Written by Indrani Sen
Transcreated in English by Arnab Chatterjee
In an age when befriending and unfriending is just a matter of a few seconds, courtesy to our social media, it is indeed rare to find an occasion, a festival per say where people take vows of everlasting friendship ceremoniously. Yes,it is such an occasion where two persons join hands together to embark on the sojourn of their new buddyhood, solemnising it before God by uttering-
” Upore khoi niche doi
Ami tor jonmer soi.”
(Let there be parched rice above curd
I shall be your friend forever.)
All and sundry,without any distinction of caste and sex,rejoice with their pals in a surge of delight.Touching the holy tray of ‘Soyla’ on their heads and giving each other the holy mark of curd,vermilion and turmeric on their brows, the two new friends wish each other’s prosperity and well being. Exchange of garlands and sweetmeats are added accompaniments. Sounds interesting? Indeed it is. So, in order to make true friends outside the precincts of the virtual world of social media you have to come and be a part of such a festival of amity at Akui Village belonging to Indas Block of Bankura District of West Bengal. The festival is originally named ‘Sahela’ in the regional tongue which has been changed into ‘Soyla’ by the villagers.
The word ‘Soyla’ is a diminutive of the original word ‘Sahela’ or ‘Soi’. Etymologically, the original Sanskrit root word ‘Sahikarika’ gets changed into ‘Soyla’ in the following way:
Sahikarika > Sahiyaliya > Sahili > Saheli (Hindi word) > Soyla.
The meaning of the word is befriending or to make friends. Medieval Bengali Literature has ample instances of such befriendings, mostly among young girls. The tradition is still prevalent in some villages, mostly among persons belonging to the same sex. Such friendships have curious denominations like ‘Bokulful’ ( Bokal flower), ‘Golapful’ ( Rose flower), ‘Lobongoful'(Clove flower),
‘Chokher Bali'(The Eyesore), ‘Gangajal'(Ganges water) etc. An interesting tale of such friendship features in Manasamangal Kavya. Actually this festival is celebrated following that story on the day of the annual worship of the serpent goddess. The tale goes thus– Devi Manasa in order to kill Dhanvantari, the exorcist had made friendship with his wife.The incident has been beautifully described in Ketakadas Kshemananda’s version of Manasamangal:
“Kamala harisha haiya,nijo parijan laiya
Soyla korilo duijone.
Hete khoi ubhe doi,pranapriyo tumi soi
Iha boli dilo alingane
Ghono ghono hulahuli,soi soi kolakuli
Dui soi bodolilo mala.”
(Kamala [other name for Manasa] on getting overwhelmed with joy takes her family and the two [Manasa and Danvantari’s wife] enter into a bond of Soyla. / Let there be parched rice above curd,you will be my friend dearer than my heart./ Saying this the two embraced amidst hullabaloos of revelry/ Then the two pals exchanged garlands.)
Apart from Bankura District,this festival is observed in several places of South Barddhaman especially Gopalpur and Bajitpur villages under the jurisdiction of Raina Police Station and Chandipur,Berugram and Mandalgram villages under Khandoghosh P.S.Although ‘Soyla’ is observed annually in many places, it is celebrated after every five years at Bankura’s Akui. This aggravates the attraction of the festival manifold.
The historical background behind the initiation of the ‘Soyla’ festival is not yet known.In the opinions of local octogenarians like Ramaprasad Sen and Kumudbandhu Mukhopadhyay, “Devi Manasa is the principal deity of the Paramanik or Bargakshyatria caste(who are barber by profession)of Akui village.In the ancient days Manasa was mainly worshipped by the downtrodden and marginalised sections of the society.But this convention is a bit different at Akui.Here,all people irrespective of their caste,creed and even religion actively participate in this festival of friendship.We have been witnessing this for the last eighty years.”
The preparations for the festival generally start a month ahead.At first all the presiding deities of the village are ceremonially invited to the occasion by offering them ‘paan’ (betel leaf), ‘supuri’ (betel nut) and ‘holud’ (turmeric). This tradition goes by the name of ‘Goa’ or ‘ Goa chalano’. On the auspicious day of the festival a grand procession is organized from the Manasa temple adjacent to Akui High School campus and the deity along with her sidekicks are taken to the permanent altar built for the purpose of the festival at the school ground.A special committee looks after the arrangement of the festival and there are several acres of endowed property of the goddess which aid in her daily worship.Various cultural programmes including the open air jatras are arranged as a part of the three day festivities.The turn over of people even sometimes goes beyond a lakh.The Police Department of Indas Police Station keeps a strict vigil so as to avoid any sort of disagreeable misshappening.In the words of Sudip Dey,the Secretary of the present year’s festival committee, “Soyla is a festival of harmony and unison.People from several neighbouring villages come and join every year to celebrate this rare and unique event.”