Durga Puja is more than the periodically
observed navratra in the subcontinent, or a joyous autumn harvest festival.
Spiritually, it runs so much deeper than that: it marks the battle of Devi Durga
with the king of asuras, Lord Mahishasura. The great austerities of the latter
had earned him from Brahma Himself the boon that he could be overpowered by
no male, and it had filled the buffalo-king ('mahish' in Sanskrit means 'buffalo')
with the kind of arrogance that is possible only at the realm of the asuras.
So when the devaloka army succumbed to him in battle, they gathered in great
solemnity to put together a nari-roopa (female form) that would be the death
of him. While the very idea of it was laughable to Mahishasura, he ended up
vanquished and bleeding at Her feet - a powerful image, the Mahishasuramardini
(in Sanskrit 'mardini' means 'female annihilator'), that is traditionally reproduced
in abundance across Bengal, Odisha, and Assam during the Durga Puja festival.
The iconography is unmistakable.
The Devi is usually atleast a storey tall, with some of the most famous pandal-pujas
commissioning idols that are the size of complete buildings. She is dashabhujadhari
(ten-armed), the weapons She holds in each gifted to Her by the devas responsible
for Her srishti (projection).
Her stance is decidedly ferocious,
as She is mounted on an equally ferocious lion. She has brought the arrogant
Mahishasura to his knees: the spear-end of Her trishool (trident) pierces the
demon's body and draws blood, resulting in His vadh (killing). His defeated
black mahish lies at Her feet. While Her beauteous countenance is famously wrathful,
Mahishasura's face is contorted with pain. This central figure is flanked by
Ganesha-Lakshmi to Her right and Sarasvati-Kartik to Her left, which are around
half the stature. All five figures may be given a solid aureole (ekchala) or
one to each figure. Above the crown of Ma Durga, at the crest of the aureole,
is placed an image of Her Lord Shiva.
In this light, Durga Puja is a
celebration of the quintessential victory of devotion over arrogance, of divine
love over worldly ego, of dharm over adharm. Purushottam Rama was the first
to invoke the Katyayani-roopa of Devi Durga for His endeavour to slay Lankesh
Ravana. The latter being the shishya (student) of none other than Lord Brahma,
Rama would never have been able to destroy him and rescue His wife Seeta from
his demonic clutches without calling upon Her. This is considered an untimely
invocation because Durga Puja was originally observed in the spring navaratri.
Called Basanti Puja (in Sanskrit 'basanta' means 'spring'), it is celebrated
to this day on a similar scale but in limited pockets of the delta. The more
iconic festival of the fall, when Bhagavan Rama is said to have evoked her upon
Tretayuga, is called 'akaal bodhon', which literally means 'an untimely invocation'.
The akaal bodhon Durga Puja has
evolved into great socio-cultural significance in the Eastern Delta region,
and is the lifeblood of Bengalis everywhere. It is said that Devi Durga is the
daughter of Bengal; having been married to Lord Shiva, She pays this annual
visit to Her maiden home with Her four children, Ganesha, Lakshmi, Sarasvati,
Her stay is commemorated with an
abundance of ritual and art and feasting, which comes to an end in five days'
time. Then She in Her image of Mahishasuramardini is immersed into the sacred
Ganga, whose currents bear Her back to Her home in Kailash Parvat, which She
shares with Her husband.
The Making Of Mahishasuramardini
Durga Puja is a socio-cultural
phenomenon, of which traditional spirituality is an integral part. The first
sign that the Devi Durga is making preparations to travel to her girlhood home
is when the scent of shiuli (Asian jasmines) seeps into the air one morning.
Together with the petrichor of
the retreating Bengal monsoon, the redolence is strong and heady; almost intoxicating.
Durgotsav committees, called sarbojonin (public) committees, gather with great
enthusiasm, and over the course of a few quick meetings begin to collect chanda
(locally pooled resources) to put together the lavish arrangements to welcome
The members of these committees,
usually a bunch of young men who have grown up together in the neighbourhood,
come together by consensus - and just like that dissolve days after the last
rites of the puja. They oversee the baroari, which literally means 'twelve friends'
and refers to the public organisation of the puja: setting up the pandal (makeshift
temple) in the respective territory of each committee, the ritual worship, and
the accompanying cultural celebrations. The name owes itself to the first public
Durga Puja in the late 1700s in Bengal conducted by twelve Brahmin friends -
till then Durga Puja was a strictly family affair. Amidst the profusion of pristine
orange-stemmed shiuli, schools and offices progressively declare vacation, and
people dive into a shopping spree. Bamboo frameworks mushroom up at cross-walkable
points across cities and villages, each marking the territory of the sarbojonin
committee that is organising the puja. Girls and boys gather to rehearse folk
song and dance routines for the big days of the festival, which include shashti
(sixth day of the navratri), shaptami (seventh), ashtami (eighth), navami (ninth),
and dashami (tenth).
