Durga Puja - Worshipping the Wife of Shiva, Daughter of Bengal

Article of the Month - Aug 2021

This article by Latika Lahiri

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An Untimely Invocation

Durga Puja is more than the periodically observed navratra in the subcontinent, or a joyous autumn harvest festival. Spiritually, it runs so much deeper than that: it marks the battle of Devi Durga with the king of asuras, Lord Mahishasura. The great austerities of the latter had earned him from Brahma Himself the boon that he could be overpowered by no male, and it had filled the buffalo-king ('mahish' in Sanskrit means 'buffalo') with the kind of arrogance that is possible only at the realm of the asuras.

So when the devaloka army succumbed to him in battle, they gathered in great solemnity to put together a nari-roopa (female form) that would be the death of him. While the very idea of it was laughable to Mahishasura, he ended up vanquished and bleeding at Her feet - a powerful image, the Mahishasuramardini (in Sanskrit 'mardini' means 'female annihilator'), that is traditionally reproduced in abundance across Bengal, Odisha, and Assam during the Durga Puja festival.

Ten-Armed Mahishasuramardini

The iconography is unmistakable. The Devi is usually atleast a storey tall, with some of the most famous pandal-pujas commissioning idols that are the size of complete buildings. She is dashabhujadhari (ten-armed), the weapons She holds in each gifted to Her by the devas responsible for Her srishti (projection).

The Creation Of Devi

Her stance is decidedly ferocious, as She is mounted on an equally ferocious lion. She has brought the arrogant Mahishasura to his knees: the spear-end of Her trishool (trident) pierces the demon's body and draws blood, resulting in His vadh (killing). His defeated black mahish lies at Her feet. While Her beauteous countenance is famously wrathful, Mahishasura's face is contorted with pain. This central figure is flanked by Ganesha-Lakshmi to Her right and Sarasvati-Kartik to Her left, which are around half the stature. All five figures may be given a solid aureole (ekchala) or one to each figure. Above the crown of Ma Durga, at the crest of the aureole, is placed an image of Her Lord Shiva.

In this light, Durga Puja is a celebration of the quintessential victory of devotion over arrogance, of divine love over worldly ego, of dharm over adharm. Purushottam Rama was the first to invoke the Katyayani-roopa of Devi Durga for His endeavour to slay Lankesh Ravana. The latter being the shishya (student) of none other than Lord Brahma, Rama would never have been able to destroy him and rescue His wife Seeta from his demonic clutches without calling upon Her. This is considered an untimely invocation because Durga Puja was originally observed in the spring navaratri. Called Basanti Puja (in Sanskrit 'basanta' means 'spring'), it is celebrated to this day on a similar scale but in limited pockets of the delta. The more iconic festival of the fall, when Bhagavan Rama is said to have evoked her upon Tretayuga, is called 'akaal bodhon', which literally means 'an untimely invocation'.

Mahishasura-Mardini Ten-armed Durga

The akaal bodhon Durga Puja has evolved into great socio-cultural significance in the Eastern Delta region, and is the lifeblood of Bengalis everywhere. It is said that Devi Durga is the daughter of Bengal; having been married to Lord Shiva, She pays this annual visit to Her maiden home with Her four children, Ganesha, Lakshmi, Sarasvati, and Kartika.Her stay is commemorated with an abundance of ritual and art and feasting, which comes to an end in five days' time. Then She in Her image of Mahishasuramardini is immersed into the sacred Ganga, whose currents bear Her back to Her home in Kailash Parvat, which She shares with Her husband.

The Making Of Mahishasuramardini

Durga Puja is a socio-cultural phenomenon, of which traditional spirituality is an integral part. The first sign that the Devi Durga is making preparations to travel to her girlhood home is when the scent of shiuli (Asian jasmines) seeps into the air one morning.

Together with the petrichor of the retreating Bengal monsoon, the redolence is strong and heady; almost intoxicating. Durgotsav committees, called sarbojonin (public) committees, gather with great enthusiasm, and over the course of a few quick meetings begin to collect chanda (locally pooled resources) to put together the lavish arrangements to welcome Her home.

