Pleasure of the Carnivalesque: Rituals during Shiv Gajan

Article Posted in: Research Articles

The Pleasure of the Carnivalesque: Performing the Rituals during Shiv Gajan.

By – Sayanti Mondal, Vol.II, Issue.XXII, November 2016

Introduction to the Author:

Sayanti Mondal is a Junior Research Fellow at Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU), New Delhi. She has currently enrolled in the Ph.D. program. Her area of interest includes Postcolonial studies, Translation studies, Folk Studies, Culture studies and Indian writing in English.


Shiv Gajan, a Bengali folk festival includes a variety of rituals which are acts of self-penance. But the devotees while performing them transcend the pain and experiences pleasure. The onlookers too become enmeshed in watching them. In addition, the festival is accompanied by a range of amusements which eventually become the cynosure. It conforms to the three essentials of Bakhtin’s theory of carnivalesque. The paper would inspect into the following issues: Can the festival be then seen as an excuse to a temporary anti-hierarchical society, a protest to the existing norms in the society? Is the pain that is converted to pleasure become an indigenous source of pleasure for the onlookers? How are these festivals perceived in contemporary times?

Keywords: carnivalesque, pain, pleasure, ritual, spectacle, festival.


In the era of modernization, surprisingly a recent endeavor has been noticed among the urbane people for their search of ethnic identity. The ethnicity bears the proof of the cultural unity and bondage over the years that had been shared by a certain community. It maintains as a constant reminder of the self being a part of a larger culturally similar group, with a sense of belonging, attachment and shared responsibility towards it. Festivals, in the words of Kristin Kuutma, can be interpreted as a performative communication which ensures to preserve this ethnicity. According to Beverly J. Stoeltje,

festivals occur at calendrically regulated intervals, are public in nature, participatory in ethos, complex in structure, and multiple in voice, scene, and purpose. Festivals are collective phenomena and serve purposes rooted in group life. Systems of reciprocity and of shared responsibility ensure the continuity of and participation in the festival through the distribution of prestige and production. (Bauman, 261)

It acts as a conscious manifestation of the ethnic traits and unity with the “special objective to demonstrate and experience a particular identity.”[1] The paper intends to explore this identity in the context of its realization of pain as pleasure during Shiv Gajan, the folk festival of West Bengal.

Shiv Gajan is a festival held mainly in West Bengal on the last two days of the last month of the Bengali year, the month of Chaitra. Though the period of its origin cannot be specified, according to some historians, during the middle ages when Buddhism had strengthened its hold in India, few Buddhist monks had come and settled in West Bengal. The rituals performed during Gajan bear stark resemblances with the Tantric rituals of Buddhism. The rituals included acts of self-penance, as a mark of renouncing the material aspects of the world and be imbibed within the spiritual sphere or what is now popularly known as monasticism. The Hindus not only celebrate it for a better future harvest in the ensuing year, Lord Shiva being the god of fertility, but also celebrates the union of Shiva and his consort. It also signifies the union of the Sun and the Earth. Etymologically, the word Gajan comes from the word “Garjan” meaning loud shouts of the devotees. An alternative meaning of the word derives from the word ga meaning “village” and jon meaning “people” which in short can be translated as a ‘festival for the people’. Festivals involve a certain participatory ethos which makes the event public, public in the sense of the engagement and its accessibility to all. According to Stoeltje, they are, “complex in structure, and multiple in voice, scene and purpose.” (Bauman, 262) He elaborates on this stating that such festivals not only uphold the cultural heritage of the community but its participatory aspect allows the people to explore new relationships, new equations not only among themselves but also with the Nature. The social interaction gets a boost and this fortifies its collective identity. Kristin Kuutma continues, stating that the purpose of such engagements is the articulation of the “shared experience of the group and multiple interpretations of that experience. Festival brings the group together and communicates about the society itself and the role of the individual in it.” (Kuutma, “Festival”) The festival takes place on an elaborate scale for three consecutive days, filled with mirth and revelry. The devotees or the gajan sanyasis make sacrifices and perform acts of devotion in order to please Lord Shiva. But the cynosure of the festival is how the devotees turn pain to pleasure through acts like body piercing, lying on a bed of nails, crucifixion or walking on burning coal. In this light, while the rituals are being performed, the pain converts to pleasure or combines into one which augments the grandeur of the celebration. It unites the devotees and the onlookers. The following sections would try to look into two aspects of the festival: the rituals where the body lays down itself as a site for inflicting pain, which is sensed as pleasure by the devotee, as an act of mere submissiveness or sacrifice to God and the carnivalesque quotient of the festival, the manner it operates. The paper would probe into these above-mentioned issues and would question the significance of such festivals in the contemporary scenario where the celebration for the sake of enjoyment takes an upper hand.

