It is Rathayatra, a religious chariot festival. This has been taken up in a big way by ISKCON in the city and crowds gather to watch their chariots go by.

Krishna Janmashtami, also known simply as Janmashtami, is an annual celebration of the birth of Lord Krishna, the eighth avatar of Vishnu.

This precedes Durga Puja. It is celebrated on the eighth day (ashtami) of the Krishna Paksha (dark fortnight) of the month of Shravana (August–September).

However, the most awaited festival in Bengal is the Durgotsav, or Durga Puja. Although a major festival all over Bengal, Durga Puja is celebrated with the greatest pomp, grandeur and flamboyance in Kolkata.

The four days of Durga Puja means absolute fun and enjoyment for every Bengali. While Kolkata boasts of the ornate pandals, gorgeous idols and glittering streets bustling with swarms of men, women and children dressed in their best.

Close on the heels of Puja is the Jagadhatri Puja. In Chandannagar, this puja is another lavish and splendid affair.

Soon after, comes Kali Puja, a shakta goddess. This has become a big festival these days and is celebrated across the state.

Tagged along with Kali Puja is a delicate social festival called Bhai Phota known as bhai duj in other parts of the country. This festival, mostly a domestic affair, is celebrated in many states, but it is called Bhai Phonta in Bengal. That is when the sisters pray for their brothers’ health and success.

A great many fairs are also held in West Bengal. For instance the Ganga-Sagar Mela, a huge colourful fair, held once every year during Makar Sankranti, at Sagardwip. Millions of pilgrims and devotees from far and wide come here each year, to wash their sins in the freezing waters of the holy Ganges and worship at the Ashram of Kapil Muni.

Towards the end of December, in the Bengali month of Poush, Poush Mela is held at Shantiniketan. This is one of the most important seasonal festivals of the Birbhum District. Various cultural programmes comprising folk dance and music, folk theatre and local baul songs, are organized as a part of the celebrations.

The Bishnupur Gharana Music Festival at Bishnupur and the month-long Rash Mela at Cooch Behar also attract a large number of people every year and are the most important annual events of the respective areas.

The Joydeb Mela in Kenduli is a popular folk festival with bauls singing their hearts out.

Various Classical Music Festivals in Kolkata in January February. A great yearly attraction is the ‘Kolkata Boi Mela’ of the Annual Kolkata Book Fair. This is one of the largest Book Fairs in the world where a great number of leading national and international publishing concerns participate.

The Kolkata International Film Festival and the Kolkata Industrial Trade Fair too, rope in scores of enthusiasts.

Kolkata International Film Festival

The Kolkata Christmas Festival is an event to experience. Walk the stretch of Park Street, lit up with millions of lights, and you would be transported into another world. This is a festival that is being promoted by the government with gusto. The New Market is a place to buy trinkets at this time.

The Kolkata  Christmas Festival is an event to experience. Walk the stretch of Park Street, lit up with millions of lights, and you would be transported into another world

The name of Bengal, or Bangla, is derived from the ancient kingdom of Banga. References to it occur in early Sanskrit literature. West Bengal, situated in eastern India, is one of the major states in the country. When we talk about the history of Bengal, we cannot consider West Bengal in isolation.

It will comprise the origin of Bengal as a whole, including West Bengal and East Bengal (now Bangladesh).

The Bengal territory has been an important region since ancient times. The first mention of this province can be found in the great epic of Mahabharata. Due to its strategic location by the sea, different sects of people came and settled here, including Aryans in the post-Vedic period. Thus, today, it demonstrates a prolific mixture of five distinct racial strains.

 Prehistoric Bengal
Stone Age remnants have been found in Bengal that date back 20,000 years. The indigenous population of Bengal consists of tribes of Austric and Austro-Asiatic origin such as Kola, Bhil, Santhal, Shabara, and Pulinda.

Ancient Bengal
Bengal is a 4,000 year old civilization that thrived between the banks of Ganges to Brahmaputra and sustained itself with the riches of Gangetic Delta.

Remnants of earliest cities in the state date back to the Vedic Period. The oldest archaeological site in Bangladesh is Mahasthangarh, which dates back to 700 BCE. The culture and ethnicity of Bengal was different from that of the Vedic people. The latter referred to the people of Bengal as ‘dasyus’ or demons.

