Bhanjo Broto : The Folk Ritual Of Bengal

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Written by Koushik RoyChowdhury
Transcreated in English by Gautam Guha.

Religious ritual practices (Broto) form inseparable part of the lives of women in Bengal throughout the year. These are not just to keep them engaged in their otherwise humdrum existence. These holy ritual-intensive practices do in fact reflect deeper truths of great social significance. They almost always reveal the feelings and desires underneath the façade of dailiness of the lives and at the same time seek benediction and welfare of all- their husbands, children and relatives; indeed, of the community in general.

Religious practices can be divided in two categories. The first category is sanskritized, based on the Shastras. They include Yagnas, ritual chanting of the mantras and elaborately formalized rituals.

The second type can be described as people-based, oralised and localized. It has origins in the popular folk traditions nurtured by the people often belonging to the lower strata of the society. Women play the most significant role in keeping these practices alive and vibrant. Gods and goddesses are treated as of their own ilk-their sons or daughters or mothers. The prayers and desires of the simple folks are articulated in their own spontaneous way- in vernacular verses, in dances and in rituals that reflect ways of their own lives. The essence of the rituals is devotion, Bhakti.

Bhanjo Broto is one such folk ritual practiced by the women in Bengal, mainly by the unmarried girls. Concentrated in the Hindu villages of Ketugram PS in East Burdwan district, it is also observed in a few villages in Mogolkot and Katwa PS in the same district. The Broto is observed in a few villages in the Southern parts of Birbhum district as well. Even though primarily it is a Broto where unmarried girls sing and dance praying for the successful harvest, in their dances and erotic verses, folk wisdom and social realities are easily discernible.

Bhanjo is derived from the name of the month in which it is celebrated, namely Bhadra– the fifth month in the Bengali calendar. Two festivals are associated with this month- Bhadu and Bhanjo. None is widely practiced now. Both are harvest Broto and confusion between the two is quite common. Bhadu starts on the first day of the month and ends on the last day. The Broto of Bhanjo, on the other hand is largely a one-night affair but with preparations stretching for more than a week before.

Bhadu is clearly derived from the word Bhadra. However, the story also goes that Bhadu gets its name from Bhadrawati, the princess of Panchkot. But where does the word Bhanjo come from? According to the reputed researcher of Katwa and an expert in the local folk literature Swapan Thakur, Bhanjo is a local assimilation of the name of the month Bhadra. Bhadra>Bhajjo>Bhajo. The soft d sound is locally assimilated first to j sound and later gets self-nasalized into Bhanjo.

A few experts however believe that the name is derived from the particular dancing style associated with the Broto. The young girls while dancing bend at the waist. The Bengali word for such bending or folding is Bhanj, from which the name of Bhanjo is presumed to be derived.

According to yet another popular legend, Indra turned envious watching the young girls devoted to Shiva. He then sent Bhanjawati an apsara from heaven to popularize the worship of Indra. Bhanjawati concentrated among the lower rungs of the society and the Broto got the name of Bhanjo.

Be that as it may, Bhanjo is not Puranic in any sense. The goddess is worshiped in the form of clay idol in a dancing pose. A small ritual arena is earmarked and a stick- two and a half feet to three feet long- is stuck in the ground. A clay image of the face is put at the top of the stick. Another stick is fastened sidelong to form a cross. This bare structure of two sticks is then draped in colourful saris to form a beautiful image of the Devi. The whole structure is supported in the ground with a specially made earthen altar which is decorated with flowers, leaves and rangolis. The women make garlands of many flowers but mainly of waterlilies to put around the goddess. Days before the actual day of worship, the women plant seeds of different grains in small pots, empty coconut shells and other available receptacles of daily use. On the D-day, these pots of young green shoots are placed around the altar to richly decorate the sacred arena.

The women clad in colourful new saris arrive at the Bhanjo arena in the evening. The priest is never essential. If one comes by, it’s alright otherwise the rituals of initiation are performed by the women themselves essentially by reciting the verses that have been oralised.

