In India, a land of faith, there are numerous occasions and venues where fear, desire, spirits, and rituals converge, leaving logic to take a back seat.
It is said that Hindus—constituting 80 percent of India’s population—have 330 million deities who are worshipped round-the-year in myriad names and forms across a country of 3.3 million square kilometers. Understandably, almost every village in India has its own village deity and festivals to celebrate their deities’ greatness and invoke them to shower their benevolence on the faithful.
Boro Kachari, literally meaning “grand court,” is one such place in West Bengal, barely twenty kilometers from Kolkata. It was originally called Bhoot Kachari, meaning the Ghosts’ Court, over which Shiva, one of the Hindu trinity gods along with Krishna and Brahma, and the master of ghosts and spirits, presides. Significantly here, Shiva is called Bhootnath, the Lord of the Ghosts, one of his myriad names.
The Boro Kachari shrine at the foot of a sacred fig tree, locally called Ashvattha, is an exceptional place considering the conservative nature of practicing Hindus. The priestly class, the Brahmins, has no role to play, and the faithful—cutting across all divides of Hindu castes and non-Hindus like Muslims—pray at Bhootnath’s shrine. This makes Boro Kachari a reflection of traditional communal harmony in West Bengal.
While most people seek the lord’s blessings to have children, Bhootnath is also worshiped for other problems, including anything from property disputes and career crises to diseases, skewed love affairs, and matrimonial discord. Believers tie wish chits with red thread to the temple railings. Faith has it that such written petitions in the court of the Holy Ghost never fail to draw his attention, and the chit is somewhat a guarantee that one’s plea will be heard.
Among the people who seek children, those who have sons return to offer their thanks with, among other things, an idol of Gopal, a symbol of Lord Krishna. As for those blessed with a daughter, they return with a fresh harvest of crops and vegetables. The blessed children are brought in ornamental attire with their foreheads and cheeks decorated with sandalwood paste. In a pond within yards of the shrine, devotees perform ablutions before entering.
The smells of the omnipresent incense sticks, candles, and milk poured over the Shiva Lingam (a stone-shaped phallus that represents Lord Shiva) create an ambience of its own. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, one can see endless streams of visitors heading to and out of Boro Kachari, with women in the lead and quasi-modern music instrument bands loudly belching out popular Hindi and Bengali film songs. The cacophony reaches a crescendo during the main annual village festival held in mid-April during Neel Puja, which begins after a fortnight-long carnival, and the cops look the other way as the Decibel Devil dance.
Boro Kachari’s history is almost entirely based on oral narratives. During the time of the last Muslim rulers of Bengal in the early 1740s—the reign of Nawab Alivardi Khan—Maratha marauders, coming all the way from their western Indian kingdom, started making forays into Bengali settlements in the region, pillaging houses and, often, setting them on fire. The harassed villagers sought refuge in the adjoining jungle that was home to an open-air crematorium of the Hindus, locally called Shawshan. The Marathas, being devout Hindus, refrained from venturing into the jungle, which was home to the burning ground, fearing that they might earn the wrath of the ghosts.
During this time, an old Hindu monk suddenly appeared and took shelter near the burning ground. As villagers slowly approached him to seek redress of their grievances and cures for illnesses, the monk obliged with great success. Over the next few years, the Maratha raids stopped; the villages became prosperous; and all illnesses were cured.
After the monk’s death, his followers buried him at the place where he lived. Within days, a sacred fig tree (Ashvattha) sprouted from the grave, confirming the villagers’ belief that the monk was an incarnation of Shiva. They also “inferred” that he returned as the tree to protect his believers.
However, there is a twist in the tale. In 1978, devastating floods spared the shrine but damaged the tree. The faithful, not to be cowered down, planted another sacred fig tree beside the original one, and soon, the new one started growing over the old one. The rest is history.