In Bengali Hinduism, Shakto, or worship of the various forms of the female energy, Shakti, constitute the most visible part of the faith, since it is patronised by the upper castes. Nevertheless, there are numerous other religious practises, sects and venerations that don’t make it to mass media.
In Hooghly district, in the Bengali month of Chaitra, April, for example, one can see trains of people hurrying by the side of the road at an unnaturally quick pace. Across their shoulders is slung a bamboo yoke which bobs along with two clay pots hanging off either side. They are also barefoot, which maybe explains why they’re scurrying: the ground is too hot to rest on for too long.
These pilgrims are headed to 300-year old Tarakeshwar Shiv Temple, located around 60 kilometres north of Kolkata, on the way to Delhi. It was built by Raja Bharamalla, a zamindar of the first Nawab of Bengal Murshid Quli Khan.
As a practise, this trek is mostly unknown across most of West Bengal, but is popular amongst many Dalit castes from the Sundarbans region. They come in to visit the temple for the April Gajan festival and collect pitchers of Ganga water at a point that’s around a three-day walk from Tarakeshwar. After that, they take off their footwear and hike to the temple, where they pour the water as an offering the Shiv.
The pilgrimage is quite similar to – but also much smaller than – the Kanwar Yatra of north India, which takes place during the months of July and August.