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Lalon Festival October 2019: Spirituality at risk from overcrowding

  • Published at 09:52 pm October 22nd, 2019
Lalon Festival October 2019 photo 1
Two Lalon devotees pose for our camera after finishing a song | Sayed Himu

The songs of Fakir Lalon were being performed continuously on the centre stage. Among the tracks we heard on the first night, there were renditions of Samay Gele, Dhono Dhonno Boli Tare, and Moner Manush. The stage was surrounded by people on all sides to such an extent, that getting close to the artists on the stage was out of question


For three days and nights in March and October of every year, the surrounding areas around the Lalon Shrine, in Kushtia's Chheuria, becomes so crowded that one can barely stand for long in a single spot. The roads leading to Lalon Shrine become rivers of people. And when the surface of that river is disturbed with vehicles, or police batons, then people disperse in every direction in the form of waves. Waves that could easily envelop, and trample those who are going against them. These waves of people gets formed when Lalon Mela, a festival commemorating the legendary philosopher Lalon Shah, is organized on the bank of river Kaliganga, near the Lalon Shrine. 

I, as part of a team from Dhaka Tribune Showtime, travelled to Kushtia's Chheuria last Wednesday to observe the three-day festival organized to honour the 129th death anniversary of Fakir Lalon. My quest was capturing the essence of spirituality, that has been hyped up by so many people around the world. Here is my account of visiting the most recent Lalon Festival.

Visitors streaming into the mausoleum, which contains Lalon's grave, in spite of the heat and humidity at 11am of Thursday | Sayed Himu

Ashors

We arrived at the festival at around 11pm on Wednesday night.

The roads and alleys within the fair grounds are flanked by stores, that sell ektaras, dotaras, dhols, and other hand-made local musical instruments, along with pipes, and paraphernalia to smoke "shiddhi."  Shiddhi is what the "Shadhus" call marijuana, which they smoke from small cylindrical pipes, called "bashi."  "Shadhu" is the Bangla title for mystics and hermits, who follow and practice not only Lalon's philosophy but that of many others.There are also numerous makeshift food shops, sweet stalls, and toy stores. 

There are also some joy rides, usually seen in the fairs of Bangladesh, which are localized versions of ferris wheel, and merry-go-round. These rides are small, and are operated by hand. These are typically enjoyed by children, and families who come to see the fair.

However, the majority of the fair visitors, are comprised of men, and they come neither for the food stalls, nor for the music played in a large single stage in the middle of the fair grounds. The real motive of these men are partaking in "shiddhi" from innumerable "ashors"-a small seating area, where a female baul prepares "bashis" - that line the bank of river Kaliganga, and the alleys not occupied by stalls. 

An "ashor" more often than not has a female baul, accompanied by her family members. They have fire lit on one to four candles at the centre of the ashor at all times. Visitors to the ashor will sit in a circle around this fire, and pay money to smoke shiddhi from the pipe she passes around. They charge Tk100 per session of smoking a bashi, which is passed around until the marijuana within it has been completely smoked.

Meanwhile, the songs of Fakir Lalon were being performed continuously on the centre stage. Among the tracks we heard on the first night, there were renditions of Samay Gele, Dhono Dhonno Boli Tare, and Moner Manush. The stage was surrounded by people on all sides to such an extent, that getting close to the artists on the stage was out of question.

Nebir Kamal, a professional artist and graphics designer from Dhaka, has been coming to this festival since 2013. He told us: "The first few years I came here, there were not as many people as we are seeing this time.  Back then it was still a gathering where people came to listen to music, and understand Lalon's philosophy. As the popularity of the event increased, so has the number of visitors, but obviously the location did not expand in size. Hence, it is so difficult to move about in the festival this time around."

When I asked him when the singing will begin, Nebir said, "Singing will commence in all these ashors as the night gets deeper. It usually begins after the Maghreb azan. The house of Bhoton Shadhu has music at all times."

When we visited the house of Bhoton Shadhu, which was to the right of the festival entrance, we felt like there were even more people here than in the open spaces of the fair. Everywhere in the yard sleeping bodies of people, passed out from smoking shiddhi, were seen, and the stream of people entering and exiting could barely place their feet on the floor without stepping on someone. The house of Bhoton Shadhu did have one young men playing a dhol, but everyone around him seemed to be in a stupor, from the excess humidity, and haze of shiddhi smoke. 

We finally decided to leave the fair at 2:30am to look for a place to spend the night. The local auto-rickshaw driver informed us that all the rooms in every hotel are occupied at this time of the year. We thanked our lucky stars when we found a single room in a hotel in the city.

