Chaitra/Choitro is the last month of the Bengali calendar and it falls from mid-March to mid-April. Every year, in several parts deep within West Bengal, a Hindu festival called Gajan is celebrated. The celebration begins the last week of Chaitra and continues until Bengali New Year, with the Charak Puja marking the end of the festival. While the history of the festival is unknown, it has been around for hundreds of years. Participated by sannyasis (or Bhokta), both male and female, the central theme of this festival lies in deriving satisfaction from non-sexual pain, devotion and sacrifice. However, while women are welcome to participate in the rituals, they are mostly absent while playing with the dead, and participate during in the pujas.
The word Gajan is considered a combination of parts of two words – ga derived from the word gram, which meaning village and jan is from the word janasadharan meaning folk, implying that it is a festival of village folk. Some sources suggest that the word is derived from the word garjana, which refers to the call of the sannyasi to their lord Shiva.
During this period, people observe a fast, and since most of them come from an agricultural background, they pray for rains and a better harvest. “Dance of the Dead” is an interesting ritual that is practiced by devotees in some villages. Avishek Das, an Indian photographer who’s been captivated by the lives of tribal communities in India travelled to a remote village called Bardhaman to witness the ritual.
Families who cannot afford to burn the bodies of their dead relatives choose to bury them. Men usually bring the skulls from bodies that may be around 1-2 months old, usually from nearby burial grounds. Many of these skulls still have visible facial hair and skin. However, photographers are not allowed to photograph the more secretive practices of how these skulls are obtained and are only allowed to photograph from the main street instead.
Police are rarely involved for fear of communal riots. 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. It is often believed that celebrating Gajan will wipe out the pain and suffering from the previous year and bring prosperity, which is why, often, the number of heads used in the proceedings increase year by year.
Warning: You may find the images to be visually disturbing.