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Shaitol Bishohori


Shaitol Bishohori is a fertility ritual that is practised in parts of Cooch Behar, primarily by the Rajbongshis. Shaitol is a folk deity as was Bishohori or Manosha; the latter however moved into the ranks of the Hindu pantheon, some centuries ago.







Shaitol Bishohori is a fertility ritual that is practised in parts of Cooch Behar, primarily by the Rajbongshis. Shaitol is a folk deity as is Bishohori or Manosha; the latter however moved into the ranks of the Hindu pantheon, some centuries ago.

All folk ballads have their roots in primitive rituals and a discussion on the ritual songs of Shaitol Bishohori necessitates a discussion on Manosha/Bishohori and the connection with Shaitol first.  

The serpent-cult existed in Bengal long before it became enmeshed with Shaivism and the Hindu pantheon. Worshipped in pre-Aryan times by  tribes, not only as a saviour from snake bites, but also as a symbol of fertility, the remnants of this culture and form of worship lingered on amidst the lowest castes of the Hindu hierarchy who mingled easily with the tribes even after the advent of Brahminisation.  

In the snake infested jungles of the North East, this cult manifested itself in the territory once demarcated as ancient Pragjyotisha, and inhabited by Tibeto Burman tribes, in the form of the serpent deity Bishohori. Identified as Manosha in southern Bengal, she was also Padmaboti, Marai and Chang-muri Kani. Chang is a kind of fish whose head resembles a snake - thus, the name Chang-muri. Primitive serpent goddess (though now in the form of Manosha) ritualism  continues to this day among tribes like the Koch, Rabha, Garo, Bodo  as well as the Rajbongshis.

Myths and rituals,  two central components of religious practice, flourished around her in the matriarchal communities of these regions.  All the myths speak of Bishohori`s wrath, violence and wantonness in her desire to be worshipped by mankind and at the same time, her compassion and her regenerative powers.  

While the concept of Bishohori as a serpent deity developed among the hunters and gatherers in the jungles of Pragjyotisha, in the vast alluvial plains of Rangpur (Bangladesh today) in the southern reaches of the territory, serpents were not such a daily menace. Here, another folk deity took shape among the non-Aryan agrarian communities here. She was Shaitol, goddess of fertility. Belief in the deity also prevailed in the neigbouring regions, especially Dinhata in Cooch Behar and lower Assam. 

Rangpur bordered Gour (Bengal) and along with modern day Jalpaiguri, Cooch Behar, Goalpara, Rangpur, Bogra, Mymensingh, Dacca, Tripura, parts of Pabna and eastern Nepal, comprised ancient Pragjyotisha. Right up to the 16th century, when Rangpur became part of the Koch kingdom of Kamtapur, Shaitol worship continued to prevail in and around Rangpur. There was no sign of her worship in the neighboring areas of Nepal, Darjeeling, Jalpaiguri, North Assam and many parts of Cooch Behar, however. These areas were unwavering Bishohori worshippers.

Early in their reign, the Koch kings embraced Brahminism and declared themselves and their people to be Rajbongshis. As a result, Koch identity started to change in this region and a process of assimilation with the Aryan people began to develop. In Rangpur, in the southern fringes of what was the Koch Behar kingdom now, the process of aryanization developed much faster, by virtue of it being a hub of multiple cultures, its importance as a trading region and its proximity to Bengal. 

By the time the British arrived in the 18th century, the culture of Rajbongshis in Rangpur had already been assimilated with Hindu beliefs. In Greater Bengal, the accepted goddess of fertility was Shoshti. Since Shaitol too stood for fertility,  it must have been around this time that Shaitol began to be equated with Shoshti in Rangpur. Shaitol as Shoshti was in fact a result of this synthesis between Aryans and non- Aryans. Elsewhere though, in parts of Cooch Behar, among non aryanised Rajbongshis, Shoshti was not recognised.

The Shaitol Bishohori ritual

The bearers and practitioners of the Shaitol/Shaitor Bishohori tradition are Rajbongshi women, especially the older women. The chief performer or the Geedali performs the ritual at the home of the family which has requested her services and leads the rest of the chorus in the singing. It is usually from her that the others in the group have learnt the song.  

