Durga Puja. The very name sounds musical to the ears of any Bengali. The festival, which literally translated, means worship of the Goddess Durga, is always correlated with clear blue skies of the autumn, white fluffy clouds, bright sunshine and fields full of kash phool (scientific name: Saccharum spontaneum, in Hindi it is known as काँस). Ask a Bengali about Durga puja, and the picture that immediately leaps to his mind’s eyes is that of white kash flowers, beneath the bright blue skies. The festival also signifies a long holiday. To the Bengalis that stay in Kolkata, far-away places beckon them, while the Probashi (residing outside Kolkata) Bengali’s mind turns homeward.
However, historically the autumnal Durga Puja, so dear to the Bengalis, is not the traditional form. The traditional one, as dictated in religious scriptures, is celebrated in the month of Chaitra (March or April), and is better known as Basanti Puja. According to legend, Lord Ram invoked the Goddess and worshipped her, just prior to his battle with Ravana. Pleased with his offerings, Durga blessed Rama and revealed him the secret to slay Ravana. It is for this reason in Bengali the puja is termed as Akaal Bodhon, which means Durga is called forth at wrong time of the year. The festival consists of a 10-day celebration, which starts with Mahalaya. The Bengalis however celebrate the last five days, when, as the myth goes, the goddess comes to visit her parents who reside on Earth, so it is also the celebration of a daughter’s homecoming. The days of festivities are as follows: Maha Shashthi, Maha Saptami, Maha Ashtami, Maha Navami and BijoyaDashami. These five days celebrate the defeat of evil in all walks of life.
Celebrating the triumph of Good over Evil
This annual festival, celebrated worldwide wherever Bengalis reside, involves months of preparation that starts with the creation of the goddess by potters and ends with Bisarjan (immersion of the idol in water bodies). Kumartuli in Kolkata is an old potter’s colony, famous for creating beautiful idols of the goddess. This year I was fortunate enough to be in Kolkata during the month of August, when the process of creating the goddess had just started, and I managed to see the amount of labour and dedication that goes into the entire process. First, a wooden frame is created entirely by hand, which acts as a support for the entire structure. Then, straw is used for making the basic body, where each body part is made separately and tied together, which is then fixed to the wooden frame. Next, clay (rich silt from the river Ganges) is lathered on the straw structure, out of which life-like bodies are moulded, and this is then left to dry.
Workers creating the wooden framework and body parts using straw (Kumartuli-Kolkata)
Creating the idol using wood, straw and riverine clay (Kumartuli-Kolkata)
My one-week stay in Kolkata was right in the middle of monsoon, and it was met with torrential rains. Therefore, what I managed to see were mainly straw bodies or mud plastered bodies of the goddess that were yet to dry, and a group of visibly worried potters fretting about the incessant rains. The puja being early this year was starting on 10th of October, and it was a source of worry for the potters, who feared they might fail to finish before the start of pujas.
An incomplete and half-dried idol of the goddess (Kumartuli-Kolkata)
Later, after the rains subsided, I ventured into the potter’s colony once again in September. However, this time I went to the potter’s colony in Delhi (C.R. Park) and found the idols were near completion and painting had commenced. In some instances, chokkhudaan or painting the eyes, which is considered as the most difficult task, were also over and the potters were busy trying to meet their deadlines.
Painting the goddess, with chokkhudaan already over- in C.R.Park, Delhi
The Bengalis start their celebrations on the sixth day, which is known as Sashti. On this day, there are three main pujas, Kalparambha, Bodhan, and Adhivas +Amantran. Kalparamba, which takes place as dawn, means Sankalpa, or it is a promise made to perform the puja correctly, following all true rituals. At this time the ‘ghatastaphana’ takes place, and a copper pot filled with water is placed at a corner. The next puja Bodhon takes place in the evening, where the goddess is invoked. The third puja is Adhivas +Amantran, here adhivas involves invoking the goddess in a Bael (Aegle marmelos) tree. Lastly, the goddess is sent an amantran or invitation, to accept pujas from next day. Here the Sashti puja ends and daily puja rituals commence the next day, the MahaSaptami, which continue until the last day.
Just before Sashtipuja…
The daily puja rituals comprise of pushpaanjali, hom (yogna), cooking and distribution of bhog (prasad), playing of dhaak, dunchi naach, sandhya aarti, and boli (sacrifices, which are made on ashtami and nabami).
Sandhyaarti or evening puja that is a part of daily puja rituals
Preparations for the Sandhipuja (Ashtami+Nabami)
Another important part of the puja is the ‘Sandhipuja’ that takes place at the crossover time between Ashtami and Nabami. According to legend, the battle between Ram and Ravan started on Saptami, wherein Ravana was killed at ‘Sandhikhan’ (the time of Sandhipuja), and was cremated on Dashami. Hence, Ashtami and Nabami are the days that call for special celebrations, ending with Dashami where the goddess is given a farewell. During Saptami, Ashtami and Nabami, an integral part of celebrations involve ‘pandal hopping,’ where families and friends get together to visit various puja pandals (temporary structures that house the goddess during her earthly visit). Pandal hopping is done not only to pay obeisance to the goddess, but also to compare pandal décor, the Devi’s face, lighting decorations, amongst various other things. This is best seen in Kolkata, and while the city is at its humid best at this time of the year, one can visit at least once, simply to understand the enormity and beauty of Durga Puja.
The Dashami puja involves bidding the goddess goodbye, where married women place sweets in her mouth and put sindoor in her hair, while performing various other farewell rituals, asking her to come back again next year. It ends with ‘sindoor khela,’ where married women put sindoor on each other’s forehead and face. After Dashami puja, darpan bisarjan takes place, a symbolic bisarjan that declares end of all festivities, and later the Goddess is taken for immersion in rivers or other allocated water bodies.
Offering sweets to the goddess before she leaves
Applying sindoor on the goddess’s forehead-another important part of the farewell rituals
The ritual of sindoor khela
Thus, the Dashami farewell rituals and subsequent immersion bring to an end almost six months of backbreaking labour that goes into preparing for six days of festivities. Subsequently, they also mark the start of waiting, for the goddess to visit her earthly home again next year.