History and origin of Dharma Gajan
Dharma or Dharma-Niranjana was a presiding deity, like Lord Shiva adored and worshipped by a section of people in West Bengal who came under the spell of Buddhist faith. According to some historians, there was a point in center ages when Buddhism was fairly cornered in India; Buddhists monks took refuge in many places. One of them was in Bengal where they converted to Hinduism. With them came the Tantric customs of Buddhism which involved Tantra rituals including severe self-punishment as well as the thought of renouncing experienced pursuits to dedicate one’s self to religious work, which is often referred to as monasticism.
This may be the cause that Gajan started as Dharmer Gajan and gradually took its way to Shiber Gajan in the later period. In Bengal, Dharmathakur is usually worshipped by the scheduled cast like Bauri, Bagdi, Hari, Dom. Dharmathakur may have been originated from Dharmaraj of Buddhism. Although Dharmathakur is identified by a formless stone and its Vahana is represented by dirt horses, there have been instances where Buddha idol has been worshipped as Dharma Thakur in villages of Bankura. There are still villages where both Dharamraj and Shiva are placed with Gajan offerings.
Gajan is actually linked to persons who are related to agricultural community, directly or indirectly. They pray for the rains and better crop. Lord Shiva is said to be closely related to this community. It may be worth noting here that Dharmathakur is actually considered to be the God of fruitfulness.
It is also recorded in history, during the time of the break-up of Gupta Kingdom at the end of the sixth century; the faith professed in this region was chiefly non Buddhistic. The upper society at that time neither followed the Vedas nor Buddhistic Tripitaka, they practised Tantrikism. In fact, Raja Sasanka was a follower of Saiva Tantrikism. Then the Vardhana Kings came in the seventh century. The first king was a worshipper of Lord Shiva. In the second instance, there was a Saura (Sun) worshipper king and this (tradition) was followed by the most powerful emperor Harsha who was a worshipper of Saiva at first and became a Buddhist later, though he professed himself as a follower of Maheswar also during his later life. Harsha tried for unification of the faiths of Saiva, Saura, Sakta and Buddhistic cults through some unique festivals. Hiuen-Tsang's interesting account of the endeavor of Harshvardhan gives a definite picture how all these faiths were brought to the same platform and the general populace was influenced by his activities. Shri Harsha initiated the elaborate ceremony of Chaitra festival. Performance of dance and music were provided in the festivities, and representatives from every religious group were invited.
One day Brahmans, jealous of Buddhists, are said to have set fire to this huge pavilion and a portion of it was burnt to ashes. The above festival which was held in the month of Chaitra was henceforward turned into an annual one. And in course of time this Chaitra (spring) festival of Kanauj introduced by Harsha has developed or rather degenerated into Gambhira and Gajan festival.
In another historical festival arranged by Shri Harsha at Allahabad worships were offered to Buddha, Shiva and the Sun-God. People were entertained with dance and music. Hiuen-Tsang also recorded his visit to Pundravardhana, the capital of North Bengal, where he witnessed elaborate Buddhist Sangharams and preachers. In the south of Gauda, at that time, in the territory of Sasanka, there existed Saiva and Saura temples in hundreds. This century was followed by a period of invasion, disorder and anarchy. One Adisura (A.D. 730) conquered and drove out Buddhism, and re-established Vedic religion.
Then came the Palas (780-1175) under whom various religious and literary traditions were encouraged. During the reign of the Palas, who were the followers of Buddhism, the worship of gods like Narayana and Mahadeva were reintroduced, and at the time of Devapala (830-865) Brahmanism spread in full swing. After this, Saivism struck deep roots in Gauda (the old medieval city of Maldah). Buddhist gods were mixed up with Saiva and Sakta images. In this way, during Sena rule just before Muslim conquest, the Buddhist images were almost dissolved into Saiva-Sakta images, and Saura (Sun) images got mixed up with those of Dharma from which Dharma Gajan originated. The Muslim invasion affected the social conditions of West Bengal. The Hindu-Buddhist festivals were forbidden even at lower rural level. Only at distant corners of villages or out-of-the-way places which were free from direct interference of the invaders, Gajan of Shiva and Dharma Gajan were in vogue. This is true about certain villages of Rarha (Burdwan) area. Since Gajan is deeply connected with the conditions stated above, the subject is needed to be treated with reference to cross-currents of thoughts: (1) adoration of Adi Buddha, (2) Sun-god worship and (3) predominance of Saiva cult.
Gajan and the significance of Dharmathakur
Hindu god Dharmathakur, also known by the names Dharmaraj and Dharma is worshipped by the rural communities of the Rarh region of West Bengal. Dharmathakur is worshipped during the months of ‘Baisakh’, ‘Jaistha’ and ‘Asarh’ and rarely on the final day of the month ‘Bhadro’. ‘Bauri’, ‘Bagdi’, ‘Hari’ and ‘Dom’ are the castes that celebrate the ‘Dharma Gajan’. Dharmathakur’s Gajan is unusual from Shiva’s Gajan. The representation of a horse is critical in Dharma Gajan, but not in Shiva’s Gajan. The worshippers of Dharmathakur are called ‘Bhakta’ or ‘Bhaktia’. It is also believed that this Gajan celebrates the marriage of Dharmaraj with ‘Mukti’.
Gajan includes observance of rituals of physical austerities and also some street dances. It may be mentioned here that general folk-music is not very much connected with folk-dances in Bengal, though some specific forms of dances have grown out of Gajan mainly. Some aspects of Chhau of Purulia and Birbhum, Bhaktya of Bankura, Nil dances of the south, Bolan and Alkap of Murshidabad, Kali-Kac and Siva-Gauri dance of various places are the instances of these partial or full-dance items. Loud drumming is characteristic of the nature of accompanying music in most of these dances. These are all male dances participated in by males; a male playing the role of Gouri is observed in all southern and central districts of West Bengal.