Being a fertility rite, the Shaitol Bishohori ritual is conducted either after a child`s birth or at annaprasans (rice eating ceremony of a baby) or on the eve of weddings, for the welfare of the baby or the bride and wellbeing of her future children. There is no fixed date when this ritual can be held. The ritual has to be conducted by a woman who is the chief performer or Geedali. There is no need for a priest to officiate. Accompanying her are a chorus of women who sing and dance with her,  and a few musicians, of whom, the  Dhak player (male drummer) is most essential.  

The object of the worship are interesting abstract representations of Manosha (Bishohori) and Shaitol fashioned out of shola pith (sponge wood). This representation of Bishohori is peculiar to this ritual alone. Elsewhere in Wets Bengal, she either assumes an anthropomorphous form or is symbolized by a pot (Manoshar ghot). 

Shaitol is worshipped in the form of a painted shola pith (sponge wood) structure comprising concentric rings joined by arches and at the base of which are inserted two or five or more cylindrical shola pith forms painted with the supposed likeness of Shaitol.  Suspended from the base are shola pith flowers. A shola pith image of Bishohori is also placed at the same shrine (thaan) and it is Bishohori who is propitiated first. The items needed for the ritual are chiefly incense, vermillion, banana, betel leaf (paan) and nut (supuri), egg, flattened rice (chirey) or popped rice (khoi), curd, flowers and Bel, Tulshi and Mango leaves. Essential too is the Dhak which accompanies the songs and dances, though other instruments may also be used in accompaniment. At the end of the ritual, the image of Bishohori is immersed, but Shaitol`s image is kept away in the barn/cowshed. 

There are divergent beliefs regarding Shaitol`s origin and the various myths that have evolved are reflected in the songs that are sung in different regions of North Bengal and Cooch Behar in particular.  Thus Shaitol or Shaitor or Shaiton or Shaitori Mao as she is variously called, means different things to different people. And as stated earlier, not all Rajbongshis relate to Shaitol myths and rituals. 

There are many who identify Shaitol with Shoshti, the folk goddess of fertility and protector of children of pre Aryan origin, widely worshipped in South and East Bengal. The lyrics in their version of the song mention Shoshti, but strangely enough, not Shaitol. Shoshti who was equated with Durga in the later Puranas, has been traditionally worshipped on the 6th day after the birth of a child among the rural people. But while there is a similarity between Shaitol and Shoshti,  with both being worshipped for the wellbeing of children, Shoshti has never been an object of Rajbongshi worship.  It may be concluded therefore that those who recognise Shaitol as Shoshti must have had Rangpur antecedents. 

Those who call her Shaitor, believe she is the elder sister of Manosha, otherwise known as Neta/Neto. Still others call her Shaiton and Shaitori Mao.

The songs

The stories in the songs differ widely. Phulti Geedali sings of the story of Lilaboti (Nilaboti), the youngest of 7 wives, who is the subject of rebuke and ridicule by her in mother-in-law on account of her barrenness. She is banned from entering the cowshed, the prayer room, the kitchen etc, for fear of contaminating these spaces. In despair, she takes permission to return to her parents. En route, she tries to end her life, but even wild animals will not touch her for fear of becoming tainted by her touch. She then tries to drown herself in a lake but notices that the gods and goddesses have descended on the very same lake. She enlists  their help and it is finally Shaitol,  referred to as Shoshti in the song, who grants her a boon. Shaitol returns home and  eventually gives birth to twin boys, Dhanai and Manai and then arranges a puja for Shaitol Devi. The ballad ends with the birth of the twins. 

While this is the gist of the story, the song fuses a variety of tales around her and also includes a description of the ritual, the objects required for it,  the heavenly guests in attendance, Lilaboti`s life, the way she does her hair, her pregnancy and so on. The song through its detailed narrative, reflects aspects of Rajbongshi life. The tune and the rhythm are simple. 

