The wedding season is here. A time of merrymaking and mirth. Numerous ceremonies and festivities at the bride’s house before the wedding. The fun of the ceremony itself and then the fleeting, plaintive notes of bidaai. And the bride’s welcome into her new life… baraan…
But did you know that in Bengal we have another custom? This is the custom of Kaalratri or the Black Night or Inauspicious Night. This is the night on which the newlyweds have to stay separated from each other and in stricter times not even meet one another. Why? Why is the very night a bride steps into her new house so inauspicious for the couple?
She wanted to be a goddess
To understand this we must look back into an old Bengali legend. Manasa, the daughter of Shiva, was the Goddess of Snakes. She yearned to be welcomed into the pantheon of Gods and be worshipped by everyone. But she was shunned.
She asked Chand Saudagar, a rich merchant and one of her father’s ardent followers, to worship her as a deity. But the arrogant Chand Saudagar refused. He did not even consider her to be a goddess.
The furious Manasha, cursed him… and all his ships were lost at sea, his six sons struck dead and his wealth vanished…but still the stubborn merchant refused to repent.
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The curse come true
Finally the wedding day of his youngest son, the much beloved Lakhinder dawned. The spurned Goddess angrily cursed the new couple saying that the groom would die of snakebite the first night the young couple spent after coming home from the bride’s place.
Chand Saudagar had the divine architect, Vishwakarma, construct a palace for the couple, which was hermitically sealed, without a crack or cranny left through which a serpent with a mind set on murder, could enter. But Manasa was more cunning than all of them. She terrified Viswakarma, who left a tiny, tiny hole through which the tiniest of snakes could enter…
The young couple were left in their palace for their first night together. Her mother-in-law had warned the bride, Behula, of the Snake Goddess’s curse. Behula decided to stay awake the whole night guarding her husband. The first snake, Kaalnagini, stealthily tried to enter but the young bride offered her a bowl of milk with all humility. Charmed, the snake left without harming Lakhinder.
Then vengeful Manasa sent Sleep herself to sit on Behula’s eyelids. The young bride fell asleep and Kaalnag entered through the crack and bit Lakhinder. The groom was dead.
The bride wouldn’t give up
In the morning there was wailing all around, but Behula remained stoic. In those days, those who died of snakebite were not cremated but set afloat on a raft. Behula declared that she would accompany her husband’s corpse all the way to the other world, placate the Goddess and bring her husband back to life.
After many hardships Behula managed to meet Manasa. The Goddess’s stepmother, Parvati, moved by the young widow’s plight, commanded Manasa to restore her husband to life. The Snake Goddess agreed but on the condition that Chand Saudagar worshipped her and propagated her worship on earth.
Seeing Behula returning with her husband, six brothers-in-law and all his lost wealth – Chand Saudagar relented and agreed to worship the Snake Goddess… but with his left hand only.
The Snake Goddess was content with that.
And Behula and her family lived in peace.
But from then on the practice of Kaalratri has been observed… newly wed couples stay separate on the first night …though Behula won the day and a pre-Aryan goddess was admitted into the pantheon of Aryan gods…
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