Monday, 4 January 2016

Photo Feature: Chandi Mela, Behala

Behala’s famous 10 day annual fair, known as Chandi Mela , known as Chandi Mela is held in the winter of every year at the Sakher Bazar crossing of Behala, in South Calcutta (Kolkata). Stalls are generally set up in the lanes to the west of Diamond Harbour Road at Sakher Bazar and take up the better part of an entire municipal ward. To my mind, there are two things which make this fair unique. First is the fact that it is not limited to an open ground and spills out on the streets, and the second, the fact that in the middle of a modern metropolis, Chandi Mela offers all the attractions, sights, sounds and smells of a rustic village fair. The fair gets its name from the Chandi Puja (worship of the Hindu Goddess Chandi, another incarnation of Goddess Durga) which was started by Mahesh Chandra Ray Choudhury, of the Sabarna Ray Choudhury family, in 1792.


HOW CHANDI MELA BEGAN

The Sabarna Ray Choudhury family were the Zamindars (landlords) of the area that we now know as Calcutta (Kolkata) and it was from them that the British East India Company acquired the rights to the village of Kalikata in 1698. It is important to note here that the name Sabarna Roy Choudhury does not refer to a person, but to a clan, “Sabarna” being a reference to the Hindu caste system. The legend is that Goddess Chandi appeared to Mahesh Chandra Ray Choudhury of the family and instructed him to dredge a local pond. When this was done, a large brass pot was brought up and this, Mahesh said, was a symbol of the Goddess. A temple was set up, which survives to this day, as does the traditional Puja, during winter. This was a time when Durga Puja was an opportunity for Zamindars to show off. Stories are heard of Durga idols which were immersed in the Ganges with real gold ornaments still on them. The Chandi idol of Behala does sport gold ornaments, but they are removed prior to immersion. The puja today is organised by a committee of local residents, as opposed to the old days when the Roy Choudhury family were in charge. In Bengal, pujas attract large crowds of devotees and fairs often spring up around such pujas. Chandi Mela, which is as old as the puja itself, today draws lakhs of visitors and has more than 300 stalls.

BEHALA CHANDI MELA IN PHOTOGRAPHS

One of the most popular items on sale at the Chandi Mela seems to be bags. There are bags made of leather, fake leather, jute, paper or even plastic. Some are as cheap as 50 rupees.

 Apart from the bags, the stalls which attract the most women are the ones selling bangles…

 …and costume jewellery...


For the religious, there are tiny idols on sale as well…



Pintu Banik's stall is roughly in the same place every year and he sells brass decorative pieces.


And every fair always has one forlorn-looking boy selling spoons...


Deepu Poera is from Digha and sells wooden kitchen utensils (note rolling pins, top right). While many items in his stall are hand-crafted, an increasing number of things are machine-made now he says. Deepu spends most of the year travelling to various fairs with his wares.



Food is an important part of any fair, and cotton candy or "candy floss" as we used to call in in our childhood, can be seen in almost every fair in Bengal. The Bengali name for it is "Budi-r Chool", which means "old woman's hair". I guess the name happened back at a time when cotton candy was white in colour, because I've never seen an old lady with bright pink hair!



Fried goodies are available too and you will find parathas (fried bread), chanachur and nimki (crisps made with lentil or flour batter), gaja (crisps dunked in syrup after frying) and Bengal's ubiquitous jilipi. For those wanting a more healthy snack, how about peanutes roasted in hot sand, or puffed rice?



We love deep fried food, and especially deep fried non-vegetarian food. England has it's fish and chips. Bengal has fish fry - a filet of fish, rolled in egg-wash and crumbs and deep fried to perfection. Fish fry stalls make an appearance everywhere. When I was a child, it was Benfish, short for Bengal Fisheries. Now there is a bewildering number of them, including DFC - the Digha Fish Corporation!



With the poultry industry finding success everywhere and chicken becoming more and more easily available, chicken drumsticks are now commonly available as well.



And to satisfy your sweet-tooth, there is hand-churned ice cream...



...and after that meal, you are going to need some digestive "churan" for sure...



Games and rides are an important part of any fair, and several options for rides are available. Present at every fair alos, is the "air-gun-wala", allowing patrons to test their aim, popping balloons with rifles firing tiny lead pellets.



I even found a tattoo artst, Pintu Singh from Kalikapur!


MAUT KA KUWA - THE WELL OF DEATH

This is the star attraction of the Chandi Mela. Inside a half sphere built of metal and wood, 5 young men, 2 driving cars and 3 driving bikes, perform hair-raising, stomach-churning stunts.


The performers do not seem to have safety equipment of any kind, and injuries, if there ever are any, must be serious ones. 

The audience watches the action from two galleries built around the well.

NOTE TO VISITORS

Behala Chandi Mela attracts massive crowds every year, and although the organisers are well-prepared for things like fire etc, the lanes are narrow and the crowds are huge, so some amount of patience is needed to find your way around. This is also a prime target for pick-pockets. Luckily, the fair is in winter, which means you can hide your wallet inside your jacket, as opposed to carrying it in the easy-to-pick hip pocket. In 2015 the fair began on the 19th of December and continued officially for 10 days. There is a spill-over of course, and many stalls continue after the fair has officially closed, during a period called "Bhanga Mela", literally meaning "broken fair". If you're looking for a bargain, this is the time to visit.


For photographers, clicking photographs of the idol can be troublesome, but can be done with permission from the organisers. One highlight is the idol's immersion procession, on the last day of the Puja. This is the location of the fair in google maps. To avoid the traffic in the evenings, take James Long Sarani, instead of Diamond Harbour Road, get to the Barisha Club Durga Puja ground, and take the lane in front of it to the West. There is no entry fee.

- by Deepanjan Ghosh

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS


  • This post would not have been possible without the help of my friend Saptarshi Jana and his buddies. Saptarshi showed me around the fair on two occassions and even sourced material on the hisotry of the Chandi Mela. Saptarshi is an enthusiastic photographer and well informed about the Behala area. Follow him on Facebook, here
  • Thanks also to my friend and colleague Shaoni Chowdhury.


SOURCES

Behala Janapad-er Itihash - Banerjee, Sudhin Kumar
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