Rajbalhat Ratha Yatra
~ Rajbalhat Chariot Festival ~
“Char chak, chodda para, tin ghat; ei neye Rajbalhat” (four crossing, fourteen localities and three bathing areas; consists of Rajbalhat) goes an old saying. Today Rajbalhat is a non descriptive town in the Jangipara block of Hooghly district but its history dates back to the 16th century when it was the capital of the Bhursut (Bhurishrestha) Empire.
The 16th century temple housing the idol of Devi Rajballavi, after whom Rajbalhat is named, can still be seen to this day but sadly the temple has been renovated several times and in the process wiping out centuries of history.
When it comes to Rathayartra the first name that comes to mind is Puri. But closer home Mahesh, near Srerampore in Hooghly district, hosts a magnificent Rathyayatra festival complete with a towering rath.
Legend has it that in the 14th century Dhurbananda Bramhachari, a Bengali sage went to Puri for a pilgrimage, with the desire to offer Bhog to Lord Jagannath. Sadly the temple authorities at Puri prevented him from doing so. Dejected Dhurabnanda decided to fast till death. On the third day of his fast he heard Lord Jagannath’s voice, advising him to head back to Bengal, to a place called Mahesh on the banks of Hooghly. The lord also advised him that at Mahesh he will find a huge neem trunk, which he will use to make the idols of Jagannath, Balaram and Subhadra.
Dhurabnanda retraced his steps back to Bengal and on a scary night the long sort after neem trunk arrived. Dhurabananda carried out the lords order and established the temple at Mahesh. Today the temple has been replaced by a new structure but the Rathayatra dating back to 1397 operates to this day.
Like the temple the Rath has been replaced several times. The present Rath was donated by Krishnaram Basu and was constructed by Martin Burn Co. The iron rath, with nine pinnacles, towers to a height of 50 feet and weighs 125 tons. Running on 12 wheels of diameter 4 feet the rath was made at a cost of Rs 20,000 and have been in operation since 1885.
The four storied Rath is fitted with two wooden horses and a chariot driver. Apart from that the first stage contains wooden figures of Chaitanyalila, second and third stage contains Krishnalila and Ramlila respectively. The top stage houses the gigantic wooden idol of Jagannath.
Today this gigantic rath is pulled in a wild rampage, through crowded streets under strict police supervision. The eight day period between rath a ulto – rath is marked by a mela (fair), complete with mary go rounds and circus shows. Makeshift stalls selling household items and artifacts. Last but not least are the food stalls selling papad bhaja and hot jilibis. But the age old melas are also going through the mode of evolution with chowmeins and egg rolls being the most sort after food items and stunt bike rides are the new source of entertainment.
In 2006 Pluto, the ninth planet of our solar system lost its status of a planet and was demoted to the status of a minor planet. Although Pluto lost its status as a planet it led to the addition of a new word in the English vocabulary. In January 2007 the new word of “Plutoed” meaning to “to demote or devalue someone or something” was added to the English Dictionary.
The stories of new words being added to the vocabulary of different languages in the world have always been interesting, but probably none of this can match the addition of the word “Borowari” in the Bengali vocabulary. “Barowari” means community, and is often used as “Borowari Durga Pujo” to signify a community Durga Pujo organized by collecting subscriptions from the members.
The word Borowari originated from Guptipara, in present day Hooghly. In 1761 (1790 by some other sources) some men were stopped from taking part in a household Durga Puja. Twelve of them formed a committee and organized the first Barowari (baro = twelve and yaar = friend) Durga Pujo. It was reported by the May 1820 issue of The Friends of India magazine, which was published from Srerampore. But sadly there are no concrete evidences of when the word “Barowari” made its entry into the Bengali dictionary.
Guptipara is a great place for Bengal sweet lovers. The most famous of these is the Gupo Sandesh, considered by many to be Bangal’s first branded sweet – meat. It is made of channa extracted from cow’s milk. Guptipara is also the birthplace of sweet maker Bhola Moira, who was famous not for sweet making skills but for his Kabi gaan (Folk Songs). The famous musical duel of Bhola Moira and the Anglo – Indian Antony Firingi, has been made immortal by Uttam Kumar’s movie Antony Firingi.
