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Are festivals in India really that ancient?

October 27, 2011

Writer – Ayan Ghosh

For Bengalis around the world, the month of October is always reminiscent with the festivities surrounding the worship of the Hindu goddess Durga. It’s not only the biggest festival in Bengal, but also the most popular festival in the entire Eastern region of India, being widely celebrated in Orissa, Assam, Bihar and Jharkhand.

As a child I had believed that Durga Puja is one of India’s many ancient festivals, as in a nation where heritage clearly lies in its past, the older practices are, the more venerated they become. It was only later that I came to know that the first Durga Puja in Calcutta was celebrated by Raja Naba Krishna Deb, an aristocrat, in Shobabazar Rajbari (a square in north Calcutta) in the 1700s.

Photo courtesy – silcharchronicle.com

Raja Naba Krishna Deb was one of the early Bengali stalwarts in the newly established British city of Calcutta. With knowledge of Persian, Arabic and crucially –English, he was invaluable as a translator for the East India Company in an era where few Indians understood English. After the death of Siraj ud-Daulah -the last Nawab of Bengal- Deb, along with the traitor Mir Jafar,  made himself a nouveau riche with earnings from the secret treasury.

Several Bengalis soon followed his footsteps and made astronomical fortunes through trade and contact with the British, and went on to establish the great houses of old Calcutta; each celebrating their own Durga Puja and often  competing with each other. As a reward for his services, the British conferred the honorary title of ‘Raja’ (as one cannot be a king under the Crown itself) upon Deb, and he returned the favor by donating lands and celebrating the first Durga Puja in Calcutta in 1757, the same year as the Battle of Plassey.

Among visiting dignitaries were none less than Robert Clive himself, and it is conjectured that puja was offered for the successful completion of the Battle, since the only church in the town had been destroyed in previous year’s siege of Calcutta by the Nawab’s forces. Therefore the Durga Puja festival in Calcutta was a celebration that took place in the beginning of India’s colonial period, and is not more than 250 years old!

This leads to the question – how old are India’s so called ancient festivals? Have they really been around since time immemorial. Even by common knowledge, it seems that in most cases they have been initiated by a person, and within surprisingly recent periods. For example, the Golden Temple was not golden less than 200 years back.

Another example, which comes to mind, is Ganesh Chaturthi. The festival is celebrated with the same passion in the West of India as the Durga Puja in the East. Yet it is openly known that Bal Gangadhar Tilak started the first Ganesh festival as recently as 1894, to stir nationalistic sentiments.

Another notable example is the Ram Lila at Delhi. Though the historicity of the Ramayana is unquestionable, the Ram Lila in Delhi is of surprisingly recent origin. It was celebrated in its current form –where effigies of Raavan and his kinsmen are burnt- during the reign of –in a huge twist of irony- the last Mughal emperor of Delhi, Bahadur Shah Zafar; an example of the remarkable inclusive and syncretic culture of Delhi in that period, just around 150 years ago.

Similarly the famous Poush Mela in Bengal was started by in 1843 by Rabindranath Tagore’s father, Debendranath Tagore, to commemorate his initiation into the Brahmo Samaj.

Even big festivals, like the Kumbh Mela is not beyond a bit of historical manipulation. There is very little evidence of the Kumbh Mela’s assumed ancient history -which involves the largest mass congregation in the world- for the simple reason that until 200 years ago, traveling long distances anywhere in India was extremely difficult, and used to take months. For more than 300 years since Sher Shah Suri built it, the Grand Trunk Road was the only long distance road in India.

Moreover, India was never a homogenous political entity the way we experience it now. Traveling from one place to another invariably meant traveling through several small fiefdoms, each with its separate system of taxation and passage rights. Added to the logistics were vagaries of time, linguistics, culture shock, geography, weather, bandits (Pindaris and Thugees were major deterrents), and wildlife (the tiger population in India at the turn of the 19th century was estimated at 45,000). For women, travel was even more difficult due to the prevailing culture of purdah, both amongst Hindus and Muslims. Long journeys were limited to armies, merchants and mendicants and the odd European mercenary. This however doesn’t mean that festivals were not celebrated but they were mostly limited to local festivals and was largely centered on the temple, instead of being community based. All the external paraphernalia associated with today’s festivals are definitely a more recent innovation.

I feel the real reason behind India’s myriad festivals and their springing up over the last few hundred years is –as with most other events in history which involves mass mobilizations- economic, rather than spiritual or historical.

Few know the fact that in recent history, bands of wandering mendicants had a right to collect a religious tax through the lands they passed. This right was the cause of the little known -and as a result little researched- Sannyasi Rebellion, which some historians consider as the first uprising against British colonialism in India, much before the Sepoy Mutiny of 1857.

The events of the rebellion started in the decade of 1770, when America was fighting their war of independence against the same adversary halfway around the globe. Ascetics, both Hindu sanyasis and Muslim fakirs, travelled from North India to different parts of Bengal to visit shrines. On route to the shrines, it was customary for many of these holy men, or schools called akharas, to exact a religious tax from zamindars (regional landlords).

In times of prosperity, the headmen and zamindars generally obliged. However, since the East India Company received the diwani or right to collect tax post their victory in the Battle of Buxar in 1765, many of the tax demands increased and the local landlords were unable to pay both the ascetics and the English. Crop failures, and the Great Bengal Famine of 1770, which killed ten million people or an estimated one-third of the population of Bengal compounded the problems since much of the arable land lay fallow.

To the British, both Hindu and Muslim ascetics were looters to be stopped from collecting money that belonged to the company and possibly from even entering the province. When the company’s forces tried to prevent sannyasis and fakirs from entering the province or from collecting their money in the last three decades of the 18th century, fierce clashes often ensued, with the company’s forces not always victorious. Most of the clashes were recorded in the years following the famine but they continued, albeit with a lesser frequency, up until 1802.

However the rebellion was finally crushed and the British soon realized the potential economic benefits of large fairs and festivals, as they were prime sources of revenue earning. The introduction of a pan-India unified political force, the fall of dacoits, and the emergence of the railways, all contributed to increased mobility in the country and directly contributed to the grandness and fervor of today’s festivals. Later the Indian National Congress, -like Tilak demonstrated- used the assumed historicity of festivals to build up a concept of Indian nationalism and used it decisively in creating mass uprisings against British Rule.

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