The festival is held in its most carnivalesque fashion, conforming to Mikhail Bakhtin’s three essentials of a carnival: the grotesque, the laughter and the public space.[2] The devotees cross-dress themselves as various deities, like Shiva and Parvati, with bright hues smeared on their bodies to perform plays or engage in hilarious feats. It becomes an act of deliberate intermingling of the sacred and the profane, a balanced mix of the comically gnarled versions of the traditionally sober, reverent Hindu deities. The display is not restricted to its contorted presentation. The laughter, revelry and merrymaking become a jovial accomplice to it. The site of the festival tends to lack serious discipline, law and order. The space slowly and willingly slips into an alternate world of unrestricted jollity, glee and hilarity. The participants tend to abandon their heavily-bound social, responsible roles to carefree beings with none to worry of. This celebration of mirth, enjoyment, drinks and amusements get aggravated by the loud hailing of Lord Shiva in an open space near the temple courtyard. The proceedings are conducted in an open public space not bound within the traditionally sacred, religious walls of the temple. It defies the otherwise usual binaries of restricted entry of the upper caste Bramhin. Traditionally, such proceedings were to be limited within the socially recognized sacred spaces as temples and its adjoining courtyard. But in this case, the festival gets staged in a public space, mainly marketplace, to facilitate the untrammeled participation of the village folks from the neighborhood.  This involvement adds to the social chaos which, according to Bakhtin, is one of the prime characteristic features of a carnival. It facilitates not only an effective intra-group communication but also builds up an inter-group connection. During the course of this festival the social order topples down. The lower caste people usually perform the various rituals in their attempt to appease Lord Shiva’s anger. Something to note is that these ritual performers, in spite of belonging to the lower rung of the society, are venerated by all including the landlords and the Brahmins. For these three festive days, the site becomes a classic example of an anti-hierarchical society. It acts as an instance of social-leveler which encourages free interaction of people irrespective of their caste. It is through this active engagement that the trait of the community as a united group, alongside the surfacing of various societal issues through discussion that, in Kristin Kuutma’s words, lends to the ‘shared experience’. In this context, to quote Bakhtin, Gajan becomes “the decentralization of a culture which has undermined the authority of social establishments.”(Rabelias: 37) As argued by Bakhtin, that such events were organized in early days as a strong rebuttal to the Church authority, it holds the same in the case of Gajan, as a stance of confutation against the prevalent hierarchical caste system in West Bengal. The popular belief being that the devotees attain the stature of a demigod, with the benediction of Lord Shiva during the performance of the rituals, the Bramhins venerate and, to a certain extent, worship these devotees. This allows, though for a brief while, an experience of an egalitarian society by the fellow participants.

The devotees perform rituals which include feats like lying on a bed of nails, crucifixion, body piercing and walking on a bed of burning coal to name a few. Something interesting to note here is the readiness and enthusiasm with which such painful acts are carried out. The devotees during the rituals submit themselves to God by turning the pain (of the penance or sacrifice) to pleasure. They experience the pain, in Plato’s words as, “…the very condition of pleasure is the pain caused by another superiority to ourselves.” (Hackforth, 93) This experience of an esoteric pleasure through the conduct of an unpleasant and disturbing act lies within their assumed understanding and firm belief in their unrestrained effort to propitiate Lord Shiva’s wrath. Through their act of self-compliance, the ritual performers transgress into a realm of pleasure. As Sri Swami Sivananda had stated, “Pain and pleasure pertain to the mind. Maya is all powerful seat in the imagination of the mind. Freedom from body is the real freedom from the atma[3], these performers too consider their experiencing of pain as a mental situation, a feeling they can overpower if they have the will to. It rests on their keenness and effort to attain the pleasure. They undergo a certain form of naturalization which effectively silences the distinction between these two discreet feelings. This act of voluntarily hurting oneself can be read in Thomas Szasz’s usage of the term “pleasure” as the philosophical abstraction of the “absence of pain”- “pleasure” as being a state of mind where one can transcend himself to if he has the willingness to do so. To echo Szasz, pain, pleasure and other bodily feelings are “affects” which may not refer to the body.

