The azure sky with fleecy white clouds and the nip in the air marks the advent of autumn - the season for Bengal's most popular festival, Durga Puja or the worship of Goddess Durga. Durga Puja is celebrated with customary pomp and fanfare twice a year - once in the month of March or April (basant) and again in the month of September or October (ashwin), during the moonlit fortnight. On both the occasions, the puja is a nine-day affair with the last day coinciding with Ram Navmi and Dussehra respectively. The Mother Goddess is venerated in one form or the other all over India, though her popularity is at its peak with the Bengalis.
Goddess Durga Worship
The right time for the worship of Goddess Durga being in spring, the prayers of Lord Rama are also known as akal bodhan (untimely worship). Nowadays, Ram Navmi is celebrated during spring and Durga Puja or Dussehra is celebrated during autumn.
Prevalent in Bengal is the tale of the defeat of the demon, Mahishasura at the hands of Goddess Durga, the incarnation of Shakti, or Power. This demon was almost invincible because of a boon granted by Lord Shiva (the Destroyer in the Hindu Holy Trinity of Creator-Preserver-Destroyer) whereby no male could defeat him. But the gods found a novel solution to the daunting problem. The amalgamation of the might of all the gods resulted in the birth of Shakti in the form of Goddess Durga, who wielded an assortment of weapons in her 10 hands and rode a lion. Predictably enough, she was able to slay the demon, thus ending his reign of terror. Therefore, Durga is also called Mahishasuramardini (the slayer of Mahishasura). This holy battle has come to symbolise the triumph of Good over Evil.
Some Important Facts
Time of the year : September - October
Places to visit : West Bengal, Assam, Jharkhand, Orissa,Bihar and Mysore
Duration : Nine to five days
Best Idols Made in : Kumartuli
Day of drawing eyes on the idol : Mahalaya
Mythological Tales Associated With Durga Puja
The festival of Durga puja comes with its own retinue of mythological stories. The most prevalent among them is the one involving Lord Rama, the hero of the Hindu epic, Ramayana. When Ravana (the 10-headed demon king of Lanka, now Ceylon) abducted Lord Rama's wife Sita, and held her hostage in Lanka, a fierce battle ensued. Although there were huge casualties on both sides, Ravana could not be defeated. So Rama decided to seek the blessings of Shakti or Goddess Durga in order to defeat the 10-headed demon.
But here comes the twist in the tale. 108 black lotuses were needed for the worship of the Divine Mother and Rama had managed to procure only 107. He was on the verge of laying one of his eyes that was lotus-shaped and black in colour at the Goddess's feet when Shakti, satisfied with the measure of his devotion, granted her blessings. and the righteous eventually triumphed.
Flashes of the Past
However, according to another legend about Durga, she was a manifestation of Parvati, Shiva's consort. It seems that while Parvati existed only for Shiva, Durga was the form of Parvati's shakti (power) that was created solely for destroying demoniac forces.
Close to the heart of almost every Bengali is the image of Durga as the daughter who visits her parents annually. Her children Lakshmi (Goddess of Wealth), Saraswati (Goddess of Knowledge), Ganesha (God of Prosperity) and Kartikeya accompany her on this visit. Each year, there is great rejoicing at the time of her homecoming, but the air is tinged with sadness on the day one bids adieu to the deity. Perhaps people identify more intimately with the human face of the omnipotent Goddess.
The Fiesta Starts
Durga Puja commences on the day after mahalaya, usually on the last day of the waning or new moon, sometime in September or October. On mahalaya, melodious strains of agomoni (welcoming) and chandi path (readings from chandi, a religious Hindu text) exude from radios and television sets. The countdown to the final days of the Puja itself begins from the day of mahalaya. This is around the period when people indulge in last minute shopping sprees. So if you don't like crowds, this is not the time to visit markets, especially in Bengal.
The Grand Celebration
Durga Puja is celebrated on a mass scale with puja pandals (marquees) dotting nearly every nook and corner of West Bengal. Thanks to a migrant Bengali population, the past few years have seen a rise in the number of Durga Pujas in other parts of the country and abroad as well. Preparations for the Puja begin long before the actual day arrives. If you are looking for bargains, you won't find a better time. Publishing houses come out with puja editions of magazines, and craftsmen and artisans do brisk business at this time of the year.
During the four days of Durga Puja, Bengalis really let their hair down. Beside the actual Puja, most pandals organise different kinds of competition to regale the local people. It's party time for both children and adults alike as they participate wholeheartedly in the fun and frolic. Local talent gets a chance to share the stage (a makeshift one more often than not) with more illustrious artists.
The festivities begin from maha shashthi (the sixth day from the day after mahalaya) when the priest unveils the deity during a puja known as bodhan. On this day the women of the house fast for the well-being of the family. The fast is broken in the evening with fruits and luchis (a kind of bread made of flour), usually eaten with sabzi (vegetables). It is normal for the whole family to participate in these rituals, especially when it comes to partaking of the yummy luchis and sabzi. A trip to the local pandal is also a must.
The morning of maha saptami (seventh day) is taken up with the worship of the deity, followed by anjali when a devotee offers prayers and flowers on an empty stomach, amidst the chanting of mantras to the Goddess. Only then can one make a beeline for the prasad (sweetmeat offered to the deity). Bhog (meal provided to all and sundry after the Goddess has partaken of it) at lunchtime is a welcome break for those who gather in the pandals. But come evening, and the pandal becomes a dazzling array of new clothes, shiny faces of children running helter-skelter and a spectacular display of lights. The rhythmic beat of the dhak (drums) adds to the mood of Bengal's most popular festival.
The maha ashtami (eighth day) is an especially significant day. The priest breathes life into the idol of Durga as he performs the sandhi puja (worship in the evening) to the chanting of shlokas (religious couplets). The reflection of the idol has to be observed in a bowl of water as this gives an impression of movement. This part of the puja is known as pranpratishtha (breathing life into the idol). Kumari puja (worship of young girls) is an old custom still carried out in certain temples.
All these special ceremonies are interspersed with the usual rounds of anjali, prasad and bhog. Merry-making reaches fever pitch by the evening on this day. of course, amongst the highlights of the evenings are the gastronomical treats that can be bought from the stalls abounding in the pandals. Pandal-hopping is also a favourite pastime.
One cannot talk about maha navmi (ninth day), without laying emphasis on the fact that meat is served in many pandals as part of the bhog, but never in the temples. This being the penultimate day of the Puja, one can feel that it is soon going to be over.
Coinciding with Dussehra is bijoya dashami, the last day of the Pujas. Married women bid farewell to the Mother Goddess through various rituals, entreating her to come back every year. The playful ritual called sindoor khela during which women smear each other's hair, faces and bangles with vermilion powder, breaks the solemnity of the occasion. Later, all the idols are taken to nearby rivers or ponds to be immersed. To an outsider, this might seem like a colossal waste, but don't forget, this also ensures idol makers never go out of business.
Festivals in India are occasions to catch up with friends and relatives, and this festival is no different. The evening of bijoya dashami is reserved for spending time with friends and family, with youngsters touching the feet of the elders as a mark of respect. A description of bijoya dashami is incomplete without mentioning the mouth-watering delicacies like sweets and nimkis (a crispy treat made of flour) that are prepared by the women of the house.