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Durga Pujo… Our pride! – Asthami Special

Durga Pujo… Our pride! – Asthami Special

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Durga Pujo

We share this Astami special which reflects on the author’s deep connection to Durga Pujo, a traditional Bengali festival celebrating the goddess Durga. The author describes the anticipation, rituals, and legends associated with the festival and its evolution over the years. The article provides insights into the multifaceted nature of Goddess Durga and the craftsmanship involved in making her idols.

The slightest nip in the air…a deep breath… and there it is again! The pujo pujo gondho…. I cannot quite put my finger on it. The actual dates are some days away. Is it the Shiuli phool that has begun to blossom and spread its distinctive fragrance all around? Or is it the buzz of suppressed excitement all around me? Or the Kaash phool whose lovely heads can be seen swaying in the wind?! A thrill goes through my being in anticipation of the Sharadiyo rhitu which heralds that which is dear to every Bengali’s heart, in fact, every Easterner’s heart… Sharadiyo Utsav, our very own Durga Pujo!

Scenes from my early childhood replay in my head…a dim awareness of my parents bustling about in the wee hours of the morning on Mahalaya… my father bathed and sitting cross-legged in front of the thakurer aashon or shrine and offering til/sesame and water in observance of Til Tarpan, a customary offering of food and water to our departed ancestors on the last day of Pitri-paksha ; my mother too bathed and assisting him, while the All India Radio, Guwahati station, played Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s Chandi Path. There was something sublime and surreal about the whole scene.

Immediately post Mahalaya, things would begin to spice up. There was the frenzy of Pujo shopping…a much-awaited affair. The whole family would troop off to Fancy Bazaar and after hours and hours of endless window shopping, haggling amongst ourselves, haggling with the shopkeepers, snacking on samosasmishtis and cups of chaa at Lakkhi Cabin, return home with the buys, battle-weary but with smiles on all our faces! Pujo was incomplete without Pujor jama-kapor!

The unspoken rule that prevailed during those 5 days of Durga Pujo was that absolutely no kitchen fires were to be burning! The lady of the house decreed that every meal was to be taken either at the community/ paarar pujo, or even better, at spanking new eateries! Nothing else would do! My mother and aunts looked particularly relaxed and happy during those days. The only major decisions required of them were – what clothes to wear, what jewelry to match them with, what new restaurant to visit, what cuisine to try today, etc etc.

And of course, what is Durga Pujo without pandal hopping?! On foot, that too! Yes, we visited all the major pandals of the city, on foot. The high point? Our squeaky new sandals, which cut into the flesh of our feet mercilessly, often making us walk the last few steps limping, bleeding, bare feet even! But who cared! Not us! We were only too happy to be chatting away, gossiping to the high heavens, dreaming about the next sumptuous meal! If we were lucky, our parents would hire a rickshaw for the entire evening….it felt like a luxury l tell you…four people crammed onto one rickshaw, two adults, two kids….like dominoes!

The Ashtami Pujo Anjali, the Aaroti competition and Dhunuchi nach of Navami, the mirth of Sindoor Khela on Vijayadashami, the madness of protima visarjan…… the tears of sadness, of joy…. how exactly does one go about explaining what Durga Pujo means to us? 

A lot has been written about its origins and history… less about the various customs and rituals observed during those ten days. But to fathom the essence of this age-old, logic-defying, humanity-unifying festival, one has to have been born at least an Indian…there is no other way to get it. 

As a child, l had only revelled in the feelings of sweet anticipation and joy that was Durga Pujo… l wasn’t really curious about it. As an adult, however, that changed. I felt a need to know more. 

Delving into several sources, l gathered that a lot about the Durga Pujo was shrouded in mystery or simply lost in time.

 I learned that the word ‘Durga‘ etymologically comes from the Sanskrit word ‘Durg‘, meaning fortress, or that which is difficult to breach/access. 

I also learned that Goddess Durga was one of the more important goddesses of Shaktism, a movement of the Shakta cult of Hinduism, which gained momentum around 400-500 CE.

There was some mention of the name Durga or Durgi in our Vedas before that, though not in the present context. 