Entrepot of the Silk Route
Bengal has always been the gateway to the eastern parts of the Indian subcontinent. It is the shortest and easiest route from the Bay of Bengal to the Himalayas. Such a geographical advantage made Bengal a commercial hub that connected the sea to the famous Silk Route.

The Empires in Bengal
Maurya Dynasty (324 BCE – 185 BCE) : Chandragupta Maurya unified all Indian provinces, except the North-East, Tamil and Kalinga. His empire spanned from Bengal to Baluchistan. During his reign, Bengal flourished with riches and its naval fleet got stronger.

Gupta Empire (319 CE- 520 CE) : With the decline of Mauryan power, anarchy once more supervened. In the 4th century CE the region was absorbed into the Gupta empire of Samudra Gupta.

Gauda Empire (521CE – 626 CE) : After the Mauryan Empire, other kingdoms and dynasties such as the Gupta, Kanvas, Shungas, and the Mahamegha Vahana ascended the throne of Bengal. But it was during the rule of King Shashanka that Bengal witnessed another flourishing period.

Shashanka was a strong ruler who developed Bengal’s architecture and calendar. He is infamous for oppressing Buddhist communities and driving them out of Bengal. Shashanka’s capital, Karna Suvarna is now known as Murshidabad.

Malla Dynasty (627 CE – 749 CE): What we know as Bankura, a western district in modern day West Bengal, was once known as Mallabhum, the land of the Mallas. The Malla kings ruled the western provinces of Bengal from the seventh century and their dynasty can be traced to this date. Their last king Kalipada Singha Thakur became the king of Mallabhum in 1930 and ‘ruled’ till his death in 1983.

Pala Empire (750 CE – 1200 CE) : Often dubbed as the ‘Golden Age’ of Bengal, the Pala Empire indeed raised the standards of Bengal’s culture and politics. Followers of Buddhist philosophy, the Pala kings promoted classical Indian philosophy, literature, painting and sculpture studies. It was during this period that the Bengali language was formed in its entirety.

Epics and sagas were written such as the ‘Mangal Kavyas’. The Palas were also known for their war elephant cavalry and strong naval fleet.

Medieval Bengal
Medieval history of India, including Bengal, is that of Sultanates, invasions, plunder, cultural reform and architectural genius.

Islamic rulers under the banners of Khilji Dynasty (1200 CE – 1230CE), the Mamluk Sultanate (1227 CE – 1281 CE), the Tughlaq Sultanate (1324 CE – 1339 CE), the kingdom of Ilyas Shahi (1435 – 1487), the Suri Empire (1532 – 1555) were primarily looters. Governance was at stake and the socio-political integrity of Bengal was under severe crisis.

Mughal Subahdars : Districts of Surahs were distributed among the allies and commandants of the Mughal Empire. Mughal emperors such as Akbar, Jahangir and Aurangzeb placed high regard for the Bengal province and were also aware of the riches this region had to offer.

The Nawab link : Murshid Quli Khan alias Ala ud-Daulah was the last Mughal Subahdar of Bengal under the reign of Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah I. Born a Hindu Brahmin in Deccan India, Murshid took the throne as the Nawab of Bengal. He renamed the region of Shashanka’s Karna Suvarna as Murshidabad.

Koch Dynasty (1515 – 1949) : The princely state of Cooch Behar was included in the political map of Bengal after Independence. Earlier, the northern region of Bengal was ruled by the Koch Dynasty. The famous palace of the Koch kings still stands in Cooch Behar City.

The Marathas : During the political turmoil after the death of Murshid Quli Khan in the 18th century, the Maratha Empire decided to invade Bengal. Led by Maratha Maharaja Raghuji of Nagpur, the Maratha force was able to capture parts of Odisha and Bengal but failed to get a hold of the entire province.

The term ‘Bargi’, which refers to Maratha plunderers, is still a common term used in West Bengal.

Plassey and the British : Being a gateway to India, a strong naval presence, a land full of riches and a weak ministerial cabinet to answer the question on how the British invaded India, one should fall back on these four factors.

The Battle of Plassey (June 1757), which allowed the British to consolidate their hold in Bengal as rulers, was only the curtain fall on a plot of a catastrophic betrayal.

