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Gomira

In West Bengal, the worship of Shiva has prevailed in many forms through the ages. The festivals of Gajon, Gombhira, Gomira and Neel pujo, all celebrated at the end of the Bengali month of Choitro (March-April) are region-specific names, with local differences, of the same festival held at the end of the agricultural year in honour of Shiva.  The Gomira festival of erstwhile West Dinajpur (North and South Dinajpur today) differs in the celebration of the same festival in other North Bengal districts in that is marked by a Chamunda or Kali-centric masked ritual dance practised by the Rajbongshi (Deshi and Poliya), Hari, Rabidas, Baishyadas and Kaibartyo communities. However, in other parts of North Bengal, Chandi dance, a ritual  masked dance, with lesser significance than Gomira, still prevails in a  few pockets. The Gomira dance has its roots in Shaktaism and the worship of Adya Shakti (primordial energy).  The dancers wear the masks of the deities to invoke their powers. 



In West Bengal, the worship of Shiva has prevailed in many forms through the ages. The festivals of Gajon, Gombhira, Gomira and Neel pujo, all celebrated at the end of the Bengali month of Choitro (March-April) are region-specific names, with local differences, of the same festival held at the end of the agricultural year in honour of Shiva.  The Gomira festival of erstwhile West Dinajpur (North and South Dinajpur today) differs in the celebration of the same festival in other North Bengal districts in that is marked by a Chamunda or Kali-centric masked ritual dance practised by the Rajbongshi (Deshi and Poliya), Hari, Rabidas, Baishyadas and Kaibartyo communities. However, in Jalpaiguri and Cooch Behar, Chandi dance, a ritual  masked dance, with lesser significance than Gomira, still prevails in a  few pockets. The Gomira dance has its roots in Shaktaism and the worship of Adya Shakti (primordial energy).  The dancers wear the masks of the deities to invoke their powers. 

The roots of Shiva worship go deep into the past and can be traced back to the primitive animistic festivals in honor of the sun god, fire god and various other gods in the Rigvedic era. Harvest time festivities were held to propitiate these gods with feasts, dance and music. With the gradual assimilation of the settler civilization of the Vedic Aryans, these abstract rituals gradually evolved into more complex festivities: the god of fire, Agni and his progeny began to be worshipped as different forms of the fire god and sacrifices too began to be celebrated with great pomp. Before long, wives too were created for the fire gods. Shivagni, who was devoted to the worship of Shakti (divine energy personified), was also worshipped at these sacrifices and before him, beasts were sacrificed and thus this fire came to be regarded as a form of destructive energy. In the post Vedic age, abstraction gave way to tangibility when the idolized and coupled divine form of Shiva and Shakti/Parvati together became the object of such festivities. However, the Shiva of these times was not the Shivagni of the earlier age.

With the advent of Buddhism, the festival acquired Buddhist overtones and assimilated the worship of the idolized Mahayana Buddha. In course of time, it became customary to celebrate these festivals by putting on the guises of Hindu deities. Eventually, the Buddhists replaced the Hindu Shiva and Parvati with Bodhisattva Manjushri and his personified energy or wife, Arya Tara, with Dharma Thakur being regarded as the Adi Buddha by some. In Malda district, the festival started being celebrated as the Gombhira of Adya (the first goddess, the primordial energy, later referred to as Chandi).  

With the later Hindu revivalism during the Sena period and the systemic marginalization of Buddhist culture, the female Adya/Chandi figure transformed itself into the Hindu Parvati and her consort came to replace the role of Dharma. Thus in the course of time, the Gajon/ Gambheera form that crystallized around the Adibuddha/Dharma figure of Mahayana ritual merged with the Hindu Shiva-Shakti duality and region-specific names for the same festival held at the end of the agricultural year, started to be counted among recognized Hindu festivals. Even today, songs and dances in all forms of Gombhira and Gajon inevitably address Chandi as much as Shiva, though other deities that make guest-appearances vary from one local context to another.

There are several theories for the origin of the word Gomira, all of which would bear further investigation. Some say it is a colloquial form of the root word Gram-Chandi, a female deity, some opine that it is a Bodo word linked to the Tibeto-Burman ancestry of the Rajbongshis; many say the word ‘Gomira’ is a local pronounciation of ‘Gombhira’, while others believe that the root word is Gamar - the wood used to make the masks. Then again, Gombhir is also another name for Shiva. Gomira practitioners believe that Gomira is even older than Gombhira, but suffice it to say that the exact origins of this dance and the craft associated with it are not exactly traceable and lie somewhere in the ancient past. 
 
