Durga Puja, the biggest and most widely celebrated Hindu festival of West Bengal, Bihar, Assam and Odhisa, ranks among the most popular festivals in India. The multi-day annual festival is observed in the Hindu calendar month of ‘Ashvin’, typically September or October of the Gregorian calendar. It marks the battle of goddess Durga with the shape-shifting, deceptive and powerful buffalo demon king ‘Mahishasura’ and her consequent victory. The festival symbolises the victory of good over evil and also in part a harvest festival that marks the goddess as the motherly power behind all of life and creation.
Though primarily Goddess Durga is revered during the festival, the celebrations feature four other major deities of Hinduism, who are considered to be her children. They are: Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and prosperity, Saraswati, the goddess of knowledge and music, Ganesha, widely revered as the remover of obstacles, the patron of arts and sciences and the diva of intellect and wisdom and Katikeya, the god of war. Apart from that, Lord Shiva, the husband of Durga, is also revered during the festival.
According to Hindu mythology, the powerful buffalo-headed demon king Mahishasura, a staunch worshipper of Lord Brahma, wanted to be immortal. However, he gained the boon from Brahma that no man or animal could kill him, but a woman will bring his end. Mahishasura took it as the boon of immortality, as he was convinced that no woman has the strength and power to kill him. Consequently, he took himself to be invincible and attacked the ‘Trilok’, the three worlds of earth, heaven and hell. After being defeated by the demon king, the dejected gods approached Lord Vishnu for his advice. After carefully considering the situation, Lord Vishnu decided to create a female form to defeat Mahishasura and from the united energy of the ‘Tridev’ (the three gods, namely Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara or Shiva) Devi Durga was born to save the three worlds from the buffalo demon.
According to legends, Durga is a blindingly beautiful young woman with three lotus-like eyes, ten powerful hands, hair in the form of black pearls, golden glow from her skin. Her face was sculpted by Shiva, torso by Indra, breasts by Chandra, teeth by Brahma, thighs and knees by Varuna and her three eyes by Agni. The gods adorned her with jewelry and gave her different weapons like trident, conch, sword, thunderbolt, spear to fight against Mahishasura, while Himalaya, the Lord of the mountains gave her the lion to ride. The fierce fighting between Devi Durga and the demon king continued for fifteen days during which the deceptive demon king kept on changing his shape and form to become different animals to mislead her. Finally, when he transformed into a huge raging buffalo, Goddess Durga stabbed him with her trident and that was the end of him. Mahalaya is the sacred day on which Mahishasura was defeated and killed.
Legend says, Devi Durga is an incarnation of Goddess Parvati, the daughter of Himalaya, the lord of the mountains. She is the mother-goddess, Adya Shakti, the ultimate power. The autumnal ritual of Durga Puja is different from the conventional Durga Puja, which is celebrated in the springtime and is known as Basanti Puja. Thus, this Puja is also known as 'akal-bodhan' or out-of-season worship. The autumnal Durga Puja commemorates Lord Rama’s invocation of the goddess as depicted in the Ramayana. Ram waged a war against Ravana to free her kidnapped wife Sita and before the final battle, invoked Goddess Durga to seek her blessings, by offering 108 blue lotuses, as well as lighting 108 lamps, at this time of the year. With the blessings of Devi Durga, Lord Rama killed Ravana at the Sandhikhan between Mahashtami and Mahanavami and freed Sita from the evil clutches. On Vijaya Dashami or Dussera, Ravana was cremated. That is the story behind the akal-bodhan, the October Durga Puja.
Durga Puja is signaled on the ‘Mahalaya’, in the first phase of the waxing moon, with the invocation of the Goddess before the daybreak. Maha Sashti is the day of Devi’s arrival and she is welcomed with the pulsating beat of the dhak or drum when the idol is unveiled. However, the full-fledged Puja begins on Maha Saptami, when nine types of plants, collectively called Navapatrika and a plantain tree are worshipped along with the goddess as part of an ancient ritual. This indicates Devi Durga’s close association with vegetation, food and fertility. Bodhana and Adhivas are parts of Maha Saptami Puja. Bodhana is the ritual to awaken and welcome the goddess to be a guest, while Adhibas is a ritual of sanctification, in which the awakened Devi is invoked in the Bel tree or a branch of the tree.
