Durga Puja: the Festival of Happiness and Life

“Agamoni” picture courtesy: Artalinda Archive

The morning of Ashwin (the month of autumn) glints, encompassing the Earth with humming chants of a Woman; the invincible, the nature who is determined to resurrect this Universe from the clutches of evil and restore happiness and peace among her devotees. The woman is none other than Goddess Durga, in honour to whom the whole World rejoices in the festival of life, colours, fraternity, and peace. Needless to say, Durga Puja is one of the major festivals in the Indian subcontinent, celebrated even in abroad countries as well. Celebrated in the month of autumn, Durga Puja is about observing the homecoming of Durga as a daughter to her ‘Baaper Bari’ (Parents’ home) from Kailash and as an embrace to her arrival, states like West Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Tripura, Odisha, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh (eastern parts) and some other countries like Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka gear up for this annual festival. West Bengal, where the hearts of Bengalis remain, is known as the hub of Durga Puja. People of this state spend a fair amount of time throughout the year for the preparation of this five-day festival. Keeping aside the bustles of festival glee, Durga Puja itself accounts for a fair amount of mythological tales.

“Okal Bodhon” Picture courtesy: Artalinda archive

Sharodotsav or Durgotsav, celebrates the victory of Goddess Durga over the demon king Mahisasura. According to the Bengali calendar, the festival refers to Sharadiya Navratri’s five days of festivity. It is said that in Bengal’s Durgotsav, Goddess Durga is worshipped in three distinctive ways– Tantra, Shakto or Puran, and Samajik (social). Tantric Ritual or Tantrism is a sacred custom, practiced over thousands of years and is a ceremony to offer honour to the divine power. In Tantric tradition, Durga is worshipped as a fierce power of feminine force. As part of the Brihannandikeshwar Puran, Durga is worshipped in a tantric manner and this ritual is performed by the Vaishnavs. On the other hand, Shaktism is a Hindu tradition that has its roots since the advent of the prehistoric era. Durga Puja is one of the important festivals celebrated in the Shaktism tradition. In Shaktism Mythology, Durga hailed over and killed Mahishasura, the Buffalo demon. Lastly, Durga Puja in Samajik form or social form is celebrated as a grand festival by the community to pay tribute to the goddess as a warrior. From the medieval period to this day, Durga has been worshipped as a socio-cultural event, maintaining its
ritualistic roots. The worship of Devi Durga was initiated by Lord Rama (the conventional time of the celebration is the spring season). Ramayana reveals that the blessings of Goddess Parvati (an incarnation of Devi Durga) made Ravana, the king of Lanka unbeatable by his enemies. This refrained Lord Rama from achieving victory in the battle fought against him for rescuing his wife, Sita. Lord Rama came to know about the boon. He began to worship Goddess Durga and this untimely awakening of the goddess from the Debonidra Kaal (the time when all the gods and goddesses are asleep) is known as Akalbodhan. Rama performed his ritual diligently and as a part of the puja, he offered 108 blue lotuses (Neel Kamal) collected by Hanuman from the lake of Debidaha. Suddenly Rama noticed that there was a shortage of one lotus. He then decided to replace the missing lotus by sacrificing one of his lotus-shaped eyes (Kamala Nayana). Soon he brought an arrow close to his eye, and the goddess appeared and promised to remove the boon enabling Lord Rama to defeat Ravana. The incident occurred in the autumn. The Shloka (prayer) of the Akalbodhan reflects this mythological background:

Om owing Ravanasya badharthaya Ramasya anugrahayacha |
Akaley brhmana bodho debyastayi kritah pura ||

-Translation: ‘In ancient days, in order to favor Rama and to kill Ravana Brahma aroused the Goddess untimely to reach his goal’ (translation source: New Age Purohit Darpan, Book 3, Durga Puja)

With time, the worship of Devi took the form of an annual festival. The five-day Utsav begins on Maha Shashthi and is followed by Saptami, Ashtami, Navami, and Vijayadashami.

Kalprarambha, a ritual observed on Shasthi marks the beginning of Durga Puja. Then the Bodhon (invoking of Goddess Durga). Amontron (an invitation to the Goddess to enter the idol, the pandal, and our lives) and Adhibas (the prime ritual for sanctifying the deity and the pandal) are performed.

