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Poush Mela

>With its predominantly agrarian population and a clutch of locally popular Hindu shrines, Bibun would have remained one of the laidback districts of West Bengal, if it was not for Shantiniketan.

The Shantiniketan Express, leaving Kolkata a little after nine in the morning, is usually crowded by teachers, students and some local inhabitants. But with the onset of Christmas week and winter vacation, the number of passengers had already increased manifold and today, the train was simply bursting the seams. Yet, none could deny the sense of camaraderie prevailing within the compartments.

We were all travelling to see the Pouch Mela – the annual three day fair held at Shantiniketan. Beginning on the seventh day of Poush ( following the Bengali calendar, usually falling on December 22/23), the event marks the foundation day of Shantiniketan.

Mooted by Maharshi Debendranath Tagore as an ‘ashram’ and a centre for meditation, Shantiniketan catapulted to international fame through the open-air school and later the university founded by Maharshi’s illustrious son, poet Rabindranath Tagore.

The history of the place goes back to well over a hundred years, to the 1860s, when Maharshi was stuck by the beauty of the place. The westernmost corner of Bengal, Birbhum is a red laterite soil zone, watered by the several rain-fed rivulets. Undulating red vistas spread over miles all around, with patchy forests of sal, palash and other local trees as well as jamun and mango groves. Passing through the village commons of Bhuvandanga (an area once avoided by travellers because of dacoits), Maharshi was captivated by the kaleidoscopic beauty of two luxuriantly canopied Chhatim trees, offering shade in that barren, red land. To the Maharshi, this was an idyllic venue for meditating. So he bought a large tract of land along with the two Chhatim trees and built a beautiful prayer hall made from coloured glass. Trees were planted all around to bring the ancient forest-ashram look. In keeping with the spirit of the place, Maharshi named it ‘Shantiniketan’ or the ‘abode of peace’. Not too far from Kolkata 212 km by road, the place slowly became popular.

So when Rabindranath Tagore, adhorring the restrictive system of education, wanted to start an open air school that would follow the Gurukul system of ancient India, he fell back on the verdant precincts of Shantiniketan. In 1901, on the seventh day of Poush, the school was inaugurated with five students. The system became so popular that by 1922, the place was functioning as a full-fledged university called Viswa Bhaarati. While this greenscaped landmark began to attract urban visitors, Bolpur – 2 km ahead of Shantiniketan, burgeoned into a supportive, satellite township. Direct rail link was established between Kolkata and Bolpur and the journey was reduced to 136 km. Even today, journey by rail is more convenient than travelling by road.

Both Maharshi and Rabindranath initiated several festivals at Shantiniketan which marked natural and social occasions and where people could participate irrespective of age, caste or community. So on the one hand, while the three days of Poush are observed through prayers and cultural meets, a fair is held simultaneously where local crafts people bring their waves to sell, folk artists perform before a discerning crowd and urban and rural folk intermingle without prejudice. Although quite young compared to the traditional fairs of our country, Poush Mela celebrated its centenary in 1994. The fair has become immensely popular and attracts a large number of visitors from both home and abroad. Over the years, like any other fair, Poush Mela too has not been able to shake off the contemporary mores and has undergone characteristic changes but its role as a meeting ground of crafts people and buyers or rural and urban visitors has remained evergreen.

On the inaugural day, the festival begins with a community prayer or Brahmopasana that includes Vedic hymns and reading from passages written by Maharshi and Rabindranath ; invited artists and students sing Rabindra sangeet. After this, visitors assemble on the central stage at the fairground where the roving folksingers – the Bauls – perform. They are introduced to the visitors by Shantidev Ghosh, the octogenarian preceptor.

A few years back, there was a turmoil over this particular show. Since traditional Bauls enjoy the prerogative of performing here, Ghosh had denied admission to a young Japanese woman who was training to be a Baul. He opined that this was not a place for experiments or innovativeness, rather an opportunity for the traditional Bauls (who follow a life of rigidity) to present their literary renditions. However, matters came to rest after the lady was allowed to perform at the government sponsored stage in the age-old Baul festival held at Kenduli (also in Birbhum) in January.

