Sunday, March 29, 2009

Community get-together

"Mela" is a Bengali word whose nearest English expression should be "a get-together". It is an occasion when members of a community, may be people of a religious sect or people from neighbouring villages, come out to meet each other in an open space to exchange pleasantries, to discuss social issues, to take part in trade or just for general merry making and celebrating a special occasion. A "mela" is generally organized to commemorate an event important to the community or as part of some religious celebration. Thus a "mela" plays an important role in community life by helping to maintain unity and fellow-feeling among the members.

Recently I had the opportunity to be present at two "mela" celebrations in the villages of Bengal. One is called "Pir Gorachand Er Mela", that is a mela celebration dedicated to "Pir Gorachand" who is an Islamic saint and another one is "Matua Dharma Mahamela" which is the grandest religious festival of the people of "Matua" sect. Both were organized to celebrate important religious occasions to the respective communities of people.

"Pir Gorachand Er Mela" is the biggest mela celebration at Harua, a village in North 24 Parganas. The three days long celebration commemorates death anniversary of a Muslim saint "Pir Gorachand" and it starts on 11th day of the month Falgun of Bengali Calendar. Both Hindus and Muslims of the village and neighbouring regions participate in this mela to pay homage to the saint. However, according to the historians "Pir Gorachand" is more a mythical character, as no historical evidence can be found about his activities in the region. The stories that run in his name speak about the conflicts and struggles that Islam has to endure during its initial period in India and how people at lower rung of the society embraced Islam to escape torturous hands of uppler class rulers. This year when I got news of the mela celebration the actual three days celebration was already over. But the stalls set up for the mela would be there for the next ten days and I found people still throbbing with enthusiasm to flock to the mela ground.

The next one was held at Thakurnagar in North 24 Parganas. It started on 21st March this year and ran for a week; but the main celebration was on last Tuesday when an estimated 25 Lacs of devotees visited the place. The mela is organised to celebrate birth anniversary of Thakur Harichand (1811 - 1877), the founder of the "Matua" sect, who is considered as an incarnation of Vishnu by his followers. "Matua" is a religious movement in Bengal, in the same spirit of the "Bhakti" movement of Sri Chaitanya. It strives to address the issue of outcastes within the realm of Hinduism and preaches not to discriminate among people on racial ground. The movement soon became popular among the people from the lower strata of the society and it is now one of the important facets of Dalit movement in India. The sect has a huge base of Dalit devotees all throughout India at present. This made the sect quite attractive to the political parties aiming to bank on the huge base of Dalit voters to wrest power.

A "mela" is a living history of a region and of the community as well. The two above mela celebrations made me able to have a closer look at the life and history of common people in my country. Here I shall like to request my readers to let me know about any other interesting mela celebrations, that you become aware of. You can consider posting comments to this article or can reach me in my mailbox at santanu[dot]chakrabarti[@]gmail[dot]com.

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