“Yaa Devi Sarvabhuteshu Shaktiruupenna Samsthitaa |
Namastasye Namastasye Namastasye Namo Namah ||”
–To that Devi Who in All Beings is Abiding in the Form of Power,
Salutations to Her, Salutations to Her, Salutations to Her, Salutations again and again.
In the pre-dawn chilly hours of 4:00 A.M., the sound of conch shells is echoing from the radio. The Chandipath piercing the solemn air of Bengali households, the voice of the legendary Birendra Krishna Bhadra waking up millions around the globe with a hair-raising quiver in his tone, is the testimony to the fact. Mahalaya has arrived, and thus, the pujo-pujo feel has begun. This profound chant, which finds its origin in the Rig Veda, encapsulates the essence of the divine feminine in the form of power (Shakti) and omnipresent consciousness (Chetana). Penned by Sage Vak, it serves as an ecstatic reminder that Mother Divine transcends time and the universe. The Divine Mother is beyond all material attributes, eternal and ever omniscient. She is beyond any change, immutable and unattainable, but by yoga. She is the refuge of the universe, and her nature is of pure consciousness.
The supreme shakti Maa Durga, the invincible one, is revered as the Mother Deity from whom comes forth the creation, sustenance, and the dissolution of all beings and worlds alike. Relentlessly she restores peace and balance in the world, granting protection and equanimity to her devotees. Shakti means energy, and Devi Shakti is the primordial source of unseen energy, sustaining this creation. The Devi Shakti, or the feminine spirit, manifests itself in many forms. It encompasses and supplements qualities such as strength, transformation, anger, beauty, compassion, fear, and power- capturing the spirit of what it means to be feminine and essentially human. These qualities are reflected in each individual, in different events, and in this universe as a whole.
According to the Puranas, Goddess Durga was born from the powers of the supreme trinity, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, to defeat the mighty buffalo demon, Mahishasura. Because she is a consolidation of their collective energy, she is known as Shakti and is more significant than any of them. Perceived as Devi and the Goddess Parvati, Goddess Durga is the creator and the protector of the universe and the destroyer of evil, the perfect confluence of the Hindu trinity. Thus, Durga is the Adi Shakti, taking form from the combined energies of the male gods, stridently aggressive, striding on the lion of misogyny, patriarchy, defiant and invincible in a bloody albeit allegorical battle going beyond subversive gender roles and subaltern narratives like caste, class and the anti-hero. She is the warrior goddess, combating evil – the shape-shifting Asura – King Mahishasura – who symbolically represents the dark forces of ignorance and chaos cloaked by outer appearances. She displays the fierceness of the protective Mother Goddess willing to unleash her violence and wrath against wrong (personified in the form of Kali) to empower life and creation through destruction. The fight is of the good over evil, justice over the injustice of tyranny, bias, and exploitation: all forms of inequities in society, particularly ones women face. Within the great symbolic value and veneration of the female and the feminine, there lies the element of power, choice, and freedom every woman is entitled to have.
Her eternal divinity is honoured with utmost reverence during the festival of Durga Puja in West Bengal and other Eastern states and as Navratri in the Northern and Western parts of the country. Durga Puja is believed to have started during the 15th century. Its essence lies in the mythological tales that transform the Goddess into a loving mother, a special daughter, and a beautiful wife, apart from the symbol of good prevailing over evil.
Kanti Bhattacharya, a Brahmin priest at 82-year-old Durga Puja pandal in Khadki Kalibari, Pune, says, this festival is about women’s empowerment, whereby a form of the Mother Goddess, Shakti, incarnates as goddess Durga inculcating the purest power of all the gods to kill the asura (demon) named Mahishasur. While all of this is mythological lore, it also has deep symbolic significance in recent times and will always be relevant”. Explaining the details of the puja, he adds, “As mentioned, Durga is the amalgamation of powers given to her by devatas (gods), which are in the form of 10 different weapons in her 10-handed physical self.”
