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!”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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”.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.