Take a look into the soul of India, immerse yourself in poignant musical renditions or watch a centuries-old tribal ritual unfolding, all on the day of Makar Sankranti, when West Bengal joins the rest of India in observing the auspicious day. This year Makar Sankranti is on January 15.
Tucked away in the deltaic region of West Bengal, not far from the Sundarban forest, the island of Gangasagar is known for its temple dedicated to an ancient Indian ascetic (popularly known as Kapil Muni) and the annual fair held in the middle of January. It is also the place closest to the confluence, where the Ganga joins the Bay of Bengal. The antecedents of the place can be traced back to the Indian epic, Ramayana, though there is no official record when the fair started.
Every year, on the day of Makar Sankranti, thousands of people from all over India, including a large number of holy men and women, congregate here to take a holy dip at the confluence and purge themselves of sins. In that chilly weather, the religious fervour has to be seen to be believed. A temporary city springs up along the beach, complete with tents for accommodation, kiosks selling religious offerings, food and household goods, special enclosures run by various Hindu religious sects, etc. The local administration, aided by scores of welfare organisations, makes arrangements for drinking water, sanitation, security and medical aid. Visitors this year will be greeted with an island that has been beautified with illuminations, fountains, gardens, and a variety of sculptures depicting mythical tales and a series on the traditional dances of India.
The island is about 150km from Kolkata. The first part of the journey has to be undertaken by road or rail and the second part by ferry. West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation and private tour operators conduct luxury boat cruises to the Gangasagar Mela.
JOYDEV KENDULI MELA
Allow yourself to be immersed in the soulful renditions of the ‘baul’ singers, their philosophy and belief in the power of one God, the supreme power. Every year, these itinerant singers from West Bengal and Tripura in India and various parts of Bangladesh, arrive for an annual meet at Joydev Kenduli, not far from Rabindranath Tagore’s Shantiniketan. Although there is no record to prove that Vaishnav poet and author of Geeta Govindam, Joydev, was born here, as believed by the locals, the annual fair is organised in his honour.
The three-day meet, held on the banks of the Ajoy River, is open to visitors. The fair has somewhat lost its rural appearance but thanks to the local administration, facilities have vastly improved. Although the songs are composed in Bengali, even music lovers who do not speak the language arrive here lured by the musical renditions. With someone to translate, it is possible to bridge the language gap. The musical gatherings take place at night, at the ‘akharas’ or enclosures, belonging to the various groups. During the day, you may roam around, chatting with the singers or observing their ritual based daily routine. Do not forget to pay a visit to see the terracotta architecture of the old Radhabinod Temple.
Kenduli is a little over 200km by road from Kolkata. You may also reach the village by road from popular tourist places such as Bolpur, Bakreswar or Suri.
Moslty celebrated in the tribal belt of Chhota Nagpur of India, a region shared by West Bengal, Jharkhand and Odisha, Tusu is a unique festival which culminates on the day of Makar Sankranti. In West Bengal, the villages near Purulia town offer a pleasant look into this festival.
There are various interpretations of this annual event, the most common being it is the culmination of a month-long harvest festival. On the last day, people pray to a divine entity called Tusu who is seen both as a goddess and a friend. Prior to Makar Sankranti, young girls make an elongated square structure which symbolises Tusu (now also available in the markets). The structure, known as ‘choudol’, is made of jute sticks or bamboo and is very lightweight. It is decorated with flowers, bits of coloured papers, dolls and other bric a bracs. On the day of Makar Sankranti, the women carry the choudol to any nearby waterbody, singing songs dedicated to Tusu, all the way. After a ritual bath, they go around in circles holding the choudol and finally float it in the water. The boulder-riddled Kansai River near Deulghata or the Murguma Dam site, easily accessible for tourists, turn into a riot of colours as the choudols start arriving.
From Purulia town, Deulghata is about 30km and Murguma Dam is about 65 km away by road. Purulia can be reached by road and rail from Kolkata.