Sandhi Puja is performed at the exact juncture when the Asthami ends and Navami begins. The last 24 minutes of Ashtami and first 24 minutes of Navami are considered as the Sandhikhan, when Devi Durga killed the notorious pair Chanda and Munda. According to legend, when Durga was engaged in a fierce face to face battle with Mahishasura, his allies Chanda and Munda attacked the Goddess from behind. Durga became furious by this breach of battle, her face turned blue in anger and as she opened her third eye, Devi Chamunda, a different form of the goddess, appeared on the scene and she killed Chanda and Munda with her sabre. Sandhi Puja is dedicated to worship the Chamunda form of Goddess Durga. During the early days, animals like Buffalos and goats were sacrificed to the deity, especially on the day of Maha Aashtam, which is now almost stopped.
Maha Navami is the final day of worship before Vijaya Dashami and it is the final day before the Goddess won over the evil. The festival ends on the next day, the day of Vijaya Dashami, when the married women smear sindoor or vermillion on the forehead of the idol, before smearing it on each other. Sindoor is a traditional red coloured powdered mineral, usually worn by married women along the parting of their hair. Smearing it on the forehead of the idol is not only a farewell to the goddess, it is also a prayer for long married life. The ritual also signifies wishing each other a happy married life. At the end of the day, with drum beats of music and chants, processions start carrying the colorful clay statues to a river or a pond and immerse them, as a form of goodbye.
Origin of Durga Puja is unclear and undocumented. It is said that the landlords, or zamindar, of Dinajpur and Malda initiated the Durga Puja in Bengal. However, it is also said that, Raja Kangshanarayan of Taherpur or Bhabananda Mazumdar of Nadiya organized the first Sharadiya or Autumn Durga Puja in Bengal in 1606. The prominence of Durga Puja increased during the British Raj, when the Europeans were invited and were entertained.
- by William Prinsep
The community Puja, otherwise known as the 'baro-yaari' puja, started in 1790 by twelve friends of Guptipara in Hoogly, who took the initiative to collect contributions from the local residents to perform the rituals. The concept was brought to Kolkata in 1832 by Raja Harinath of Cossimbazar, who earlier performed the Durga Puja at his ancestral home in Murshidabad from 1824 to 1831.In 1910, the Sanatan Dharmotsahini Sabha organized the first ‘Saraojanin’ or truly community Puja in Baghbazar in Kolkata only with public contribution, public control, and public participation. Since the last phase of the last century, the highly decorated pandals (makeshift tents) became the added attraction of the Puja and today, the pandals with aesthetic beauty are made with painstaking craftsmanship, which are absolutely thrilling.
The concept of the idols has also gone through dynamic changes over the period of time. In earlier times, Devi Durga and her children, all were put together in a single tableau or ‘ekchala’ and nowadays they are depicted separately. Originally, the idols were basically made of clay by the commissioned artisans, today different artists use different materials and the organizers work on various themes.
Today, the five days of the Durga Puja festival has become a great carnival and a celebration of colour, sound, beauty, joy and camaraderie, irrespective of cast, creed and religion. Though it is essentially a festival of the Eastern states of India, it is also celebrated in different parts of the country in different names. It is regarded as ‘Navarati’ in Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Kerala, and Maharashtra, ‘Kullu Dussehra’ in the Kullu Valley, ‘Mysore Dussehra’ in Mysore, Bommai Golu in in Tamil Nadu and ‘Bommala koluvu’ in Andhra Pradesh. Even, the non-residential Bengali cultural organizations around the world also arrange Durga Puja in the various important cities in United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, France, and other countries.