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Friday 17 January 2014

The Poush Mela in West Bengal

At any given point somewhere in India there is a Mela going on; as I discovered on my recent travels. It's no exaggeration that there was a community celebration going on every single day of my trip from energy companies sponsoring live concerts to religious devotional marquees erected in town centres to kite flying and illustration festivals in parks. In West Bengal, the biggest event of the year is the Durga Puju where the state celebrates a five day holiday. The second biggest celebration (although Christmas in Kolkata is a close tie) is the Poush Mela, held in the region's cultural centre Shantiniketan (which is a three hour train ride away from Kolkata.) It too takes place over Christmas (24th-26th December) and sees thousands of families turn up in their finery to enjoy the following:
Essentials like gifts, clothes and toys can to be picked up at bargain prices, including posters of your favourite celebs.
Poush Mela is known for attracting Bauls; wondering, travelling musicians who entertain visitors with their impromptu folk songs. Once one begins to sing, crowds gather round and it turns into a frenzy of live performances, where you can slip between sets or join in with by showing your appreciation in the form of hand claps. There are also various stages and marquees set up where you can take a seat and get hypnotised by poets and speakers.
Performers are everywhere, as are costume clad folk ready to pose for snaps and take your cash (kids especially), but this particular man was happy just scowling at my camera.
Dining, naturally, is big business with catering set up inside tents serving everything from curried crabs to deep fried sweet corn. But if you're more into snacks, street treats are aplenty. My fave, the stall endorsed by Bolly star Sunny Deol.
It's possible to observe and shop for all manner of handicrafts, but not just during the Mela. Shantiniketan is home to hundreds of cottage industries from basketry to illustration - but more on those to come in future blog posts. 
You can't have a Mela without a few games. Here's one I didn't see anyone win, which sounds ludicrous as it looks easy but actually was ridiculously difficult. The aim was to  throw a small metal hoop so that it landed directly over a packet of biscuits that you get to keep. Sadly I did not take a packet home with me.
By day the traditional fairground looked rather quaint...
... yet by night it had come alive with lights as magnificent as the Blackpool illuminations
The Mela itself was HUGE taking over hectares of land almost becoming its own mini town for three days and nights. Family friendly, cow friendly and filled with colour, it was a great place to spend a day, but it's repetitive nature meant you wouldn't want to spend all three days here, especially when the surrounding area is so interesting. Best to combine it with a trip to visiting the local sights which include a prestigious university campus set up by the legendary Bengali poet Tagore.  
The one thing I'll never forget about Poush Mela was the aisle of bargain stalls where everything cost 10 rupees; the equivalent of 10p. The quality of the products was what you'd find in your local Pound shop but the amusing part was the loudness of the stalls with audio blaring out like a London cockney market stall exclaiming 'dosh taka, dosh taka, dosh taka', and with accompanying voiceovers of a couple discussing the benefits of the rock bottom prices. It was constant, loud and hypnotising and reminded me of the annoying nature of slot machines. Inside each stall sat a shopkeeper, whose ears I can only hope, were filled with plugs. 
Wondering around the Mela was of course thirsty work and thankfully there was fresh sugar cane juice being squeezed all over the site.
Despite its size and brief mention in guidebooks I didn't see a single Western tourist at the Mela, but I did get to experience a real sense of community spirit and happiness. There were all ages at the festival from elderly folk through to kids and all of them were mesmerised by the love and laughter in the air.

The Poush Mela takes places every December in West Bengal, India

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