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Hingli Dolls

Hingli derives its name from Hingul or Cinnabar - a toxic mercury sulfide mineral, which yields a red pigment. It is the natural form of the vermillion pigment. This was the primary colour used to paint Hingli dolls in the old days. Today, synthetic paints in bright colours substitute  natural dyes.

Hingli derives its name from Hingul or cinnabar - a toxic mercury sulfide mineral, which yields a red pigment. It is the natural form of the vermillion pigment. This was the primary colour used to paint Hingli dolls in the old days. Today, synthetic paints in bright colours substitute  natural dyes.

Hingli dolls are used as votive dolls for the Jitashtami Broto, a fast observed by mothers fifteen days before Durga puja. This practice is observed without the assistance of Brahmin priests, pointing to the non Aryan origin of this festival. On the 8th day of the latter half of the month of Ashwin, mothers in Bengal fast for the welfare and longevity of their children.

The origin of this broto is based on folklore: Jimutbahon was a wise king who relinquished his kingdom and went to the jungle to serve his father. One day, he came across an old woman weeping. She told him that she belonged to a family of snakes and was honour bound to give up her son (Shankhachur) as a sacrifice to Garuda (the mount of Lord Vishnu). Hearing this, Jimutbahon promised to save her son and decided to sacrifice himself instead. Garuda, pleased with the bravery and the benevolence of the king, spared his life and promised not to demand any further sacrifices from the snakes. He further granted him a boon by which all snakes sacrificed earlier were restored to life. Thus, the race of the snakes was saved and since then, fasts for the welfare of children have been observed.

According to another folk tale, a female eagle and jackal living in a jungle once witnessed women performing the Jitashtami fast and wished to observe it themselves too.While the eagle observed the fast with full dedication and completed it, the jackal was unable to go through her fast and secretly had food. As a result,all children born to the jackal perished a few days after birth while the eagle`s offspring were blessed with long life.

The celebration in Bengal probably takes cognizance of both these stories. Thus, carrying a set of Hingli dolls comprising a jackal and a vulture (who are to “witness” the fast), along with a haldi stained cloth and offerings of murki (sweetened popped rice or khoi), kalai dal ( a kind of split pea), ripe bananas, a guava,custard apple and cucumber on a tray or platter, the women approach the shrine which is usually under a banyan tree. Here a small image of Jimutbahon (locally referred to as Jibitbahon) is worshipped. They believe that he has the power to give children to the childless and protect their children. The deity, often made of unbaked clay by the artisan herself, comprises a four-armed male figure astride an elephant, with an umbrella over his head.  

Since the broto marks maternal love and affection, it also celebrates the folk deity Shoshthi, venerated as the benefactor and protector of children. Thus, if Shoshthi had been propitiated earlier for any boon (manat), Shoshthi dolls too are taken along, a pair for each child.

It is the women of the renowned Fouzdar family of Bishnupur, Bankura - well-known for their Dashabotar cards and Durga  pats, who continue the tradition of making these tiny unbaked clay dolls.  In an earlier time, such dolls were made in other parts of Bengal as well. 

The women buy their clay from local vendors : usually a full cartload suffices for the two months that they traditionally spend making these dolls. The doll making usually starts in the month of Shrabon (July-August) and stops about 20 days prior to the broto, in the month of Ashwin (September-October) after which the painting process begins. The soft clay is rolled out into a cylindrical form and then shaped with the fingers. A bamboo knife or chiari is used to make incisions on the doll and define the shape. The dolls fashioned as humans are without legs; they are covered below the waist by skirts. Body parts are added on with bits of clay. The eyes are always painted on.

Traditionally, Hingli dolls are sun dried and not baked since they will be immersed after the worship. After the clay has dried, each doll is first coated with "khori mati", a kind of chalk. This will ensure that the bright colours that will be applied later stand out and are not darkened by the colour of the clay beneath. Colours used these days are all synthetic - mainly yellows, greens,blues, reds and black. It takes the women about 20 days to paint all the dolls made for the year. In recent times, the women have been making the dolls through the year : this allows the clay to dry well and it also reduces their work load as the festival nears. Though the styles of the dolls have changed with the times, powered by the imagination of the artist, the shoshthi dolls remain unchanged.

The dolls made are sold in the hundreds.  Sales start about three days prior to the Jitashtami Broto and soar on the penultimate day. Along with the requisite forms of Shoshthi, jackals and vultures, a whole array of dolls are made for the pleasure of the children, who usually accompany their mothers to buy the dolls. After the worship, the dolls are immersed in any water body nearby.

Though Hingli dolls are popular among rural children , especially in the regions where Jitashtami puja is celebrated, in recent years these have also found their way to urban craft shops and the state-run Biswa Bangla.