Did you know that the famous Tamil festival of Vel Vel is also observed in West Bengal? IBNS-TWF lensman Avishek Mitra captures the frenzy this April
Cries of ‘vel’ ‘vel’ rent the air as crowds cheer the devout participants, many with their face and body pierced with sharp objects, performing various rituals. Many of the participants, dressed gaily, have a long spear or a trident piercing their mouth as they walk down the streets or over beds of smouldering ashes, often carrying a pot of burning fire in their hands.
Some have fish hooks loaded with weights hanging from their backs. Despite a large crowd attending the festival, it is not a sight for the faint hearted.
And even more surprising is that this typical Tamil festival, usually seen in the southern part of India and largely in Sri Lanka, is being observed with gusto for more than a century in a town in West Bengal. This April was no exception.
The Vel Vel festival is dedicated to Lord Murugan or Kartikeya, the god of war and the destroyer of all evils. He is often seen with a long spear in hand, which is known as the ‘vel’.
About 50 km by road from Kolkata, Bandel, a popular weekend destination, especially in winter, is better known for its Portuguese legacy. But if you are here in early April, you will witness this typical Tamil festival being observed with much fanfare at the Olaichandi Tala. (Olaichandi is a female goddess believed to be a protector from the disease cholera).
It is observed by the resident Tamil community almost at the same time when Bengal celebrates its Charak/Gajan festival. Although Vel Vel is dedicated to Murugan (Kartikeya) and Charak/Gajan is dedicated to Shiva, the rituals are quite similar for both festivals.
Known as the god of war, the destroyer of evils, Murugan carries a long spear in his hand which is known as the ‘vel’.
According to a popular legend, the spear was given to Murugan by his mother Parvati to destroy the demon Surpadaman. It is said that in the ancient days, victorious Tamil soldiers would cry ‘Vetri Vel’, ‘Veera Vel’ (Victorious Spear, Courageous Spear). Later this got shortened to Vel Vel, which is how the name of the festival originated.
In Bandel, the festival usually begins with a bath at the local pond by the participants. After the bath, many of them go into a trance. They are then taken to the venue near the Olaichandi temple, where their foreheads, mouth, tongue, and backs are pierced. As the participants complete the rituals, people surge around them for their blessings. It is said that the participants, by their austere measures, appease the god so that the whole society can live in peace and good health.