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Of the various Mangal Kavyas, the folk literature of medieval Bengal, the Manosha Mangal, based on the serpent goddess Manosha or Bishohori was the most popular. A multitude of poets glorified her through their versions of the Manosha Mangal over 400 years. This in turn gave rise to a plethora of folk performances in the form of songs, dances, narrative recitations and folk dramas. Though the style, tunes and presentations may vary, they all are based on the stories of  the Manosha Mangal.

Of the various Mangal Kavyas, the folk literature of medieval Bengal, the Manosha Mangal, based on the serpent goddess Manosha was the earliest and still remains popular. A multitude of poets glorified her through their versions of the Manosha Mangal over 400 years. This in turn gave rise to a plethora of folk performances in the form of songs, dances, narrative recitations and folk dramas. Though the style, tunes and presentations may vary, they all are based on the stories of  the Manosha Mangal.

The Manosha Cult

In the north east of India and North Bengal, the folk deity Bishohori is but another name for Manosha who has reigned supreme for centuries. Bishohori means the remover of poison (Bish). 

The source area of the myth of Manosha is in the snake infested jungles of the north east of India, in what was once ancient Pragjyotish/Kamrup. Inhabiting these regions were matrilinear Indo Mongoloid tribes and the numerous folk deities that developed here were mainly female. Myths and rituals flourished around her in these regions, the "ancestral homes" of these myths, so to speak, long before Manosha became affiliated with Shaivism and the Hindu pantheon. All the myths speak of Manosha`s wrath, violence and wantonness in her desire to be worshipped by mankind and at the same time, her compassion and her regenerative powers.

The cult spread from the 7th century onwards and Manosha was worshipped not only as a saviour from snake bites, but also as a symbol of fertility. Even as Brahminisation spread over the next few centuries,  the remnants of this primitive Manosha cult and form of worship lingered on amidst marginalized groups. These groups, who mingled easily with the tribes, were typically outside the Hindu caste hierarchy. This goddess-based tradition displaying the last vestiges of ancient tribal rituals is practised even today, particularly among the Rajbongshis of North Bengal and among tribes like the Koch, Rabha, Garo and Bodo.

According to another school of thought however, the Manosha cult and the legends associated with it had their roots in Rarh Bengal and then travelled to other parts of Bengal and its neighbouring regions. Others have opined that the serpent cult first prevailed in Bengal as the worship of a non-Aryan anthropomorphic folk goddess known first as Janguli (Mahayana Buddhist period).
Over time, Manosha has been worshipped in a variety of forms across Bengal in the monsoon months – as just a simple crude stone, a lump of clay (animistic forms), an earthen pot, the sij cactus plant, a small house like structure with sloped roofs made of cork and painted with images of Manosha, known as karandi or merh or manjush/ maandush (representing the iron chamber in which Behula and Lakkhindar were isolated after their wedding), a serpent hood, or a female figure defined in clay. 

Of the numerous myths glorifying her, the most popular story was that of a trader, Chand Sadagar, a staunch Shaivite and his daughter-in-law, Behula. Chand initially refused to worship Manosha, because he considered her too low born to be considered as a goddess. Enraged, Manosha wreaked havoc in his path and Chand, was compelled to endure a series of traumatic events, which included the loss of his cargo bearing ships and death of all his six sons. A 7th son, Lakkhindar, was eventually born to Chand and his wife, Sonaka. But he too died of snakebite on the night of his marriage to Behula. The distraught but determined Behula then set sail with the corpse of her husband, on a long, arduous and dangerous voyage, seeking Manosha’s help in resurrecting him to life. After enduring many hardships, she finally succeeded, through her devotion, in placating Manosha, but only after she promised to convert her father in law. Behula returned home in triumph. Her husband and brothers in law were brought back to life and her father-in-law’s wealth had been restored, by the grace of Manosha. Chand, overjoyed to have his family and wealth back, thanks to Behula’s virtue and determination, grudgingly capitulated and agreed to worship the goddess, albeit with his back turned and with his left hand only. Thus Manosha was both destroyer and life giver. 

