Durga Puja is a four day enigma that sets in a euphoria and weaves a spell of magic and a charm of its own. Amidst the azure blue skies, gentle breeze, fluffy clouds and a feel of freshness in the air, Autumn sets in a festive spirit in the hearts, after the long dark monsoons. The white kash flower merrily sways amidst the mild fragrance of the shiuli flowers with the footsteps of anandamayi in the air.
The melancholic chanting of divine hymns and the sound of the drums along with bells and cymbals bring ecstasy to the minds of one and all. The Durga Puja in Kolkata is often referred to as the Rio Carnival of the Eastern Hemisphere.
Today the puja is held in autumn as established by Rama, although the spring puja, known as Basanti puja, is also done in the month of Chaitra, which corresponds to the period between March and April of the Western calendar. This ceremony is not, however, observed by many and is limited to a small group of believers in the state of West Bengal.
In the Ramayana, Rama, before going into battle against Ravana, implored the goddess to give him her blessings. Although, Durga was traditionally worshiped in the spring, but because of the battle, Rama worshipped her in the Autumn also called as Akal Bodhan, premature awakening of Durga. For this reason, on the same tenth day is celebrated in Northern India as Dussehra, when huge straw effigies of Ravana are burned.
It was during the eighteenth century, however, that the worship of Durga became popular among landowners of Bengal. Today the culture of Durga Puja has shifted from the princely houses to sarbojanin, barowari or community puja form, literally, involving the masses. Raja Nabakrishna Deb, of Shobhabazar, set up an elaborate Puja at his residence.
These pujas are organized by a committee representing a whole area, who collect chaanda, which are denominated funds through canvassing subscriptions, lotteries, concerts etc. These funds are collected and used to finance the construction of the pandal, ceremonies, etc. Unused funds are generally donated in charity as decided by the Committee. Corporate sponsorships of puja have gained momentum since the end of 1990s.
The major pujas performed in Calcutta and in major metropolitan areas like Delhi and Chennai derive almost all their funds from corporate sponsorships. Despite the large amount of resources used to organize a Puja, the entry of visitors in pandal is totally free. Every year new experiments are made to enhance the puja in Kolkata with more and more innovative ideas. The communities create awards for best pandal, best puja and other categories.
Since the season of puja is called in bengali as sharat (autumn), it is also known as sharadiya durgotsav. In Kolkata and Bengal, in general, that the goddess is celebrated with the most pomp. Each year, Maa Durga is celebrated for nine days and nights with the festival of Navratri. During the period of Navratri, Garba dance is performed in Gujarat in praise of the various movements of Mahishasurmardini. The Puja is celebrated as Kullu Dussehra in Kullu Valley, Himachal Pradesh, Mysore Dussehra in Mysore, Karnataka, Bommai Golu in Tamil Nadu and Bommala Koluvu in Andhra Pradesh.
The goddess is worshiped in nine different forms of Durga, Kali, Jagadamba, Annapurna, Sarvamangala, Bhairavi, Chandika, Lalita and Bhavani in nine different names of Shailaputri, Brahmacharini, Chandraghanta, Kushmanda, Skandamata, Katyayani, Kalratri, Mahagauri and Siddhidatri. The Durga Puja is also celebrated in Nepal and Bhutan according to local traditions and with some variations.
Durga is accompanied by Lakshmi, riding on a owl and Saraswati, riding on a swan along with Ganesha, riding on a rat and Karthika, riding on a peacock. The Goddess is depicted with ten hands holding ten weapons given to her by the Gods to fight the Mahishasura, while riding on a lion. Also known as Mahishasuramardini, Goddess Durga defeated Mahishasura.
The countdown to the celebration begins a month earlier, from the day of Janmashtami and the ultimate essence can be felt in the four days of the carnival. The final preparations start from the day of Mahalaya, after the end of Pitri Paksha, or the fortnight of the forefathers. With the onset of the Devi Paksha, the time of the Goddess continues till the Kojagori Lokkhi Puja on the next full moon night.
The idols are made in a place called Kumartuli where artisans work day and night for almost half a year to craft some exquisite clay idols, which are then placed inside these pandals and worshipped for the four days. The entire process of creating the murti, is from clay and is a sacred process, built according to the rites and rituals. There are ongoing efforts to introduce ecological materials for the craftsmen who build the idols to curb the use of hazardous cement, plastics, gypsum and toxic paints.
