In Lakshmi Puja, a ghastly memory of Partition and struggle to be recognised

Lakshmi puja offered a perfect means for display of the cultural identity of the Bangaal in front of the Ghoti.

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury | New Delhi | Updated: October 15, 2016 7:01 pm
Lakshmi puja, Goddess Lakshmi, Goddess Laxmi, Laxmi, Lakshmi, Lokkhi pujo, Lakshmi puja in Bengal, Bengal, Bengal history, Bengal partition, refugees in Bengal, East Bengal, Bangladesh, Bengali festivals, Durga Puja, Indian Express Bengalis are known to culminate their Durga Puja celebrations with Lakshmi puja on the full moon of the month of ashwin (roughly between September and October). Express photo by Partha Paul

The festivities associated with Durga Puja hardly come to a conclusion before Bengalis gear up to celebrate Goddess Lakshmi, the Hindu deity popularly associated with wealth and prosperity. While large parts of India, particularly Northern India worship Goddess Lakshmi on the festival of Diwali, Bengalis are known to culminate their Durga Puja celebrations with Lakshmi Puja on the full moon of the month of ashwin (roughly between September and October).

A lesser known fact, however, is that the Lakshmi Puja that follows Durga Puja and is widely popular all over Bengal as a day of holidaying and festivity, is actually a celebration attributed to a certain section of Bengalis- the refugees who migrated from East Bengal (now Bangladesh) after the partition of the country in 1947. The Kojagori Lakshmi Puja, as locals call this day of worship, is the day when Bangaals (the local term used to refer to Bengalis from East Bengal) offer prayers to Goddess Lakshmi.

It interesting to note though that while the original inhabitants of Bengal, locally referred to as Ghotis do celebrate Lakshmi Puja at other times of the year, it is the festival made popular by Bengali refugee population that has come to be officially recognised as the day of Lakshmi Puja in Bengal. Wrapped within the large number of colourful Lakshmi Puja pandals and alpona (a local variant of rangoli made on the occasion of Lakshmi puja in Bengal) is the link this popular Bengali festival has with its ghastly history of Partition.

The Ghoti-Bangaal divide

The historic moment in which Bengal got divided between the East and the West happened in August 1947. However, Partition can hardly be called a specific moment in history. It was a process. “For people living in Bengal, Partition is a living reality,” says Prabal Banerjee, independent researcher on Partition history and Fellow at the 1947 Partition Archive.

The moment that separated East from West Bengal was initiator of a process entailing large inflow of migrants into Indian territory of Bengal from the East Pakistani side. Between 1946 and 1964 an estimated of 5 million people crossed borders to enter the present state of West Bengal. Almost all of them were Hindus, who had to leave their ancestral land and property as a result of the large scale communal violence.

Lakshmi puja, Goddess Lakshmi, Goddess Laxmi, Laxmi, Lakshmi, Lokkhi pujo, Lakshmi puja in Bengal, Bengal, Bengal history, Bengal partition, refugees in Bengal, East Bengal, Bangladesh, Bengali festivals, Durga Puja, Indian Express Between 1946 and 1964 an estimated of 5 million people crossed borders to enter the present state of West Bengal. (Express Archives)

The large inflow of refugees was accompanied by a process of ‘othering’, or discrimination that they had to face meted out by their Bengali counterparts in West Bengal. The Bengalis from East Bengal had distinct linguistic and cultural attributes that marked them out from the local Bengali population. Having left behind most of their property and jobs in East Bengal, poverty was a natural outcome for the Bengali refugees. The number in which they came in created problems of job competition and housing for the local population who began considering them as a nuisance.

Economic competition often leads to cultural marginalisation which is precisely what best describes the divide between the Ghoti and Bangaal. The local Bengali population often accused the refugees as lacking in culture and traditions. “Even those refugees who had some money found it difficult to rent a house because no ghoti would let the ‘dirty’ bangaal enter their own household. They were considered as not having any ritualistic traditions and culture. The Ghoti-Bangaal dichotomy became more rigid from this period,” explains Banerjee.

The search for a new Bengali identity in Lakshmi puja

The occasion of Lakshmi Puja, broadly associated with prosperity, is celebrated in accordance with harvest cycles. Among the original inhabitants of West Bengal, Goddess Lakshmi is in fact worshiped a number of times in the year, coinciding with the harvest seasons. For the East Bengalis strangely, the occasion was always celebrated with much pomp and show only once a year. The worship of Goddess Lakshmi for them was accompanied with an element of a grand cultural exhibit that involved music and food.

Eighty-five-year-old Basanti Saha moved to Kolkata from Dhaka in 1947. She fondly recalls the grandeur of Lakshmi Puja celebrations at her ancestral home in Dhaka. “Lakshmi Puja was a three-day affair. Large number of people were invited and the ceremonial worship of Goddess Lakshmi was accompanied by music and performances by professional dancing girls,” she said.

The poverty resulting from migration resulted in a scaling down of the celebration in the new found homeland of West Bengal. Despite that though, Lakshmi Puja offered a perfect means for display of the cultural identity of the Bangaal in front of the Ghoti. “Lakshmi Puja is not just a ritual involving worship of Goddess Lakshmi for the Bangaal. Through this celebration, they could express their identity,” says Banerjee.