In truth, Durga Puja starts shortly
after it ends. As the sharat (fall) of celebrations makes way for the region's
winters and the soothing chant of 'ashchhe botshor abar hobe' (roughly translates
to 'here's to next year's') creeps into the Bengali parlance, artisans in the
Calcutta neighbourhood of Kumartuli quietly begin work on the pratima (idol)
to be used in the puja of the ensuing year. In Bengali, 'kumar' means 'potter'
and 'tuli' means 'colony'. Located in the heart of the sorrowfully fading, northern
recesses of the city, it is in the studios of the traditional artisans residing
here that the best of the pratima are made for sarbojonin committees the world
over. Fashioned from compressed clay and painted with endemic pigments, the
simplest pratima - a set of five idols comprising of Devi Durga and Her children,
Ganesha-Lakshmi-Sarasvati-Kartik - takes months to be finished.
The size and complexity of the
finished pratima depend on the commission of the sarbojonin committee in question
(a single family of potters may be working on multiple commissions). For example,
Ekdalia Evergreen Club and Rajdanga Naba Uday Sangha, sarbojonin committees
from South Calcutta, are famous for their unconventional themed pandals and
idols. Over the years they have made honeycomb pandals with clay honeybee installations
in addition to the pratima inside, a Kailash Mansarovar pandal, and a burning
white-saree pandal with a pratima inside that changed Her roopa from a sadhva
to a vidhva depending on the light projections built into the walls.
No matter how early the work begins
on these magnificent devotional pieces, artisans leave the painting of the pratima's
eyes for the last. It is done at sunrise on the day of the mahalaya, and is
said to infuse the idol with life (prana prathista).
The mahalaya is a relatively recent
phenomenon in Bengal. It translates from the Sanskrit to 'great lyric', and
refers to the wildly popular radio programme that is annually broadcast at dawn
on an amavasya (no-moon hour). It comprises of the late Birendra Krishna Bhadra's
iconic Chandipath (chanting of scriptural verses from Durga Saptashati), followed
by devotional folk music celebrating the beauty and strength of Devi Durga.
It is said that the day of the mahalaya is when She had taken birth amongst
the greatest Devas of the Hindu pantheon. The date is calibrated from the local
panchang (almanac) and usually falls around ten days prior to panchami (fifth
day of the navratri). It is the day of much feasting and celebration, and is
the point when the preparations begin in full measure. Schools and offices declare
vacation; businesses flourish; and groups of residents of a single neighbourhood
visit Kumartuli en masse in order to take a look at the finished pratima prior
to delivery to their pandal. On Panchami, the pratima are installed in their
respective pandals and the puja begins. At dawn the next day, the pandals are
thrown open to the public for darshan and anjali (guided offering).
Devipaksha, The Hour Of The Devi - From The Agaman (Arrival) To The Baran (Ritual Farewell)
Between Mahalaya and the first
day of the puja, which could be either panchamikalpa (puja starts on the fifth
day of the navratri) or saptamikalpa (on the seventh day), the tarpan ritual
is of utmost importance. It is done to cleanse oneself of one's attachments,
satiate the ego and reign it in to make space for devotion to the Devi who is
on Her way. It involves complex offerings and chants to reminisce one's ancestors,
in order to draw from them the requisite strength for vanquishing the ego. A
ghatpuja precedes the main puja, which in itself is a complete ceremony. The
object of worship in this puja is a highly specific arrangement, at the centre
of which is a ritual pot of baked clay painted over with brightly-pigmented
Besides that it comprises of a
mound of the local moist earth of the delta, dhaan (wisps of paddy) that are
said to become prasfutita (infused) with life upon mantrochcharan (chanting),
and handpicked durva (locally gowing sacred grasses) whose three-pronged tips
resemble the trishool (trident) of Lord Shiva. A sprig of the mango plant, which
needs to be either five- or seven-tipped, completes the ghat arrangement, which
is then placed within a network of red- or white-coloured bamboo sticks and
yarn. The all-important ghatpuja is followed by the ahavaan, which is a heartfelt
summon and ritual welcome of Devi Durga done at the dawn of panchami or saptami,
depending on the kalpa chosen.