Goddess Durga as Mahishasura Mardini

The members of these committees, usually a bunch of young men who have grown up together in the neighbourhood, come together by consensus - and just like that dissolve days after the last rites of the puja. They oversee the baroari, which literally means 'twelve friends' and refers to the public organisation of the puja: setting up the pandal (makeshift temple) in the respective territory of each committee, the ritual worship, and the accompanying cultural celebrations. The name owes itself to the first public Durga Puja in the late 1700s in Bengal conducted by twelve Brahmin friends - till then Durga Puja was a strictly family affair. Amidst the profusion of pristine orange-stemmed shiuli, schools and offices progressively declare vacation, and people dive into a shopping spree. Bamboo frameworks mushroom up at cross-walkable points across cities and villages, each marking the territory of the sarbojonin committee that is organising the puja. Girls and boys gather to rehearse folk song and dance routines for the big days of the festival, which include shashti (sixth day of the navratri), shaptami (seventh), ashtami (eighth), navami (ninth), and dashami (tenth).

In truth, Durga Puja starts shortly after it ends. As the sharat (fall) of celebrations makes way for the region's winters and the soothing chant of 'ashchhe botshor abar hobe' (roughly translates to 'here's to next year's') creeps into the Bengali parlance, artisans in the Calcutta neighbourhood of Kumartuli quietly begin work on the pratima (idol) to be used in the puja of the ensuing year. In Bengali, 'kumar' means 'potter' and 'tuli' means 'colony'. Located in the heart of the sorrowfully fading, northern recesses of the city, it is in the studios of the traditional artisans residing here that the best of the pratima are made for sarbojonin committees the world over. Fashioned from compressed clay and painted with endemic pigments, the simplest pratima - a set of five idols comprising of Devi Durga and Her children, Ganesha-Lakshmi-Sarasvati-Kartik - takes months to be finished.

Image-Makers of Kumortuli and The Durga Puja Festival

The size and complexity of the finished pratima depend on the commission of the sarbojonin committee in question (a single family of potters may be working on multiple commissions). For example, Ekdalia Evergreen Club and Rajdanga Naba Uday Sangha, sarbojonin committees from South Calcutta, are famous for their unconventional themed pandals and idols. Over the years they have made honeycomb pandals with clay honeybee installations in addition to the pratima inside, a Kailash Mansarovar pandal, and a burning white-saree pandal with a pratima inside that changed Her roopa from a sadhva to a vidhva depending on the light projections built into the walls.

No matter how early the work begins on these magnificent devotional pieces, artisans leave the painting of the pratima's eyes for the last. It is done at sunrise on the day of the mahalaya, and is said to infuse the idol with life (prana prathista).

In the Name of the Goddess (The Durga Pujas of Contemporary Kolkatta)

The mahalaya is a relatively recent phenomenon in Bengal. It translates from the Sanskrit to 'great lyric', and refers to the wildly popular radio programme that is annually broadcast at dawn on an amavasya (no-moon hour). It comprises of the late Birendra Krishna Bhadra's iconic Chandipath (chanting of scriptural verses from Durga Saptashati), followed by devotional folk music celebrating the beauty and strength of Devi Durga. It is said that the day of the mahalaya is when She had taken birth amongst the greatest Devas of the Hindu pantheon. The date is calibrated from the local panchang (almanac) and usually falls around ten days prior to panchami (fifth day of the navratri). It is the day of much feasting and celebration, and is the point when the preparations begin in full measure. Schools and offices declare vacation; businesses flourish; and groups of residents of a single neighbourhood visit Kumartuli en masse in order to take a look at the finished pratima prior to delivery to their pandal. On Panchami, the pratima are installed in their respective pandals and the puja begins. At dawn the next day, the pandals are thrown open to the public for darshan and anjali (guided offering).

Devipaksha, The Hour Of The Devi - From The Agaman (Arrival) To The Baran (Ritual Farewell)

Between Mahalaya and the first day of the puja, which could be either panchamikalpa (puja starts on the fifth day of the navratri) or saptamikalpa (on the seventh day), the tarpan ritual is of utmost importance. It is done to cleanse oneself of one's attachments, satiate the ego and reign it in to make space for devotion to the Devi who is on Her way. It involves complex offerings and chants to reminisce one's ancestors, in order to draw from them the requisite strength for vanquishing the ego. A ghatpuja precedes the main puja, which in itself is a complete ceremony. The object of worship in this puja is a highly specific arrangement, at the centre of which is a ritual pot of baked clay painted over with brightly-pigmented mercury.

Durga Pooja

Besides that it comprises of a mound of the local moist earth of the delta, dhaan (wisps of paddy) that are said to become prasfutita (infused) with life upon mantrochcharan (chanting), and handpicked durva (locally gowing sacred grasses) whose three-pronged tips resemble the trishool (trident) of Lord Shiva. A sprig of the mango plant, which needs to be either five- or seven-tipped, completes the ghat arrangement, which is then placed within a network of red- or white-coloured bamboo sticks and yarn. The all-important ghatpuja is followed by the ahavaan, which is a heartfelt summon and ritual welcome of Devi Durga done at the dawn of panchami or saptami, depending on the kalpa chosen.

