Deep in West Bengal lie a curious group of people who celebrate a festival known as Gajan. Starting at the last week of Chaitra and continuing till the end of the Bengali New Year, this festival is participated by any gender. It is rumoured that this festival has been around for hundreds of years with its central theme unwaveringly stuck to deriving satisfaction from non-sexual pain, devotion and sacrifice. One of its most interesting parts is the ‘Dance of the Dead’, where men from the village play with dead bodies and human skulls. Avishek Das, a photographer who’s been captivated by the lives of tribal communities in India documented this fascinating part of the festival and we are delighted to share it with you today.
On chatting with Avishek, we learned quite a few things about the Gajan festival that were of note. For one, the men who bring the skulls usually bring them from nearby burial grounds nearby where most of the skulls have not been deceased for more than 1-2 months. Many of these skulls still have visible facial hair and skin. However, many photographers have not been allowed to photograph the more secretive practices of how these skulls are obtained and are forced to photograph from the main street instead. Police are rarely involved for fear of communal riots, but as this is a hundred year old institution, very few villagers complain either as the sacrifice of the dead bodies is seen as a symbol of life and a promise of dedication to the Lord Shiva.
While women are welcome to participate in most of the rituals, there is a surprising lack of them in the playing of the dead bodies, where they normally take part in pujas. It is often believed that the celebration of Gajan is to wipe out the pain and suffering from the previous year and will bring prosperity, which is why one will often find that the number of head used in the proceedings increase year by year. The bodies are often buried because their families could not afford the cost of incineration and funeral pyres.
Scroll down below for a selection of photographs from The Faith of Life, you can view the entire series on the photographers website.
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