Centuries-old Kharchi Puja begins in Tripura

Agartala, July 12 (IANS) It’s that time of the year again when 14 Hindu deities are out in full glory, worshipped by thousands of tribals in Tripura. It’s time for the Kharchi Puja — the annual festival meant to cleanse the sins of mortal souls.

Seamless festive spirit is now sweeping through Puran Habeli, the erstwhile capital of Tripura, where the puja began on Tuesday. With colourful marquees, illuminations, religious rites and chanting of the ‘mantras’ amid drum beats, the festival features 14 deities — Shiva, Durga, Vishnu, Laxmi, Saraswati, Kartik, Ganesha, Brahma, Abadhi (god of water), Chandra, Ganga, Agni, Kamdev and Himadri (Himalaya).

As per the tradition, the week-long festival began with a procession. All along the deities and the priests were escorted by the Tripura Police which also presented a guard of honour for the chief royal priest known as the Raj Chantaia.

Other priests held bamboo umbrellas and followed the chief priest. Thousands of devotees joined them en route to Howrah river for the customary bathing.

“Traditionally, the worship starts with the dip of 14 deities in the Howrah river, followed by the sacrifice of 108 animals in the presence of hundreds of thousands of devotees, all at government expense,” Tripura assembly Deputy Speaker and puja committee Chairman Pabitra Kar told IANS.

For the past several decades, successive Tripura governments have been bearing the expenses of this festival, living up to the agreement with the erstwhile royal family of Tripura.

Writer and historian Panna Lal Roy said: “Though the Communist Party of India-Marxist does not believe in gods or pujas, its government is abiding by the 1949 merger agreement with the royal family to uphold the faith of the tribals year after year.”

“Kharchi Puja is the biggest for the Hindu tribals in northeast India,” Roy added.

“Over the years, Kharchi Puja has become an annual carnival of both the tribals and the non-tribals, besides people of all religions,” Kar said.

“On an average, 10 lakh to 15 lakh people gather from all over the country and neighbouring Bangladesh to join in the Kharchi Puja,” he added.

So how did it all begin?

According to Tripura royal family’s chronicle ‘Rajmala’, Queen Hirabati once went to take a bath in the river Maharani and noticed a wild buffalo chasing the 14 gods. With the help of the queen’s cloth the gods managed to kill the beast. Happy with Hirabati’s help, the gods visited the palace and the royal family offered puja by sacrificing wild buffaloes.

Since then it’s been an annual affair in the region’s calendar.

Once there were gold idols of the deities, but these were stolen several hundred years ago. Then the king ordered their recreation with ‘ashtadhatu’ — an alloy of eight metals.

After the monarchy came to an end when Tripura merged with independent India on October 15, 1949, it was agreed that the state government will bear the expenses of the puja. The agreement also made it obligatory for the Tripura government to continue sponsorship of 18 temples, pujas and festivals managed earlier by the royals. And that has been continuing for the past 67 years.

Roy, who wrote several books on Tripura’s royal era, said: “Tripura is perhaps the only Indian state where the state government is at the forefront of funding such a religious festival.”

(Sujit Chakraborty can be contacted at sujit.c@ians.in)

–IANS

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