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.
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.
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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