The puja starts with Ganesha, for He is the lord of all beginnings, followed by worship of the guru of the presiding Brahmin. Then there is worship of the panchadevta (five lords of devaloka inclusive of Shiva, Vishnu, Brahma, Durga Herself, and Ganesha), to which a sixth entity, usually the ishtadevta, is often added. This is followed by worship of the panchabhoota (five elements), which are vyom (ether), vayu (air), tej (heat, agni or fire), jal (water), and prithvi (earth). It is worth noting that the typical Hindu puja comprises of each of these elements, to which Durga Puja is no exception. In fact, it is impossible to solemnise this puja without prithvi from multiple sources. Often, prithvi from all the prescribed sources are replaced by that from a single source, the tulsitala (the roots of the sacred basil plant), which is said to be replete with every imaginable divine quality. By the time it is mid-morning, the Devi Puja finally begins. It is then that Bengalis dressed to the height of folk fashion, the women clad head to toe in gold, step out of their homes for anjali and bhog at their local pandal puja. The anjali ritual is one of great charm and serves as a bonding exercise. Residents congregate before the pratima (in batches), and a basket of freshly plucked flowers is passed around amongst them. With a fistful of these flowers pressed in the namaskaram mudra, they repeat mantras after the priest and offer them at the the feet of the pratima. The ashtami anjali is considered the most auspicious, the ensuing bhog being sattvik in nature. While that is quite an exception to the Bengali diet, the navami bhog is more rooted in regional delicacies - sacrificial meats, rice, and puddings.

Our Festivals: Durga Puja

The streets are thronged with pandal-hoppers no matter the time of day or night, with darshanarthis queueing up at the most popular pandal-pujas. Cultural programmes - folk dances and drama and music, you name it - are hosted at the pandal each evening. Ashtami, called mahashtami ('maha' in Sanskrit means 'great'), is the most important day of the festival, with the choicest sarees and dhotis reserved for the day's anjali and pandal-hopping. For a few hours at dawn and at dusk every day of the puja, the earthy sound of dhaak (folk drums the size of a full-grown man) and kashor (folk gong of the handheld variety) fill the air.

Each sarbojonin committee appoints a group of dhaakees, amongst which is a kashor-guy, to come and play at their pandal for all days of the puja. Their arrival at the pandal, marked by a symbolic round of music, is looked forward to as much as the arrival of the pratima Herself. The aaratis are accompanied by ample dhaak and kashor, the sound of women's ulu (a trilling done from the base of the throat), and the mystical dance of the dhunuchi. The dhunuchi is a goblet of baked earth, within which is a slow-burning mass of coconut husk and camphor. When men and women carry out complex dance routines before the pratima with these goblets in both hands, the translucent silver smoke that emanates from them form around their figures an ethereal enclosure.

Durga Puja: Celebrating the Goddess - Then and Now

These days of heightened spiritual fervour, family gathering, and festive celebration and feasting sustain a lull at shondhikkhon. Shondhikkhon is the transition between ashtami and navami, marked by the quietly conducted Shondhipujo. It is a puja of that fateful moment, which kind of reminds devotees and revellers that the time for Devi Durga to return to Her husband is drawing closer. In this light, navami doesn't have the life and bustle of shaptami and ashtami; it bears the beginnings of a heaviness creeping into the air, a seriousness that is often distracted from by traditional games in the evenings. Residents of a neighbourhood, ie those who have done all the pandal-hopping they meant to do that season, gather for conch-playing, trilling, and diya-lighting competitions. The women compete to see who could play the longest note on the trill/conch or light the maximum diyas on a multi-tiered traditional lamp with a single match, while the men cheer them on with music and witty commentary.

On dashami the next day, one could sense the pall that descends upon the delta. The crowds of pandal-hoppers on the streets have thinned out, and the puja-anjali-bhog of the day are not half as lively as on the days past. A nap post the afternoon bhog, shortly afore twilight, the women of the neighbourhood could be found at the altar with the fully-laden dala (winnow) in their hands. This is for the baran (acceptance) ritual, which is of great importance in the Indian patriarchal tradition: shortly before her daughter's departure to her husband's home, be it prior to the bridal vidai or upon an annual visit, the mother does her shringar as an indication of the painful acceptance that she now belongs elsewhere. These women, with tears in their eyes, caress the pratima's face and touch homemade shondesh (sweets made from condensed milk) to Her lips, knowing full well that She will soon be gone from amidst them for a whole year.

