At Parbatipur, Durga Puja helps promote Hindu-Muslim harmony.
I was born and raised in Kolkata. It explains my somewhat lethargic outlook towards life. Bhat ghum, people... It's the best thing ever. The one week, however, when all of my inertia, all of my laziness goes away, is during Durga Puja.
I love going Pandal Hopping, I love going to see the different iterations of Goddess Durga. Every lane, every society, everyone has a version that differs ever so slightly from the other. The only thing in common between all of these Durgas, I recently learned, was the hair.
The hair for most of the Durga idols during Durga Puja comes from a village not too far from Kolkata. I ventured out to this place to see why this village had a monopoly on something like this.
The first person I met was a veteran at the art of hair making – Mr. Shekh Jaynal. He has lived his life with one motto: Work is Worship. He has dedicated his life to his profession and has never allowed religion to pose any hindrance to his way of earning bread for his family.
Sheikh Jaynal sizing the hair
The sixty-two-year-old believes that he is serving the Almighty with his work. Jaynal, an ardent Muslim, is involved in making locks of lustrous hair for Goddess Durga at Parbatipur, a small village in Bargachia in the Howrah district of West Bengal, around 30 kilometers from Kolkata.
But he is not alone. Over 900 people from the Muslim community have been doing the same for over five decades.
Jaynal says that he has been making locks of hair for the Goddess since his childhood days and he considers it to be worship rather than a means to earn livelihood. He has developed a deep attachment towards his work. It’s no more just a way to run his livelihood but much more than that which cannot be explained in words. Like his Hindu friends who organize the festival, he too contributes a bit by making locks of hair for the all-powerful Durga.
The sexagenarian says the work of hair making was started in Parbatipur by a person identified as Ekhlas Chacha, a Muslim, over fifty years ago. Ekhlas Chacha had brought the work to the village in the 1960s. The villagers were mostly illiterates then and involved in trivial works. Their income was very low. He knew the art of making hair extensions. In those days, the artificial hairs made of jute bales for Goddess Durga were in demand across the state. He decided to turn it into a profession and convinced the villagers to start work. Having no other alternative, the villagers agreed and soon puja organizers began to flock here to make the hair to decorate the head of the Goddess.
Workers busy making the jute bales
At present, the hair made in the village decorates over 30,000 Durga idols in every nook and corner of the state during the Durga Puja festival.
With the bugles of the carnival already sounded, the hair makers hardly have any time to spare. The season starts in August and continues till November when the festivities generally end in Bengal.
This village has already gained popularity because of the good quality of hair being made by the villagers. They do not go looking for orders anymore as the organizers visit them, around four months prior to the festival, and list their requirements.
The coloured jute bales are left to dry in the open
I then met Ahmed Ali Mallik, a twenty-eight year-old hair maker, who explained the process of making hair from jute bales:
“The bales are normally procured from farmers who grow jute. The bales, after being brought here, are dyed in black with the help of colors and chemicals. They are then suspended with bamboo logs and left to dry. It usually takes four to five days for the bales to dry completely but the time taken is more during the rainy season. The bales are then removed and cut off into different sizes based on the demand of the hair.”
He adds that the chopped-off hairs are then handed over to the labourers, normally women, who then roll them into the small bamboo sticks and package them before being finally supplied to the puja organizers.
Women busy rolling the hairs
But the job doesn’t end with the sale of the hair.
The villagers even take an active part in organizing the festivals and often visit pandals to see the locks of hair that have been fitted on the head of the Goddess. It is not just a livelihood but worship for them. “The Goddess always showers her blessings on us,” says Ahmed.
Sheikh Abdul, who is involved in colouring the jute bales, however, pointed out to the health hazards involved in the work. The bales are made black with the help of colour and chemicals that cause breathing ailments. Even with the constant exposure to heat, and poisonous gases, however, the villagers continue this work.
Poisonous dye is used for the jute bales
A few meters away from Abdul's colouring shop, a group of Hindu women are busy rolling off the hairs on bamboo sticks before being dispatched to the buyers.
Saraswati Mallik has been doing the same work for the past 20 years. The hairs are given to them by their Muslim brothers after they are cut into different sizes. Saraswati's job is to roll them and give them the finishing touch before being packaged for sale. She generally earns Rs.10 on every 12 pieces rolled. That comes to about Rs.100-120 per day.
Swapan Pal, a sixty-one-year-old artisan in Kolkata, told me the reason for using the jute hairs from Parbatipur, “I have been making clay idols for the past forty years and have been using the hairs made from the Muslim artisans as they are not only of good quality but also come cheap. The hairs also look shiny. The business has also cemented our relations with them and most of us have developed friendly relations. Even the Goddess gives the message of unity but some people try to destroy it for their own vested interests,” says the sexagenarian while busy chiselling the clay-made abs of Mahishasura, the demon who would be killed by Goddess Durga to mark the triumph of good over evil.
Goddess Durga promoting Hindu-Muslim unity and peace
Even Sheikh Jaynal worries when he thinks about the recent communal tensions that had gripped the state, “Our village is perhaps the finest example of communal harmony and brotherhood as there have never been any clashes between the two communities. We might be following different religions but somewhere the two lines converge together. Both Hindus and Muslims live and work here amicably. We should never pay heed to such unscrupulous elements whose only religion is to divide us for their own gains,” he says as he urges people to take his village as an example of Hindu-Muslim unity.
As dark clouds hover in the sky accompanied by gusts of thunderstorm and lightning, a thought crosses my mind; may the Goddess, the embodiment of power, finish off the demons of humanity with her trishul (trident) and let a sense of harmony and brotherhood prevail among us forever.
Let’s pray for peace from Goddess Durga.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101India.com
By Gurvinder Singh
Photographs by Gurvinder Singh