“Take the water, Bhanjo,

Take the earthen pot;

Around the neck of Bhanjo,

We put garlands of five flowers;

Once in a year Bhanjo visits us,

Why shouldn’t we dance?”

Then the dance circling the goddess anti-clockwise starts. The women gyrate bending slightly left at the level of waist. Drums and cymbals accompany the dances. Every few minutes the accompaniments stop and the women are required to recite a verse extemporized then and there. The cycle goes on along with the dancing.

Some of the verses verge on erotic.

“The turmeric of yesterday stales today;

Let us go, lady and bathe near the bur flower tree;

But there’s no water in the lake, weeds everywhere;

Is the lady not liked, why do the men laugh slyly?”

Double entendre is also not rare.

“The wicked water lily does not blossom except in the night;

It flowers only when everything is right.”

“Think of doing it every day,

But then can’t manage to do.

The girl is clever,

She likes the fun.

Does not fritter favours on anyone.”

While the above may sound outright obscene, it refers to the goddess Saraswathi and the favour one is referring to is the faculty of music.

There are verses which make fun of Bhanjo herself.

“Made big pieces of fish, added cauliflower;

Bhanjo eats and exclaims what great vegetable dish that is.”

Bhanjo arranges the creepers, puts on the earrings

She has laid a trap to catch a prince”.

“Water drips on the palm tree, drip, drip, drip;

Bhanjo’s mother gobbles rice, gobbles, gobbles.”

“Went to the house of Bhanjo, she offered a plank to sit;

A mouse lay hidden under the plank;

The mouse tore the sari of mine.”

As it goes on, occasionally they replace Bhanjo with the name of a real person to tease the particular person, generating mirth all around.

The impact of the festival can easily be guessed from the description of Bhanjo in Tarashankar Bandyopadhyay’s famous novel “Hansuli Baker Upakatha” (The Tale of the Hansuli Turn).

“The boys were mobilised: Bring as many lotuses and water lilies as you can. Decorate the earthen altar. The mad Kahar was given the responsibility. He had disappeared during the hard days of harvesting but reappeared on the dot the day before the Bhanjo day. Under the scorching sun of mid-noon, he returned wearing on his head a dozen waterlilies with the stems with one raw kash flower jutting out in the middle. He was singing a song:

“Where have you rested your boat, my Bhanjo sweetheart

I can’t see you anywhere.

I come therefore to the Hansuli Turn.

Are you hiding in the bamboo groves or among the kash flowers?

Send me a signal, my sweet companion.

I am eager to fall at your feet, my Bhanjo friend.”

The rituals of the Bhanjo Broto truly start with planting the seeds of the grains. In the villages of Ketugram, the unmarried girls prepare the soil and fill earthen pots, coconut shells and even plastic mugs with it on the day of Indra Dwadasi. They plant seeds of grains like lentils, Black gram, mustard etc. Every day, the women sprinkle water in wet clothes after bath and in the evening in fresh clothes. The shoots start coming out in a few days. The shoots grown in profusion present a pleasing spectacle. If the shoots don’t come out, they have a song for that as well.

“My Bhanjo becomes older day by day,

My darling Bhanjo refuses to wake up,

Fulfill my life, call me mother, Bhanjo.

Nothing is sweeter than that, call me mother.

I‘ll feed you with the best sweetmeats;

The Sitabhog of Burdwan and Langcha from Shaktigarh,

The sweet balls of Mankhurd and the cheese of Jamalpur;

Call me mother if you want the sweet jaggery of Joynagar,

My darling Bhanjo.”

Within the span of next ten days, i.e. before the Ashtami day, a day is chosen to present the Bhanjo dance. It starts in the evening and continues till midnight. The goddess is offered beaten rice, fruits and jaggery. Next morning, after an hour of dancing, Bhanjo is immersed. The song at the immersion reflects the sadness:

“Such a short stay,

You make us cry.

Look at our faces

And return again.

We’ll send you the boat,

Come back smiling.

How can we be happy

In your absence?”

The young shoots are also immersed. A share is also given to the domestic animals.

