Bengalis celebrate and revel in local festivals yearlong as the proverb goes, "Bangalir Baro Maase Tero Parbon" (signifying 13 festivals Bengalis celebrate in a span of 12 months). Quite intriguing as a festival to attain prosperity through grisly sacrifice is celebrated with great fanfare and enthusiasm in rural and semi-urban Bengal and Bangladesh (mostly belts of South Bengal) called Charak Puja which happens in the month of April falling on 13th or 14th day thus marking the end of the bygone year and welcoming the Bengali New Year the following day.
Charak Puja also known as Batri Charak, Nil Puja and Gajan Puja generally takes place in the month of Chaitra (last month of the Bengali Calendar) on the day of Sankranti which marks the last day of the month thus bidding farewell to the year coming to an end.
Charak Festival or Charak Puja is celebrated mostly by agricultural groups and farmers in glory of Lord Shiva and Goddess Shakti by singing praises to their names along with observing a month long fast and enduring penance. Those devotees who participate in this month long fast refrain from accepting food from dawn till dusk and are only allowed to have fruits at certain intervals to seek the holy blessing bestowed on them by Lord Shiva.
The festival which is celebrated to end the sufferings of the bygone year and ushering good luck and fortune in the new year (mainly for bountiful harvest) commences on the midnight of Chaitra Sankranti when devotees gather to worship the almighty although the preparations for arranging requisite stuff for Charak Puja like sugar, oil, money, salt, paddy, honey and cosmetic fenders like Parvati, Narad and Shiva. Lord Shiva is lovingly called Nil Pagol or Jal Katha and this festival also known as Harjha Puja involves a unique aspect called Gajan.
Gajan Puja is closely associated with Charak Puja as the celebrations begin a week before Chaitra Sankranti and end with Charak on the last day of the Bengali Calendar marking the inception of a fresh new year. Gajan has a significant translation derived from the Bengali word Garjan which indicates a festival of village folk whereby sanyasis or hermits who participate in this festival are represented as symbolic barjatris (bridegroom’s party) marking the auspicious day when Lord Shiva got married to Harakali.
To mark the occasion of Lord Shiva’s marriage and also to pray to the almighty for blessings/good fortune and riddance from suffering of the bygone year, participants known as Charaks impale their body with sharp instruments and also endure penance to please the almighty. In front of a huge gathering on the countryside witnessed by scores of enthused villagers; a bamboo stages or dais measuring 10-15 feet are erected and the floor beneath it are strewn with sharp knives, thorns, glass shards on which the Charaks or devotees in a pack of 10-12 participants hurl themselves but escape unscathed as they strongly believe that Lord Shiva bestows his blessings on them for their sacrifice.
They also tie themselves with a hook on their back or from their long tresses and propelled around a long pole through the means of long rope tied to the hooks on their back. The main performer is known as Deobinshi and Charak is divided into two variations; i.e. Chak Charak and Chila Charak. The devotees or Charaks relinquish their clan or gotra and adopt Lord Shiva’s gotra during this phase as a show of reverence.
The Charak festival is one of its kind; though gruesome and not so pleasant sight for the eyes yet it is an enchanting festival involving rigid beliefs and practices with local fairs being arranged with food, paraphernalia and merrymaking!