When: 17th August
If you’re looking to do something offbeat and exploring the lesser known customs and traditions of India, head to the hinterland of West Bengal this August, and experience what it’s like to live with snakes and tribals. Drive 132km from Kolkata, to a small town called Bishnupur. Otherwise famous for its terracotta temples and baluchari sarees, it’s only in the month of August that focus shifts to something unique in this town.
As the monsoons cool the parched earth, the Rajbongshi tribals appear with their small round baskets, holding their precious friends. Bishnupur is a land of snakes in August and Jhapan is celebrated to honour the serpent deity, Manasa Devi. The folk goddess of snakes is said to be the daughter of Lord Shiva and is especially popular amongst people of North and East India. The prayers offered to the ill-tempered goddess are said to appease her so that she in turn can bless them for fertility and prosperity. According to legend Manasa Devi was said to be rejected by her father Shiva and mother, Chandi, making her a dreaded goddess, often being harsh to those who refused to worship her.
This is also a regional harvest festival for the largely agrarian community, though some believe the origin to be as far back as 17th century, when the king, Bir Hambir Malla, was greeted with joyous celebrations on his victorious return after the battle with the Huns. Ironically, the Mallas that ruled this region from 16th century built many temples of Lord Vishnu in the village.
Apart from the ceremonies, the snake charmers (called Jhampanias) get most of the attention. They demonstrate tricks and feats with poisonous snakes like cobras, vipers, pythons and more. In fact, Jhapan literally means a stage erected to exhibit tricks with snakes.
You will notice that there is a palpable absence of any image of the goddess. Devotees throng the roads around snake charmers to pay obeisance to the goddess. Some of them even pray to trees or an earthen pot. The festival is timed and takes place in the middle of the monsoon season because this is the time when snakes come out from their habitat inside the ground. The auspicious occasion is celebrated with much fanfare.
Getting there: The best way to get here from Kolkata is by train; a number of options like Rupashi Bangla Express, Purulia Express and Siromoni Fast Passenger depart from Howrah. These take 3.5 to 4 hours. Alternatively, you can take a state run bus, which takes slightly longer. You can also hire a cab from Kolkata for all the days that you plan to be in Bishnupur.
Stay: Do not expect elaborate setups in Bishnupur. There are a few reasonable hotels that you could book ahead of August for a couple of days during the Mela.
Monalisa Lodge: A basic but comfortable accommodation, this lies close to the centre of the town. Phone: 03244 252894
Hotel Laxmi Park: Slightly better, this hotel lies closer to the town and offers both AC and Non AC rooms. Phone: 03244- 256353, 256377
- Attach yourself to a Jhampania for a more intimate experience of the festival.
- Use the trip to saunter into the famous terracotta temples.
- Baluchari saris make for good souvenirs from Bishnupur.