The myth is upheld to this day with many villages across Bengal, claiming to be the location of Chand Sadagar’s house or the ghat from which Behula set sail. 

While her tradition was earlier celebrated primarily through panchalis (a ballad ritually sung or narrated, extolling the glory of a deity) and broto katha (rhymes and narratives chanted on the occasion of the performance of a vow) rooted in these primitive rites, these oral practices later crystallized into the genre of the Mangal Kavya.  

Mangal Kavyas, as a genre,  are long narrative verses eulogizing folk deities like Chandi, Manosha, Sitala and Dharma Thakur. Set against a background of the social milieu of rural Bengal in the middle ages, and expressed in earthy imagery, the oldest of these manuscripts, is the Manosha Mangal or the Padmapuran which portrays the victory of the serpent deity Manosha over Chand Sadagar, the  ardent  devotee of Shiva.  

It is believed that contemporary political and social conditions had some connection with the emergence of Mangal Kavya in the 13th century. It was at the beginning of the 13th century that the Turkish forces defeated Lakshmansen and conquered Bengal. According to historians, the reason for this defeat was that the Senas, who were patrons of the Brahmins, did not have the support of the oppressed lower castes. With state support of the Shiva-Shakti cult in its orthodox form now withdrawn, the popularity of the Manosha cult among the subalterns began to be perceived as a very real threat to Shaivism in Bengal. 

The matter was resolved by the Brahmin establishment by gradually assigning her a position in the Hindu pantheon. (The folk deity Chandi was also amalgamated into the pantheon as the wife of the great god.) Besides incorporating the deities, some of the rituals too were brought into the Brahmanical fold. This is the reason why many pre-Aryan or non-Aryan religious beliefs still prevail in Bengal. 

Meanwhile, epics in the form of the Mangal Kavyas began to be composed in honour of this new breed of deities, often by Brahmin poets, incorporating them into the Hindu pantheon and propagating their worship.  Numerous poets, between the thirteenth and eighteenth centuries, wrote their versions of the Manosha Mangal. Also known as the Padmapuran, each version was an adaptation and consolidation of elements of older versions along with existing folk legends that prevailed across Bengal, lower Assam, Odisha and Bihar. The main narrative in each of these versions revolved around the Chand-Behula legend. Entwined within the story was also the maritime exploits of Chand as an overseas trader.  

While the origin of Manosha legends is buried deep in the mists of folk traditions, her first mention in literature predates the Mangal Kavyas, probably having been absorbed from indigenous legends.  In the Brahma Vaivarta Purana (8th – 16th c), she is said to be daughter of Kashyap, sister of Vasuki and wife of Sage Jaratkaru. While there is no mention of her in the Mahabharat, the sister of Vasuki and daughter of Kashyap in the Mahabharat is also called Jaratkaru.  She was also stated to be a creation of Brahma`s  - born of his mind - thus Manas(h)a. Latter day Manosha Mangal texts, synthesizing folk culture with Vedic culture, gave the Manosha story of the Puranas a Shaivite accent by creating a parallel lore with Manosha as a daughter of Shiva, born of his seed. By the 15th century or so, Manosha had become a Hindu goddess accepted by all classes of people. As a result of the syncretization, Manosha also came to be known as Padmaboti. She is also given the epithet Kani (one eyed) or Changmuri Kani (Chang is a fish whose head or muri, resembles a snake - thus the term means a one-eyed woman whose head looks like that of the Chang fish) in the texts.

Manosha based rituals and performances

Chanting of the Manosha Mangal texts in tandem with non-Vedic ritualism became a plea for divine intervention by the common people for their well-being and betterment as well as a charm against the ravage of snakes during the monsoon months. This continues to this day as Manoshar Panchali, performed both at home and for the village/community.  The recitations could go on for the entire month, recited in parts - right from Manosha`s birth to Chand`s acceptance - each evening by rural women, or it could be truncated to just an evening’s recitation on the last day of the month.  (Whereas the women usually knew the text by heart earlier, these days they refer to printed texts containing the Behula story.)