Durga Pujo is the crux of the Bengali culture, the biggest homecoming event for any Bengali, the grandeur of which is so striking and serene at the same time. The tranquil clear, cerulean skies interspersed with voluminous clouds – a tinge of insubstantial pink and white that drift across the sky into their depths. The Kaash Phool (Saccharum spontaneum), radiantly waving amongst the green pastures in broad meadows, exudes the aroma of autumn and serenity. Together they exhibit one of the sublimest and most beautiful scenes in nature as if the earth has basked herself in a distinct eminence to welcome the arrival of Maa.
A year after subdued Durga Puja celebrations, 2021 saw a more festive atmosphere at the puja mandaps in Kolkata and other parts of West Bengal. While elaborate arrangements are in place for devotees, keeping in mind an impending third wave of Covid 19, it was the rigorous pace of vaccination that allowed organizers to notch up the scale of celebrations this year. Hyderabad Bangalee Samiti, which marks its 80th Durga Puja festivities this year, allowed only 50 devotees inside the mandap at a time and 100 of them on the premises to ensure crowd control. The barricades and volunteers were also employed on the venue, and the idol of the Goddess was relatively much smaller in size. The Bangiya Sanskritik Sangha made two doses of a Covid-19 vaccine mandatory to enter the venue. Similarly, the Utsab Cultural association regulated the entries based on a two-dose certificate or a negative RT-PCR test result. Other Pandals saw time slots allotted to different devotes, specific areas for children and the elderly devotes, and smaller idol sizes for crowd control.
Even as Kolkata’s Durga Pujo has changed immensely since it first took modern shape in the 18th century, its core has been preserved. Its social, cultural, and political role still holds, in a manner somewhat similar to how it was imagined three centuries back. Earlier zamindars would compete to show who was boss; today, pujo committees do, their finances coming not from land revenue but modern capitalism in corporate endorsements. The relatively small role of worship – ironic in a religious festival – has also been preserved. Durga pujo in Kolkata is more about community, art, and culture than any strict observance of religion. Pandals and idols are meant to be seen by the masses as public works of art, and only a small minority end up going through any ritualistic form of faith. Very often, idols even convey a political point – most famously, in 2001, one pujo had Durga slaying a demon in the likeness of Osama bin Laden.
The growth of a Bengali identity meant that more myths were added to the imagining of Durga. To her worship as a mother and warrior were added the beautiful backstory of her returning to her parent’s house – which, in this case, was Bengal – for an autumnal holiday, thus also worshipping her as a daughter. Forces similar to those that imagined her as a nationalistic icon pushed Durga out of the courtyard of the zamindari mansion and made the pujo a truly mass event. A famous origin tale of the collective pujo dates to 1790, where 12 friends are supposed to have got together and organised a baro-yari (12 comrades) pujo. However, breaking free of the zamindar mansion, the Durga Pujo in its modern sense, as a sarbajanin, community event dates to 1910, where the Sanatan Dharmotsahini Sabha held a collectively funded pujo in Kolkata’s Baghbazar.
During Durga Puja, the unsubduable spirit and unquenchable energies of Bengalis reach the yearly high, holding everyday life to ransom. The indomitable spirit of festivity surrounds them as hundreds and thousands of gaily-decorated pandals – those magnificent creations made of bamboo, cloth, plywood, and imagination – come up everywhere. As competition for attention and honour drove the organisers, novelty, and experimentation has reached a new frenzy. There is nearly 36,000 community Durga Pujas in West Bengal, including around 2,500 in Kolkata. Images of Durga are crafted in every medium possible – from betel nuts and glass bangles to nuts and bolts – in fact, anything. Kolkatans have thus seen every wonder of the world as huge pandals were skilfully designed to look like the Taj Mahal, the Statue of Liberty, or the Eiffel Tower. Even the Titanic has featured as a puja pandal, as have the Twin Towers. The Pandals house the mammoth but exquisitely sculpted figures of Durga and her family. The whole neighbourhood is transformed into a Disney land of lights, animation, and music that the organisers conjure. This is, incidentally, when the rest of India observes Navaratri, the nine holy nights and days of piety, restraint, fasts, and vegetarianism. Bengalis revel gorging on their favourite dishes and sweets, maintaining the spirit of community.
