Text by Hardika Dayalani | Photographs by Ritayan Mukherjee

West Bengal is one of the few places where Tantric traditions, dating back to the pre-Vedic era, still survive and flourish. At the heart of these traditions lies a deep reverence for ethereal gods like Shiva, fierce goddesses like Tara and Kali, and formless folk deities like Darmathakur.

Shaivite Tantrics, also called Bhaktas, Bhakti or Gajan Sanyasis, celebrate Shiva Gajan on Chaitra Sankranti — the last day of the Bengali calendar year — to commemorate the marriage of Shiva with Harkali.

The rituals in Shiva Gajan are similar to those observed during a Hindu funeral ceremony. A village in Bengal commemorates this union every year on Chaitra Sankranti. On day one, the men of the village paint their faces (and sometimes, their bodies too) blue and grey, and pay homage to Shiva.

The next morning, the Gajan Sanyasis run through villages making guttural sounds and brandishing exhumed skulls and dead bodies. Crowds of lay people gather to watch the procession and to curry favours from Shiva.


A Gajan Sanyasi gets his face painted before taking part in a ceremony of the annual Shiva Gajan festival.


A devotee checks his painted face in the reflection of a mirror.


Once their bodies are painted, devotees prepare to wear a saree as part of the ritual.


A young devotee painted his face to take part in the festival. Children are generally brought along by their fathers or uncles.


The sanyasis created an unusual form of dance known as the Gajan dance. It involves moving in a very eccentric way, as though spirits have possessed them.


An old lady erupts in joy while the procession passes by.


A woman seeks blessings from the Gajan Sannyasis at the Kurmun Village in Burdwan district.


At a fair, an artist is ready to perform the Kachchhi Ghodi dance to entertain children.


Meanwhile, villagers gather to pay homage to a person who is dressed as Shiva. Traditionally, these people are known as Bahurupi performers. The word 'Bahurupi' comes from bahu (of many) and rupi (forms). They travel from one village to the next and enact scenes from mythology.


In a temple, the Sanyasis pray to Shiva before they roll around the Kurmun Village of West Bengal.


The sanyasis start running with human skulls and carcasses in the Kurmun village, in West Bengal.