The onlookers, too, experience pleasure in watching agape the rituals being conducted and this merges with the pleasure of the devotees performing the ritual. The audience become enmeshed in watching the suave and ease with which the devotees endure the pain, to the point of transgressing it. R. Scott Appleby recalls Rudolf Otto associating a kind of ambivalence with people’s reaction to sacred things or rituals. He says,

…the sacred projects numinous quality (from Latin numen, meaning “dynamic, spirit- filled, trans-human energy or force”) that inspires simultaneous dread and fascination in the subject. An utterly mysterious yet seductively intimate presence, the sacred evokes awe and compels the human spirit, drawing it beyond the ordinary range of imagination and desire. (Appleby, 28)

The onlookers, like the performers, undergo a sensation where their passive experience of pain turns into a soothing impression encouraging them to remain engrossed. Subconsciously, the onlookers become aware of what the performers go through, yet, a sense of amazement binds them; a sense of wonder and bewilderment strike the bystanders which ensures their captivating attention. Soon, they detach themselves from the existing reality to be absorbed into this space of performativity. In Otto’s words, “the daunting and the fascinating combine in a strange harmony of contrast.” (Appleby, 28) Slowly, the performance becomes a source of entertainment for them through which they can experience pleasure. A certain curiosity wraps the audience in rapt attention. In this light, something interesting to note is how a ritual turns itself to a spectacle for its viewers. And this becomes prominent in the manner the festival is carried on. For John MacAloon, “audiences are often induced to accept the deeper significance of the phenomenon, becoming not just watchers, but celebrants, believers and partisans as well.” ( MacAloon, 295)

According to Roy A. Rapparort, ritual is

the performance of more or less invariant sequences of formal acts and utterances not entirely encoded by the performers logically entails the establishment of convention, the sealing of social contract, the construction of the integrated conventional orders we shall call Logoi…the investment of whatever it encodes with morality, the construction of time and eternity; the representation of a paradigm of creation, the generation of the concept of the sacred and the sanctification of conventional order, the generation of theories of the occult, the evocation of numinous experience, the awareness of the divine, the grasp of the holy, and the construction of orders of meaning transcending the semantic. (Bauman, 249)

Whereas spectacle, which etymologically comes from the Latin word spectare meaning ‘to look’, is in Frank E. Manning’s words,

 a phenomenon characteristic of modern societies, it is a large-scale, extravagant cultural production, a performance with dialogic, polyphonic, and polythematic communication… It includes various festivals …public entertainment extravaganzas, exhibitions, civic and political ceremonies, and special religious events… A spectacle is a grandiloquent display of imagery evoking a diffuse sense of wonderment and awe. (Bauman, 292)

The act of performing rituals in Gajan soon gains the stature of a spectacle where an element of awe and admiration takes over the sacred quotient of the activity. The dictionary states two features of a ‘spectacle’– visually striking or impressive public event and a person and a public show or display, especially on a large scale.[4] While the devotees transgress into a certain kind of trance where pain and pleasure become analogous, the audience actively involves into boisterous celebration for the occasion. Certain dynamism can be felt at the site where both the parties contribute to pleasure-making. Moreover, in modern days, such festivals tend to overshadow the traditional purpose of pleasing Shiva by the dominant revelry that takes place. The body piercings garner the attention not for its purpose, but for its sheer unusuality. In this light, it becomes worth questioning the relevance of such festivals and rituals in the contemporary scenario.

To ponder on the issue raised above, one needs to distinguish between the usage of the terms ‘religious’ and ‘sacred’. According to Oxford dictionary, the term ‘religious’ refers to any “belief in and worship of a superhuman controlling power, especially a personal God or gods” whereas ‘sacred’ relates to “connected with God or a god or dedicated to a religious purpose and so deserving veneration” or “embodying the laws or doctrines of a religion.”[5] Emile Durkheim defines religion as “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden—beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church, all those who adhere to them.” (Durkheim, 44) However. he had no belief in anything relative to supernatural or God that could influence religion. He had emphasized on the collectivity of the society; how certain activities may bind a group, how some of them are treated as important and holy, rejecting the others as profane. In this light, one can sense the communal ethos behind the idea of religion, it being a product of the societal factors at work, the beliefs and practices while the sacredness is an aspect that deals with the holy ideas of religion. In modern times, however, these two terms are used interchangeably.