On the second day, the different units of the university – Patha Bhawan , Shiksha Sadan, etc. – hold their graduation and award giving ceremonies. At the fair, the centre stage never quietens – more bauls and kirtan singers perform ; jatras and folk theatres are held.

For the three days of the fair, several acres of the verdant field is thronged by a crowd of over ten thousand people. There are kiosks that last for the three days while many sellers sit wherever they like, spreading their wares on the ground ; at night some areas are flooded with neon lights, while at other corners, you cannot even discern your own big toe. Impromptu programmes by itinerant folk-singers receive umpteen encores while ubiquitous snack shops attract many like bees to a flower. Irrespective of their urban or rural roots, children happily pick p brightly coloured wooden toys while their mothers select palm-leaf trinkets. A starry eyed young Santhal couple walk hand in hand, the young husband proud to have brought his teenaged wife on her first trip beyond the limits of their distant tribal village…..the vignettes keep multiplying and overlapping, but never jarring the senses. Because there is no pandemonium, no resentment – if chaos has a system, it is here at the Poush Mela fairground at Shantiniketan.

On the second evening, there is a celebration of fireworks, thoroughly enjoyed by everyone. As the pyrotechnical display breaks into myriads of lights and colours, they reflect the joie de vivre of the quintessential of Shantiniketan.

While enjoyment at the fair continues unabated, on the final day the students and teachers observe a serious but moving ceremony. In the morning, a special prayer session is held where everyone prays for all those departed souls who were associated with Shantiniketan. Right from the Maharshi himself, not a single student, teacher or staff is forgotten. This is followed by a community lunch where they partake of a frugal departed.

Usually, the three days include Christmas Day and everyone joins in the Krishtotsav, observed by the ashramites. Besides, there are cultural events and memorial lecture.

Back at the fair, the modernization seems palpable. From a leaf whistle worth a few paisas to the latest electronic household appliance, you can get them all. Decorative artefacts and ornaments made from palm-leaf and terra-cotta vie with mass produced and cheap plastic goods and sham trinkets. While urban buyers flock to the ships selling cane goods, the more rustic buyer bargains over the shiny, stainless steel goods. No shopping in Shantiniketan is complete without buying the batik-printed leather goods – especially bags and slippers – and these are sold in plenty. Sweetmeat shops enjoy a brisk sale although the chowmeins and idli-dosa stalls put in a good competition. Different publication houses and little magazines have their respective corners. Sriniketan – the vocational training institute founded by Rabindranath – has an exhibition of organically grown vegetables as well as of handcrafted items.

Commuting between the university campus and the fairground, we visited ‘Bichitra’, the museum dedicated to Tagore and filled with Tagore memorabilia ; the tectonically stylized yet mud-built houses where Tagore lived at different times of the year; the murals and sculptures exhibited at Kala Bhavan ; the deer park and Sriniketan. It is 3 km away from the university. Although real estate is booming, still the place is comfortably swathed in green and with not much auto mobile traffic (walking or cycling is the common mode of commuting), Shantiniketan offers a welcome weekend getaway, any time throughout the year and specially during its festive days.


Bolpur, 2km ahead of Shantiniketan, is the nearest town and railhead from Kolkata. Although there are several trains between Kolkata and Bolpur, Shantiniketan Express is the most convenient. By rail, Shantiniketan is 136 km from Kolkata while by road, it is 214 km away . Road conditions are not ideal and hence better avoided. Kolkata is the nearest airport.

There is plenty of accommodation available at Bolpur and Shantiniketan but during the major festivals like Poush Mela, Vasantotsav, etc. advance booking is advised. A few of the unmarked hotels are Chhuti (booking from Kolkata office, Ph : 033-2208305, Mark Meadows (booking from Kolkata office, Ph : 033-2448254, 2440179, Camelia and the university’s own International Guest House. West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation’s Shantiniketan Tourist Lodge at Bolpur Ph : 03463-52699 and Hotel Rangamati with is opposite to it is mid-budget but clean and comfortable.

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