Vel Vel Festival in Bandel


Vel Vel Festival in Bandel

Who would have thought that a festival typical that of Tamil is widely celebrated in West Bengal with equal fanfare? One summer morning on a Saturday I and two friends of mine set off to Bandel which is around an hour train ride from Kolkata. The summer was at its peak and we were all well prepared with bottles of drinking water, sun hats, and packets of biscuits in our backpacks. We knew that it would be a long day full of activities thus there was no scope for any breaks. We also knew that we should expect a huge crowd so high chances we will lose track of each other so we decided in a meeting point so that we can all reunite back after the event.

What we witnessed will surely remain etched in our memory forever. So much so that to date whenever we meet the first thing that we say to each other is “Vel Vel”. It is something that I must recommend you to witness to truly understand the essence of the confluence of cultures in Bengal.

What is Vel Vel?

The root of this is Hindu mythology, Indian gods have many incarnations and one such is that or Kartikeya, he is also known as Murugan. He is the son of Parvathi and Shiva and the brother of Ganesha. Murugan is considered as the god of war especially in Southern India. Murugan is popular in other countries such as Sri Lanka, Singapore, and Malaysia. Basically in places where there had been major migration of Tamil population from India.

Indian mythology has a god assigned for every major activity similarly Murugan is considered as the “War God”. Considering the vastness of Indian mythology it’s not accurate to declare Murugan as the only God associated with war but can be safely said one of the many especially considered by the Tamil population.

Murugan is always depicted with a long spear in his hand and this is known as a “Vel” in the Tamil language. This as per mythology was gifted to him by his mother Parvathi so that he could use this as a battle weapon against Asura’s. Keep in mind that Asura was not just a single person but a clan who were at constant war with the gods.

There was once a fierce war between Murugan and Soorapadman from the Asura Clan. Murugan used his divine spear (Vel) to stop Soorapadman from evading eminent defeat when he disguised himself as a mango tree. Murugan used his divine spear to rip apart the mango tree into two halves. Each of the halves turned into a peacock and a rooster. Thus we can always see Kartikeya using peacock as his vahana (animals or birds used by gods and goddesses as a means of transportation). The rooster became the flag symbol of Murugan.

As a war cry of many Tamil rulers, they used the words “Vetrivel! Veeravel!” which translates to “Victorious Vel, Courageous Vel“. Thus it’s common to hear this phrase during “Vel Vel” during this festival which is a shorter version of “Vetrivel! Veeravel!”

Thaipusam

This is the main Murugan festival celebrated majorly by the Tamil community around the world.  This festival celebrates the occasion when the Vel was presented to Murugan by his mother Parvati. This event takes place in January – February across southern states and in places like Singapore, Sri Lanka, Malaysia, etc.

Chaitra Navratri

However, the festivities in Bandel (West Bengal) takes place around April which is almost the peak of summer thus making is very difficult and challenging considering the extreme summer heat.

The main festivity takes place around Chaitra Navratri which symbolizes the beginning of a new year in Bengali Calendar. After nine days from this date is Poila Boisak which is the Bengali New Year.

Vel Vel in Bandel

Once you get down at Bandel railway station it becomes quite apparent that something is happening around the town. Hordes of photographers can be seen wandering around the station exit so you have no chance of getting lost. You need to go to a place called Ulaichandi Tala where there is a very famous temple by the name of Sri Sri Ulaichandi Mata Thakurani Mondir. All the activities will happen around this temple so you have to somehow reach this place.

You can avail a share auto or book a full battery operated rickshaw. Most roads will be closed to vehicle traffic due to the festival so ideally, you need to reach by 10 AM, or else you might have to walk to this temple from the station.

Olaichandi Tala – The Locality in Bandel Where This Activity Takes Place
Olaichandi Tala – The Locality in Bandel Where This Activity Takes Place

No sooner we left the station in an auto we saw many groups of devotees going in procession. Usually, there is one person who will be fasting and is set to do all the religious activities. All his or her relatives and family members travel along with them to encourage them to push on.

Devotees and Spectators Arriving at Olaichandi Tala to watch Vel Vel
Devotees and Spectators Arriving at Olaichandi Tala to watch Vel Vel
Drummers Bring Out the Festive Spirit at Vel Vel in Bandel
Drummers Bring Out the Festive Spirit at Vel Vel in Bandel
People of All Age Especially Children Come To Attend Vel Vel in Bandel
People of All Age Especially Children Come To Attend Vel Vel in Bandel
It’s a Completely Festive Atmosphere at Vel Vel in Bandel
It’s a Completely Festive Atmosphere at Vel Vel in Bandel

The designated person who would be performing the rituals has usually gone through day’s preparation which involves fasting, celibacy, eating only pure vegetarian food, etc. Men usually do not shave or comb their hairs, they need to spend time contemplating the activities that have been planned as a part of the rituals. They must speak less and try to build a channel of communication with the divine forces.

