Tripura : Colourful marquees, illuminations, religious rites and the chanting of ‘mantras’ amid the beating of drums will turn Puran Habeli, the erstwhile capital of Tripura around 12 km east of present capital Agartala, into a divine dreamland during the centuries-old Kharchi festival that begins Saturday – a spectacle that will be witnessed by hundreds of thousands of devotees from India and abroad.

During the week-long festival, the idols of 14 Hindu deities – among them Shiva, Durga, Vishnu, Laxmi, Saraswati, Kartik, Ganesh, Brahma, Abadhi (god of water), Chandra, Ganga, Agni, Kamdev and Himadri (Himalaya) – that are kept locked in a room all through the year are brought out and worshipped.

“The ceremonial worship starts with the holy dip of the 14 deities in the Howrah river, followed by the sacrifice of 108 animals in the presence of hundreds of thousands of devotees – all at government expense,” Tripura assembly deputy speaker and puja committee chairman Pabitra Kar told IANS.

For the past many decades, successive Tripura governments, including the current Communist dispensation, have been holding good on the promise to the state’s erstwhile royal family by continuing to bear the entire expenditure of the ‘puja’ .

“Though the CPI-M (Communist Party of India-Marxist) does not believe in gods or pujas, the state government is abiding by the 1949 merger agreement to uphold the faith of the tribals  year after year.” writer and historian Panna Lal Roy told IANS.

On the first day of the Kharchi (the cleansing of sins) puja, the deities are brought out in a procession, guarded by Tripura Police and led by the chief royal priest or the “Raj Chantai” of Puran Habeli and followed by other priests bearing bamboo umbrellas on their heads making a distinct ‘ehune’ sound and thousands of devotees to the Howrah river for the ritual bathing.

Unlike in other parts of India, Tripura Police even accord a ceremonial guard of honour to the head priest. Roy said that the Kharchi festival – the cleansing of sins – is the biggest of the Hindu tribals in northeast India.  Tribals, the majority of whom are Christians or Hindus, constitute 27 percent of the northeast region’s 45.58 million population.

Over the years, Kharchi has become an annual carnival of both tribals and non-tribals,” Kar noted. “On an average, 1-1.5 million people gather from all over the country and neighbouring Bangladesh to view the Kharchi puja and festival,” Kar added.

According to “Rajmala”, the official chronicle of Tripura’s royal dynasty, “once Queen Hirabati, the mother of King Trilochan, went to take a bath in the river Maharani and noticed a wild buffalo chasing the 14 gods”.

“Later, the gods, with the help of the queen’s ‘risha’ (cloth used by the tribal women to cover their breast), killed the beast. Happy with Hirabati’s help and cheerful over the act, the gods came to the palace and the royal family offered puja by sacrificing wild buffaloes for the welfare of the state,” Rajmala said.

Puran Habeli

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