The Bagal Kali temple is a small temple located in the humble, unassuming village of Kharusa. in West Midnapore. This area, in the remotely located Gram Panchayat of Bandipur is part of the Ghatal area which at one time was known as the kingdom of the Bagdis (Bagdi Rajya), and is now known as Garhbeta. This is also the area where the famous Chuar Bidrohos (Chuar Rebellions) against the British imperialists had taken place in the eighteenth century, and the Great Naik Revolt of Bagri in 1806-1816.
Scholars have pointed out that a number of villages and localities of this region have names that seem to indicate that this was where the Pandava brothers came after the Yatugriha episode in Vanaparba. The Mahabahrata speaks about the brothers leaving on a boat, crossing a river and entering a dense forest, lied in avillage called Ekchakra for a time. Dwellers around this area were terrified of a rakshasa called Bakasura, whom Bhima kills and rescues the people. (Bheema Puja is, in fact, popular here). The popular legend here is that the name Bagree is derived from Bak-dihi, or the place of Baka [“Between 1021 and 1023, A.D., Rajendra Chola Deva made a raid into the south of Radha, which was then under a king named Ranasura ….” (Chatterjee, 3) Would this lend credence to an earlier king or Dalaati being called Bakasura?]. Gouripada Chatterjee cites a hostorical novel Salful by Prabdh Chandra Sarkar written in 1897, which says, “Bagree comes from Baka-dihi, or place of Baka.” (Chatterjee 11). The legend claims that the remains of the rakshasa may still be found in the region ( a hard substance which has been found to be fossilized wood ) which is now in the Gangani Mauja of the Garhbeta P.S. The neighbouring village Ekaria on the Silabati river is said to have been the Ekchakra village where the Pandavas stayed. Yet another village Bhikhnagar is said t be the place where the Pandavas went to beg, Bhiksha, Gouripada Chatterjee surmises that this area, which had been home to many non-Aryan tribes like the Sabar, the Santal. The Majhi, the Lodha, the Bagdi, the Layek, may have had a powerful leader called Baka. Perhaps a ritual of human sacrifice before starting out on a hunt earned him the distinctive legend of being a man-eater. The other folklore collected from the Kanak Durga Temple (see Jharkhand folklore) also suggests the possibility of ritualistic human sacrifice. The mention of other places of the area such as Suhma and Tamralipta lend strength to this story. [For a detailed analyses of the Garhbeta region being identifiable as the Bagree Rajya, and not the Sundarban region, see G Chatterjee, History of Bagree Rajya (Garhbeta).]
The Bagals are generally associated with cattle herding. But in this region of Garhbeta, it is possible that many of them were also employed by the Rajas and zamindars as soldiers and sentries. Being a frontier region and facing continuous raids and invasions, the Rarh area was constantly facing changes in its political scenario. Part of the aligns region then part of the Pandava empire, part of the Utkal empire, part of the Mughal empire. The local kings cultivated an amicable relationship with the non-Aryan tribes of the area known today as the Jangal Mahal in order to keep invaders at bay. Sobha Singha is still seen as a hero in the locality.
Jainism had been prevalent in the region once as archeological finds reveal, especially the statue of a Jain Tirthankara Adinatha (c 10th century collected from Malta, Bagree-dihi). Vaishnavism, as elsewhere in Bengal, has also had its impact here. This is evident in the many pictures of Krishna and Chaitanya in the village and also in the hall built for the devotees. Worship of the Lord Jagannath enjoyed great popularity here, and it was with the Mughal invasion that a large part of the native population of this area moved towards the region known today as Orissa.
The lore tells of a group of shepherd boys or bagals who were out on the fields grazing their goats. Across the river nearby (possibly the Damodar) they could see the glimmering lights of the Kali Puja and hear the distant beat of the drums. Gazing out wistfully at the distant twinkling lights, the boys decided to hold their own Kali Puja. Kali, being a Shakta goddess, usually requires a sacrifice as part of her worship. One of the boys was designated as the make-believe sacrificial goat and another as the head priest who would strike the blow. The make-believe sacrifice, however, miraculously turned real and the boy’s head fell from his shoulders at the touch of the palm leaf that the boys were pretending was the knife. Panicking, the boys called on the goddess Kali to save them. The lore says that the goddess appeared and brought the ‘dead’ boy back to life. The grateful boys promised to worship the Godess Kali in their village. And since then, the village holds their very own Kali Puja,the Bagal Puja.
