Friday, Jul 01, 2022
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Here Be Dragons: Kolkata Gets Ready For A Festival Commemorating A Poet's Death

Every year, on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month of the Chinese calendar, the Dragon Boat Festival commemorates the legend of the Chinese poet Qu Yuan. Kolkata celebrates with a day-long festival of food, art and culture events, and a frenzied boat race. It's quite a sight to see the narrow boats with ferocious dragon heads slice through the water. This year, the annual Dragon Boat Race is being held early June.

The Dragon Boat Race has colourful boats designed to resemble dragons
The Dragon Boat Race has colourful boats designed to resemble dragons Shutterstock

A 2,000 year old festival that commemorates the death of a poet-philosopher who fought against corruption. Sounds like a parable of our times?  

One of the oldest traditional festivals in the world, the Dragon Boat Festival is celebrated on the fifth day of the fifth Chinese lunar month every year. Also known in China as the Duanwu Festival, it was made an Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2009. In recent times, the Dragon Boat Race has evolved into a competitive global sport - it was held as a demo sport at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

In Kolkata, the Chinese community celebrates the festival every year with a line-up of events that includes a Dragon Boat Race, a series of lion dances, cultural performances, and delicious food cooked by the community. This year, it is being celebrated in the first week of June at The Calcutta Boating and Hotel Resorts. 

Teams getting ready for the race in Kolkata
Teams getting ready for the race in Kolkata Anuradha Sengupta

Racing teams have been practicing for weeks for the fast and furious race with boats that are named after the prow designed to look like a dragon’s head, the rear is carved to look like the tail. While the rest of the team works the oars, one person sitting in the front will beat a drum to egg them on and keep time for rowers.

Chinese legend says that the winning team will bring good luck and a good harvest to their village.

Dragon boats slice across the water in Kolkata
Dragon boats slice across the water in Kolkata
Lion dances are a part of the festival in Kolkata
Lion dances are a part of the festival in Kolkata Anuradha Sengupta

There are several origin stories and mythology threads that are attached to the festival. The most prominet one relates to Qu Yuan, a Chinese poet-philospher who was also a minister in the state of Chu in ancient China. He was exiled by the king who mistakenly perceived him as a traitor. He later committed suicide by drowning himself in the Miluo River in the Hunan Province. The local people rowed to the river in a futile search for Qu’s body. They are said to have paddled their boats up and down the river, beating drums loudly in order to scare away the water spirits. And threw rice dumplings into the water to keep the fishes and the water spirits away from Qu Yuan’s body. These sticky rice balls - called zongzi - are a big part of the festival today, as offerings to the spirit of Qu Yuan. In Kolkata too, you will find these bamboo leaf parcels of glutinous rice filled with savoury or sweet ingredients. 

At the Kolkata Dragon Boat Race in 2019 which had food stalls selling home-made food from the Chines
At the Kolkata Dragon Boat Race in 2019 which had food stalls selling home-made food from the Chinese community Anuradha Sengupta

Traditionally, apart from racing dragon boats, the rituals will include eating zongzi (zongzi making is a family thing and each have their own special recipe and cooking method) and drinking realgar wine made from cereal laced with powdered realgar, a mineral made from arsenic and sulphur. Realgar has been used in traditional medicine in China for centuries.

Incidentally, Qu Yuan is also known as the father of Chinese poetry, and the day is also celebrated as Poet’s Day in China. 

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