Dhak beats, the incessant rhythmic drumming percolates the static air and conjures the face of the Mother divine in our minds. A most identifiable icon of the Durga Puja festivity, Dhaks are beaten while worshipping the Goddess, Dhunuchi Naach, aarti in the mornings and evenings from the beginning to the end of the festival. Dhunuchi Naach is a traditional dance performed by boys, girls, men, and women holding earthen lamps full of burning coconut shells with both hands and facing the Goddess. The beats of Dhak accompany the rhythmic moves of their dancing feet.
As per the Bengali rituals, on Shoshti, the sixth day of the Durga Puja, the ceremony begins with Bodhon, which involves waking up the gods and goddesses. Invoking the Goddess from her sleep with sounds of mantra, conch shells, drums, and bells, amidst the smoke of holy incense sticks and flowers: the daughter is welcome with utmost reverence. The Goddess is then invoked by worshipping the Nabapatrika (nine different plants), representing the nine forms of Goddess Durga.
The next day of Maha Saptami is the day when the Maha Puja starts with ‘Nabapatrika Snaan’ being the most critical ritual performed just before the crack of dawn. A banana tree is bathed in sacred water and adorned with a saree thereafter. It is then carried back and placed next to the idol of Lord Ganesha, who is said to have married her, a ritual popularly known as the Kola Bou Snaan.
Every day of the festival marks the battle between good and evil, whereby the goddess takes different forms and uses different weapons to fight the asuras (demons). The eighth day or Ashtami is when the worship of ‘Chamunda’ or goddess Kali commences. The ceremony is Shondhi Puja and begins in the last 24 minutes of Ashtami and continues till the first 24 minutes of Nobomi, or the ninth day. During the ritual, a total of 108 lamps are lit, and with the same number of lotus flowers, we rejoice in the victory of the goddess. It is on this day that she triumphs over Mahishasur.
Later, on the ninth day, a ritual of ‘Kumari puja,’ meaning worship of the goddess in the form of young girls, is carried out. On the last day, Vijayadashami, representing the 10th day of victory, cacophonies of conch shells, dhak (drum) beats along with sounds of ‘ulu’ ward off negative spirits. The goddess is then bid adieu elegantly and extravagantly. One of the most exciting parts of the day lies in the Sindoor Khela. Here, married women offer baran (farewell) in betel leaf, sweets, and vermillion to the Devi. After this, the ladies apply sindoor in the parting of each other’s hair and smear the rest of it on each other’s faces: a prayer to the Devi for the health and peace of their families and spouses. Dressed in laal-paar-saada-sarees (white saree with crimson border) and covered in red vermillion, the joy is evident from the women’s faces.
Followed by the Sindoor Khela, Bisorjon (immersion) of the idol of the Devi is the concluding ceremony to the Durga puja. For some, it is an emotional moment to see Maa leaving. The idol of Maa Durga and the Nabapatrikaare immersed in the river surrounded by the vast crowds of devotees that have come to see them off. The water (Shanti Jal) collected from the immersion spot is sprinkled on the devotees embracing the calm left behind by Maa. Teary-eyed, people return home with the Devi housed in their hearts.
While a tussle between celebration and caution ensued, the ‘pujo’ became more about home and family rather than community. The unquenchable sentiments of joy, love, and celebration spike in wee hours, binding people through an emotional string of happiness and togetherness regardless of who they are or what culture they associate with. The essence of the Pujo lies in the emotions of pure bliss during these nine days. Families reunite, Dida’s (grandmothers) meet their grandchildren, friends gossip, and share the bond of love and hope formed in the numerous pandals spread across cities, with the Devi keeping a watchful eye over all. Aasche Bochor Abar Hobe.