Puran Habeli (Tripura), July 3 (IANS) Colourful marquees, illuminations, religious rites and the chanting of 'mantras' amid the beating of drums will turn Puran Habeli, the erstwhile capital of Tripura around 12 km east of present capital Agartala, into a divine dreamland during the centuries-old Kharchi festival that begins Saturday - a spectacle that will be witnessed by hundreds of thousands of devotees from India and abroad.
During the week-long festival, the idols of 14 Hindu deities - among them Shiva, Durga, Vishnu, Laxmi, Saraswati, Kartik, Ganesh, Brahma, Abadhi (god of water), Chandra, Ganga, Agni, Kamdev and Himadri (Himalaya) - that are kept locked in a room all through the year are brought out and worshipped.
"The ceremonial worship starts with the holy dip of the 14 deities in the Howrah river, followed by the sacrifice of 108 animals in the presence of hundreds of thousands of devotees - all at government expense," Tripura assembly deputy speaker and puja committee chairman Pabitra Kar told IANS.
For the past many decades, successive Tripura governments, including the current Communist dispensation, have been holding good on the promise to the state's erstwhile royal family by continuing to bear the entire expenditure of the 'puja' .
"Though the CPI-M (Communist Party of India-Marxist) does not believe in gods or pujas, the state government is abiding by the 1949 merger agreement to uphold the faith of the tribals year after year." writer and historian Panna Lal Roy told IANS.
On the first day of the Kharchi (the cleansing of sins) puja, the deities are brought out in a procession, guarded by Tripura Police and led by the chief royal priest or the "Raj Chantai" of Puran Habeli and followed by other priests bearing bamboo umbrellas on their heads making a distinct 'ehune' sound and thousands of devotees to the Howrah river for the ritual bathing.
Unlike in other parts of India, Tripura Police even accord a ceremonial guard of honour to the head priest.
Roy said that the Kharchi festival - the cleansing of sins - is the biggest of the Hindu tribals in northeast India. Tribals, the majority of whom are Christians or Hindus, constitute 27 percent of the northeast region's 45.58 million population.
Over the years, Kharchi has become an annual carnival of both tribals and non-tribals," Kar noted.
"On an average, 1-1.5 million people gather from all over the country and neighbouring Bangladesh to view the Kharchi puja and festival," Kar added.
According to "Rajmala", the official chronicle of Tripura's royal dynasty, "once Queen Hirabati, the mother of King Trilochan, went to take a bath in the river Maharani and noticed a wild buffalo chasing the 14 gods".
"Later, the gods, with the help of the queen's 'risha' (cloth used by the tribal women to cover their breast), killed the beast. Happy with Hirabati's help and cheerful over the act, the gods came to the palace and the royal family offered puja by sacrificing wild buffaloes for the welfare of the state," Rajmala said.
Gold idols of the 14 deities were stolen several hundred years ago, after which the then king ordered their re-creation with 'ashtadhatu', an alloy of eight metals.
At the end of 517 years of rule by 184 kings, Tripura came under the control of the Indian government on Oct 15, 1949, under a merger agreement signed with Kanchan Prabha Devi, the regent maharani.
The agreement made it obligatory for the Tripura government to continue the sponsorship of eight temples, pujas and festivals run earlier by Hindu princely rulers. And it continues to this day.
"Tripura is the only state in India where the state government is at the forefront of funding such a religious festival. The tradition has been going on since Tripura merged with the Indian union and has been on during Left rule in the state," said Roy, writer and historian of Tripura's royal era.
"For over 78 years and until 1838, Puran Habeli was the capital of the then undivided Tripura, which included large parts of Sylhet, Brahmanbaria and Comilla districts of then East Pakistan and now Bangladesh," he said.
It was king Krishna Manikya Bahadur who shifted the capital from southern Tripura's Udaipur to Puran Habeli in 1760. The temple of the 14 gods constructed at that time still stands.
"In 1838, the capital was shifted to Agartala from Puran Habeli by king Krishna Kishore Manikya Bahadur," Roy said, adding that the royal palace was recently turned into northeastern India's biggest museum.
(Sujit Chakraborty can be contacted at email@example.com)