Manasa, the folk Goddess

Persius says,”Pinge duos anguea; pueri, sacer est locos.” “Paint two snakes, and the place is sacred.”

The venomous snakes in the red soil, the impenetrable jungles of Sal, Palash and Mohua of Rar Bangla is the treacherous dance of life and death in the arid region for the tribal folk and there is only one answer to that- the propitiation of the folk goddess Manasa.

This post is about a TRIBAL DEITY called Manasa revered by the ADIVASI’S of RAR BANGLA. They inhabit parts of Burdhawan, east and west Mednipur, Bankura, Purulia and Birbhum. They are the original people of these areas. History and geography combine to form the culture, traditions, values and mores of the peoples. Rar Bangla is made up of red, arid soil, no fertility in those waves of undulating red earth that make up this area. There are thick forests of Sal, Mohua and Palash trees which have given this area a certain type of forlornness, also a raw individuality from the rest of Bengal.

There was a time I was working for a project which was for the Government to get data from the adivasis. We were recording these in film back in 2006 in a PD camera. I travelled extensively through most of these places and have lived with the adivasis.

I spent a few months in Sundarban gathering footage about snake deaths and the mystical medicine men and women who heal  people bitten by a snake. These OJHAS or shamans heal these people through elaborate rituals, mantras, roots of plants, other medicines from animal parts(yikes)…These healings really interested me as I have witnessed once such incident in my childhood.

A seven year old was bitten and pronounced dead. After the shaman sprayed him with some smoke and mantras, he opened his eyes. The ritual was elaborate and I did not get to see the whole of it. But it touched me deeply. Can there be people who can heal such cases? Through magic?

Being of a mystical orientation, I wanted to explore this. Healing fascinated me. I’ve always wanted to pursue my soul’s call – to be a healer. So when this media work came up, I jumped at it. Travelling through Bardhawan, Birbhum, Bankura, these adivasis fascinated me. I began to speak with them and make notes.

They are the real people of the soil and their devis and rituals have the smell of antiquity. It still has some matriarchal remnants. The patriarchal Vedic religion pushed these Goddesses to the backstage and took centre stage. No place for the sacred feminine, only MASCULINE RULERS shall rule became the adage.

I stayed with the people in their huts, by the river Raymangal. Pastoral, idyllic Bengal. Vibrant red soil or ranga mati as it is called. This place was in the real interiors, Hemnagar. Thick canopies of mangrove surrounding me. No electricity in the hut. No toilet either. Bathing in the river. Yes brushing as well.

It was an intense month and my psycho-spiritual being was enlivened. I woke up to a new reality. At night, I would sit under the moonlight, mostly alone and wonder about life, multiple realities, the complexities of human interaction, the subtlety of feeling….so much, so much. Write, gaze at my tarot and I pod(which never had battery and I had to walk 3 miles to get it charged). Hahahaha.

Mercury was setting fire to the brain. I have to look at the astroyoga during that time and I will be left stunned surely. Anytime some event has happened and I have looked at it through the ASTRO LENS, I have been left speechless. The synchronicities between the orbs above and ME, a little Universe(YONIVERSE…haha) are too SUBLIME! Seriously if you study the sky and then study the event that happened, then you will surely, surely see how AS ABOVE SO BELOW is so fucking true.

This journey was probably one of the most self awakening one I have taken so far. These travels through RAR BANGLA have opened me up to so many ideas…of feminism(NOT THE WESTERN YOU YOU COMPREHEND THE TERM), matriarchy, the never say die attitude of BEHULA. Another myth we will explore- BEHULA and LAKHINDER, probably one of the best love stories I HAVE EVER HEARD.

No it is not a tragedy like Romeo and Juliet. Yes someone dies, but then HE is resurrected. Whoosh! Their love story is the very crux on which MANASA establishes her FEMINISM. The story is long, but essentially Behula goes through hell and high waters to get her husband back and she remains steadfast in her loyalty to Manasa. Her father in law worships Shiva and refuses to acknowledge Manasa. Fuck knows why?

You know how the WILD SACRED FEMININE cannot be IGNORED. NO WAY! I don’t mean this in a negative way. I mean if the feminine does not inspire the masculine then there is no CREATION. Nada. No yin and yan. No yoni and lingam! Finally the be all and end all of this story is much in the veins of Ishtar who forces Anu to acknowledge and accept her. Similarly Manasa who is also said to be Shiva’s daughter(but here daughter is ALLEGORICAL) but look how hard she had to work to get her point across. And again ladies and gentlemen….meet the scapegoat- the human!

On a serious note, I don’t like the way myths portray humans all the time. So helpless, so pathetic. And how hard we have to try. If this reality is a simulation by aliens or worse…future humanity, then they are ONE SADISTIC BUNCH!

