Famous for its assembly of gods, Kullu Dussehra, is a popular attraction of Himachal Pradesh. But unknown to most, the former royal principality of Krishnanagar in West Bengal too holds an almost similar festival and fair. Called Barodol, it began as a mark of royal romance. But now forms a key ritual that is being followed for more than 250 years.
A little over 100km by road from Kolkata, Krishnanagar today is a ubiquitous Indian city, a business hub and an educational centre, crowded and noisy. But once upon a time it was a flourishing royal principality that reached its golden period in the 18th century under the rule of Maharaj Krishnachandra. A busy man, once he failed to keep his promise of taking his young queen to a grand fair being held at the neighbouring town of Ula Birnagar. To allay her disappointment, the king decided to hold a fair at the royal premises. Idols of Krishna, worshipped at temples across his kingdom, were invited for a stay at the palace and a fair was organised in their honour. The royal household continues to patronise the festival even though its glitz has reduced somewhat.
Although there is little record telling us about the early days of the festival, according to some records, the time of the festival was chosen according to a reference in the religious text Haribhaktibilas. According to the text, idols of Hari (another name for Krishna) are to be placed on a swing and worshipped for a month starting on the eleventh day of the bright fortnight in the Bengali month of Chaitra. Probably that is why Maharaj Krishnachandra chose this time to hold the festival.
On the auspicious eleventh day of the bright fortnight after the Indian festival of colours, Holi – usually in April – 12 idols of Krishna, in his various forms (ranging from the crawling baby Gopal to the flute-playing avatar, etc.), are brought to the palace in Krishnanagar. The idols are displayed for public viewing on the first three days of the festival, after which they retire to a temple inside the palace as guests of the patron deity Boro Narayan. However, the month-long fair, held in the huge field next to the old fort’s gate, is open to all.
A temporary marquee is set up in the palace precincts for the public viewing of the idols. The idols are dressed in separate attire on each of these three days – rajbesh (royal attire), phoolbesh (floral attire) and rakhalbesh (cowherd attire), respectively. Pilgrims offer flowers and coloured powder to the idols. The festival draws a lot of Vaishnav pilgrims from different parts of the district. Even if you are not religiously inclined, you are likely to enjoy a glimpse of the religious iconography of Bengal as represented through these old idols. Unfortunately, owing to some spat, the idol of Gopinath from Agradwip (in neighbouring district of Burdwan) is not brought to the fair and a photograph of the idol is worshipped instead.
The fair springs to life in the late afternoon (as it can be very hot during the day) and by evening it is choc a bloc with visitors. There are stalls selling household goods, textiles, plastic goods and toys, etc. A large part of the fair is devoted to food stalls, from the traditional jalebi and fried papad stalls to chicken rolls and chow mein, from iced lassi to cold drinks to icecreams, to packaged food. Do partake of the locally popular hot snack called ‘ghugni’ – made from cooked gram and yellow or white peas in a spicy gravy and served with various toppings. There is a whole row devoted to stalls selling India’s popular street food – panipuri (phuchka in Bengal), where you will not only find the use of traditional ingredients but also experimental ones too.
Although the basic character of the fair has remained the same – where local people come to buy household goods and enjoy the food – the merchandise sold have undergone a drastic change, rued a seller of hand-made goods for the home kitchen. Even though you will still find vendors selling handmade household goods of wood and iron, the majority stalls belong to those selling steel and plastic goods. The local popularity of the fair also entices branded companies to set up stalls here. The famous clay toy makers of Krishnanagar too have stopped coming to the fair. According to a toymaker, the fair is hardly known to people beyond the district. Hence only local people flock to it, who are not interested in buying the clay toys. Besides, children today are more drawn to plastic-made bright coloured toys. Only if the fair can be made popular to visitors from different parts of India and from abroad, it will be a boon to local artists and handicrafts.
Krishnanagar is 106km by road from Kolkata (the nearest airport) via NH 34 and 112km via Kalyani Expressway. The second route is relatively congestion free until the university town of Kalyani. By local trains from Sealdah station, the journey takes around two hours but the journey is not comfortable. Bhagirathi Express (from Sealdah station) and Hazarduari Express (from Kolkata station) are both convenient and comfortable as they have AC Chair Car options (but go for advance reservation). There are ordinary lodges in the city but for a more comfortable stay, you may check into Hotel Haveli (Phone: 098002-19993). While in Krishnanagar, you may also pay a visit to Ghurni, where there are many shops selling the famous clay toys. The place is also known for its unique milk-based sweets, Shorpuriya and Shorbhaja.