On the final day, most of them are exhausted and would need all the support from the crowd and their loved ones. The procession usually takes them from their home towards the temple. They walk bare feet in the summer heat, some carry pots of milk which are used for the offering.

Sri Sri Olaichandi Mata Thakurani Mondir

This is an Ola Devi temple, Ola Debi is considered as the Goddess of Cholera. Bengal (which includes West Bengal and Bangladesh) often faced devastating Cholera outbreaks thus people would pray to her for remedy and protecting their family from the disease. This temple has become an essential part of the festival even though this has nothing to do with Murugan. Many of the devotees performing Vel Vel come here after their ritual bath for a blessing.

Every Family Brings Their Own Drummers Just To Cheer the Devotes Who Would Be Performing Vel Vel at Bandel
Every Family Brings Their Own Drummers Just To Cheer the Devotes Who Would Be Performing Vel Vel at Bandel
Sri Sri Olaichandi Mata Thakurani Mondir Is the Centre of All Activity As All Devotes Need to Seek Blessings before Piercing Ceremony
Sri Sri Olaichandi Mata Thakurani Mondir Is the Centre of All Activity As All Devotes Need to Seek Blessings before Piercing Ceremony
Sri Sri Olaichandi Mata Thakurani Mondir at Bandel
Sri Sri Olaichandi Mata Thakurani Mondir at Bandel
Prayer Ceremony inside Sri Sri Olaichandi Mata Thakurani Mondir at Bandel
Prayer Ceremony inside Sri Sri Olaichandi Mata Thakurani Mondir at Bandel
Frenzied Activity inside Sri Sri Olaichandi Mata Thakurani Mondir at Bandel
Frenzied Activity inside Sri Sri Olaichandi Mata Thakurani Mondir at Bandel
Drummers from the Tamil Community in Uniform Waiting Outside the Temple
Drummers from the Tamil Community in Uniform Waiting Outside the Temple

All the devotees will first reach a temple near the Sri Sri Olaichandi Mata Thakurani Mondir, near this temple there are two large ponds where the devotees will take a dip to purify themselves. After the dip, the devotees are cleansed with turmeric paste and sacred ash around their body. Religious threads are tied around their hands and some put on neem leaves along with lemons around their waist. This is done to ward of any evil or negative forces that may stop them from performing their holy duty.

Devotees and Spectators Wait For the Ritual Bath during Vel Vel in Bandel
Devotees and Spectators Wait For the Ritual Bath during Vel Vel in Bandel
Drummers from the Local Tamil Community Leading a Group of Devotees to Their Ritual Bath
Drummers from the Local Tamil Community Leading a Group of Devotees to Their Ritual Bath
Members of the Local Tamil Community at Vel Vel in Bandel
Members of the Local Tamil Community at Vel Vel in Bandel
Some Devotees Seek Blessings Also At Sri Sri Gopinath Jeo Math at Vel Vel in Bandel
Some Devotees Seek Blessings Also At Sri Sri Gopinath Jeo Math at Vel Vel in Bandel
Sri Sri Gopinath Jeo Math at Bandel
Sri Sri Gopinath Jeo Math at Bandel
Ritual Bath during Vel Vel in Bandel – Devotees Need To Cleanse Themselves before Proceeding With the Ceremony
Ritual Bath during Vel Vel in Bandel – Devotees Need To Cleanse Themselves before Proceeding With the Ceremony
Ritual Bath during Vel Vel in Bandel – Praying To the Sun God
Ritual Bath during Vel Vel in Bandel – Praying To the Sun God
Ritual Bath during Vel Vel in Bandel – Family Members Accompany the Devotee during This Process
Ritual Bath during Vel Vel in Bandel – Family Members Accompany the Devotee during This Process
Ritual Bath during Vel Vel in Bandel – Praying To the Sun God
Ritual Bath during Vel Vel in Bandel – Praying To the Sun God
Some Devotee Go Into a Trance Right After the Bath Is Helped By Family Members to Keep Them in Control
Some Devotee Go Into a Trance Right After the Bath Is Helped By Family Members to Keep Them in Control
Those Who Would Be Performing Vel Vel Are Cleansed and Prepared For the Ceremony by Applying Turmeric Paste
Those Who Would Be Performing Vel Vel Are Cleansed and Prepared For the Ceremony by Applying Turmeric Paste
Sacred Threads Are Tied Around the Wrist And Turmeric Paste Applied – Vel Vel at Bandel
Sacred Threads Are Tied Around the Wrist And Turmeric Paste Applied – Vel Vel at Bandel
Vermillion Applied Around the Body – Vel Vel at Bandel
Vermillion Applied Around the Body – Vel Vel at Bandel
Neem Leaf Tied Around the Waist and Anklet Bells Tied Around Legs – Vel Vel in Bandel
Neem Leaf Tied Around the Waist and Anklet Bells Tied Around Legs – Vel Vel in Bandel