Mirza Muhammad Siraj ud-Daulah, who was the last independent Nawab of Bengal, gave the British a commercial licence to buy muslins and jute from Bengal. The British manipulated Siraj’s ministers and bribed them to stand against the Nawab.

Siraj was betrayed by his trusted ally Mir Jafar and others ministers. He lost the Battle of Plassey and Bengal lost itself to the western colonisers.

British Bengal : The Fort William in Calcutta (now Kolkata) was the first British stronghold in India. Although Siraj was able to capture it, after his death, the British rebuilt it and made it into a fortified, cannon-fitted military base.

After the fall of the Mughal Empire, the focus of Indian culture and politics shifted from Delhi to Calcutta. From 1834 Bengal’s governor-general bore the title “governor-general of India,” but in 1854 the post was relieved of the direct administration of Bengal, which was placed under a lieutenant governor.

Thenceforward, the government of British India became distinct from that of Bengal. In 1874 Assam was transferred from the charge of the lieutenant governor and placed under a separate chief commissioner.

The city gradually became the capital of British India. It remained so until 1911.

Bengal has seen two catastrophic famines in 1776 and 1942 and two partitions in 1905 and 1947 under the British Raj. The province endured three migrations in 1905, 1947 and 1971. Apart from the governance, the British Raj spelled doom for the native population of Bengal.

In 1911, because of continued opposition to partition, Bengal was reunited under one governor, Bihar and Orissa under a lieutenant governor, and Assam once more under a chief commissioner. At the same time, Delhi became the capital of India in place of Calcutta.

Due to the first hand interaction and intimacy with the colonisers, the Bengali community became the most advanced in modern science and literature, which gave rise to the Bengal Renaissance.

Bengal Renaissance : The Bengal Renaissance saw the rise of extraordinary personalities and visionaries from the Bengal province in the 19th and 20th century. Free thinking was encouraged among students, caste discrimination was condemned, and literature and science were seen as the agents of progress.

Raja Ram Mohan Roy, the ‘Father of modern India’, was the pioneer of the renaissance. Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, Swami Vivekananda, Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose, Satyendra Nath Bose, Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay and Rabindranath Tagore propelled the movement forward and made Bengal the face of progress and culture in India.

Freedom Movement : Bengal played a pivotal role in the Indian freedom movement. Revolutionary units such as Anushilan Samiti and Jugantar gathered the youths of Bengal and trained them to fight against the foreign rulers. Many proponents of the Indian freedom struggle hailed from Bengal, including Chittaranjan Das, Surendranath Banerjea, Prafulla Chaki, Jatindranath Mukherjee, Khudiram Bose, Surya Sen, Binoy Basu, Badal Gupta, Dinesh Gupta, Matangini Hajra, Sarojini Naidu, Aurobindo Ghosh, Rashbehari Bose, Shyamaprasad Mukherjee and many more.

Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, the face of Indian armed freedom struggle, was fostered in Bengal like many other Indian freedom fighters. The walls of the Cellular Jail in Andaman stand witness to the sacrifice of Bengali youths, as the highest number of jailed revolutionaries came from Bengal.

Pre-Independence : Under the Government of India Act (1935), Bengal was constituted as an autonomous province in 1937. That remained the situation until the Indian subcontinent was partitioned into the two dominions of Pakistan and India after the British withdrawal in 1947. The eastern sector of Bengal, largely Muslim, became East Pakistan (later Bangladesh); the western sector became India’s West Bengal state. The partition of Bengal left West Bengal with ill-defined boundaries and a constant inflow of non-Muslim, mostly Hindu, refugees from East Pakistan. More than seven million refugees entered the already densely populated state after 1947, and their rehabilitation placed an immense burden on the administration.

After Independence : In 1950 the princely state of Cooch Behar (Koch Bihar) was integrated with West Bengal. While the onus of Indian politics became more and more northwestern, the fact that Bengal faced two back-to-back partitions and migrations in 1947 and 1971 did not attract adequate administrative attention. The Bangladesh Liberation War sparked ire among the youths of Bengal.

In 1970-71, the state witnessed the largest youth revolution in the form of the Naxalite movement. It was subsequently governed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist), a 34-year rule that was ousted by the Trinamool Congress (TMC) in 2011. The TMC was re-elected as the ruling party on May 19 in 2016.