Devi Durga, originally a non-Aryan deity, came down the ages to be worshipped all over eastern India. Here, ahead of this year’s Durga Puja, we bring the mythology as well as history of Durgotsav
By Sandip Ghosh
Here comes, from October 11 this year, the biggest and most grandiose religious festival of Eastern India, but do we know the worshipping of the female deity started 22,000 years ago?
Unlike in the rest of India, where the same concept of Mother Goddess Durga is worshipped as a single idol over nine days, in the east, she is worshipped for five days, accompanied by her four children, Lakshmi, Saraswati, Kartik and Ganesh.
So where did it all begin?
Oral and written history of Aryan civilization shows that of the four castes prevalent in India in ancient times, the Brahmans, Kshatriyas and Vaishyas, were all entitled to perform the worship of Goddess Durga,
But the Sudras were not, for there was no place for these ‘subalterns’ in the scheme of religious identity of Bharatvarsh.
The pantheon of Aryans was predominantly male deities. The Rig Veda, for instance, mentions just two female deities: Usha, and Saraswati.
Usha, because She was dawn, the relief from the fear of the dark night. And Saraswati, because it was on the banks of this ancient, but now vanished river that the Vedic civilisation of knowledge flourished.
But the non-Aryan civilisation was dominated by the female deity, who was worshipped as the Adya Shakti, or the Primordial Force.
It sounds astounding, but the worship of this female deity started as early as 22,000 years ago, during the Paleolithic Age, as some top scholar opine, when Aryan civilization had not arrived.
The Brahma Vaivarta Puran (an ancient Indian scripture) says that it was Lord Krishna who first introduced the worship of Goddess Durga. Lord Brahma was the second to undertake this worship, and Lord Mahadev was the third.
The Bhagavat Puran (another scripture) says that Brahma’s son ‑created from his mind‑ Manu received the boon from Devi Durga after worshipping her on the sands of the Ocean of Nectar (called Kshirod Sagar in Sanskrit).
The original Ramayan written by the astronomer-sage Valmiki as the official historical record of the then living Ram, the prince and later, the king of Ayodhya, does not mention any Durga Puja.
However, the hybridised and somewhat mutated Krittivasi Ramayan– written in 15th century Bengal by the poet Krittivas Ojha‑does mention that Lord Ram worshipped the Goddess in a special prayer.
Incidentally, the Durga Puja we are about to revel in is related a story to the war between Ram and Ravan.
The former, unable to defeat Ravan, invoked Devi Durga to help him in autumn. But this was not the original time when traditionally Durga used to be worshipped.
As mythology has it, spring is the season when the Gods are awake, and autumn and winter is the time when they are asleep. So this autumnal Durga Puja is termed “Akal Bodhon”, or the ‘unseasonal invocation’.
(Since Valmiki Muni does not mention this in his original history of the reign of King Ram, this story may have come to us only from Krittivasi Ramayan.)
Of the four Yugs, or eras (large periods of time spanning thousands of years) mentioned in the Indian scriptures, Durga was first worshipped in Satya Yug by King Surath and Vaishya Samadhi, followed by her worship by King Ram in Treta Yug.
However, it must be commented that the whole idea of Durga puja as we have it today is a curious mixture of various literary sources and practices as it evolved over the ages.
Mythology of the Sanatan Dharma, the original array of spiritual practices in ancient India, (now erroneously called “Hinduism”) holds that since the Goddess vanquished the demon named ‘Doog’, she came to be known as “Durga”.
This victory was named Vijaya Dashami in Eastern India which is also known as the nine-day ritual of Navratri in North India. This is also termed Dusserah in North India, and Dussehra signifies the descent of River Ganga from the ‘heavens’ after cleansing the Dus(ten) sins.
As most readers are familiar with the feudal history of India, zamindars were very rich landlords with massive estates, and ruled their regions as their fiefs.
Naturally, the Durga Puja being a highly costly and complex affair, could be patronised only by these ‘princely’ families.
The zamindar of the currently north Bengal district of Dinajpur first started Durga Puja in Bengal around 1500 CE.
In 1510, Vishwasingha, the ruler of the Koch tribe (now an area known as Cooch Behar, in northern West Bengal), started the worship of Devi Durga.
The zamindar of Taherpur in hat is now Nadia district started his family Durga Puja in 1580, and invited everyone living in his estate to witness the grandeur of the fest.
In 1606 started the Puja of the zamindar Bhavananda Majumdar, again in Nadia district.
The Savarna Roy Choudhury zamindar family started its own Durga Puja in Borisha in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in 1610.
Durga Pujas thereafter proliferated, with the zamindar or Rangpur, once the capital of the northeast Indian state of Assam, starting his Durga Puja in 1711, followed by the Shobhabazaar Rajbari (palace of the princely estate of Shobhabazaar, Calcutta) in 1757.
Baroyari: Community Puja
But then came a major change!
The first community Durga Puja, in which zamindars had no role to play whatever, was started in a place called Guptipara in Hooghly district. That was in the year 1790.
And while Durga Puja in proper Calcutta was started by Raja Harinath of Cosim bazaar in 1832, the first ever Baroyiari, or community Durga Puja in Calcutta was started in 1910 in Balaram Bosu Ghat Lane.
The organisers were “Sanatan Dharmotsahini Sabha” of the south Calcutta neighbourhood of Bhawanipur.
Such community pujas were also organised round about this time in Ramdhan Mitra Lane and Shikdar Bagan, and there is a curious story behind this concept of ‘Baroyari Puja’.
As we said, Baroyari Puja started in Guptipara of Hooghly district, and there is an interesting anecdote related to how this came to be.
It is said that a few young men from Guptipara had once come to Calcutta to pray at the Durga Puja‑most probably in the palace of Raja Nabakrishna Dev.
But the guards, or what can now be termed “bouncers”, at the palace barred them from entering the precincts of the Puja marquee, and shooed them off by force.
(Though such old zamindar-family pujas have now become annual tourism fixtures, in those days they were strictly restricted to the family members of the estates.)
Thus, the humiliated friends, which in Urdu is termed Yaar, vowed to start Durga Puja away from any so-called aristocratic zamindar family, and organise it for the commoners.
That puja would be organised from community donations. It is believed that there were twelve – or barah – of these yaars, or the friends who were humiliated, which explains the term Baroyari Puja, or the community puja organised by twelve friends.
But even before such community pujas – which is what we see today, mostly because the zamindars are gone – started from Guptipara, there is a slight British touch to our history of Durga Puja in Bengal.
After the East India Company was granted the rights of extracting revenue from Bengal, it decided to assuage the sentiments of the Bengali Hindu aristocracy.
They started organizing Durga Puja from 1875, and this continued till 1940!
But The One we know as Devi Durga today is best described in Sri Sri Chandi or Durga Saptashati, the Primordial Force who is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent.
This is what Bengalis celebrate through the radio programme “Mahalaya” on the dawn of Devi Paksha.
That Devi Paksha starts today.
“Ya Devi Sarvabhuteshu Shaktirupena Sansthita
Namastassiyai Namastassiyai Namastassiyai NamoNamahah!”
(To be continued in Tvam Swahaatvam Swadhaa)
Main Picture : Durga Mahisasuramardini, circa 1885-95, chromolithographic print from Kolkata
What's Your Reaction?
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”