By now you will see varied activities both by men and women, most of them are in deep trance and can be seen performing something similar to Kavadi Attam. Some go into a deep level of trance and collapse to the ground only to be helped by family members and the trance dance continues. All along with the relatives and other people keep chanting “Vel Vel”.

Devotees Now Perform Dance Usually Under Trance Along With Traditional Drums and Maracas While Crows Chant “Vel Vel”
Devotees Now Perform Dance Usually Under Trance Along With Traditional Drums and Maracas While Crows Chant “Vel Vel”
Trance Dance by Devotees at Vel Vel in Bandel
Trance Dance by Devotees at Vel Vel in Bandel
Some Devotees Go Into Vigorous Body Movements Until They Collapse To the Ground – Vel Vel at Bandel
Some Devotees Go Into Vigorous Body Movements Until They Collapse To the Ground – Vel Vel at Bandel
Female Devotees under Trance – Vel Vel in Bandel
Female Devotees under Trance – Vel Vel in Bandel
Female Devotees under Trance – Vel Vel in Bandel
Female Devotees under Trance – Vel Vel in Bandel
Family Members Help a Woman to Calm Her Down After Getting Into a Trance
Family Members Help a Woman to Calm Her Down After Getting Into a Trance
Even Young Children Get Into Trance
Even Young Children Get Into Trance

The devotees then proceed towards Sri Sri Olaichandi Mata Thakurani Mondir where they are pierced. These would often involve their bodies pierced with Vel (spears). Some pierce their tongue, some pierce their cheeks, and the more dramatic ones involve piercing of their backs and chest.

People often bring offerings in the forms of fruits that are beautifully decorated and mounted on Van Rickshaws or chariots. Some of these chariots also are decorated with a sheaf. It’s like bringing the best of harvest and fruits to the gods for them to be blessed. Some devotees can also be seen pulling such displays with the help of metal hooks pierced on their backs.

Devotees Now Go To Sri Sri Olaichandi Mata Thakurani Mondir to Seek Blessings and Get Pierced – Vel Vel in Bandel
Devotees Now Go To Sri Sri Olaichandi Mata Thakurani Mondir to Seek Blessings and Get Pierced – Vel Vel in Bandel
Devotees Who Would Be Performing Vel Vel Going Towards Sri Sri Olaichandi Mata Thakurani Mondir
Devotees Who Would Be Performing Vel Vel Going Towards Sri Sri Olaichandi Mata Thakurani Mondir
Some Devotees Are Under Extreme Trance Unable To Walk and Only To Be Helped BY Relatives to Continue With the Rituals
Some Devotees Are Under Extreme Trance Unable To Walk and Only To Be Helped BY Relatives to Continue With the Rituals
Devotees Who Would Be Performing Vel Vel Going Towards Sri Sri Olaichandi Mata Thakurani Mondir
Devotees Who Would Be Performing Vel Vel Going Towards Sri Sri Olaichandi Mata Thakurani Mondir
Mini Chariots Which Will Be Pulled By the Devotees by Hooking Them to Their Skin on Their Back
Mini Chariots Which Will Be Pulled By the Devotees by Hooking Them to Their Skin on Their Back
Mini Chariots Which Will Be Pulled By the Devotees by Hooking Them to Their Skin on Their Back
Mini Chariots Which Will Be Pulled By the Devotees by Hooking Them to Their Skin on Their Back
Mini Chariots Which Will Be Pulled By the Devotees by Hooking Them to Their Skin on Their Back
Mini Chariots Which Will Be Pulled By the Devotees by Hooking Them to Their Skin on Their Back

By now there is a presence of huge crowds going I various directions. Keep a note that some sections of the road leading towards Sri Sri Olaichandi Mata Thakurani Mondir can become extremely congested and almost stampede like situation. Use your common judgment and stay away from such choke points.