“Mahishasura Mardini” Picture courtesy: Artalinda Archive

In the dawn of Maha Saptami, a sacred bath of Nabapatrika or nine leaves (of nine plants) and Kala Bou (kala meaning banana and Bou, the bride in Bengali) takes place. The nine leaves represent nine forms of Shakti – Brahmani (banana), Kalika (colocasia), Durga (turmeric), Kartiki (jayanti), Shiva (wood apple), Raktadantika (pomegranate), Sokrahita (Ashoka), Chamunda (arum) and Lakshmi (paddy). It is the primitive form of Devi Durga. Kala Bou, a part of the Nabapatrika dressed in a saree is placed beside Lord Ganesha. She is believed to be his newly wedded wife.

One of the notable rituals performed on Maha Ashtami is Kumari puja, worshiping a teenage girl as an incarnation of Devi Durga. Purana mentions, that at the juncture when Ashtami ends and Navami begins Goddess Durga took the form of fierce Chamunda, who alone assassinated the asuras (demons) Shumbha and Nishumbha. This auspicious moment is known as Sandhikkhan, and it is the time when Sandhi Puja is performed.

Devi Durga or Mahisasuramardini assassinated Mahishasura on Maha Navami. Finally, the triumph of good over evil is celebrated on Vijaya Dashami, the last day of Durga Puja.

Durga Puja received recognising popularity during the eighteenth century when Zamindars of Calcutta performed these festivals as a part of impressing Britishers to receive favours. Earlier, the zamindars of Malda or Dinajpur district in Bengal used to perform Durga Puja. However, the record shows it was Kangsha Narayan of Taherpur
in Nadia district, who began worshiping Devi Durga in Autumn (instead of spring) for the first time (1500 CE). Then Bhavananda of Krishnanagar organized Durgotsav in Nadia (c.1606). Later, his descendant Maharaja Krishnachandra added grandeur to the celebration. The oldest puja in Kolkata (formerly known as Calcutta) is that of Sabarna Roy Choudhury’s family puja (in Barisha in 1610). Then, Raja Nabakrishna Dev of Shobhabazar also celebrated Durga Puja as a family festival (1757). In the 1760s twelve young men being prevented from attending a family puja at Guptipada of Hooghly District formed a committee and organized the first community Puja, known as Barowari Puja (derived from Baro meaning twelve and Yaar i.e., friend). Later, it turned into a people’s (sarbojanin) festival-Sarbojanin Durgotsav.

Durga Puja can easily be considered one of the greatest festivals of Bengal. Kolkata which is also known as the City of Joy is known for its amicable people, fascinating culture, and mesmerizing festivals. To witness various festivals celebrated in this city throughout the year many people from all over the world visit Kolkata. The city also
welcomes people with its friendly approach. Among all these festivals autumnal Durga Puja is one of the greatest and most glorious ones. The magnificence of this festival encourages people to visit this city again and again.

Almost every resident of this city celebrates Durga Puja with ultimate enthusiasm. Highly ornamented idols of Devi Durga can be seen with her four children who are Lord Ganesha, Lord Karthik, Goddess Laxmi, and Goddess Saraswati. The idol is also accompanied by the demon Ashura and Mount Lion. The whole arrangement tells the
story of the defeat of the demon Ashura by Devi Durga. Though theoretically, the present form of Durga idol with her children is not based on any Puran. This form of an idol was introduced during the imperial era and was a lucid reflection of the ‘Babu-Culture.’ Thousands of artists are associated with the making of these idols and huge pandals are also created throughout the city which are visited by huge crowds during this celebration. Special vegetarian and non-vegetarian dishes along with sweets are offered to the Devi as Bhog. Priests arrange Pushpanjali by reciting Sanskrit chants and
offering flowers to the Devi. The sounds of conches, the bears of dhaks, and bells create a magnificent aura of divinity. Special dance performances called Dhunuchi dance also take place where people dance with an incense burner in their hand to the beat of dhaks. Dhunuchi dance was also held during the time of Aarti.

During the five days of this festival men, women and children dress up beautifully and visit pandals to appreciate the artworks. A variety of food stalls can also be seen around these pandals. On the last day of this festival, married women offer sindoor to the idols and bid them farewell. This ritual is also known as sindoor (vermilion) khela. They also offer sindoor to other women. Finally, all these idols are taken in large trucks or vehicles, depending on their size, to the nearest rivers or lakes and sunk there. This ritual is often accompanied by elaborate processions and large crowds. They also offer sindoor to other women as well. Finally, all these idols are taken in large trucks or vehicles according to their sizes to the nearest rivers or lakes and immerse them. This ritual is often accompanied by elaborate processions and huge crowds.

In the year 2021, Durga Puja received the tag Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, honoured by UNESCO. It was the first festival celebrated in the Asian countries that received this title.

“Bijoya” Picture Courtesy: Artalinda Archive


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