The puja starts with Ganesha, for
He is the lord of all beginnings, followed by worship of the guru of the presiding
Brahmin. Then there is worship of the panchadevta (five lords of devaloka inclusive
of Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Durga Herself, and Ganesha), to which a sixth entity,
usually the ishtadevta, is often added. This is followed by worship of the panchabhoota
(five elements), which are vyom (ether), vayu (air), tej (heat, agni or fire),
jal (water), and prithvi (earth). It is worth noting that the typical Hindu
puja comprises of each of these elements, to which Durga Puja is no exception.
In fact, it is impossible to solemnise this puja without prithvi from multiple
sources. Often, prithvi from all the prescribed sources are replaced by that
from a single source, the tulsitala (the roots of the sacred basil plant), which
is said to be replete with every imaginable divine quality. By the time it is
mid-morning, the Devi Puja finally begins. It is then that Bengalis dressed
to the height of folk fashion, the women clad head to toe in gold, step out
of their homes for anjali and bhog at their local pandal puja. The anjali ritual
is one of great charm and serves as a bonding exercise. Residents congregate
before the pratima (in batches), and a basket of freshly plucked flowers is
passed around amongst them. With a fistful of these flowers pressed in the namaskaram
mudra, they repeat mantras after the priest and offer them at the the feet of
the pratima. The ashtami anjali is considered the most auspicious, the ensuing
bhog being sattvik in nature. While that is quite an exception to the Bengali
diet, the navami bhog is more rooted in regional delicacies - sacrificial meats,
rice, and puddings.
The streets are thronged with
pandal-hoppers no matter the time of day or night, with darshanarthis queueing
up at the most popular pandal-pujas. Cultural programmes - folk dances and drama
and music, you name it - are hosted at the pandal each evening. Ashtami, called
mahashtami ('maha' in Sanskrit means 'great'), is the most important day of
the festival, with the choicest sarees and dhotis reserved for the day's anjali
and pandal-hopping. For a few hours at dawn and at dusk every day of the puja,
the earthy sound of dhaak (folk drums the size of a full-grown man) and kashor
(folk gong of the handheld variety) fill the air.
Each sarbojonin committee appoints
a group of dhaakees, amongst which is a kashor-guy, to come and play at their
pandal for all days of the puja. Their arrival at the pandal, marked by a symbolic
round of music, is looked forward to as much as the arrival of the pratima Herself.
The aaratis are accompanied by ample dhaak and kashor, the sound of women's
ulu (a trilling done from the base of the throat), and the mystical dance of
the dhunuchi. The dhunuchi is a goblet of baked earth, within which is a slow-burning
mass of coconut husk and camphor. When men and women carry out complex dance
routines before the pratima with these goblets in both hands, the translucent
silver smoke that emanates from them form around their figures an ethereal enclosure.
These days of heightened spiritual
fervour, family gathering, and festive celebration and feasting sustain a lull
at shondhikkhon. Shondhikkhon is the transition between ashtami and navami,
marked by the quietly conducted Shondhipujo. It is a puja of that fateful moment,
which kind of reminds devotees and revellers that the time for Devi Durga to
return to Her husband is drawing closer. In this light, navami doesn't have
the life and bustle of shaptami and ashtami; it bears the beginnings of a heaviness
creeping into the air, a seriousness that is often distracted from by traditional
games in the evenings. Residents of a neighbourhood, ie those who have done
all the pandal-hopping they meant to do that season, gather for conch-playing,
trilling, and diya-lighting competitions. The women compete to see who could
play the longest note on the trill/conch or light the maximum diyas on a multi-tiered
traditional lamp with a single match, while the men cheer them on with music
and witty commentary.
