Shantiniketan, a small town in the Birbhum District of the state of West Bengal, is often hailed as the cultural epicentre of the state. And Poush Mela (Mela-fair), an annual fair held in Shantiniketan at the end of December, goes a long way in justifying that maxim. With more than 1500 stalls, the Poush Mela attracts scores of people not only from the different parts of India but also from across the globe. The rustic red soil and lush greens of Shantiniketan provide the perfect setting for this winter carnival that occupies pride of place in the heart of Bengali culture.
The Poush Mela is a tradition that is more than a century old and has only grown in stature since its inception in 1891. Maharshi Debendranath Tagore- the great Bengali philosopher and the proponent of Brahmoism, a monotheistic sect of Hinduism- adopted the Brahmo creed in 1843. And in 1891, the Poush Mela commenced to mark the foundation of the beautiful Brahmo Mandir which, over the years, has become more famous as the Kaanch Ghar (glasshouse) or the Upasana Griha (prayer hall). The first Poush Mela was held on the 7th day of Poush, the 9th month in the Bengali calendar, and that tradition has been kept alive ever since. This is why the dates of the Poush Mela may vary according to the common Gregorian calendar. Nevertheless, if you are keen on visiting the multihued celebration in Shantiniketan, keeping yourself free towards the end of December should suffice. Incidentally, the Poush Mela 2019 will be held from 24 December to 26 December.
The Poush Mela is a melting pot of all things that add to the cultural heritage of Bengal. The most notable and heartwarming of those is the soulful strains of the traditional Baul music (Bauls are the mystic minstrels of Bengal) coursing through the air of idyllic Shantiniketan. At the Poush Mela, a stage is built solely for the Baul artists who travel to Shantiniketan from far and wide and produce high-voltage performances on their ektaras (a one-stringed musical instrument). Here, you will also get to experience the renditions of several other styles of Indian folk music. It is one of the best ways to sneak a peek into the tribal culture of not just Bengal but also of India.
The Poush Mela is one of the biggest exhibitions of traditional handicrafts and artwork from across India! A very regular sight here is that of craftsmen doing patachitra and dokra work which are popular tribal art forms. The fair is a great opportunity for anyone to be privy to not just the sheer artistry of the fine artists but also to their unique way of life. If you want to pick up souvenirs from your trip to India, there are only a few places that can rival Shantiniketan in their ingenuity. At the fair, you must not miss out on the stalls selling the local Batik paintwork and the painstakingly handsewn and incredibly beautiful Kantha embroidery. Also, make sure you pay a visit to the artists showcasing the beautiful Madhubani paintwork which has its roots in the neighbouring state of Bihar.
We, Bengalis, take the matters of taste as seriously as we take the matters of the heart! And, as a self-respecting Bengali, I must implore you to taste the scrumptious fare at the Poush Mela. You will find strewn across the fair food stalls offering the absolute best of the Bengali cuisine. While there are stalls selling the regular Kathi rolls, Mughlai parathas, other staple Bengali foods, there are the others which churn out special and seasonal items. Among those, you must indulge in chanar payesh (a delicacy made from cottage cheese, milk and sugar), moa (balls of puffed rice mixed with date palm jaggery, and my personal favourite, patishapta (traditional Bengali pancake with a filling of shredded coconut cooked in jaggery).
The most convenient way of reaching Shantiniketan is via the Indian Railways. The nearest railway station from Shantiniketan is the Bolpur Shantiniketan station which is merely three kilometres away from the venue of the Poush Mela itself. If you fancy enjoying the incredible beauty of rural Bengal on your way, there’s no better alternative than a road trip. The distance between Shantiniketan and Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, is 163 kilometres. While no direct buses are plying between the two places, you can always hire a cab to traverse the distance.
How do you imagine a perfect winter day? For me, it is all about the chill in the air, the beats of folk music, the rhythms of tribal dance, the sights of spectacular artwork, the smell of seasonal sweetmeats, and hobnobbing with strangers some of whom become friends over the course of the day. In short, a day at the Poush Mela is as close as you can get to a perfect winter day. It treats people to a unique and authentic slice of Bengali culture and sets the stage for the amalgamation of varied cultures and traditions. Shantiniketan is one of the best places to visit in December, and there’s hardly another winter carnival that furnishes as much opportunity for cultural dissemination as the Poush Mela. It truly is a jewel in the illustrious crown of West Bengal.
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