David L. Curley in his immensely important book, Poetry and History: Bengali Mangal–Kavya and Social Change in Precolonial Bengal (2008) defined Mangal Kavya as a genre of “narrative poetry, composed, as far as we know from surviving texts, during the period of the fifteenth through the eighteenth centuries.” Though most scholars argue that there was an undocumented and anterior period of oral and possibly of written composition lasting several centuries but it was discovered and published only in the English colonial period. However Mangal Kavya is a kind of religious and didactic composition that justifies the worship of one or another deity. To illustrate the point, we can say that in Bengali literature there has been a trend of writing poetry in the fictionalized epic form to illustrate and praise the non-aryan and subaltern gods and goddesses which is called as Mangal kavya or poetry written for the welfare of beings as the two words in the title-genre mean welfare and poetry respectively.
There are also many explanations of this word mangal as for example:
- This intended to inspire people and to urge them have faith in deities and religion when people were afraid in the head of Turkish invasion beginning from 1191 AD in heartland of India.
- People held the belief that if they read, listen or even keep the book in their household it will bring happiness and welfare for the entire household.
The poet and poetesses of Mangal kavya tried to imitate the epic form and style in their poetry. One of the curious elements of this group of poetry is that except one, all the deities of this group of poetry are female. The traditional Mangal Kavya goes with this simple pattern of story like—a celestial being, either yaksha (the followers of Lord Kuvera, the god of wealth in Hindu mythology) gandharva, (a class of singers as well as warriors of heaven) or kinnar (a class almost same like the gandharva), apsaras (divine females dancers of heaven) etc., who are all the denizens of different layers of heaven are cursed by deities for some fault or mistake. They take birth in earth and after much hardship, trials and tribulation; they are able to preach the worship of that deity in earth and society. Another interesting fact is that, this group of poetry or mangal kavya is also exposing the geographical effect of their respective region. As for example, the East Bengal, now the independent Bangladesh where there is abundance of snakes because of marshy land, dense forest, rivers etc., and in fact a large number of people every year die out of snake bite, there is much popularity of Manasamangal, the poetry describing the worship of goddess Manasa who is a snake deity. On the other hand, in West Bengal region with the districts of West Medinipur, Bankura and Bhirbhum etc., which remains very hot during the summer, there is tremendous popularity of Sitalamangal, that is dedicated to goddess Sitala who is believed to inflict and cure small pox, high fever etc., the word ‘sitala’ means calm or to pacify. Obviously it tries to designate a cure from small pox or high fever that is associated with rising temperature. In South Chabbis Paragana, a district adjacent to Kolkata, especially the villages adjacent with Sundarbana (the famous mangrove forest) which has a fair population of tigers, famous as Royal Bengal Tiger, there is popularity of worshipping the god Dakshin Ray (the word literally means the lord of South) and Banabibi (the word means landlady of forests), the god and goddesses of tigers.
Sociologists however argue that these deities are non-Aryan or subaltern as we have no trace of them in the vast Vedic literature or even in the ensuing puranic literature (a vast amalgamation of history, myths, and legends, written after the Vedic period). They believe that these deities were being worshipped by the down-trodden non-Aryan people and Mangal Kavya is virtually a product of the gradual amalgamation of Aryan and non-Aryan race as a method of including them in the brahmanic threshold. As for example in Joydev’s famous Dasavatara Stotra (the poetry written in the praise of the ten incarnations of Lord Vishnu), Buddha, the rebel against the Vedic religion is also assigned a place in Aryan fold as an incarnation of Lord Vishnu himself.
However, traditionally the important Mangal kavya are divided into mainly three folds: 1. Manasamangal, 2. Candimangal (poetry written in praise of goddess Candi), 3. Dharmamangal (poetry written in praise of god Dharma, the word ‘dharma’ literarily means virtue, religion, ethics etc.) and there are several poets and poetesses who have written Mangal kavyas in their respective field. The important poets of Mansamangal are Bijaygupta, Narayan Dev, Ketakadas Khemananda, (the literal meaning being Khemananda, the servant of Manasa as the word ketaka also means Manasa). The important poets of Candimangal are Manik Dutta, Mukundaram Chakrabarty, the important poets of Dharmamangal are Mayur Bhatta, Rupram Chakraborty etc.
Another interesting feature of these groups of deities is that they have become quite a human in their habits and demeanor in this group of poetry. They are greedy to be worshipped and for that they are not averse to take even any unethical ploy. They are humanized and like the Greek gods, take part in human action. Even the traditional Aryan gods are seen to be somewhat set aside for their sake. In Manasamangal, the human protagonist Chand, who is a leading merchant and devout worshipper of Lord Shiva (one of the trinity of Hindu religion), at last actually is tamed to worship the goddess Manasa. In recent years there is also tremendous upsurge in the study of Mangal Kavya in European study circle, making the way for including it in university syllabuses and research work. Notable researchers and authors are T. W. Clark, Ralph W. Nicholas, Tony K. Stewart, Clint Seely, Edward C. Dimock etc., and of course, there are many Indian scholars, working upon the field like Mandakranta Bose, Dipesh Chakrabarty, Gautam Bhadra and many others.
Apart from being important in religious and theological field, Mangal kavya is also important in other ways also. It gives us an accurate picture of the socio-economic aspects of the Bengal of that period. As this group of poetry generally depicts the common man, it easily assimilate in their fold accurate description of the period and becomes in a sense a virtual storehouse of social history, depicting rituals, art of cooking, superstitions, customs and costumes etc., as if a whole living canvas of a gone society and its people with its clear montages are displayed before our eyes, and history unfolds itself while we go through these books.