The Manosha texts also became the basis of popular genres of folk theatre and narrative performances. They were performed for the edification and entertainment of rural audiences.  

Though they all refer to one or the other of the numerous versions of the Manosha Mangal, there are stylistic and ritualistic variances between performances in North Bengal and the districts to its south. Up to the first quarter of the 20th century, there were also professional Muslim singers who sang songs in honour of Manosha, a result of the reciprocal influence of the two communities that existed. 

Since the Mangal Kavyas were composed in the medieval lachari (nachari) metre, they could be accompanied by dance steps performed by the chief narrator during the narration of the Manosha legend, spread over numerous days. In Bengal, the ballad based folk dramas that evolved came to be known as Manoshar Gaan or Bhashan Jatra and in North Bengal, Bishohora or Bishohorir Gaan. These primarily dealt with the Behula –Lakkhindar saga. 

Other than folk drama, Jagoron Gaan (literally, songs of awakening, a musical recitation of relevant parts of the text, arousing the compassion of the folk deities for their well-being), Manoshar Panchali (narrative performance of the text) and  Jhapaan Gaan (sung in her honour by the Bede community of snake charmers during the festival of Jhapan, the hub of which is now in Bishnupur, Bankura) were ritual based. The Royani gan was (and continues to be) a special form of Manosha worship, comprising singing and dancing, especially popular in the Barishal (Bakarganj), Dacca and Faridpur districts (now in Bangladesh). Other folk forms like Pater Gaan and puppetry performances (Putul Naach) also sang the Manosha story.

While the pala gaan or bhashan was elaborate folk theatre performed by troupes of 15-20 members, the Panchali was performed by a principal singer, with bells on his ankles and a fly whisk (chamor) and a mandira (small cymbals) in his hands. Such Panchali performances have been on the wane, having been increasingly replaced by the folk drama genre. The chief narrator in the Manosha Mangal based folk drama too holds a chamor. 

Most of these forms focused on the principal legend of Chand Sadagar and Behula. Today, both as a ritual and as a secular performance practice, the trend continues in rural West Bengal, though the secular forms have been impacted by urban culture. The Manosha Mangal version primarily followed in North Bengal is that of the 18th century poet, Jagajjibon Ghoshal. 

Manosha has primarily been worshipped during the monsoon months, especially Asharh to Bhadro (mid-June to mid-September) when snake bites are common. For most of the remaining months, Manosha/Bishohori is worshipped either when a personal vow (manot) is fulfilled or for her powers over human fertility. Thus, particularly in North Bengal and Assam, she is invoked at auspicious social events like weddings, the rice eating ceremony of a child (annaprasan) and sacred thread ceremonies even. For those who can afford it, Manosha based folk theatre is also organized at the venue.   

The first night before the actual worship, devotees gather around her altar singing starts Jagaron or Jagaani gaan (as it is referred to in North Bengal), to arouse the mercy of the goddess.   

Boat races too were traditionally held as part of the festivities accompanying Manosha worship, especially in riverine regions that are now in Bangladesh today. All through the month, men would throng the riverside, to participate in boat races or keep vigil all night at her shrine, reciting Manosha songs.  Those on the boats, loudly recited in chorus, songs of the devotion of Behula to her husband, as they pulled harder at their oars.  Their long narrow boats sometimes had as many as 100 oarsmen in each and they would practically fly down the river. Festivities in this form were also known as Bhashan Jatra.

In some regions, like Nadia, the immersion of the goddess at the end of the festival, a raft or bhela crafted from banana stem, laden with spices, bananas, a lit lamp and a penant  is set afloat as part of the immersion ceremony. As the procession weaves its way to the ghat, the villagers sing Bhashan songs, relating to Behula’s journey down the river.  In North Bengal, where the Manjush/Maandush is worshipped, it is this that is set afloat on a bhela, but no songs are sung. If the goddess is made from clay as in Marai puja, then the idol too is immersed, but not on a bhela. 