But today the primary attraction of Guptipara are its temples. Located in a single temple complex the four Vaishnava Temples.
- Krishnachandra Temples
offer an interesting mixture of Bengal temple architecture.
The temples were constructed in different periods with Chitanya temple being the oldest one. It was built by Bishwar Roy during mid sixteen century. Built in Jora – Bangla style the temple consists of two thatched hut shaped adjoining structure. The temple is said to contain some of Bengal’s earliest terracotta carvings but sadly they didn’t survive the test of time.
The 60 feet high Brindabanchandra Temple, built in 1810, dominates the temple complex. Although the aat – chala (eight sloped roof) temple lacks the terracotta work it is largely compensated by coloured fresco on both outer and inner the walls. The Brindabanchandra Temple is flanked on the right by Ramchandra Temple and on the left by Krishnachandra Temple.
The ek-ratna (one – pinnacled) Ramchandra Temple, was constructed in late eighteenth century by the king of Sheraphuli Harishchandra Roy, is the definitely the most elegant temple of the complex. The one storied temple crowned with an octagonal turret contains rich terracotta works on the front and southern walls of the ground floor and also on the walls of the turret. The temple contains rich teracotta works depicting war scene from Ramayana, royal processions, marine voyages and scenes from day to day life.
The Krishnachandra Temple was constructed in 1745 during the rule of Nawab Ali Vardi Khan and follows the aat – chala from of architecture. All four temples stand on elevated platforms and are inter – connected by narrow arched passageways.
Although Guptipara has the distinction of housing Bengal’s first Durga Pujo but Durga Pujo is not Guptipara’s primary festival. When it comes to festival in Guptipara the first thing that comes into mind is Guptipara’s towering and colorful chariot. Being a Vaishnav centre Rath Jaytra (Chariot Festival) is major festival and prime attraction.
The Bridabamchandra Temple hoses the idol of Jaganath, Balaram & Subhadra. On the day of the Rath Jatra the idols are carried out by the towering rath (chariot) to another temple known as Masir Bari where it is kept for 7 days. After which the journey is retraced by the rath, known as ulto rath, and the idols are brought back to the Brindabanchandra Temple.
The gigantic nine pinnacled rath is decorated with coloured festoons and banners and is fitted with wooden horses and several wooden statues. The multi wheeled rath is pulled by four thick ropes, out which one is reserved for women. A rope at the back serves as a brake. The rath is pulled through muddy & slushy ground in a wild rampage and it seems a miracle that the event goes on with a stampede. The event is heavily monitored by the police who clear the crowed to make way for the rath.
The seven day period between the rath and ulto rath is marked with a mela (fair). The mela is complete with marry go rounds and magic & circus shows, makeshift stalls sells household wares to decorative showpiece. Even today Vishnav singers perform reminding one of the glourious days of Bhola Moira & Antony Firingi. Last but not the least is the food stalls selling papad bhaja to hot jilipis. But the age old fairs is also going through the process of evolutions with egg rolls and chowmein being the most preferred food items while stunt bike rides are the new source of entertainment.
Today Guptipara is a town in the district of Hooghly in West Bengal. Located about 75 km from Calcutta, Guptipara has its own railway station on Bandel – Katwa rail line and is well connected from Howrah. A visit to Guptipara will definitely provide an insight into Bengal’s rich cultural and social life and also provide the opportunity to admire some of Bengal’s richest terracotta work.
- Hooghly Jelar Purakirti by Naredrnath Bhattacharya
- Next Weekend you can be at … Guptipara, The Telegraph March 26, 2006.
- Next Weekend you can be at … Guptipara, The Telegraph Sept. 6, 2009.
- Of Chariots, Temples and Folk Songs, Hindustan Times July 3, 2011.
- Links from my Personal Web Page. Guptipara Travel, Guptipaara Rath, Guptipara Photo.
List of my Blog entry on West Bengal