by Shivani Garg
The festival of Durga Puja is coloured with devotional zeal, mythological legends, detailed rituals, extravagant pandals and magnificent tableaux of the divine Mother Goddess and her children. The ten-day festivities of Durga Puja provide one and all with a chance to spread festive cheer and wish their loved ones peace as well as prosperity. The nine different forms of the Hindu Goddess of Power, Durga or Shakti, are worshipped during this time. The last six days of the festival, namely, Mahalaya, Shashthi, Maha Saptami, Maha Ashtami, Maha Nabami and Bijoya Dashami are celebrated with great pomp and show. The Durga Puja celebrations are not limited to elaborate rituals, but include various cultural, music and dance performances given by amateur as well as professional artistes during this time. On the final day of Vijayadashmi, the devotees bid a teary-eyed farewell to the Goddess and her children, as it is believed that they are leaving for their heavenly abode. Their idols are submerged in the water amidst the resonating sound of dhak, to symbolize their departure.
As per the legend, a demon named Mahishasura, through extreme austerity and prolonged meditation, was granted a boon by Lord Brahma that no man, deity or demon could kill him. Thus, thinking of himself as invincible, he became drunk with power, and started wreaking havoc on earth. Soon, he set his eyes on heavens and planned to defeat the Gods as well. It was then that all the deities, along with the Trinity- Lord Vishnu, Lord Shankar and Lord Brahma, combined their energies and created Goddess Durga. Each of her ten hands represents the powers she received from the gods. After a bloody battle, she vanquished the demon and came to be known as Mahishasura mardini.
Large scale and lavish worship of Goddess Durga began in the late 1500s by wealthy landlords or zamindars of Dinajpur and Mandla in the region of Bengal. During the 18th century, Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Shobhabajar, under the patronage of British, organized an elaborate puja in his household. These grand celebrations were open for the royalty as well as peasantry and thus, brought Durgotsavs into the public domain. However, by the 19th century, the pujas started to be more about community gathering rather than show of money and power by the zamindars.
The major step towards the beginning of community puja can be traced to twelve friends of Guptipara in Hoogly, West Bengal, who were the first to collect money from the local residents and organize the first small-scale community puja in 1970, which came to be known as ‘baro-yaari‘ puja (twelve-friends puja). This concept of baro-yaari puja was replicated in Kolkata by Raja Harinath of Cossimbazar, who performed such puja at his ancestral home, Murshidabad from 1824 to 1831. A Rational Approach’ published in The Statesman Festival, 1991.
The small-scale baro-yaari puja gradually transformed into a large-scale sarbajanin, or community puja, by 1910.The first such puja, which was organized by full public contribution, public control and public participation, was established in Baghbazar in Kolkata by the Sanatan Dharmotsahini Sabha. The rise of such community Durga Puja in the 18th and the 19th century is greatly credited for the development of the Hindu Bengali culture.
In contemporary India, Durga Puja has transcended the boundaries of religion and has become a magnificent cultural event that invites one and all to participate in the festivities. The festival is heralded as one of the largest outdoor art festivals around the globe.The significance of the festival lies in the fact that Durga Puja is seen as a symbol which describes the Bengali culture as a whole. Since 1990s, the pandals (makeshift tents) were no longer seen as merely a place to keep the idols, but as an extension of the Durga Puja itself. Thus, stylistic elements began to be added to its exteriors as well as interiors. Today, the pandals are made with painstaking craftsmanship and detailed work that are absolutely splendid. Not only West Bengal but all the other states in India celebrate the festival with their own cultural variations.
It is celebrated in Tamil Nadu as a religious celebration to seek the blessings of Goddess Durga, Goddess Lakshmi and Goddess Saraswati in the nine special nights, known as Navaratri. These three goddesses are worshipped for three days each. One interesting feature as a part of the celebration is the decoration of the “Kolu” or “Golu”- a staircase having 9, 7, 5 or 3 stairs, with each stair being decorated with beautiful dolls- idols of gods and goddesses, scenes of worship, even some secular themes (in some homes, a miniature cricket field is laid out). Traditionally, the dolls are handed down from generation to generation.
It is interesting to note that even today, people in Karnataka celebrate the 9 nights of Navaratri in the same manner as was celebrated way back in 1610 by the great Vijayanagara dynasty. Navaratri is known as “Naada Habba” in Karnataka. The rituals include an elephant procession on the streets, fairs, and exhibitions of handicrafts and artefacts.
Navaratri in Maharashtra implies new beginnings. Married women invite their female friends, put haldi and kumkum on their foreheads and gift them with a coconut, betel leaves and betel nuts. This gesture is referred to as “Saumangalyam” which means remaining the wife of her husband till her death.
For the Hindus in Himachal Pradesh, Navratri is a great celebration. Here, the celebration starts on the tenth day of Navratri when the festival ends in other states. People celebrate the tenth day, also known as “Kullu Dussehra” as the day of return of Lord Rama to Ayodhya. On this day, the idols from the temples are taken out in processions. During the Navratri festival, the devotees visit various temples in Kangra, Una and Bilaspur districts of Himachal Pradesh to offer worship to Goddess Durga.
In Punjab, people fast for the first 7 days of Navratri and end their fast on Ashthami or Navami by worshipping 9 little girls and a boy, which is known as “Kanjika”. The Punjabis organize jagratas where they keep awake the whole night and worship Goddess Shakti.
The tableaux and idols used for worship have also gone through dynamic changes over the period of time. For example, although Durga is still worshipped along with her four children and some attendant deities, in earlier times all these were part of a single tableau; now they are all depicted individually.
In the contemporary times, Bengali food represents the most crucial aspects in the celebration of Durga Puja. In particular, dishes like Dhokar Dalna, panch bhaja, paayesh, ol sheddho, Mocha-r-Ghanto, Bhapa Ilish etc are prominent.
On the whole, the history behind Durga Puja takes us to a long ride which carries with it, the elaborate rituals, customs, traditions as well as provides a blend of lifestyles which have evolved with time not only in West Bengal but throughout the country.
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