Bishohori puja on the eve of a wedding is mandatory in North Bengal. This is usually Marai Puja, with Bishohori worshipped as a clay idol (as daughter of Shiva) and therefore limited to those who can afford it. With it, if possible, the Bishohora pala too takes place, for as many days as afforded by the family. The wedding takes place on the day after the immersion.  

In North Bengal, the Manosha Mangal (in its entirety or edited) is played out through narration, enactment, song and dance in a Bishohora performance. The narrator and principal singer is the Gidal or Mool, who carries a chamor and wears a special turban with the emblem of a snake on his head. In some regions, he wears a long flowing robe with a colourful jacket. In earlier times, especially in remote villages in North Bengal, the Mool would wear a simple dhoti and panjabi (kurta) with an uttoriyo (stole) over his shoulder. 

He is assisted by the Doari (Dohari), who usually interacts with the audience in the local dialect. The  instrumentalists  are the baiin while supporting artistes or Payil /Pali alternate as chorus and actors, The dancers or Chokras  are usually young men or boys dressed up as women. Bishohora performers have been traditionally men, though in recent times, women too participate (as Chhokris).

Almost all performances take place at night from about 10 pm till day break. Traditionally, the text would be divided into seven parts and the performance would span anything from seven nights to fifteen. However, this depends upon the sponsor. Whereas the performance pattern in North Bengal continues to be more or less traditional, perhaps having being truncated to three days at worst, in the southern districts, changing demands often result in a vastly edited version that lasts no more than several hours. And very often, the secular performances in the southern districts are presented as full fledged modern day jatra with all its trappings.  

The ritual performance space is usually the outer courtyard of a farmer’s home with minimal trappings. An awning is stretched across bamboo posts, with illumination from paraffin lights or electric bulbs. Each night’s performance is prefixed by an invocation and suffixed by a benedictory song. 

As with all pala gaan performances, the entire Bishohara pala comprises primarily musical verse, interspersed with acting and dance. There are two distinctive parts: the invocation and the main body of the performance. The main performance adheres to the format typical of all rural folk theatre of North Bengal- songs in the Lachari, Poyar and Dhua  mode interpolated with dialogue and dance. The lachari and poyar are specific metres, while the dhua is a song with a refrain. Sometimes, punctuating the performance and unrelated to the main theme are Khosha and Khuta songs.

The presentation begins with a ceremonial invocation or Ashor Bandona (vandana), extraneous to the main text, where the performers pay their respects to the deities, and above all, to the members of the audience. The Bishohori pala now begins using narration and song to illustrate the story of the Manosha Mangal. The narration follows a poetic metre that has a loose rhythmic pattern and moments of dramatic importance are usually highlighted by song and dance.  Unlike the jatra format, the Mool, narrating from the text, plays the various roles.

Specific to the musical instruments that accompany the performance in the North Bengal Bishohora folk theatre genre, is the Mokha Banshi flute, along with the mandatory khol and mandira. With modernity, some troupes have also incorporated the synthesizer into their fold. The dancers and instrumentalists move in a circular manner within the performance space while singing or dancing and sit down only when the narration or the enactment resumes.

Whereas the traditional presentation with song, narration and dance was simple, the Bishohara in recent times has started borrowing from the jatra style more prominent in the southern districts. For instance, performances often take place on stage with a sound system and ample lighting; there is a specific actor for each role and there is a lot of colour and drama.  

Most of the performers are seasonal farmers. Those who do not earn sufficiently from their programmes, particularly those hailing from North Bengal, have a difficult time juggling their farming activities with their performances. The income from their art is meager and they cannot sustain themselves on it. It is only their love for their traditions that have enabled them to adhere to their art. Their contention is that the artists in the southern districts are able to depend on their earnings and do not necessarily have to continue with agriculture. 

The state government awards Artist Cards to artists of merit. This in turn enables an artist or group to be selected for government sponsored events. While this may further the tradition as a performance practice, albeit delinked with the actual ritual, the rural artist in remote villages of North Bengal, with little access to government schemes, plods on.