The Indian state of West Bengal is land of stupendous dimensions – colorful, traditional, modern… Bengal meets the expectations of every type of tourist. With her varied topography, picturesque valleys, high mountain peaks, cascading rivers, haunting wilderness, she never ceases to surprise the tourists with her kaleidoscopic attractions. Nevertheless, in terms of tourism the state is still a backbencher as compared to other Indian states.
As a Travel Writer on the move, I have had my share of India’s spiritual tourism offerings, from the Kumbh Mela to Gangasagar and the icy contours of Amarnath Yatra to the Makaravilakku festival at Sabarimala.
So, when I received the invitation to attend the historic visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi on February 2nd, 2019 at Thakurnagar - which happens to be the spiritual hub of the Matua community of West Bengal - I packed my rucksack, hired a cab from downtown Kolkata and hit the Highway. Thakurnagar is approximately 67 km from Kolkata and the 1.5 hours drive through quaint Bengali countryside was absolutely breathtaking.
We were guests of the Thakurnagar Matua Mahasangha and the affable Santanu Thakur extended his warm hospitality to all the guests from the media who had assembled at Thakurnagar to witness the historic visit of Prime Minister Modi. Already, a sea of humanity had converged at the venue and the cops were at their wits’ end trying to control the masses.
According to Santanu Thakur who heads the All India Matua Mahasangha: “The Matua Mahasangha believes in the harmonious cultural synthesis between India and the rest of the world. This is an ongoing process and the Matua Mahasangha considers the present world tourism scenario as an opportunity to showcase the very best of India’s 5000-year-old spiritual heritage”.
It is a fact that with the advent of globalization and India’s relentless march towards attaining the tag of a ‘Developed Nation’, India has become one of the most preferred holiday destinations as per the latest reports from the National Geographic Traveler and a slew of other renowned global travel publications. With the opening up of the Tourism and Civil Aviation industries, there has been a threefold increase in tourist traffic and tourists from affluent countries like USA, UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, Switzerland, France etc. are increasingly opting for India as their preferred holiday destination. They are driven primarily by the element of ‘exoticism’ and India’s 5000-year-old spiritual heritage.
The Matua Mahasangha is a Vaishnavite religious movement that originated in Bangladesh. But, after the Partition of India in the year 1947, the devotees of Matua Mahasangha migrated to West Bengal and other parts of India.
The Matua people predominantly belong to the Namasudra community who regard Harichand Thakur as their spiritual head. Legend has it that, Harichand Thakur attained enlightenment at an early age and subsequently spread his gospel for the emancipation of the Matuas through his theory of Swayam Dikshiti, that offers solutions to the many social turbulences prevailing both within and outside the community.
Old World Charm
I met Bryan from far away Australia, whose spiritual hunger has made him travel to India on a regular basis for the past decade and I was moved by his account of his journey from Kolkata to the Thakurnagar: “If you leave Kolkata airport early one morning on a West-bound flight, you will be able to have supper that night at Rome. If instead, you take a car to Thakurnagar, you will easily arrive in time for lunch. In the first case, you will have traveled well over four thousand miles; in the second, about seventy. Yet in one sense the shorter journey can be said to be the longer, because it takes you backward in time”. That kind of sums up the aura surrounding Thakurnagar!
As I meandered my way along the dusty village alleyways in the company of a well informed guide provided to me by the Matua Mahasangha, I found the village hamlets to be predominantly built of mud and the roofs made of thatch. The rural hutments are more often than not barren with just a single cot and a bunch of sleeping mats. The kitchen floors are still rubbed with cow dung as it used to be century’s back.
The village roads, although narrow, meanders through in a zigzag manner with sewerage gutters on either side. Except for the areas surrounding the Thakurbari, the well or the village pond still serves as the primary source of drinking water and these rain-feed ponds or reservoirs also doubles up as places for bathing and washing clothes.
These villages even if taken together is not large enough to find mention on the tourist map of India or for that matter the tourist map of West Bengal. The characteristic feature of these villages is that usually they will be shielded by groves of banyan trees or even mango orchards.
A Living Culture
Thakurnagar has a strong local and regional flavor. Matua community rituals and reticences possess an underlying commonality. Viewed in its totality, the Matua culture is bewilderingly diverse. But these varied traditions have profoundly influenced each other. Sometimes they merge. Sometimes they mingle inseparably. And in what has come to us as the ‘Living Culture* of Thakurnagar Tourist Circuit, the rural vernacular traditions have interacted quite meaningfully with the classical traditions.
