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When a festival unites faiths

In Manikagada, the Muslim Dalabehera occupies the prime place during Dussehra. Going by tradition, the festival continues for four days beginning from Saptami. It is customary here to observe the ‘Sohala Puja’ before Dussehra.

Rashmi Rekha Das
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When a festival unites faithsPhotoPhoto: OTV

File photo of Ajijur's family organising Durga Puja

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Durga Puja in Manikagada village is an epitome of communal harmony.  For over 300 years, this nondescript village in Bolagarh, Khordha district has witnessed the participation of people from both Hindu and Muslim communities in the four-day celebration of Dussehra.

There is much bonhomie between the two communities on those days. The Muslim community not only takes part in the puja, but they take care of some of the important rituals during the festival. In fact, a Muslim family bears all the expenses of the Puja, and the head of the family Sheikh Ajijur Rahheman plays the role of ‘karta’ of a ‘havan’ performed on Dashami, the tenth day of Navaratri. 

Ajijur , who has been accorded the status of a ‘Dalabehera’ (team leader), wears the ring made from ‘doob' grass by a Hindu priest.  On his left sits a member of a Kayastha family with a palm leaf manuscript and on his right sits a Hindu holding a sword given by the then Ranpur King to the Dalabehera. The participation of the Dalbeheras in the ‘havan’ or Aparajita puja dates back to the 18th century when the king of Ranpur handed over his kingdom to a Muslim. 
OTV visited the village to learn more about this deep-rooted harmony.

How it all started

Legend has it that around 300 years ago, Birabar Dev fell out with Puri Gajapati, his elder brother. As Birabar did not get any help from the king, he used to sell garlands outside the Puri Jagannath temple to eke out a living. He once gifted two garlands to the queen. When the Gajapati came to know about it, he thought his brother was hatching some conspiracy against him with the help of the queen. So he ordered ‘Ghatak’ (an executioner) to kill his younger brother. But the Ghatak advised Birabar to leave Puri as soon as possible. Birabar then fled to Ranpur and took shelter there. The Ranpur king asked Birabar to look after Manibandha, one part of his kingdom. Birabar later added Bolgarh, Khanguria and Bankoi to his kingdom. He appointed Sheikh Manuar, a man from the Muslim community, as his lieutenant. 
Once when Birabar was returning from a hunting expedition to the Kushapalla forest, he felt thirsty. He met Manika, a beautiful girl from the Adivasi Kandha community, who was carrying a pitcher of water. The girl quenched the thirst of the king who decided to marry her and proposed to her on the spot. She took the king to her home where her father Sukla Jani solemnized their marriage.

Manika and her parents started residing with the king.  Following their marriage, Birabar became a great devotee of Goddess ‘Bhuyan,’ the deity of the Adivasi Kandhas and decided to build a temple for the deity. But the wall of the temple could never be erected. It collapsed each time it was built. The deity told Manika in her dream to make a human sacrifice to erect the wall. Manika sacrificed her life. Since then the Goddess has been known as ‘Manika Bhuyan.’ Subsequently, a fort was built there and it was known as Manika Gada, and later as Manikagada. 

One day, the Dasapalla king went to the Puri temple with his siblings. During his stay in Puri, they paid a courtesy visit to Puri Gajapati who welcomed them wholeheartedly. Seeing Gajapatia a little upset, the Dasapala king wanted to know the reason. Puri Gajapati told the Dasapala king how he regretted plotting against his younger brother. The Dasapala king told Puri Gajapati that his brother had not been harmed. Thereafter, an elated Puri Gajapati visited his younger brother who was leading a lonely life following his wife’s death. 

Puri Gajapati took his brother to Puri so that the latter could get rid of the queen’s memories. While leaving Manikagada, Birabar handed over his kingdom to his lieutenant Sheikh Manuar. The king, however, advised the lieutenant to perform Dussehra every year with pomp and gaiety. Since then, his lieutenant Sheikh Manuar and his descendants have been organising the Dussehra in Manikagada.  As per records, the first Dalabehera had come from Hyderabad. After him, the genealogy runs through Sheikh Anwar, Sheikh GolamAlli, Sheikh Agazan, Sheikh Basiruddin to the present Dalabehera Sheikh Habibur Rehman.

Why the puja is unique here

In Manikagada, the Muslim Dalabehera occupies the prime place during Dussehra. Going by tradition, the festival continues for four days beginning from Saptami. It is customary here to observe the ‘Sohala Puja’ before Dussehra. This puja takes place in the Bhagabati Peeth situated to the east of the village. 

Kanak Durga worshipped in Dibyasinghpur is brought here as the Goddess for the Puja. On the Saptami Day, the ‘Chhatri’ of Manika Bhuyan is worshipped by the Kandhas, the Katari of Mahisasuri is worshipped by the Dumal Gaudas, the palm leaf and lekhani of Karan Panjikar and the sword given by the Gajapati to the Muslim Dalabehera are placed together as ‘Saja.’ The Khandayat paikas also cleanse their traditional weapons and place them in Akhadaghar for the puja. 

On Bijayadasami day, different techniques of the many martial arts are performed by the paikas. In the evening, everyone assembles in Manika Bhuyan’s place. The Jani (leader of the Kandha community) prays to the Goddess for the welfare of the entire mankind. The Jani is then ‘possessed’ by Goddess Manika Bhuyan and a sacrifice is made to appease the Goddess. Thereafter, Hindus and Muslims move with the ‘possessed’ Jani in a procession through the village accompanied by the drumbeaters and paikas. The Muslim Dalabehera dressed up in traditional Hindu costume welcomes the Goddess and performs certain rituals at his doorstep before offering prasad to the deity. The Dalabehera performs the role of a ‘karta’ in the ‘havan’ which is known as Aparajita puja to mark the end of the carnival.

What the organiser says...

Ajijur who plays a pivotal role in the puja rituals after the death of his father and grandfather, says, “The Durga Puja at Manikagada village is unique as a Muslim family organises it. I have been performing the role of a ‘karta’ in the ‘havan’ for the last two years. Besides, the prasad offered to the Goddess is prepared by my family. It is later served to the Hindus and other devotees.”

“My forefathers had kept the people of different faiths united. In our village, we give importance to all the festivals whether it is Dussehra or Eid. We take part in their festivals and vice versa. Though sometimes we have no money, we continue to organise the Puja. To our surprise, we are able to raise funds at the last moment. This is because of the Goddess’s blessing,” proud Ajijur maintains. 

He further says, “Durga Puja here is unique. On the day of Saptami, the idol of goddess Kanak Durga is brought here from Dibyasinghpur. The idol of the Kanak Durga remains blindfolded for the whole year. The blindfold is removed for four days starting from Saptami. On the Dashami day, her eyes are blindfolded again. I feel extremely proud of the rich tradition that my family has kept alive. In our village, we give equal importance to festivals of both communities. Religion is for a community while festivals are for all.”

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