Devotees after Geeing Pierced Through Their Cheeks with Vel (Representing the Devine Spear of Murugan)
Devotees after Geeing Pierced Through Their Cheeks with Vel (Representing the Devine Spear of Murugan)
Some Female Devotees Can Be Seen Carrying Pot of Milk on Their Head and Walking Bare Feet towards Shitala Temple
Some Female Devotees Can Be Seen Carrying Pot of Milk on Their Head and Walking Bare Feet towards Shitala Temple
Some Female Devotees Can Be Seen Carrying Pot of Milk on Their Head and Walking Bare Feet towards Shitala Temple
Some Female Devotees Can Be Seen Carrying Pot of Milk on Their Head and Walking Bare Feet towards Shitala Temple
Vel Vel being Performed By A Devotee Who Has His Cheeks Pierced With A Spear, Lemons On Metal Hooks Around The Skin Of The Chest. They Also Have Metal Hooks On Their Backs Which Pull The Chariot.
Vel Vel being Performed By A Devotee Who Has His Cheeks Pierced With A Spear, Lemons On Metal Hooks Around The Skin Of The Chest. They Also Have Metal Hooks On Their Backs Which Pull The Chariot.
Vel Pierced Through Their Cheeks – Vel Vel in Bandel
Vel Pierced Through Their Cheeks – Vel Vel in Bandel
Metal Hooks Pierced On the Backs Which Pull the Chariot
Metal Hooks Pierced On the Backs Which Pull the Chariot
Devotees Proceeding Towards Sheetala Temple
Devotees Proceeding Towards Sheetala Temple
Devotees Proceeding Towards Sheetala Temple
Devotees Proceeding Towards Sheetala Temple
Devotees Proceeding Towards Sheetala Temple – Vel Vel in Bandel
Devotees Proceeding Towards Sheetala Temple – Vel Vel in Bandel

Tips: Keep all your belongings within safe reach and avoid having the purse, mobile phone, and other expensive and important objects with easy access. Keep them in the pant front pocket. There have been several incidents of pickpocketing during these festivals.

Also, keep a watch on each other even if they are a stranger. On one such occasion, I saw a photographer slipped on something and fall to the ground in that maddening crowd. I had to grab her hand and pull her out.
 

Firewalking

All the devotees after getting pierced need to take a long walk to another temple which has an open ground next to it. While the devotes are heading towards this temple you will be able to see people performing Dondi Kata. What this means is that young child usually babies and laid down on the road for the devotes performing Vel Vel to walk over them. This is considered as a symbol of getting blessed by these devotees who are supposed to have divine powers.

Dondi Kata – Where a Devotee Performing Vel Vel Walk Over a Baby So That They Get Blessed – Photo Courtesy Utsav Basu
Dondi Kata – Where a Devotee Performing Vel Vel Walk Over a Baby So That They Get Blessed – Photo Courtesy Utsav Basu

Once the reach the second temple which is a Shitala Temple you will be able to see a huge fire pit that is created which used as a part of the ceremony. A part of the rituals also involves the devotees walking in fire pits which are usually filled up with burning coal. The devotees by now are exhausted beyond human capacity but they are now in a trance-like state thus push on.

Firewalking Being Performed By a Devotee – Photo Courtesy Utsav Basu
Firewalking Being Performed By a Devotee – Photo Courtesy Utsav Basu

Only after they complete the firewalking their rituals are set to be completed. The devotees are now helped to remove their pierced items and then they pray at this temple signalling an end of the festivity.

Shitala Temple Where the Vel Vel Event Comes To an End – Photo Courtesy Utsav Basu
Shitala Temple Where the Vel Vel Event Comes To an End – Photo Courtesy Utsav Basu

Confluence of Cultures

Bandel surprising has a large Tamil population. According to some local seniors and stories which were spread word of mouth from one generation to another the chuck of these Tamil communities settled here before independence. These groups of people were got in as laborers and they settled here eventually.

Apart from the local Tamil population, there is also a huge Tamil community in Kolkata and they travel to Bandel to be part of the festival.

Over the decades this festival has become a festival for all communities and not just restricted to the Tamil population. The Bengali community also commemorates this festivity with the pouring of milk on the deity of Olaichandi Mata and at the Shitala Temple. Most of these devotees have wishes that they want to be fulfilled thus keep these fasting and other rituals while some do it for the good health of their near and dear ones.

So you cannot directly match the event dates with Thaipusam which is the official Murugan Vel Vel festival. What it has become truly reflects the confluence of cultures in Bengal. It’s become a mix of Tamil and Bengali festivals wherein Murugan, Olaichandi Mata and Shitala Mata have seamlessly converged into a singular festival.

Please keep in mind that I have tried my best to collate information from various sources to write this blog. If you happen to know any additional details or if you feel that I have written some facts wrong then please feel free to get in touch with me, I will get it corrected.

Location On Map

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