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Here’s Why Some Hindus Spent Their Weekend Hanging From Hooks and Lying Down on Nails

People in West Bengal, Bangladesh and Northeast India are celebrating Charak, a Hindu festival that involves turning devotees into a human spinning wheel.

by Shamani Joshi
15 April 2019, 12:54pm

A Hindu devotee carries a child as he hangs from a rope with hooks pierced in his back, as part of a ritual during the Charak Puja festival in Dhaka, Bangladesh. Photo via Associated Press

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS GRAPHIC VISUALS

The final season of HBO’s Game of Thrones is finally here and, unless you’re a hater, it’s easy to get caught up in the wildly imaginative world of Westeros, where dragons can breathe ice, fire can resurrect you from the dead and Jon Snow can get a perfect ass without really knowing what squatting is. But none of the fictional characters come close to all the fantastical things you can find in reality. The Hindu festival of Charak, which was celebrated in full swing in some parts of India and Bangladesh yesterday, is one of them.

Charak or Charak Puja is a part of the Gajan folk festival celebrated every year in West Bengal, Bangladesh and parts of Northeast India, and is basically the equivalent of a New Year Eve party in accordance with the Bengali calender. Except, instead of being subjected to the tortuous intake of tequila shots, this ritual actually has devotees subjecting themselves to pain as a sacrifice to Lord Shiva. And if you thought the Mother of Dragons having to eat a horse’s heart to prove her devotion to Khal Drogo was painful to watch, this festival involves the devotees accomplishing every imaginable feat—from walking on burning coals to burying themselves in mud, from jumping on sharp objects like machetes to lying on a bed of nails—to show you they’re serious about appeasing their god.

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A devotee holds a machete while another lies down on a bed of nails in a public performance. Photo: Ankita Das

In fact, one of the main rituals requires them to embed iron hooks into their back and then hang themselves on a pole, around which they are made to swing like a human chakra (wheel)—the word that ‘Charak’ is derived from—to denote the movement of the sun.

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The sharp metal is pierced into the backs of performing saints in a bloodless process that has been developed with years of practice. Photo: Dibyojyoti Bose

Here’s a video, if you still don’t believe us.

Although its exact origin is unknown, a paper titled ‘A Barbarous Practice: Hook-Swinging in Colonial Bengal’ talks about how the Britishers tried to get it banned way back in 1860. Today, this tradition is taken very seriously and requires devotees to spend a month fasting. On the last day, they break their fast alongside inflicting pain on themselves in a bid to eliminate all their sins from the previous year. In fact, the sanyasis (saints) taking part in the ritual even believe that no harm will come to them if they have not sinned, something that can actually be attributed to the specific way the tongue and body are pierced. "It is believed that such acts are done by the priests to experience the pains of womanhood, including childbirth", says Ankita Das who lives in Assam. Das has been witnessing the festival happening in her backyard for many years, growing up listening to stories on the importance of this festival from her mother.

With a focus to follow strict penance in the hope of a good harvest season, devotees worship a tree and dress up as deities, so, you know, there's some fun stuff as well. However, cultural experts have spoken about how celebrations of this festival are restricted to rural areas and may have been a result of a tradition imposed on lower castes by the upper caste Brahmins, thereby questioning the true motive behind this practice.

Even after all the on-screen wedding violence that George RR Martin has gifted us, this tradition does leave us more shook.

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