Durga Puja: celebration of a Santal king’s betrayal?

Editor’s note: Last year this time, the office of Dalit-Bahujan magazine Forward Press was raided on the complaint of hurting Hindu sentiments. Forward Press had published stories countering the mainstream narratives on Dussera/Durga Puja, essentially asserting that Mahisasura was an popular adivasi king who was killed by the brahminic Hindus by deception. The Asur tribe in Jharkhand has similar story to tell about its martyr Mahisasura. Here is a counter-narrative on Durga Puja from West Bengal –

Madhusree Mukerjee

Madhusree Mukerjee is the author of two books, Churchill’s Secret War: The British Empire and the Ravaging of India During World War II (2010) and The Land of Naked People: Encounters with Stone Age Islanders (2003).

Translated from the Bengali essay Dhulo Megh Pathor Brishti by Kunal Deb, published in Ekdin, Kolkata 18 June, 2009.

It is the time of Durga Pujo, and the streets of Kolkata are filled with stunningly beautiful and creative images of the warrior goddess. I want to share with you, however, a story told by Santal musical genius Bajar Hembrom to Kunal Deb about the Dashoi festival, which Santals observe on the last day of Durga Pujo. Santal men dress as women, hide weapons under their clothes, and go about singing and dancing from village to village. The songs and dances are mournful and heavy. Bajar Hembrom is no more, but this is the story that he told, and, as you shall see, it is a powerful reminder of the expulsion of Adivasis from the bounty that was once theirs.

Mahisasura” A long, long time ago there was the Har kingdom on earth.That is, a Santhal Raj. Our king was Adur. He was also called Raja Debi. He was as famed for his governance–for the way he looked after his people–as for his heroism. He could fight a tiger with his bare hands; he could alone stop the rampages of crazed elephants. His soldiers too were very fierce. Nobody could beat them in battle. Raja Indra had been crushed many times in battle against him.

“But Indra too was not someone to give up. This time, in order to defeat Raja Debi and seize the Santal kingdom, he resorted to deceit and trickery. He sent the dancer Durga from his heavenly court to earth. One of her assistants put her on elephant back and sent her to the jungle palace of Raja Debi. Another of her helpers covered the skies with an intoxicatingly beautiful moonlight, yet another spread music in the air. A fourth filled the surroundings with dancing peacocks. In such a heady atmosphere, Durga had no difficulty in seducing Raja Debi with her beauty and dance.

“Not long after Raja Debi got married. His queen was Durga. She started sending news to Indra about when the raja slept, when he was unarmed, when festivals preoccupied his soldiers and commanders, and so on. Indra linked these snippets of intelligence with one another to formulate a plan. He decided the day and time, and one day he imprisoned Raja Adur in a sudden attack. The soldiers were taken by surprise and could not recover from that assault. Debi’s kingdom was easily seized. Our Santal ancestors lost their king and their kingdom. Everyone scattered where they could.

“The trusted guards and friends of the king started to look for their beloved monarch. Disguised as women, their weapons concealed, they wandered and danced in villages and towns, in many places, always searching. If they hear the faintest reply to their mournful song, from the imprisoned raja, out will come the weapons from under the feminine clothes of the warriors. They will fight and recover their lost kingdom. And when Raja Adur Debi returns, they will get back their Santal Raj, their lost wealth, their forests, their rivers, everything.

“The Dashoi dance is on the last day of Durga Puja. You worship Durga. We search for, we still search for, our lost Raja Debi. You call him Asur.”

–Translated from the Bengali essay Dhulo Megh Pathor Brishti by Kunal Deb.





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