A text of particular importance is the Devi Mahatmya, which was written by Markandeya as part of Markandeya Purana. It too is believed to date as far back as 400-500 CE and mentions Goddess Durga as the decimator of the evil buffalo-demon, Mahishasura. The Devi Mahatmya is the holy text that is recited during the ten days of Durga Pujo.

Valmiki’s Ramayana and Manusmriti however do not mention Durga. The epic Mahabharata does mention the warrior goddess, though sparingly.

In Bengal, it was Krittivasi Ramayana, a translation of Valmiki’s Ramayana, by 15th-century Bengali poet-writer Krittibas Ojha, which mentions Goddess Durga being worshipped by Rama to earn her blessings in his battle against Ravana. It is believed to have been his own improvisation.

Some Jain texts dating back to the 11th and 12th centuries also mention the worship of a warrior goddess by the king of that time, annually, whose attributes find resonance in today’s Ma Durga.

Surviving scriptures from the 14th century have been found to lay down clear guidelines for worshipping the Goddess. 

The worshipping of Goddess Durga on a grand scale in Bengal was recorded sometime in the late 15th or early 16th century, mostly by wealthy zamindars or Rajas.

I was intrigued to read that some political historians believe the need for the creation of a fierce and powerful goddess by the Hindus of that era was fostered by the repeated Mohammedan invasions of various regions of India…even the more violent and assertive form of DurgaKali’s presence grew particularly amongst the oppressed Hindu Bengalis in Bengal.

Early Durga Pujos were bonedi, or private affairs of the wealthy. They were held in an inner courtyard or thakur dalan of the mansion or haveli… where people from nearby places came to worship.

The more community or public form of Pujo, initially known as

 barowari, or baro-yari, in honour of the twelve friends of Guptipara, Hooghly, who pooled their resources, was held in 1790. Much later, it morphed into the well-known Sarbajanin pujo.

As l continued my research, l realized that there are innumerable variations of the rituals, ceremonies, and even backstories of this grand amalgamation of religion, culture, history, commerce, and heritage that is Durga Pujo.

Durga Pujo has been variously described as an autumnal festival, spanning 10 days, falling in the month of Ashwin (September-October), celebrating Ma Durga’s victory over Mahishasura; it has also been celebrated as a spring harvest festival, again spanning 10 days, falling in the month of Chaitra (March-April). The former is known as Sharadiyo Utsav and the latter, Vasant Utsav!

When we Bengalis say Durga Pujo, by default we mean the Sharadiyo Utsav

For us, the pujo pujo feeling starts a few days to weeks before Mahalaya, the last day of the Krishna Paksha (dark fortnight), also called Pitri Paksha, and peaks around the 6th day or Shashti of Ashwin-Shukla Paksha, also called Devi Paksha.

Bengalis celebrate the last 5 days of this ten-day period, namely ShashtiSaptamiAshtamiNavami, and Dashami or Vijayadashami, with great traditional fervour, 

Going by the Bengali Krittivasi Ramayana, this autumnal obeisance to the mother is an akal-bodhan or ‘untimely awakening’…apparently originally done by Rama, who worshipped Goddess Durga with 108 lamps and 108 lotuses in order to ensure his victory in battle against Ravana.

At the same time Sharadiyo Durga Pujo is a celebration of the mother’s victory over Mahishasura, the evil and egoistic buffalo-headed demon king, who had driven the gods out of their home, Amaravati, and wanted to rule over the three realms. 

Maa Durga is said to be born of the TrinityBrahma-Vishnu-Shiva, a unification of their divine energies and powers, an embodiment of all that is righteous, good, and powerful, with contributions from all the other male gods who arm her with lethal weapons, for the purpose of killing Mahishasura. 

As the story goes, the demon could not be killed either by man or God, shielded by a boon granted by none other than Brahma. Hence a woman it had to be.

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The God of the HimalayasHimavat gave the Goddess her vahan, or transport, a lion, whom she mounted in all glory. The Goddess fought the shape-shifting demon for nine days and 

vanquished him in a final battle on the tenth day of Devi Paksha, which is hence celebrated as Vijayadashami, a day of celebration of victory, of good over evil.