Phulti claims no Rangpur background, but it is possible that the people she learnt from were migrants from Rangpur. Another geedali, Sharodini, also of Dinhata (Dewanhat) recollects that they would in the old days sing of Shaitol alone; but after the influx of refugees from erstwhile East Pakistan (East Bengal), there was a gradual trend to replacing Shaitol with Shoshti. 

In another version, Lilaboti is referred to as Sharonja, whose marriage is arranged by Shaitor, sister of Manosha to Srimanta Sadagar. (Srimanta was in no way connected to the Shaitol story, being a character from the Chandi Mangal story. Thus, this regional deviation throws some light on the acceptance of Chandi here through the gradual Kshatriyization of the local Rajbongshis which began after 1920. However, the rest of the story is reminiscent of the previous Lilaboti myth.)  But Sharonja forgets to worship Shaitor as agreed upon and is thus  cursed with barrenness; she is, as in the previous Lilaboti story, then subjected to abuse and ridicule by her in laws. The folk tale veers off in a different direction , but peace and happiness prevail when Shaitor is worshipped.  

In a third variant, Shaiton though a goddess, is shown as an ordinary woman. In this well known ritual in Coochbehar,  Shaiton conceived when she was blessed by Bishohori. Shaiton promised Bishohori that she would worship her when her son would get married. But she did not keep her promise, and her sons Lob and Kush die during the wedding festival. Later the sons are reborn when they were blessed by Bishohori. This is the reason why Rajbangshis traditionally venerate Manosha through ritual and song before a wedding ceremony.

Conclusion

While the Shaitol ritual is undeniably associated with Manosha or Bishohori worship as a fertility cult, its assimilation with Bishohori, which lent itself to the term Shaitol-Bishohori, probably took place only after India`s partition in 1947, when there was a migration from Rangpur to Cooch Behar.

Additionally, the similarity in the characteristics of Manosha and Shaitol may have led to a fusion with the one or the other, depending upon the prevailing belief in the region. For instance, in the Manosha myth, the goddess wished to be worshipped on earth (upward mobility into the Hindu pantheon) and would wreak vengeance on anyone who refused to do so. Similarly, Shaitol in the folk tales of Lilaboti or Shoronja, harboured similar hopes and administered curses on those who failed to do so. 

Not only was Manosha the preserver of mankind from the venom of snakes (Bisha-hara - destroyer of poison), but among the legends that grew around Manosha, several refer to her ability to grant children to childless women. Indeed she was a goddess of human fertility and prosperity during the 9th and 10th centuries, by virtue of being goddess of snakes. This aspect of the goddess gained currency in North Bengal and over time, the myths around the lesser Shaitol merged with those of the reigning Manosha, with both sharing the same characteristics of a fertility deity - giver of life and sustenance and the protector of children. This is probably the reason why, in addition to giving credence to the name of the ritual/song,  Bishohori worship necessarily precedes that of Shaitol during a Shaitol-Bishohori ritual. 

With regard to the acceptance of Shoshti, both words Shoshti (in Sanskrit, Sashthi) and Shait (in the Rajbongshi dialect, Shaat in Bengali) mean the number 60. This may well be the source of the Shoshti/Shaitol convergence mentioned above. The word Tor in Bengali means tower or turret and this leads us to believe that Shaitor may have been the original name, in relation to the tubular shapes within the Shaitol structure.  Some believe that traditionally, the Shaitor/tol form would have encased within it, 60 tubular structures.  

The ritual Shaitol Bishohori does not have much currency today and is considered to be on its way out. Moreover, surviving practitioners of the ritual are not "performers" in the true sense of the word - they do it out of devotion, rather than the little money or goods they may receive at the end. With many of these practitioners being mainly ageing artistes, and with the decreasing interest in traditional knowledge systems by the young  women of the villages,  there has been no visible transference of the tradition. There is no "hook" for the younger lot. Thus its longevity is sorely threatened.  


Research and documentation for this feature was made possible by a grant from the Ministry of Culture, Govt of India, under their Scheme for “Safeguarding the Intangible Cultural Heritage and Diverse Cultural Traditions of India”,  2014-15.