A Shadhu wearing an Akatsuki robe from the hit anime Naruto | Sayed Himu

Lalon's philosophy

We returned to the fairground at 11am the next morning. The first place we visited was the mausoleum, containing Lalon Shah’s grave, and it was surrounded by Shadhus from every district in Bangladesh. All the Shadhus were seated with their respective circle of followers. Most were quiet due to the extreme heat of the sun. 

One man approached us and said: "Can you believe this? There are over 10,000 Shadhus who came to visit this shrine, but it has only two bathrooms. Some of the old Shadhus can never reach the bathroom on time."

After looking at the mausoleum of Lalon, we decided to visit the house of Bhoton Shadhu one more time, in the hope of finding some music.Thankfully, there were less people in the yards around Bhoton Shadhu's house in the morning. 

Right in front of the front door of the hut, where Bhoton lives, I found a Shadhu wearing Akatsuki robe. Akatsuki is a fictional terrorist organization in the universe of the hit anime "Naruto". The aim of that organization is to take over the world, and subject everyone to an unbreakable slumber, in which they will dream of having whatever they want.

Clearly, some enthusiastic "Naruto" fan must have given him the robe, without telling what it really signifies. I believed as much because the philosophy of Lalon is not about forcing your own idea of peace upon the rest of the world. It is about finding peace and God within us, by letting go of material needs, and earthly limitation.

In the backyard of the house we found some more circles of Shadhus, who sporadically played music, to the cheers of their followers around them. One white-haired Shadhu began singing immediately after seeing us. It was such a random yet beautiful moment, that I suspected that the singer could see in my eyes, the desperation of listening to some authentic songs performed by Shadhus.

After getting out of Bhoton Shadhu's house we decided to sit at an ashor on the elevated bank of Kaliganga river. Daylight revealed that the river was completely dead. Now some ashor visitors use it as an urinal, in spite of protests from people around them. 

The ashor at which we sat was owned by Pakhi Shah. She is from Jamalpur-Sherpur region, and have been coming to this festival for the last 10 years. In response to what is the main objective of people visiting this festival, she said: "Everyone is a Shadhu in their own way. Everyone wants to find the meaning of life, and know their creator. People come here to find a way to communicate with their respective Gods."

In the evening, a Lalon devotee Farhad Mazhar said: "Where we are currently seating is called Akhrabari. This is where Lalon's school of philosophy is discussed, and practiced. This is not a practice of music but rather a practice of his 'shadhona' (meditation on his teachings). 

"In order to understand Lalon's teachings we must first trace him in the history of philosophy of the Bengal region. It is a philosophical discourse. It is not the way bourgeoisie perceive it. It is not about singing Baul songs, or smoking marijuana. The first step of understanding Lalon is understanding the words of  'Nodiya,' which is also another school of philosophy. Secondly we need to trace the philosophical breakthroughs achieved by Lalon. 

"Tantriks say that, our body is just a means for living in this world, a vessel. It is just the means to achieve some things. Nodiya or Chaitanya Mahaprabhu was the first one to say that when one follows the Tantriks then they abuse their body. Especially the bodies of women. They abuse women in the name of Shadhona. They call it with various names such as Uccho Shadhona, and so on.

"Then Nodiya said, 'No! It cannot be!' Because in order to find the one whom we call Allah or Bhogoban, we will not have to use such means. It is quite the opposite actually. The body is merely his residence. Allah lives within me. Bhogoban is within me. Bhogoban lives within the human body. Those who realize that Bhogoban lives within our body, will not actually abuse their body. So the method of Shadhona for that person is more in the mind. Such as, bringing change to one's thoughts, their work, and their society. Bringing change to one's society, and family is very important.

"And Lalon was a follower of this philosophy, that of Sri Chaitanya. Since, his background was in Hinduism, Lalon would use the stories of Hindu scriptures to preach the teachings of Sri Chaitanya. He would narrate the tales of Radha-Krishna. Radha said to Krishna, you will understand me when you are reincarnated as a woman. 

"After meditating on this, Lalon eventually came to the conclusion that men and women are the same, and God resides within us all. We are all born with God within us, as we all start as women in a mother's womb. Humans are reproduced by women, so they are the embodiment of God." 

While, Farhad was explaining all this to us, a Baul concert was happening on the front yard of that building. It was the least crowded place in that entire region, due to one important rule. The entire compound was a "no-smoking" zone.

From the roof of the Akhrabari, one can easily see the river, made up of innumerable people, flooding towards the entrance of the festival. Sometimes the river becomes destructive, due to police batons being applied on one side to disperse the crowd for some VIP. Most of the faces in the river had the excitement of being able to legally smoke marijuana. There was no singing of Lalon songs, but "shoutings" of his name. The realization that enveloped me at that moment, was that spirituality, or learning the philosophy of Lalon, is not at all in the agenda for most of these people.

Baul singers were surprisingly rare to find in the entire festival | Sayed Himu