So far so good. But the Bagal Kali puja is held on the first full moon night of the month of Baisakh, the month that heralds spring. This is strange to say the least. Since the Kali puja is always held on a moonless night, and towards winter. Yet the folklore says the bagal boys saw the glimmering lights of a puja across the river. So I looked up the map, and found that the towns of Ghatal and Konnagar lay in one straight line across a distance of about 50 km. The Shakuntala Kali Puja of Konnagar is celebrated in spring [I grew up in Konnagar and studied in Chandernagar, so this bit of information was sheer luck.]. This now famous and popular Puja was begun by the zamindars of the Chakrabarty Bari of Konnagar. On a clear full moon night, it appeared likely that the bagal boys, staring out across the river (Damodar? Or Silabati? The Silabati and the Dwarakeshwar rivers come together as Rupnarayan a little south of Ghatal to merge with the Damodar) would have been able to see the lights and hear the drums of the Shakuntala Kali Puja celebrated on the night of Buddha Purnima.
The worship is in a temple that is a simple and unpretentious, at the centre of the village. This is quite clearly an economically lesser privileged community of worshippers. Made of brick and white washed with a grilled gate, the temple is unassuming and houses one idol. There is a courtyard in front for the gathering of the devotees and a largish hall connected to the temple building.
The presence of the deity, however, is strong in the minds of the people, a fact that is visible in the numerous references to Ma Bagal Kali in the names of shops, training centres, repair units, etcetera .
The worship was begun on simple lines, with the low caste Bagals (the area is inhabited by Layeks, Bagdees, Lohars, Majhis, Lodhas, Koras) performing the worship in a small thatched hut. There was one goat sacrificed, the cost of which would be divided among the nine Bagal worshippers who had begun the puja. Gradually, the worship began to attract devotees from nearby villages and about three decades earlier, the thatched hut was replaced with one brick building. Now there are about a hundred goats that are sacrificed. In 2013 the old temple was broken down to build another larger temple, which is the one in which the worship is held now. Funds for the temple were raised by the villagers.
The worship is conducted on the Buddha Purnima day, a drastic difference from the usual custom followed in Bengal where the Goddess Kali is worshipped on a night of no moon, Amabasya. This makes the Bagal Kali puja unique in the vicinity. The dynamics of power that is related to religion and its practice is visible in the lopsided demographics of the village. The larger section of the villagers belong to the castes and tribes that are placed low down on the varna hierarchical order. There a few, very few, houses of Brahmins. With the surge of interest in this puja in the locality, the Bagals invited Brahmins priests over from distant areas to conduct the puja in accordance with the Brahminical tradition. These priests are now residents of the village where they are paid a monthly salary for their services at the temple. The Brahmins conduct the Kali Puja in accordance with the traditional rituals and has brought some social mobility to the people here. This may explain the feeling by neighbouring villagers who claim that the Bagals are now more conscious of their dignity than they had been earlier. It is possible that the history of the Bagree region, where the caste system lacked the rigidity it does in the more Aryan regions of North India. Not only was the caste system weak here, but the support and services of the non-Aryan, now ‘low’ caste tribesmen, was essential to the rulers to maintain their dominance against raiders. The Bagree Rajya successfully maintained its independence when much of the area came under the rule of Utkala Rajya and when the Hossain Shahi rulers ruled in Bengal. Around the 14th century, Raja Ganapati Singha from Utkal appears to have been the first to rule here after defeating the tribal population of the region. He erected the Sarbamanagala temple to house an already-existing Devi, which may have been a Bana Devi or a Mother-Goddess of the tribal people. This may perhaps explain the desire of the Bagals to perform Kali Puja, despite the strong Vaishnava influence. The famous Sarbamangala Temple built by Ganapati Singha is in accordance with Utkala architecture. [Stories trace the beginning of this temple to a yogi who came here during Vikranaditya’s reign and the Beta of Garhbeta to Vikramaditya’s Betal.]
Gouripada Chatterjee. History of the Bagree Rajya (Gahbeta). New Delhi: Mittal Publications. 1987.