On dashami the next day, one could
sense the pall that descends upon the delta. The crowds of pandal-hoppers on
the streets have thinned out, and the puja-anjali-bhog of the day are not half
as lively as on the days past. A nap post the afternoon bhog, shortly afore
twilight, the women of the neighbourhood could be found at the altar with the
fully-laden dala (winnow) in their hands. This is for the baran (acceptance)
ritual, which is of great importance in the Indian patriarchal tradition: shortly
before her daughter's departure to her husband's home, be it prior to the bridal
vidai or upon an annual visit, the mother does her shringar as an indication
of the painful acceptance that she now belongs elsewhere. These women, with
tears in their eyes, caress the pratima's face and touch homemade shondesh (sweets
made from condensed milk) to Her lips, knowing full well that She will soon
be gone from amidst them for a whole year.
It is during baran that the countenance
of Ma Durga's pratima seems to take on a sombre composure, an inexplicable phenomenon
that every Bengali knows in their heart to be true... Students gather at the
feet of Devi Sarasvati with their books or at Devi Lakshmi's with their instruments,
to touch them to the feet of the respective Devis and collect the anjali flowers
from the pratima. Later in the evening, sadhvas (married women) of all ages
and kanyas (girls yet to be married) get together for the famous shindoor-khyala,
which is just smearing each other with ample proportions of herbal-made vermillion
in good cheer. It is a sight to watch because the sadhvas are in their wedding
sarees, the kanyas in red-bordered white ones, as they frolic in and around
the pandal with platefuls of shindoor in their hands. All this goes on in the
presence of the shindoor- and shondesh-smeared pratima, the music of dhaak and
kashor and women's laughter filling the air. The red-bordered white saree is
of especial significance to the Bengali woman, because it is said that these
two colours define the life of a woman. This shindoor-khyala is the last of
the one-of-a-kind festive cheer that defines the season.
Visarjan Blues - The Transience Of It All
Ma Durga's time in Her girlhood
home draws to a close. Now is the final throes of festive exuberance. Spirits
are at the zenith of good cheer as the concluding puja is done, and the pratima
painstakingly loaded onto trucks summoned for the purpose. It is at this point
that an army of dhaakees start playing their drums and gong, not to cease making
music till the night is out. Slowly and steadily the truck carrying the pratima
heads to the nearest tributary of the holy Ganga in the form of a procession,
at the forefront of which is the band of dhaakees followed by revelling devotees
determined to give their beloved Devi a joyous farewell. It is mere moments
before the signature visarjan (to give up the pratima), before the colours and
the music and the fervour of the eve of dashami plunge into unspeakable sorrow.
There is usually a queue of processions
of other pujas at the ghaat (riverbank). Each one awaits their turn while continuing
with the revelry, which begin to lose momentum as the waters come into view.
The pratima, Devi Durga being the last, are taken turns to be borne off the
truck. With Her on their shoulders, the men take three pradakshina (rotations)
called teen-paak at the mouth of the current, while the women are trilling in
unison with tears in their eyes. There is no denying that this is the most poignant
moment of Durga Puja. Within seconds, the heart-rending sound of the back of
the Durgapratima hitting the waters (niranjan, which means immersion) brings
the trilling to an end.
The music of the dhaak-and-kashor
gradually fade into the inky tropical night. The sorrowing women stare out into
the current as long as She is within view, but are drawn away by their menfolk
and helped onto the truck. The children are weeping for Her to not go, only
to be shushed by their mothers who strike fear into their innocent hearts of
a Shiva angered by His wife's prolonged absence, breaking into tandava. The
journey back to the neighbourhood, to the now-empty pandal, is forlorn and painfully
Dawn is yet to come. The pratima
does not greet you any longer as you walk into the pandal. You look around,
perhaps tearfully, to realise that it is going to be dismantled the following
morning. In Her place stands a painted dia (clay lamp), whose flame is a poor
imitation of the glamour of Ma Durga's mukhmandal (countenance). It makes you
wonder, was it ever at all like this? Was it ever devoid of Her divine presence?
Alas, it is Vijaya dashami, the victorious tenth day. Having been overcome by
the transience of it all, it is time to return to a world which despite everything
is pervaded by all that She stands for - the infinite strength of the self,
the goodness of dharma. It is the only thing that lasts; neither this life that
is entwined with such debilitating pleasures and pains, nor the akaal (untimely)
stay of Bengal's daughter Herself. Within the lonely precincts sit a grieving
party, helping themselves to rasgullas from a pot, seeking comfort in those
seductive sweetmeats and the fact that 'ashchhe botshor abar hobe' ('here's
to next year's)!
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