The noted painter and litterateur Abanindra Nath Thakur in his seminal book “Banglar Bratakatha” provides a different description. According to him, the activities relating to sowing the seeds of the grains start on the sixth day of the month (Manthan Sasthi or Capra Sasthi) and ends on the twelfth day (Indra Dwadasi). On that moonlit night, the women dance through the night. One day before Sasthi, namely on the Panchami day, seeds of five grains are left soaking in water. The grains are: Green Gram (Moong) Bengal Gram (Chola) Pigeon Pea (Arhar); Peas (Matar) and Black Gram (Kalai). Next day i.e. on the Sasthi day, the grains are mixed with mustard and loam soil and placed in new terracotta pots. The women sprinkle water every day after taking bath. Three or four days later, the shoots come out in profusion signifying rich harvest. The women then organise the grain festival and it takes place on the day of Indra Dwadasi (Twelfth day). (Banglar Broto)

Many years ago, the Broto used to take place continuously for ten days from Indra Dwadasi to Jita-ashtami day. Women decked in new ornaments would come every evening at the Bhanjo arena and start singing and dancing. To the beats of the drums and the cymbals, the dancing would continue through the night. It was primaeval and provided unalloyed joy and mirth. As the night stretched, the verses tended to be bawdy. Even the drummers would not be spared:

“Drummer, Drummer beat the drums to your hearts’ content

Why did you eat the rice cooked from raw rice and wet your posterior?”

There would often be mock quarrels among the ladies:

“I shall worship with the ash gourd grown on my thatched roof

My husband is ShyamSundar, yours is hunchbacked”

The other one would respond

“Hey you a puny fish like swamp barb, you should weep

Let my husband be hunchbacked, he is in my care.”

These verses were not rehearsed earlier. These were spontaneous. The women had the skills to extemporize in verses for hours together. The festival drew its life and energy from these verses and provided infinite joy to the villagers. All these are now mere things of the past. Women are now educated. They have become conscious of the public decency expected of them. The soaps on the Television, the apps on the mobile have now become the main source of entertainment. Parents no longer encourage their children to leave aside their studies even for a few days and dance in public.

Bhanjo Broto is essentially to keep Indra, the god of agriculture happy. The sprouted grains signify harvest. Agriculture always had an intimate relationship with womanhood in the matriarchal set up of the society. Both signified fecundity. The devotees believed that these practices would bring prosperity to themselves and their families. Participation in the composition of these verses also provided essential life skills to the adolescent girls. Bhanjo was not only the goddess of grains but of love as well.

One rarely comes across Bhanjo Broto these days. It is now part of the folklore of yore. Women from the lowest rungs of the society used to observe this Broto. Like many other folk traditions, Bhanjo Broto has lagged behind the times, receding slowly but steadily into oblivion.

References : 1. বাংলার লোকইতিহাস ও লোক সংস্কৃতি – ডঃ স্বপন কুমার ঠাকুর [Folk History and Folk Culture of Bengali by Dr Swapankumar Thakur]
2. বাংলার ব্রত – অবনীন্দ্রনাথ ঠাকুর [Bengali Vratas by Abanindranath Thakur]
3. বাংলার ব্রত-পার্বণ – ড. শীলা বসাক [Bengali Vrata and Parbana by Dr. Shila Basak]

Special Thanks to:
1. Shantwana Majhi and Mandira RoyChowdhury of Gangatikuri.
2. Ratanti Ghosh of Goyalpara.
3. Dr. Swapankumar Thakur (Editor, Koulal)

*** “Broto” is one of those highly untranslatable words. Even the spelling is not standardized. British Museum uses “Vrata”. Another spelling popular in relevant literature is “Brata”. As regards the meaning and significance of the word, there are many explanations. France Bhattacharya in her translation of Annadamangal ( Murty classical Library of India) translates “Vratakatha” as “Holy Story”. (Satyanarayaner Vratakatha thus becomes “The Holy Story of Satyanarayan”). The spelling of “Broto” has been adopted here to echo as closely as possible, the way the word will be pronounced colloquially in the villages of Bengal.

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Post Author: Koushik Roy Chowdhury

Koushik Roy Choudhury
Teacher by profession and field researcher of Bengali folk culture and ancient history.