Horses are not endemic to Bengal and nor were they bred in the plains of the region. But, during the Bengali New Year, many parts of south Bengal witness several horse races. The races are held in several villages scattered over a large area in the South 24 Parganas. Starting from the Sonarpur-Baruipur area, right up to Canning, Namkhana and Diamond Harbour, the entire region becomes a venue for horse races from mid-April to mid-May.
It is during this time that crops are harvested, leaving the fields bare. And horse races in these fields provide a source of entertainment for the locals. Also, the hooves of the horses loosen the dry ground, making it suitable for the next sowing of seeds. Sadly, there are no written records of when exactly these horse races began.
A close race
Among the numerous races in south Bengal, one is held at the base of Jatar Deul — one of the oldest standing structures of undivided Bengal — in Kankandighi in Diamond Harbour subdivision. The discovery of Jatar Deul dates back to the middle of the nineteenth century, when land surveyors stumbled upon a towering brick structure in the midst of the Sunderbans. The structure, with an empty inner sanctum, was surrounded with dense forest and was itself covered in thick vegetation.
Jatar Deul — one of the oldest standing structures of undivided Bengal — in Kankandighi
Today, the forests have been replaced with agricultural fields, but the temple still remains — with its long and elegant spire towering above the treetops. It is called Jatar Deul after the matted hair of Lord Shiva. An ASI board at the entrance of Jatar Deul claims that the temple was constructed in the 11th century.
Today, the once empty inner sanctum has been occupied by idols of Shiva and other Hindu deities, which are worshiped regularly. This remarkable temple is rarely visited, but on the second day of the Bengali New Year, the fields surrounding the ancient temple turn into a fairground attracting crowds from surrounding villages.
The race turns the whole area festive, with makeshift food stalls and vendors
The horse race turns the whole area festive, with makeshift food stalls. There are also vendors selling balloons and small toys. The race usually starts at 4pm, but the horses start arriving from 2pm. The owner of the horses, along with the jockeys — mostly boys in their early teens — parade the animals in front of the cheering crowd.
Horses and mules are paraded in front of the assembled crowd
Sadly now, the horses are being replaced by mules. The few horses that are there look old and sick. There are usually 20+ horses and mules. Several races and a complex scoring system determine the winner. The ‘race track’ covers a huge area through freshly harvested and uneven agricultural fields. The horses have no saddle or stirrup and the jockeys hold on the animal by means of a bicycle tube. But despite there being no defined track, horses and mules running together and inexperienced riders, this is a once-in-a-year event for locals of the region, who hold on to any entertainment they receive.
The jockeys are mostly boys in their early teens
Train: Sealdah (South) – Mathurapur Road (Time: 90 minutes)
Auto: Mathurapur Road – Raidighi (Time: 45 mins)
Motor van: Raidighi – Kankandighi (Time: 30 mins)
Places to eat
Raidighi has several basic eateries serving basic but delicious food. The fairground at Jatar Deul also offers an assortment of fast foods
- If you are planning to stay for the entire event, it is better to take a car from Kolkata
- A per latest information, the race is likely to be held on April 16 this year
Rangan Datta is a mathematics and management teacher by profession and a travel writer and photographer by passion. He has been addicted to discovering off-beat places since his undergraduate days at St. Xavier's College. Blogging and contributing to Wikipedia are his other passions.