Large Ashtabhuja-dhari Simhavahini Goddess Durga

It is during baran that the countenance of Ma Durga's pratima seems to take on a sombre composure, an inexplicable phenomenon that every Bengali knows in their heart to be true... Students gather at the feet of Devi Sarasvati with their books or at Devi Lakshmi's with their instruments, to touch them to the feet of the respective Devis and collect the anjali flowers from the pratima. Later in the evening, sadhvas (married women) of all ages and kanyas (girls yet to be married) get together for the famous shindoor-khyala, which is just smearing each other with ample proportions of herbal-made vermillion in good cheer. It is a sight to watch because the sadhvas are in their wedding sarees, the kanyas in red-bordered white ones, as they frolic in and around the pandal with platefuls of shindoor in their hands. All this goes on in the presence of the shindoor- and shondesh-smeared pratima, the music of dhaak and kashor and women's laughter filling the air. The red-bordered white saree is of especial significance to the Bengali woman, because it is said that these two colours define the life of a woman. This shindoor-khyala is the last of the one-of-a-kind festive cheer that defines the season.

Visarjan Blues - The Transience Of It All

Ma Durga's time in Her girlhood home draws to a close. Now is the final throes of festive exuberance. Spirits are at the zenith of good cheer as the concluding puja is done, and the pratima painstakingly loaded onto trucks summoned for the purpose. It is at this point that an army of dhaakees start playing their drums and gong, not to cease making music till the night is out. Slowly and steadily the truck carrying the pratima heads to the nearest tributary of the holy Ganga in the form of a procession, at the forefront of which is the band of dhaakees followed by revelling devotees determined to give their beloved Devi a joyous farewell. It is mere moments before the signature visarjan (to give up the pratima), before the colours and the music and the fervour of the eve of dashami plunge into unspeakable sorrow.

There is usually a queue of processions of other pujas at the ghaat (riverbank). Each one awaits their turn while continuing with the revelry, which begin to lose momentum as the waters come into view. The pratima, Devi Durga being the last, are taken turns to be borne off the truck. With Her on their shoulders, the men take three pradakshina (rotations) called teen-paak at the mouth of the current, while the women are trilling in unison with tears in their eyes. There is no denying that this is the most poignant moment of Durga Puja. Within seconds, the heart-rending sound of the back of the Durgapratima hitting the waters (niranjan, which means immersion) brings the trilling to an end.

The music of the dhaak-and-kashor gradually fade into the inky tropical night. The sorrowing women stare out into the current as long as She is within view, but are drawn away by their menfolk and helped onto the truck. The children are weeping for Her to not go, only to be shushed by their mothers who strike fear into their innocent hearts of a Shiva angered by His wife's prolonged absence, breaking into tandava. The journey back to the neighbourhood, to the now-empty pandal, is forlorn and painfully swifter.

Durga Puja (Puja Series) (Audio CD)

Dawn is yet to come. The pratima does not greet you any longer as you walk into the pandal. You look around, perhaps tearfully, to realise that it is going to be dismantled the following morning. In Her place stands a painted dia (clay lamp), whose flame is a poor imitation of the glamour of Ma Durga's mukhmandal (countenance). It makes you wonder, was it ever at all like this? Was it ever devoid of Her divine presence? Alas, it is Vijaya dashami, the victorious tenth day. Having been overcome by the transience of it all, it is time to return to a world which despite everything is pervaded by all that She stands for - the infinite strength of the self, the goodness of dharma. It is the only thing that lasts; neither this life that is entwined with such debilitating pleasures and pains, nor the akaal (untimely) stay of Bengal's daughter Herself. Within the lonely precincts sit a grieving party, helping themselves to rasgullas from a pot, seeking comfort in those seductive sweetmeats and the fact that 'ashchhe botshor abar hobe' ('here's to next year's)!

This article is by Latika Lahiri. She was born and brought up in Calcutta, and considers Durga Puja as one of the most formative influences in her life.

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  • Wonderful essay! Thank you!
    John Dash May 15, 2019
  • Very interesting and informative well-written article; thank you for this post.
    Jaya May 15, 2019
  • Many many thanks for the illuminating article on sakthi worship.
    Rama May 15, 2019
  • I am a bengali. So much happy to read.
    Shibsankar May 15, 2019