Putting the Rafts out to Sea: Talking of Bera Bhashan in Bengal

Rila Mukherjee

Abstract

Bera (raft) bhasan (sending out) is a ritual linking two societies and two landscapes: the maritime and the agrarian. After the monsoon, palm or plantain rafts are placed on the river to placate the gods. The bera bhasan that is practiced today is an amalgam of earlier practices of two communities-the Islamic and the Hindu. Arab merchants introduced this practice into Bengal when they prayed for safe passage at sea before venturing out. Similarly Hindu peasants would observe a variant of Bera Bhasan called sedo on the last day of pous or January, whereby they would placate the rain and river gods by setting out small rafts on water. On these flowers, sweets and lamps were placed to ensure a good harvest the following year. Therefore two worlds came together in this practice, the maritime and the rural, signifying two kinds of activity, mercantile and agrarian. In seventeenth-century Mughal Bengal it developed from a folk belief into a community practice. In eighteenth-century Nawabi Bengal it was co-opted by the state as pageantry and it is now a state-sponsored enterprise linking the Hindu and Muslim communities.

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