Manasa and Ishtar have many parallels that can be drawn. Essentially MANASA is a SNAKE GODDESS. There was a Minoan, ancient Greek Minoan, yes those guys before Plato who supposedly lived in Atlantis.

More than two thousand years ago, the Greek historian Plato wrote about Atlantis, the fabled civilisation that was swallowed by the sea. But the origins of Plato’s story have never been identified. It is only recently that some archaeologists have begun to believe the legend may have started on Crete. They are hoping that scientific investigation can provide an actual link to Plato’s ancient folk memory.

The famous Snake Goddess of ancient Crete has long attracted students of history and art. Elegant, risquée, enigmatic, she embodies the mystery and allure of Minoan civilisation. One depiction of the leading Canaanite goddess Astarte shares striking features with the Snake Goddess. Both are topless, and both are holding snakes in their hands. Astarte is ISHTAR!!!

Astarte was the goddess of the planet Venus—€”Ishtar in Mesopotamia and elsewhere, Isi (Isis) in Egypt, al-Uzza (the Sublime One) among the Arabs, by far the most important female deity of the ancient Near East. According to the theory of Immanuel Velikovsky, Ishtar/Astarte was the female version of the planet Venus.

The other common motif is the nakedness of these Goddesses. Manasa is known to wear only snakes. This is also a symbol, of their enlightenment. A dakini (Sanskrit: “sky dancer”) is a Tantric priestess of ancient India who “carried the souls of the dead to the sky”. The dakini is a female being of generally volatile temperament, who acts as a muse for spiritual practice and is also depicted naked. Astarte/Ishtar/Innana were also topless showing they have shed IGNORANCE.

Manasa is so all pervasive in the adivasi culture that I almost began to sense her presence the very moment I began to live in Hemnagar. This wild feminine energy does much to inspire me. In fact I seek communion with it. Little do I know, I am it! I mean I want to become one with it. One with the Goddess. Manasa…

I want to make ethno-fiction, like Jean Rouch. I want to live in these areas, go from one adivasi community to another, shoot and blog about them while living in their midst. That culture is so remote, surreal, almost unreal, yet so magical. Their voices, the chants, the smells…so unlike anything I have experienced in Calcutta or Bombay.

You know what was so interesting- these adivasis, Bauris, Bagdis, Bhumij, Kora, Mundas, Oraon, Bauris, Mahalis and many more have all assimilated with the Hindu religion and also pray to Shiva, Durga, but their worship is unique and they have adapted every ritual, every mantra to what works best for them. The effect is STUNNING! I mean indigenous people fascinate me, so it was normal that I was very taken by everything. Their hospitality, their responsibility for the environment, their stories…were just so different to my city life that it became one of the most important MASTER CLASSES life has given me in CHARACTERISATION! Agriculture has now become a staple profession, but some still retain their ancestral work like building with bamboo, drawing on sal leaves etc, making terracotta artefacts.

All in all the history, culture, politics and worship of this region differs greatly from the rest of Bengal, in fact it may be considered a small world on its own. Even with technology and modernisation, they still remain very close to their forefathers. The culture of these folk people are now a mixture of many elements- the Vedic, the Vaishnav, the Islamic, the Christian, but still inherently the main figures of worship are folk goddesses like Monosha, Banshuli and Chandi to name a few.

Anyway when I read up on her and her festivals and the importance of women in them, I knew I had to explore more into the myth of MANASA. In fact she called out to me. In the Vedic system women are forced to take the back-seat, so here there was, this powerful goddess who did not discriminate and was fiercely independent. I liked that.

In Rar Bangla, the amalgamation of ancient Vedic and tribal goddesses have created a peculiar synthesis, enriching both traditions and systems and I’ve seen it up front. Fascinating stuff!

Manasa is a powerful symbol of feminism and in Rar Bengal we see the women are inextricably interwoven in her festivities. In Bankura district, under the Vishnupur station there is a hamlet called Ayodhya. On a certain date, there is a festival called Ginnipalan. With the first sign of dawn, the women gather around the Darakeshwar river, in a secluded place. Then two elderly women are chosen to play the role of Ram and Sita. The women organise the rites and rituals of their wedding and beautiful songs can be heard. The women spent the whole day in this play acting and after an evening supper return home. Can you imagine? AN ALL WOMEN FESTIVAL!! OF MYTHIC PROPORTIONS!! NO MEN NEEDED!!! A female has taken the place of the male. Sita has become Ram!

Over and again what has amazed me is THE HUGE PARTICIPATION OF WOMEN!

There is so much I want to write about Manasa. In fact I want to invoke her energies. I want to write about her, make videos on her and spread her awesomeness to the whole wide world. Sounds corny? Good. It’s meant to.

I leave you with much food for thought surely. Why not look into Manasa and see if the Serpent Goddess stirs your imagination?f484b2fdf9bbf2d4200a79d039038559

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