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Festival of Flags (India)

Last modified: 2008-09-27 by ian macdonald
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Festival of Flags

For centuries, on the third Saturday of August, notwithstanding the ominous threat of monsoon rain, the beautiful island of Divar in Goa celebrates Bonderam, the festival of flags. Its origins are revealing of folk psychology. Apparently, there used to be frequent land-related disputes between the parishes of my native Piedade and neighbouring Malar. These oftentimes degenerated into bloody feuds, reaching their peak just before harvest time, when the fields were lush with ripe paddy.

In order to sort things out, the Portuguese government introduced a system of demarcating property boundaries with flags every year. Naturally this did not satisfy everyone. Rival groups went about surreptitiously knocking down offending pennants with stones, and when caught out, readily indulged in combat. Over the decades the strong arm of the law and better sense prevailed, and peace between the neighbours secured. However, in a parody of the past "either to sublimate their mutual antagonism or to mimic their own foolishness" in late August every year the Divarkars continue to parade the streets with an array of colourful flags, then wield the fotash, or bamboo stick, as a weapon in mock battle, pelting each other with wild berries, and topping the whole thing off with music, dance and merriment, recreating echoes of the carnival.

In an uncanny coincidence, a rather violent variation of this very same sort of festival is observed every August in a town called Pandhurna, in the district of Chhindwara, Madhya Pradesh, where years ago I was collector and district magistrate. Though Pandhurna is thousands of kilometres away from Divar, the observance bears a striking resemblance to Bonderam. But here the festival is called Got-Mar, meaning 'pelting of stones'. And true to this, it is stones that people pelt. A stream flows through the town and early in the morning on the appointed day people of one side swim to the middle and plant a flag. The other inhabitants take this as a deadly affront, and cannot rest until they have uprooted it. Defenders and invaders both shower each other with rocks propelled with slings. Broken tiles are the least of it — heads and limbs are cracked with glee, and hundreds of casualties ensue, sometimes even death. I suppose it would take another couple of centuries before the towns-people of Pandhurna learn to sublimate their animo-sities in a manner akin to those of the villagers of Divar.
David Pawson, 5 August 2008