Even under the incessant pressure of modernity and economically speaking, the compulsions of employment, the culture of this circuit has lived on. It must be stressed here that much of the ‘Living Culture’ has survived outside of the academia and is in the form of art that is practiced by the people of Thakurnagar. However, serious attempts to understand and document Matua culture have so far been lacking.
Thakurbari Estate, sublime spiritual Reservoir
The estate is looked after by the descendants of Boro Ma. Matua Mahasangha has millions of devotees and hugely revered by the poor and the downtrodden (Namasudras). As we were about to leave the estate and pay our obeisance to Boro Ma at her ‘Darshan Sthal’, a group of devotees from far away Bolpur descended. They would stay overnight and leave early next morning. Sensing an opportunity, our guide Binoy thought that this was one great occasion for us to be acquainted with the nomadic Bauls of Bengal, who are wandering musicians and Bengal’s equivalent to the nomadic Rabari tribe of Gujarat. With due permission from Thakurbari Estate, all of us were granted permission for an overnight stay and what followed was a night of revelry, intoxicating Baul music and tremendous spiritual zest. These folk musicians, we were told, very often come in search of solitude and peace to Thakurnagar. They have a belief that spending a night or two at Thakurbari Estate and singing melodies in praise of her will bestow them with good ‘Karma’. The Baul people are a mysterious lot. They are illiterate and have blind faith in religion. Above all, they are 100% nature - friendly.
Simplicity is the Way of Life
Brendon Julian, an ardent devotee of Sri Ramakrishna from far away Las Vegas who was at Thakurnagar to observe last year’s Matua Mahasangha Milan nicely sums up the mood of the festival thus; “I was awake all night and discovered from the window of my dormitory, rural people coming in busloads and some even took the ‘Bhootbhooti’ – a sort of mechanized auto-rickshaw, just to be at the venue and partake in the regalia. From the affluence of Las Vegas, where every second house has a millionaire, courtesy the booming casinos, to the simplicity and minimalism of Thakurnagar has been a journey of discovery, a journey that has taught me to be contended with the simple joys of life”.
Renaissance through tourism
A revolutionary change is sweeping the world of tourism. A new breed of travellers who are better educated with more disposable income and living a high standard of life is compelling the tourism industry to constantly re-invent itself with more and more innovative tourism products. One such product is the ‘Sustainable Rural Tourism’. Imagine the following scenario.
You get up from your bed, step on the rubber slippers. Perhaps, the next thing you do is to sip a cup of hot coffee; watch television and prepare yourself for a fixed routine. Your day starts by standing in a long queue for a bus, which tears the crowded traffic moving under the smog umbrella. Till the sun sets under the polluted horizon, you call it a day.
The birds chirp around your thatched mud hut at the village of Thakurnagar in West Bengal and the tooling of the temple bells wakes you up. The cattle stray beside your mud hut with bells tied to their necks. You start your day with meditation and stretch your body with Yoga asanas, which is followed by specially cooked Vedic breakfast. You spend the entire day visiting verdant farmlands with farmers ploughing their fields with Ox and Water Buffaloes or visiting rural artisans organizing their artefacts. As the time passes on, you take a fishing rod to fish from a local pond. By the time it is evening, you watch the clear sky bidding goodbye to the day and you immerse yourself in contemplation of the divine at the temple of Sri Harichand Thakur.
This is the dream, which every urban tourist aspires for, but they limit themselves to work and their squalor. Apart from meeting the aesthetic needs of the new breed of tourists, the introduction of Sustainable Rural Tourism in Thakurnagar circuit will offer immense benefits to the rural populace as well.
At the End
To herald the dawn of organized tourism activity, the Matua Mahasangha has chosen the pilgrim circuit of Thakurnagar for extensive infrastructure development. To compliment the spiritual ethos of Harichand Thakur, the concept of Sustainable Rural Tourism has been preferred as it is the best medium to promote ethical values common to humanity along with folklore, tradition and culture.
In the inspiring words of Santanu Thakur - a direct descendant of the Thakur family - “It is only reasonable to imagine and expect that a truly world class Integrated Tourism Project be launched, through which Thakur’s legacy and teachings are preserved for generations of travelers who will come to the Thakurnagar pilgrim circuit in search of the Elixir which is elusive in today’s jet set modern era”.