The Shakti cult is deeply entrenched in Dinajpur and every village has its own small temple devoted to Shakti, in her many forms, as the guardian deity of that village. The Gomira masked dance and its related ceremonies are cultivation-centric folk rituals organized to propitiate the deity for a prosperous harvest in the coming year and to usher in the `good forces` and drive out the `evil forces`. 

Gomira dance is often referred to as Mukha Khel (pron. Khayl) these days. However, Mukha Khel is a masked dance performance, once popular in Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri and parts of Darjeeling, which were more recreational than ritualistic.  The Mukha Khel dances, lost their social importance and became defunct and thus today, in the absence of the original form, the term Gomira and Mukha Khel have possibly become interchangeable in some regions. 

Gomira is usually organized between Choitro Sankranti, the last day of the Bengali month of Choitro (March -April) and the Bengali month of Ashar (June-July). There are no fixed dates for organizing these dances, but each village organizes at least one Gomira dance during this period according to their convenience, at a central location. Another occasion for arranging Gomira dance is during the puja of Amat Kali, which coincides with the harvesting of mangoes, usually in the month of Joishtho (May-June). Such dances are also organized during the puja of Smashan Kali, which does not have a fixed time. In those villages where sacrifice is not part of the rituals, the ceremonies  commence on Chaturdoshi.  Villages which have a reasonably large population (thousand or so) thousand inhabitants also have their own Gomira dance troupes.
  
The dancers usually cultivators, craftsmen, smithies, carpenters or daily wage earners, perform during the `season`, to supplement their incomes. They are without exception, all male, and usually play multiple roles -  male, female or animal.

Gomira is associated with the worship of numerous  Kali-centric folk deities and there is a mask for each of them. Each is used  for a particular  reason and at a particular time. Most of the deities are manifestations of Kali and thus Shiva and so, there are masks for Chamunda,  Smashan Kali (also known as Baher-Kali) and Bura-Buri (folk manifestation of Shiva-Parvati). The Chamunda mask is associated with Choitro Sankranti. There are also masks for Shiknidhal, Basanti, Mahamaya (Durga), Hanuman, Bagh Mashan, Dakini Bishwal, Shikni Bishwal, Nar-Rakhas and various ghosts, goblins, and demons and animals like the tiger, bear, rhino etc.  Shiknidhal is a folk incarnation of Chamunda. Shikni means Shakun or vulture. The mask  is that of a malevolent regional folk deity, which brings misfortune at the slightest provocation. The Rajbongshis maintain that in times gone by, the first born of a family would be given to Shiknidhal, who would then proceed to suck its blood. The belief was this would protect the rest of the children of the family and keep them from harm.  

There is also a mask for Narasingha. However, Narasingha is an incarnation of Vishnu and in no way connected to Chandi. It is believed that the mask was originally that of Narasinghi, another form of Chandi but with the passage of time and possibly inadvertently, the feminine was changed to masculine, and thus Narasinghi became Narasingha. As a result, the mask too evolved - from that of a form of Chandi to one of the half man-half lion avatar of Vishnu. There is also a very  primitive tradition of using a Mashan mask (Mashan Kali) at the very end of the dance. This is a ritual with a skull of a person deceased the previous night. The practice has mostly ceased. 

The religious beliefs of the practitioners are reflected through the masks. The mask maker has to observe certain ritualistic restrictions when making the masks of Kali, Shiknidhal and other powerful deities. The dancer, the wearer of these masks, too must observe specific rituals, and keep himself cleansed both in body and in mind, so that he is protected against any  interference from malevolent spirits. 

The traditional masks used to be made of wood, but masks made of papier mache with sholapith (sponge wood) decorations also go back several hundred years and are today more commonly used than the wooden masks. The wooden masks, kept safely in the homes of the families who own them, are worshipped at home once a year and are brought back to the Gomira shrine with a fresh coat of paint before the annual rituals begin. The papier mache masks remain at the shrine. At the shrine in some villages, the masks are often arranged in front of  a chaali - a backdrop decorated with pictures or sholapith images of the mask placed in front of it.  

