Pola is a two-day traditional festival celebrated in Maharashtra, Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and parts of Telangana at the end of the Shravan month, which is usually in the last week of August or in the early part of September. It is a unique festival celebrated by farmers in honour of their bullocks or oxen which help them in ploughing their fields. This is the time of the year, when with the advent of the monsoon, farmers sow their crops. The first day of Pola is celebrated on Pithori Amavasya (new moon) day. Pitha is a Marathi word which means flour. As legend goes, on this day the dark sky looks as if wheat flour is scattered all over it.
In Hindu and Buddhist mythology and tradition, the bull is considered sacred. Sometimes it is worshipped as Shiva’s vahana, the Nandi bull. At other times, there are several references to Krishna, who is also called Gopal, and takes care of his herd of cattle. While the origin of the word Pola is not very clear, some say that Lord Krishna’s mama (maternal uncle), sent a demon Polasur to attack him. Little Krishna however killed the demon, and the word Pola is thought to be derived from the name of the demon. Several seals excavated in Harappa and Mohenjodaro feature oxen. Even the famous Ashoka pillar from Sarnath features a humped bull in its emblem. The festival of Pola celebrates and acknowledges the bond between humans and animals.
I asked my colleague Bharat, who comes from an agricultural background how Pola is celebrated. And this is a gist of what I learned from him. The oxen are not allowed to work on the two days of the festival and these are their days of rest. On the first day of Pola, called Bail Pola, the bullocks are welcomed home from the fields. They are given a bath in the nearby pond. And then decorated. Their horns and hoofs are painted. Their humps or shoulders are given a massage with ghee or oil and turmeric. Their bodies are painted attractively, and they are adorned with a jhool which is a decorative shawl which covers the hump. A string of mango leaves (toran) and decorations called baashing is tied between the two horns. A string of new bells or cowrie necklaces are tied around their neck. All the strings which pass through the animal’s nostrils are replaced with new ones. Pola special songs called Zhadtya are sung.
Following this, the women of the house perform an aarti and feed the bull with sweets like pooran poli. All the bulls from the villages together reach the main Maruti temple, where there are prayers for their health and well being. It is a belief that these prayers protect them from dying of snake bites or other illnesses. Cattle are a sign of prosperity and they are expensive possessions. Their well being is important for the farmers. Each farmer goes with his bull to visit their neighbours. At each house a small aarti is performed, pooran poli is offered and a small token amount of money is given as a gift.
In the evening, all the bullocks of the village gather at a designated ground, where a fair is held. The decorated animals are taken to the spot in a procession with lots of dancing and music. The whole village gathers there and the atmosphere is rather exciting. An important person of the village is invited to award the sturdiest animal of the whole village. The decisions are not always agreeable to everyone, but it is a tradition to give away prizes to the cattle.
On day 2, which is called Padwa, people celebrate Tanha Pola. It is believed that initially Pola was only a farmer’s festival where children had no role. However in 1806, Raje Raghujirao Bhosale involved children to teach them the importance of animals in our lives. Children decorate wooden replicas of bullocks often on wheeled stands, and take them around. They go to each neighbours place with their wooden bulls and are given treats.
Shravan is essentially a month where people abstain from eating meat. And Pola marks the end of Shravan. Day two of Pola is usually marked by celebrations where meat is eaten. Two days later the ten day long Ganesh festival will start when meat is again not allowed, so this is a day of merry making when booze flows and non-vegetarian delicacies are feasted upon.
One feature which is unique to Nagpur are the Marbat processions taken out on the second day of Pola. Marbats are giant effigies which symbolize social evils. The tradition of burning down huge effigies started in 1881 as a form of protest against unpopular policies laid down by the British imperialists in India. There are three effigies: a Peeli Marbat whose yellow skin probably depicts the fair skinned British, a Kaali Marbat whose dark skin probably depicts an Indian woman who colluded with the British and a young man called Badgya. There are others who believe the Peeli and Kaali Marbats are dieties. As the procession snakes through the streets of Nagpur, the devotees chant ‘ida, pida gheun jaa ge Marbat’ which means ‘take away our social evils and human miseries’ and ‘Rograi gheun ja ge marbat‘ which means ‘rid us of diseases’. These days the themes of the Marbats are contemporary: such as price rise, terrorism, and corruption.