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Tribals of Tripura all set for Ker Puja to thwart evil spirits

According to writer Salil Debbarma, "The customary rules and conventions of Ker Puja are strict and not easy to follow. Around 40 years ago the then District Magistrate had been fined for entering the Ker Puja area without permission."

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Kharchi Puja in Tripura. Image source: breathtakingindia.com
  • “Ker Puja starts at midnight on Monday and will continue uninterrupted for over 31 hours,” said Sanjoy Chakraborty, Senior Deputy Magistrate of West Tripura district
  • The literal meaning of ‘Ker’ in tribal Kokborok language is ‘specified area’.
  • “Any kind of entertainment, dancing, singing and movement of animals are barred in the specified Ker Puja areas,” it added

In centuries-old Ker Puja in Tripura, there is no place for death, birth or recreation. Steeped in intricate, time-honoured rituals, this mega tribal event is about well-being and warding off evil spirits. This 31-hour-long festival is all set to begin from Monday, July 25, onwards.

It might sound strange but no pregnant woman or critically ailing person is allowed in the sacred puja precinct. Anyone who violates is made to pay a fine and the puja starts from scratch.

Sponsored by the state government, Ker Puja is one of the important events in Tripura’s calendar. Elaborate arrangements are made to ensure that the puja passes off peacefully.

As has been the norm, the West Tripura district administration has notified the Ker Puja areas this year. The area in and around the royal palace here as well as Puran Habeli, the erstwhile capital of Tripura around 12 km east of Agartala, have been notified for the Ker Puja.

The literal meaning of ‘Ker’ in tribal Kokborok language is ‘specified area’. “Ker Puja starts at midnight on Monday and will continue uninterrupted for over 31 hours,” said Sanjoy Chakraborty, Senior Deputy Magistrate of West Tripura district.

“Pregnant women and the sick are to be kept out of the specified puja area. No one is allowed to enter the notified area,” said the notification.

“Any kind of entertainment, dancing, singing and movement of animals are barred in the specified Ker Puja areas,” it added.

According to writer Salil Debbarma, “The customary rules and conventions of Ker Puja are strict and not easy to follow. Around 40 years ago the then District Magistrate had been fined for entering the Ker Puja area without permission.”

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If there is a birth or a death, then a family has to pay a fine as well.

“During Ker Puja, any kind of recreation is strictly banned in the notified areas. Security personnel guard the area to maintain the dignity of the puja,” Debbarma added. “The Tripura police offer a gun salute before the puja begins.”

Ker Puja. Image source: www.thegreenerpastures.com
Ker Puja. Image source: www.thegreenerpastures.com

According to Debbarma, “The head priest and his associates light up the fire by rubbing bamboos. The tribals and people around the Ker Puja areas carry the fire to their homes believing that it would ensure their well-being and thwart the evil spirit.”

The rituals are carried out at government expense as per an agreement between the Tripura government and the erstwhile royal family.

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Besides Agartala and Puran Habeli, the puja is organised in almost all tribal villages towards the end of the year or at the end of the harvesting season.

“The royal dynasty would perform Ker Puja for the welfare of the people, praying against calamities and external aggression,” said Panna Lal Roy, a writer and historian.

“The sacrifice of birds, animals and offerings characterise this popular puja,” Roy told IANS.

A structure constructed with green bamboo poles serves as the deity for the Ker Puja. The chantai or head priest is regarded as the king on the occasion. (IANS)

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As Venezuela’s Healthcare Collapses, Women and Girls Dying Needlessly

The surgeon is one of only three left at the Concepcion Palacios hospital in the Venezuelan capital

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Venezuela, Healthcare, Pregnant Women
Venezuelan girls beg for change where Venezuelans cross illegally into Colombia near the Simon Bolivar International Bridge, April 14, 2019. VOA

In Caracas’s main maternity hospital the blood banks and medicine cabinets are empty, the power and water regularly cut out — and women and girls are dying needlessly, according to one of the few remaining doctors, Luisangela Correa.

The surgeon is one of only three left at the Concepcion Palacios hospital in the Venezuelan capital, where the lifts and most toilets are closed and there are no bandages, sterilizers or X-ray services.

“We are like trapped, kept hostage by this situation … hope is what keeps us here,” Correa, 45, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“If we haven’t left the hospital, it’s because we hope that things will improve.”

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A Venezuelan migrant woman holds a baby outside an immigration processing office on the Rumichaca bridge after crossing the border from Colombia to Rumichaca, Ecuador, June 12, 2019. VOA

One in four have left

Millions of Venezuelans have fled the country to escape an economic and political crisis that has left about seven million — one in four — in need of humanitarian aid, according to the United Nations.

Its human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said last week after a three-day mission in March to the troubled South American country that Venezuela’s healthcare sector was in “critical condition.”

A lack of basic medicine and equipment was “causing preventable deaths,” she said — something Correa is witnessing at first hand.

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Infection rates at the maternity hospital are high because cleaners do not have disinfectants to wash away bacteria and there are no sterilizers for doctors to clean their equipment, she said.

“Currently, maternity is a risk for Venezuelan women, as it is for babies … many give birth at home, in the street,” Correa said.

“And there are no blood banks. Any complications from heavy bleeding is a very big risk of death for a patient.”

Correa, the U.N. and women’s rights groups all said unsanitary hospital conditions along with food and medical shortages had led to a rise in maternal mortality rates.

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In Caracas’s main maternity hospital the blood banks and medicine cabinets are empty. VOA

U.N. findings disputed

The Venezuelan government disputed the findings of the U.N. report and said in a written response that maternal mortality rates had decreased by nearly 14% between 2016 and 2018.

Venezuela’s national healthcare system, once considered a model for Latin America, is now plagued by shortages of imported drugs and thousands of doctors and nurses no longer show up for work, their salaries ravaged by inflation.

Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro has said there is little need for humanitarian aid, blaming U.S. sanctions for the oil-rich country’s economic problems.

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The United States imposed tough sanctions on Venezuela’s oil industry in January in an effort to oust Maduro in favor of opposition leader Juan Guaido, who is recognized as Venezuela’s rightful leader by more than 50 governments.

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CEPAZ, a coalition of women’s rights groups, has said Venezuela’s maternal mortality rates have increased by 65% from 2013 to 2016, with nearly 800 women dying.

Bachelet’s report cited a national survey that showed 1,557 people died due to lack of supplies in hospitals between November 2018 and February 2019.

Correa said she was seeing more pregnant teenage girls seeking care because they cannot find or afford contraception and do not receive sex education in schools.

According to the U.N. report, teenage pregnancies have risen by 65% since 2015, and several cities in Venezuela face a “100% shortage” of all types of contraception.

Strict abortion law

Due to Venezuela’s strict abortion law, which only allows the procedure under limited circumstances, some women and girls resort to unsafe abortions.

This has contributed to a rise in preventable maternal mortality, with about 20% of maternal deaths reportedly linked to unsafe abortions, the U.N. said in its report.

Correa says she is determined to continue to speak out about the dire conditions in public hospitals and help women in need. “The only thing we have are the outcries and hope that this will change,” she said. “My people, my country need me at this moment.” (VOA)