The Gomira celebrations usually go on for seven days but could also go up to a month. The rituals always take place outside the village at the "thaan" (shrine) under usually, a banyan tree. Because the people believe that the presence of spirits and ghosts is fundamental to the worship of Chamunda, these eerie shrines are well away from their homes. The atmosphere of this puja is markedly different from the pujas conducted in village homes. On the night before the Mukha Khel, a Nishi puja (conducted at midnight) takes place. As part of the rituals for this puja, items like a Dheki (a rural threshing tool), plough, bunches of bananas etc are actually stolen and brought  to the thaan. The masks for the dance are brought from individual homes and placed at the thaan. On the morning after, the Mukha Khel dance takes place, followed by the Gomira mela. The melas are mainly celebrated by Rajbonshis and take  place on the first Wednesday of Boishakh. There is absolutely no similarity between the Gomira mela and the Charak mela. 

There are two major melas associated with this ritual in Baur in Uttar Dinajpur and Moyna in Malda. These melas are also held outside the village - because of the association  with the ghosts and spirits.  

The Gomira dance is collectively organised by the whole village. The celebrations and the number of masks used vary from village to village depends on the economic condition of the village. Only those villages which can afford masks use them.

With the exception of the Smashan or Baher-Kali masked dancer, who never enters the Gomira area, but dances only at the thaan, the dances take place at the Gomirar Tola, an open space near the thaan. The dancers worship the masks at the thaan before they begin. The Gomira Ghot (usually a small, copper pitcher-shaped vessel) containing water consecrated with holy basil (tulsi)  leaves and crape-jasmine flowers (tagor) is placed before the Mokha dance. The musical instruments  that accompany this dance are mainly the Dhak, Mehana a local form of the Shehnai and a Kansar (bell metal gong).  There is no vocal accompaniment at all, neither song nor chant. The word dance however does not exactly describe the movements in the Mukha Khel. It is an instinctive rhythm that the dancer displays, swirling or  jumping in response to the pulsating drums and gongs and in the belief that he is possessed with the spirit (Bhawr) and power of the deity whose mask he wears. There are no predefined movements and the dancer literally "goes with his inner flow". The dancers, especially those who wear the larger masks, often go into a trance and have to be restrained and brought around by sprinkling water from the Gomira Ghot. The Rajbongshis firmly believe that the dancer is "empowered" for those few minutes.     

Traditionally, the Gomira dance starts with the entry of two characters Buro-Buri, who are actually the human forms of Shiva and Parvati. According to the Gomira tradition, these gods took human shape and descended on earth so that they may bless the humans and help them to fight the forces of evil and establish a righteous way of life. After the initial round of dancing, masked dancers enter the arena, perform and exit, one by one.  Chamunda who is also referred to as the Boro Matha or Boro Mukha is always the final appearance, except in cases where Mashan Kali makes an appearance. The last dance must always in a wooden mask. 

Though the practice of sacrificing animals is gradually waning because of animal rights, some villages continue to practise pigeon sacrifice to appease the blood thirsty deities.   It is held that if the dancer wearing the Narasingha mask is possessed, he is not appeased until he drinks human blood. Therefore the mask is rarely used and just about one or two people are known to perform this Narasingha dance.  

Gomira masks of Dinajpur are known for their ferocious expressions and stand out for their  primitive simplicity. Each category has a specific colour and form. Gamar (pronounced locally as Gamair) wood is the principal material for the masks. The interesting thing about the Gomira mask, whether wooden or papier mache,  is the provision of a slit below the painted eyes instead of the usual hollow for the eyes. After the wooden mask is carved, it is sandpapered to smoothen  it and then coloured with ash, vermillion , vegetable dye and white and saffron coloured clay. However, this traditional methodology is giving way to synthetic dyes and enamel paint even.

Gomira masks are also used in the Ram Banobash Pala, a folk drama of the region. But the masks used here have nothing in common, either in form or function, with those of the Mukha Khel dance. 

Wooden Gomira mask makers  continue to practise their art in villages like Ushaharan, Deul, Kokil and Mahisbathan (Gramin Hasta Shilpa Samabay Samiti Limited - a cooperative of craftsmen and artisans who are devoted to this craft of Gomira mask making), in Dakshin (South)  Dinajpur, and Krishnabati in Kaliaganj block of North Dinajpur. Papier mache mask making is to be found across villages like Muskipur, Harirampur and Aminpur in South Dinajpur and Karandighi and Kaliaganj in North Dinajpur.