Interestingly, there is yet another parallel backstory. Bengali Hindus also believe that Goddess Durga visits her baaper baari, natal home, annually once during these days of Ashwin. She sets out from her marital home with her children LakshmiSaraswatiGanesha, and Kartikeya/Skanda on the first day of Devi Paksha and reaches only on the 6th day or Shashti. She and her children are revered and showered with love, adulation, and devotion during their stay and finally seen off on their journey back to Kailash on the tenth day, with the ceremonial visarjan or immersion, tears in all eyes.

Some religious scholars even argue that LakshmiSaraswati are not her children, but manifestations of the mother herself!

So many legends about just one deity! And l have heard there are 33 crore deities in Hindu mythology! Imagine!!

What intrigues me is that, is it not poignant that in this one festival, we are celebrating both Goddess Durga’s benevolence and fury? On one hand, she is a loving, caring, all-sacrificing mother to her children, bestowing only love and blessings and on the other, there is a ruthless, militant, fierce side to her, also worthy of worship. She is UmaGauriParvatiJagatmata, the benevolent mother and she is DurgaKaliChandiKaal Bhairavi, the terrible and astute slayer of evil! Her divine darkness destroys the darkness of greed, lust, jealousy, and hatred.

None amongst us needs to be reminded of the ethereal beauty that Maa Durga is……year after year, from our very cradles, we have seen craftsmen turn out masterpieces of craftsmanship in an effort to personify Goddess Durga’s resplendent allure! But, did you know that according to the Puranas, Devi Durga is Adi parashakti, the formless powerful one? Not only have we given her a physical form, but also take advantage of the amazing flexibility and variation that only Hinduism can offer.

The idol of Ma Durga may have anywhere between 8 to 18 arms, in keeping with her role as a mother, protecting her children from evil, from all directions. She is mounted either on a lion or a tiger. Each of her arms is equipped with symbolic weapons, from the gods. 

The goddess is said to be Triyambake, or three-eyed, just like her consort, Shiva; the right eye represents action and is symbolised by the sun(Surya), the left represents desire, symbolised by the moon (Chandra) and the third eye signifies knowledge, symbolised by fire (Agni)

She is dressed in finery and embellished with jewellery which may be sholar shaaj, made from a special type of reed or shola, or the more expensive daaker shaaj, made from beaten silver, initially procured back then, from Germany, by post or daak.

The making of Ma Durga’s protima/murti/ idol is no less a ceremony. The Kumhaars or Kumars, the potters of Kumartuli, a settlement on the banks of river Hooghly in North Kolkata, embark on this task with a Paata pujo, which is basically an invocation of Ganesha, on the day of Rathyatra, in the month of July. Paata is the wooden base on which the idols stand. 

The materials traditionally used for the protima are bamboo, straw, clay/alluvial soil from different places, and husk. The mixture of sand and clay used in the making of the idol is collected from the banks of the holy Ganga and from the ground outside brothels, a nishiddho palli, or forbidden territory. This is mixed with cow dung and cow urine to result in what is known as Punyamati

The reasoning behind using mud from outside the brothels is that it is believed men leave behind their virtues at the doorstep of brothels before they step inside to sin and hence the mud there is of the highest purity. It is also believed that worshipping Ma Durga entails worshipping a woman in all her forms, in all her facets. Hence, mud from the brothels.

It is not only the skill of the Kumar that determines the finesse of the finished product but also the intensity of love and devotion with which he moulds the clay on the straw.

 For, the perfect protima of Ma has the right proportion of fierceness and tenderness on her visage….one look at her face and her devotee’s heart is full! Her divinity, the sheer radiance of her prowess as a righteous warrior, her fearless posture, the abhaya mudra, similar to her consort, Shiva’s, the soft, motherly glow on her face, drives away all doubts, fears, and wickedness from the hearts and minds of her devotees, her children. No wonder then she is bade a tearful farewell, with a promise to be back, next year. Asche bochhorabar hobe!

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