“Faith is seeing light with all your heart when all your eyes see is darkness”
Faith makes a man move mountains. It is seldom reasons and mostly faith that makes a man cross barriers , struggle hard, sacrifice his well-being. The world has had a lot of stories of faith , stories where men did what reason would never allow them to do. This reportage is one such story, a story of a day where men, women and children did everything owing to faith.
India is a vast country, with different people, having different faiths and customs , very different from each other. The world , despite being in the satellite age, does not know everything about the country. Be it any topic you talk about, there’s always an other side to it. This reportage is about a less known ,less reported yet a very old custom that takes place every year in the district of Howrah in West Bengal.
Small pox used to take the form of epidemic in old times. And, chicken pox also made people suffer. This is about the time, when there wasn’t a cure for it. And when you don’t find a cure to a disease, you obviously resort to faith. This started this custom that is being reported about, the annual celebration of the worshipping of Goddess Setala, a Hindu Goddess , who is said to have magical powers to cure the diseases of small pox and chicken pox. The custom started then, long back, and continues till today, even though small pox has been eradicated and chicken pox cures within a day.
The whole event takes place around the 108 temples of Goddess Setala built in the district of Howrah, West Bengal, India, and this is generally celebrated in the month of February. I had the fortune of visiting it this year, and trying to understand how faith moves a mass. The rituals begin from the dawn itself, men and women start praying inside the temples and outside, lighting candles to drive out the darkness. They take a holy dip at the Ganges and then cover the path from the Ghats of Ganges to the temples on their chests, which is commonly known as Dandi. Men and women crawl on the ground and practice Dandi to seek the well-being of themselves and their families. Children, are sometimes, kept out of the trouble, they remain at the sides of the roads and are often struck with fear as they see their parents taking the pain, while , sometimes, children are made part of this holy crawl upon some belief of their prosperity. Hundreds and thousands of devotees come from all parts of Bengal and they take the holy dip in the Ganges. Despite the heavy crown, it is strange how these people build their own world around them. Sometimes, the heat of the February sun, the struggle they go through during Dandi, and their strong faith (particularly, their strong faith I believe) makes people go bizarre and they are tagged as possessed.
This story of being possessed has versions. People possessed are generally women. Sometimes they are possessed by elements sent by Mother Setala, and become part of the Goddess, while sometimes, they are possessed by demons. The first woman I saw possessed, seemed to be newly wed by her appearence. She was acting weird, and people seemed to worship her, I figured out she was possessed by the ‘good’. She was made to take the holy bath and collect the river water in a holy pot, so that she could serve and bathe the Goddess. The second woman, I didn’t get anything by her appearance, she was aggressively moving in circles in the middle of the road towards one of the temples and people seemed to move away from her. As I heard, she was widowed six months back, and as per some culture goes, she was blamed for her husband’s death, and now, she was possessed by the demons who were preventing her from getting to the temples.
In the afternoon, slowly the struggle and worship started fading away into things joyful. It was time for the processions and enjoyment that made devotees forget the hardships they went through all day. The crowds started increasing exponentially on the narrow roads, and the police and the NCC cadets, who otherwise did a great job, started facing difficulties. There were processions, men, often drunk with liquor, danced forgetting all the pains of their lives. Children dressed like mythical characters and marched along. Street drummers played the music. The complete scenario of the festival changed. From what seemed to be a struggle faith put them into, now seemed like a relief Goddess Setala has sent. Joyful faces seemed all around. This certainly proved to be the other side of faith, people forgot the pains and desires for which they had come to pray to the Goddess, and indulged in the fun. Slowly, as the sun set, the activities slowed down. It was time to say goodbye and people started returning to their normal lives leaving the place and temples normal as ever, in perfect tranquillity, having no trace of the story of faith that went on the whole day.