The point of concern is how the onlookers perceive and receive the performance of the rituals being held in the public spaces. Do they still relate to the sacred aspect of it or restrict them as mere spectacle? Considering the society, including the rural space, has undergone modernization, they retain a rare belief in such ritualistic activities. These are, in modern times, perceived as skilful stunts played by the sanyasis that fascinate the onlookers to the extent of amazement. A collective, unified ethos is certainly experienced at the site and the rituals can successfully capture it, but the sacredness of these acts or religions are seldom reasons that influence this unity. The collectivity is perhaps experienced as a single unit of onlookers who grasp the excitement with sheer bewilderment. The unusuality and grandeur of the acts garner the attention of the people. These become an indigenous source of pleasure for the modern cultural society that reminds them of their once existing primitive and kinetic form. In MacAloon’s words a spectacle is a “popular response to the master cultural confusion of the present era- a profound ambivalence and concern about the relationship between appearing and being, image and reality.” (Bauman, 295) This reference of spectacle being a modern cultural phenomenon, engages the audience in a collective, active process of cultural production. The spectacle has, as MacAloon had suggested, “two appearances—an outer set of appearance that attract the audience and an inner sense of authenticity that is accessible through empathy and participation.” (Bauman, 295) The onlookers then become an active audience gazing at the marvelous ‘feats’ thus performed by the sanyasis.

For the villagers the event becomes a site for mirth, social interaction and entertainment. Not only has the rituals, fire acts, skits and fair become the cynosure of the festival, but has also identified itself as a tradition which gets followed each year faithfully. The initial intention behind the occurrence of the festival, to appease Lord Shiva, slowly fades and the sheer performativity eclipses its sacred counterpart. The mirth and revelry involved in the performance turns down the sanctity of the event. The festival has evolved, to a certain extent, not only through the recent hiring of sanyasis for the effortless execution of the rituals, but also through inviting popular artist for their skits or orchestra performances. The festival has now added a commercial edge to it. The sacred lingers in the dark corners of the enlightened world. The sacred purpose of the event becomes overshadowed by the allied enticing activities performed.

The recent allowance of media to cover such regional events has made the folk popular among urban masses. They have successfully popularized the folk tradition in city spaces owing to the utter atypical acts performed. In recent times, the festival has invaded metropolitan spaces like Kolkata. The city also arranges for cultural walks[6] that provide a guided trip into such Gajan, Charak festivals. The new media, in addition, has contributed to this trend through various blog posts and documentaries. This has invited a considerable international attention who perceive such rituals as ‘exotic’– a term that frequently gets associated with the indigenous multicultural Indian tradition. Something noteworthy is how these tantric rituals like body piercings have invaded the popular youth culture where such piercings are quite in vogue. The recent hippie look has become a style statement for the youth. To conclude, this folk festival has turned down its sacred quotient in two levels—first, by relating more importance to the revelry that takes place and second, through its evolution in the contemporary times. The sacred, now, grapples with modernity during such festivals.

[1] Kristin Kuutma, “Festival As Communicative Performance And Celebration of Ethnicity”.

[2] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky, 2009.

[3] Sri Swami Sivananda, “Pain and Pleasure”. 1998.




Works Cited:

Appleby, R. Scott. The Ambivalence of the Sacred: Religion, Violence, and Reconciliation. Rowman and Littlefield Publishers: USA. 1956.

Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Trans. Hélène Iswolsky. Indiana University Press. 2009. Google Book.

Durkheim, Emile. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life. Trans. Karen E. Fields. New York: The Free press (Simon & Schuster), 1995 [1912], 44.

Hackforth, R. “Mixed Pleasures of Body and Soul”, Plato’s Examination of Pleasure: A Translation of the Philebus. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge. 1958. 92-97. Google Book.

Kuutma, Kuutma. “Festival As Communicative Performance And Celebration of Ethnicity”. Accessed on 21st September, 2016. Web.
Macaloon, John J. Rite, Drama, Festival, Spectacle : Rehearsals Toward a Theory of Cultural Performance. Institute for the Study of Human Issues: Philadelphia. 1984.

Manning, frank E. “Spectacle”, Folklore, Cultural Performances and Popular Entertainments: A Communication-Cerntered Handbook. Ed. Richard Bauman. OUP: New York. 1992. 291-299. Google Book.

Rappaport, Roy A. “Ritual”, Folklore, Cultural Performances and Popular Entertainments: A Communication-Cerntered Handbook. Ed. Richard Bauman. OUP: New York. 1992. 249-260. Google Book.

Sivananda, Sri Swami. “Pain and Pleasure” Mind– Its Mysteries and Control. The Divine Life Society Publication: Shivanandanagar,  WWW Edition: 1998. Accessed on 20th July, 2016. Web.

Stoeltje, Beverly J. “Festival”, Folklore, Cultural Performances and Popular Entertainments: A Communication-Cerntered Handbook. Ed. Richard Bauman. OUP: New York. 1992. 261-271. Google Book.

Szasz, Thomas, Pain and Pleasure: A Study of Bodily Feelings. Syracuse University Press, 1988. Google Book.

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