Lakshmi puja, Goddess Lakshmi, Goddess Laxmi, Laxmi, Lakshmi, Lokkhi pujo, Lakshmi puja in Bengal, Bengal, Bengal history, Bengal partition, refugees in Bengal, East Bengal, Bangladesh, Bengali festivals, Durga Puja, Indian Express As Bengal decks itself up to celebrate Lokkhi Pujo, a large number of Ghoti Bengalis are also celebrating the occasion along with the Bangaal, largely forgetting the East Bengali roots of the splendid festivities. Express photo by Partha Paul

Debashish Ghosh (76) had moved to Murshidabad in West Bengal in 1948. “When we first moved here, we faced a lot of discrimination. No one allowed us to enter their house because we were Bangaal. We used to perform Lakshmi Puja to show the Ghoti our culture. Large number of them would in fact visit us during this celebration.”

Another immigrant, Keshab Guha moved to Kolkata from Barisal in Bangladesh in 1954. They settled down in the locality of Kalighat that was densely packed with the original inhabitants of West Bengal. “We used to perform Lakshmi Puja in order to give a taste of our bhuna khichuri (a local dish usually served to Goddess Lakshmi on the occasion of worshiping her) to the Ghoti.”

With time the dichotomy between Bangaal and Ghoti started disappearing. At present the divide remains restricted to jovial debates between the two communities regarding food and football. As Bengal decks itself up to celebrate Lokkhi Pujo, a large number of Ghoti Bengalis are also celebrating the occasion along with the Bangaal, largely forgetting the East Bengali roots of the splendid festivities.

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  1. S
    Sidhartha
    Oct 15, 2016 at 12:29 pm
    The report, attributing the lakshmi puja in bengal to some localised historical events, can at best be partially true as far as the festivities ociated with the puja only.as for lakshmi puja, sharad poornima is one of the most important day for any serious worshipper of lakshmi and the sadhakas everywhere do elaborate pujas on this day at midnight.it is understood that on this day lakshmi takes a round thru the night and blesses all those who are awake and worshipping her.the word kojagari signifies this only.meaning ko jagrat i.e., who is awake.
    Reply
    1. A
      Aninda
      Oct 16, 2016 at 2:09 am
      The headline had me hooked. I was curious to read this because my family hails from Khulna. At our house in north Kolkata we celebrate both the Durga puja as well as Lakshmi puja (ref Sardar Barir Pujo on Facebook). But I was sadly disappointed. The story seems one sided and ng in research. The ghoti-bangaal divide goes back to the days of Parion of Bengal in 1905 under Lord Curzon and has absolutely nothing to do with Parion. Besides, where is the ghoti point of view? Isn't telling both sides of the story a basic tenet of journalism? At least, that's what I had learnt as a y young reporter for The Indian Express, Kolkata Newsline back in 2005
      Reply
      1. A
        avi
        Oct 15, 2016 at 8:42 pm
        How much more trash and pollution will be created in the name of religion? India to date does not have any waste management policy ?
        Reply
        1. M
          Murthy
          Oct 16, 2016 at 12:23 am
          Amartya Sen would never recall the days of Suhrawardy and the Great Calcutta Killings, nor the fact that over Five Million Hindus had to leave East stan, including Sen's family, due to Muslim upon Hindu violence. Nor would he ever write about the 1970-71 violence that killed or displaced about 3 Million, mostly Hindu refugees. Nor would he have anything to say about the radicalisation of his old country, Bangladesh, that is drawing international attention.
          Reply
          1. Y
            Yourname
            Oct 15, 2016 at 8:04 pm
            Doesn't the rivalry between the East and the West date itself to the Partiion of Bengal in 1905 rather than the parion of Inda. In other words, though that first parion had to be undone, the real British goal of breaking up Bengal in mind and soul ws successful.
            Reply
            1. M
              Manzoor
              Oct 15, 2016 at 1:01 pm
              Wish you all a very happy and prosperous Lokkhi-Pujo from a Ghoti-Muslim.
              Reply
              1. R
                Royal bengal
                Oct 16, 2016 at 7:01 am
                How good to know that we Indians still divide ourselves in so many sections and that too with such a lot of respect to Lord Curzon division of bengal I still don't understand the difference between bangal and ghoti bravo we should keep the legacy of the British until death in our hearts and forget that what great work the Britons had done by giving the last blow on the face of india by dividing it into three parts,kudos to indian express for bringing up this to our knowledge one more time,may God bless you with the slave mentality forever keep it up
                Reply
                1. D
                  Darshak
                  Oct 15, 2016 at 9:39 pm
                  As a rule of natural law, every single event, as minor as it may seem, causes the next series of events.lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Although the sowed poisonous seed failed initially, but the harms caused to the humanity, had already been done later, by the fruits of the poisonous tree. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;Subsequent formation of Indian Muslim League, partion of India, battles, wars, genocides, ethnic cleansing, rape, forceful conversions, habitations burned while habitants were still inside, desecrating and destruction of religious places, all possible evil acts, were practised in the name of the Satanic anti-human ideology that, human beings belonging to different religions, can not live side by side. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;The entire world has been affected so profoundly through the partion of India and culminated by the release of thousands of stani soldiers, guilty for war crimes in 1971, that may be unparallel in the history of mankind. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;If the stani soldiers were tried under UN charter of genocide, probably there would have been some sort international control over them. And the formation of Al-Quaida and present day ISIS, could have been avoided. lt;br/gt;lt;br/gt;On the the top of that, a nuclear armed stan, is a nightmare for the entire humanity. These may seem to be mere speculations, though history of human civilization, has proven otherwise.
                  Reply
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