Mahalaya Magic: Unveiling the Mystique of Devi’s Arrival

Woodcut: “Mahishasura Mardini”
Courtesy: Artalinda Archive

As the crow caws, promulgating the beginning of another day, every house of Bengalis reverberates with the similar holy Chandipath, transmitted from the static frequencies of dingy radios. With the chantings, the autumnal dawn ululates with the prime time of Mahalaya, announcing the arrival of our Maa, goddess Durga. On this auspicious day of Mahalaya (Amavasya or the Night of
the New Moon), the Pitru Paksha (fortnight of the Ancestors) supposedly ends by marking the beginning of Devi Paksha (fortnight of the Goddess). This period is referred to as Pitru Paksha because it is observed to honour our ancestors. On this date, a communication path is opened between the two worlds of living and dead to pay homage in the name of our ancestors’ departed souls through a ceremonial ritual known as Tarpan.

It is believed that during Mahalaya, the holy souls of our ancestors descend to the surface near the mortal Earth to live with their families from the break of the day till sunset. The ritual is performed in the early hour of the day near a water body (in Kolkata, most of the people perform this custom in the Ganga river) for the veneration of the deceased so that they can elevate to a higher dimension or the land of immortality and can bless his family while leaving. Apart from Tarpan, there are other rituals like Panchabali or Brahmin Bhojan, through which homage is offered. To perform Tarpan, water, and black sesame seeds are offered. The offering is subjected to pay tribute to the three generations from both the paternal and maternal sides of the family. This ritual is a custom to liberate the souls of our ancestors from the clutches of any ill omen, to pray for prosperity, peace, and longevity, and to bless them with good health and kinship. In Hindu households, this homage offering ritual is performed on several Tithis (date of the fortnight) throughout the year. However, if someone is not aware of the particular day or can’t offer it due to certain reasons, the ritual is done on Mahalaya. On the other hand, in some regions of India, this ritual is performed only on the day of Mahalaya. In South and West India, Pitru Paksha is observed for 15 days when the moon is going down in the Hindu month of Bhadrapada (from September to October). But in North and East India, and Nepal, it happens in the month of Ashvin (Hindu lunar month).

The history of Mahalaya originates from various stories of mythology, epic and folklore. One such story is from one of the greatest epics of India, Mahabharata. When Karna, one of the greatest warriors and King of Anga in Mahabharata, died and went to heaven, he was offered gold as food by Lord Indra, the king of
gods. Karna asks Indra for an explanation as it was not possible to consume gold instead of food. Indra responds that Karna did not offer food in the name of his ancestors, to which Karna protests because he knows nothing about his ancestors until his death, having been abandoned by his biological mother, Princess Kunti, after his birth. Indra took pity on his helplessness and sent Karna back to the mortal world for 15 days to perform the rites of paying
homage to his ancestors with food and water. This period of 15 days has since been called Pitru Paksha.

One of the integral parts of Mahalaya is Chandipath, as Mahalaya marks the beginning of devi-paksh and on that day, Goddess Durga heads out on her journey from Mount Kailash to her parent’s home with her children Ganesha, Kartik, and Laxmi and Saraswati according to several Bengali folk tales. The primary theme of Chandipath is the inglorious celebration of Goddess Durga’s victory upon defeating Asur Raj or Demon King Mahishasura. For this reason, she was also known as Mahishasuramardini. During this time, Bengal and eastern states of India gleamed in the colours of the festival, gearing up to prepare for a ten-day celebration, one of the major festivals celebrated in India. As Mahalaya begins with Chandipath, the narration is mainly divided into three parts- the birth of Mahamaya (from whom goddess Durga was incarnated), thedestruction of Earth as Mahishaura captured the Universe by fleeing gods away and the victory of Durga over evil Mahishasura. Mythology says that the army of gods led by Indra and the demons fought for 100 years until Mahishasura conquered the heavens and became the lord of the universe. The gods under the leadership of Brahma went to the place where Lord Vishnu was sitting with Lord Shiva and told them of their misfortune. When Lord Vishnu heard this, he became so angry that he shot a bolt of energy from his face, as did Lord Shiva, Brahma, Indra and so on. All this energy gathered in one place and took the form of a woman. According to the mythology, it is said that the army of gods led by Indra and demons combated for 100 years, resulting in Mahishasura conquering heaven and becoming the lord of the Universe. Guided with pride, Mahishasura declared that from now on, he is invincible and no ‘God’ can defeat him ever again. The gods, guided by Brahma, went to the place where Lord Vishnu was sitting with Lord Shiva and told them of their misfortunes. When Lord Vishnu heard all of this, he got so angry that he shot a bolt of
energy out of his face, and so did Lord Shiva Brahma Indra, and so on. All of this energy gathered in one spot and took on the form of a woman, a goddess, Durga.

The gods together gave power and weapons to Durga, one by one. The energy from Lord Shiva formed the face; Yama’s energy from her hair; Lord Vishnu’s arms; Moon’s energy from her breasts; Indra’s energy from the waist; Varun’s (water) energy from the thighs and ankles; Brahma’s energy the feet and toes; Vasu’s energy the fingers of the hand; Kuber’s energy her nose; the teeth from the energy of Prajapati; and the three eyes from the energy of Fire (Agni); eyebrows from Sandhya; nose from Vayu (Air); and the other parts and organs from the energies of the other gods. Having taken a radiant form, all the Gods were happy with her and decided to arm her for conflict with Mahishasura. The Hindu gods bestowed upon her a variety of gifts, including a replica of Lord Shiva’s Trishul (trident), a replica of Lord Vishnu’s Sudarshan Chakra, Varun’s
Shankha (conch shell), Agni’s energy, Vayu’s bows and arrows, Indra’s lightning bolt, as well as a bell from the elephant Airavat, Yama’s stick, Varun’s noose, Prayapati’s crystal necklace, Lord Brahma’s water container, Sun’s hair filled with his energy, Kaal’s shield and sword, Ocean’s beautiful necklace, two sets of never-smellable dresses, Tiara, Ear-rings and Bangles, Half-Moon, and Ornaments for arms and feet, and many other items.

Devi Durga was adorned with all these regal regalia and infused with the combined powers of all the deities. She embarked on a nine-day and nine-night battle against Mahishasura. On the tenth day of the campaign, she was victorious. This date is commonly referred to as Bijaya Dashami, the tenth day of victory.

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