Scholar-writer Sandip Ghosh brings out the finer aspects ‑ and some culinary ‘asides’ ‑ of Durga Puja in Bengal, which is in its second day today, and despite the COVID-19 scare, Maa is spreading Her warmth and blessings
The invocation of Maa Durga has started. Today is Maha Shaptami, the seventh day of north India’s Navratri and the second day of Bengali Durga Puja
Tvam Swahaa Tvam Swadhaa Tvam Hi Vassattkaarah Swara-atmikaa
Sudhaa Tvam-Akssare Nitye Tridhaa Maatra-[A]atmikaa Sthitaa
(You are Swaha (Sacrificial oblations to the gods), You are Swadha (Sacrificial oblations to the manes), You are indeed Vasatkara (Exclamation during sacrifice after which the oblation is poured).
You are the essence behind these Swaras (Exclamations during sacrificial oblations, and thus the One to Whom all Sacrificial Oblations go),
You are the Nectar within the Akshara (Om), residing eternally as the essence behind the three Maatras (O-U-M).
Thus it is that we Her children have gathered to ensure that Maa has a pleasant time with us after Her arrival from Mount Kailash, and before She returns there after four days.
For in the meantime, Lord Shiva is watching us. (Did you fail to notice that on the top of every Durga idol in every pandal(marquee) is the image of Lord Shiva?)
Now then, having come to Her children, it is festivity time. So what will She do?
In Calcutta, traditions abound.
It is said that the “Beauty Queen” of the entire universe that She is, Maa goes to the Jorashanko Palace (of the erstwhile Tagore zamindari) to adorn Herself with Her jewellery.
Let us now check out the menu at the various aristocratic households…
Kalai Daal(known as Udad Daal in north India, or Bombay Split), along with masala bodi are musts at the residency of Savarna Roy Choudhury of the Borisha neighbourhood of Central Calcutta.
(In fact, all these zamindar homesteads are in North-Central Calcutta).
In the Mallick household of Boro Baazar, there will be loochi, Aalu and Potol Bhaja, Dhokar Dhalna and five types of sweet.
The nadus of the Haldar family of Bagh Baazar are famous.
The Daa family next to Girish Park along the present Central Avenue is fabled for their serving Maa with 45 special platters and lighting 108 lamps.
The Dutta family of Balaram Dey Street offers Maa Loochi, khastakochuri, Ledikeni, darbesh and nadu.
And mete chacchari is a must on Navami (ninth day) in Shobha Bajar Raaj Bari. And magnum sized monad (sweets) top the food pile at the family puja of Abhay Charan Mitra in Kumartuli in Central Calcutta.
An integral part of the Bengali Durga Puja is the dakershaaj. So what is that? It is a measure of their fabulous wealth that Shobha baazar zamindari family first started decorating the idol with silver foils.
Since that was not available in the country, it was imported from Germany, and used to come in postal parcels, and postal system was called dak hence the term dakershaaj.
But for a flash back now.
The entire sequence of Durga Puja starts with Mahalaya, a ceremony that has become synonymous with the fabled, 90+ years of the longest radio programme anywhere in the world, led by the redoubtable – and inimitable – late Birendra Krishna Bhadra.
The dramatisation of Mahisashurmardini, scripted by Bani Kumar and out to musical score by Pankaj Mullick, was first recorded in 1931 and revised seven times till it came to the form it is now in.
The new moon night of the Bengali month of Aashwin sees the end of Pitri Paksha, when at dawn the next morning the male members of the family offer tarpan to the ancestors, and thus begins Mahalaya that marks the onset of the Devi Paksha fortnight, in which falls the Durga and Lakshmi Pujas.
On the dawn of that day, water and til are offered to the ancestors, accompanied by mantras, which is called tarpan.
The root of the word tarpan is trup, or propitiation. Water is offered to the ancestors beginning the first day of the new moon phase of the month of Bhadra by the Indian lunar calendar. This lasts the next fortnight ending in Mahalaya.
Tarpan aims also to eradicate the burden of past sins.
Before bidding adieu, let me put in a word about Navapatrika, which is a crucial part of Durga Puja.
Nava Patrika means the Nine Plants, which are clearly mentioned in the scriptures. And each plant denotes a deity.
The banana plant symbolises the Brahmani (in scriptures, She is Brahma’s consort). Rice stalk is Goddess Lakshmi. Haridra, or turmeric is Uma, consort of Lord Shiva. Maan Kochu (Taro in English) is Chamanda. Bael represents Shivani. Kaal Kochu is Goddess Kalika. Daleem(pomegranate) represents Raktadantika. Ashok is Durga. And the stem of Jayanti is Kartika.
One of the most crucial moments of the Durga Puja, which most devotees flock to watch, is the Sandhi Puja. Sandhi comes from the term sandhikshan, or the cross over point between two major phases.
This spans the last 24 minutes of the Ashtami tithi and the first 24 minutes of Navmai tithi, the conjunction at which Maa Durga finally slays Mahisashur.
Historical and mythological sources suggest that the worshipping of Devi Durga in Bengal dates back to around 1,000 years or more. The ten-handed idol of Durga has been found in the rest of north and south India, and as far off as Bali islands.
There is mention of the Fire-draped Durga in the Durga Puran in our ancient scriptures, the Upanishads. In Kena Upanishad, She is mentioned as Haimavati.
In Markendeya Purana, She is worshipped as both, the Unknowable Mahamaya and also in Her earthly form as we see Her today. It is this text that first mentions Her as Chinmayee.
But what about Devi Durga’s four children, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Karitk and Ganesh, the way we see Her descending on earth for four days (as per he Bengali tradition)?
There is no mention of this in Kalika Puran, which is the meditative form most often practiced. This is found only in Kali Vilas Tantra.
Ya Devi Sarvabhuteshu Matrirupena Sansthita
Namastasyai Namastasyai Namastasyai Namo Namaha!
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Sandip Ghosh lives in Salt Lake City, Kolkata. He stays clear of politics, sports or regular curricular studies, but loves learning varied issues. His personal romance is theatre. Now 61, he has worked in various embassies and private organisations, but ploughs himself back into acting whenever he can. His latest book is titled “Theatre in the Districts and Suburbs”