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Folk Beliefs and Practices


Folk Beliefs and Practices Confronted with imagined external hostile forces, early human beings devised magical formula to propitiate those forces and thus save themselves from their evil eyes. Most religions were against magic but yet it survived to haunt superstitious people.

Early human beings attributed divine powers to the heavenly bodies as well as to animals, trees, rivers and mountains. These beliefs persist among animistic communities as well as among Hindus. Tulsi, bel, and pakud trees are worshipped in the belief that they are inhabited by different supernatural forces or deities.

The belief in the immortality of the soul comes from ancient times. While the idea of the immortal soul gave rise to the idea of an afterlife-and thus to ways in which salvation may be sought in the life after death-in many cultures this idea led to the belief in reincarnation or transmigration. If the soul is immortal, it must be capable of being reborn. bauls believe that the soul has to be reborn eight million, forty thousand times to achieve purity.

The idea of the immortality of the soul also gave rise to the belief in ghosts. It is popularly believed that those who die unnatural deaths or who die unhappy as well as those who have not achieved salvation after death turn into malignant spirits and harm human beings in many ways. Thus different spirits such as Shankchunni, Chorachunni, Penchapechi, Nishi, and Mamdo Bhut are believed to cause different diseases. Belief in these spirits is deep-rooted in rural Bengal, with people believing that the spirits have to be placated with bhog (food offerings) and bali (animal sacrifice).

In addition to evil spirits who have to be placated or avoided, folk belief creates semi-divine beings who serve as wish-fulfilling deities or protectors. Among Bengali Muslims, Sufi pirs had tremendous influence on their followers who believed that their pirs could save them from the evil eyes of spirits. Thus Gazi Pir, or the victorious pir, is believed to be the protector of all those who get their livelihood from the forest, the abode of the tiger. Dakshin Roy is also believed to be the lord of the sundarbans as well as the tiger-god. Bana Durga and her Islamised version, Banabibi also occupy a similar place in folk imagination.

Bera Bhasan is a folk custom that is performed by people who dwell on riverbanks to ward off the danger of flooding. On the last Thursday of Bhadra, a bhela or raft is ceremoniously set afloat every year.

While many folk beliefs are common to men and women, many practices are specifically related to women. A Hindu woman, for example, is supposed to perform some rites to ensure her husband's welfare. She must fast on certain days of the month. She must also wear three types of bangles: of pola, conch shell and iron.

According to folk belief, all cannot practice in performing some religious rituals. Childless wives and widows are believed to be inauspicious in both Hindu and Muslim communities. Widows and sterile women do not participate in wedding rituals, especially those associated with the gaye halud, in the belief that their presence will cast an evil shadow on the new couple, causing one of them to die prematurely or causing the union to be fruitless. On the other hand married women, whose husbands are living, are integral to the wedding ceremony. For example, seven sadhaba, married women, give the bride-to-be her ritual bath in the belief that the newly wed couple will be blessed like them.

Many folk beliefs go across communities. Certain taboos are applicable to menstruating women. In both hinduism and islam woman are supposed to be impure during their periods. It is also believed that the touch of menstruating women spoils pickles or achar and hence they should refrain from making these during their time of the month.

A woman's childlessness is believed to be curable through prayers and visits to holy men and shrines. Thus, childless Hindu women visit the temple of shiva in the belief that this will cure them of their childlessness. Similarly, the shrines of Muslim saints are visited by Muslims in the belief that the dead saint has power to grant boons.

Though many folk beliefs are frowned upon by orthodox Islam, the verses of the quran are also given magical properties. Many devoutly religious Muslims will hang verses of the Quran on doorways or inside rooms in the belief that these will help to keep in mates sage from harm. Verses of the Quran are recited to ward off danger, evil spirits, thieves etc. They are also written on fine paper, or composed in the numerical style known as abjad, and rolled up and worn inside ta'abiz or talismans. Verses from the Quran are written on a plate with 'ink' made from saffron dissolved in water. The plate is then washed and the liquid given to patients in the belief that this will cure them. Special prayers during which certain verses from the Quran are recited are held for people who are gravely ill in the belief that this will cure them or ease their sufferings.

The belief in the evil eye is very strong in Bengal. Babies and children are believed to be particularly vulnerable to evil gaze. In order to prevent harm coming to the child, a large black spot is drawn with kajal (lampblack) on the child's forehead. A black strings round the child's waist is also believed to be effective against the evil eye.

Though many folk beliefs are gradually losing their hold on the minds of the educated populace, they continue to dominate the lives of the majority of the rural and illiterate population. [Momen Chowdhury]