From the time of Akshaya Tritiya, the clay for the idols is collected from the banks of a river, preferably the Ganges, and also from the prostitute houses. After the necessary rituals, the clay is transported to the artisans that must be modeled. An important event is the Chokkhu Daan, literally eye donation. The eyes of the idols are painted on the day of Mahalaya or the first day of the puja. Before painting on the eyes, the craftsmen must fast for a whole day eating only vegetarian food.
The midnight chanting of hymns of Mahishasura Mardini a two-hour radio show that became popular since the 1950s during Mahalaya sets in the perfect mood and a ecstatic feeling for the start of the Durga Puja. While in the early years was broadcast live, in the following years was broadcast recorded. The Bengalis traditionally uses to wake up at 4 am in the morning of the day of Mahalaya to listen to the enchanting voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra and Pankaj Kumar Mullick, on All India Radio, reciting hymns from the scriptures or from Devi Mahatmyam or Chandi Path.
The Puja is held in a five-day period, which is traditionally viewed as the coming of the married daughter, Durga, to her father, from her Himalayan home. The Pujas get into a rhythm from Saptami (the seventh day with the kola-bou snan or worshipping a banana plant draped in clothes) although the extravaganza already starts from Maha Sasthi, the sixth day with bodhan and chokkhu daan or giving life to the mud idol, continued by the Kumari Puja, Sandhi puja and dhunuchi naach on the midnight of Maha Ashtami and Maha Navami, eighth and ninth day respectively, when 108 lamps would be lit near the goddess along with a hypnotising dance performance by the smokes.
On Ashtami the crowd gathers in the morning to offer anjali or pushpanjali with flowers and sweets. It continues till Bijaya Dashami tenth and the final day, when with a remorse heart, a grand farewell is given to the goddess in the form of thakur baran, sindur khela married women play with vermillion, mishti mukh offering sweets to each other and finally embracing each other in the form of a kolakuli.
The songs, the fragrance and most importantly the exuberance in the atmosphere with millions of people in a milieu of sorts brings out the opulence and the sheer grandness of this festival. And its not just the puja but the preparations that begin since a month before is another celebration of sorts.
It is the time when every Bengali will have a new set of clothes for the festive fervor, which are worn in the evening when the family goes to see the pandals. To catch on this excitement shops would stay open till late at night and usual holidays to entertain as much customers as possible, who would come shopping with their family even after office hours. And its not just about purchasing for yourself but also for your near and dear loved ones.
The Durga Puja has all the intricacies of human nature embedded in it from unbound emotions, sheer madness, pure love and an eerie excitement. The city of Calcutta becomes a magical fairy land with tiny lights glowing all over to the rhythms of traditional music. The houses are mired with the smell of new clothes as well as Pujabarshiki, Sharadiya Sankhya or Sharadiya Patrika, which are special magazines published during time with the hum of the Bengali Adhunik Pujor Gaan special music releases at this time. These contain stories of many writers, already established or newcomers, and have many extra pages. Some notable examples are Anandamela and Shuktara.
During the week of Durga Puja, throughout the state of West Bengal as well as in large enclaves of Bengalis in other parts of the world, life stops. On the playgrounds, the plots in traffic, standing pools of water, wherever there is a bit of space, are mounted elaborate structures calls pandals, many with a year of study behind.
The goddess is housed in exquisitely decorated puja pandals (temporary structures made of cloth, bamboos, jewels and other precious items for which the budget would almost run beyond millions). The theme of the pandals are inspired from anything and everything in this entire world details much beyond religious motifs from famous landmarks to major world incidents all portrayed with minutest of details. The Puja committees decide on a particular theme, the elements of which are incorporated in the pandal and the idols. Popular themes include ancient civilizations like the ' ancient Egypt or Inca. Contemporary subjects like the Titanic and Harry Potter have been the object of some pandals.
It is similar with the lighting too with dazzling creations of illusions of national and international events amidst the deafening sound of the dhakis and the entire atmosphere looking effervescent in the smoke of the dhunuchi with the sweet fragrance of incense sticks wafting in the air. In the rest of the world the Puja is mainly done within bengali communities.
Today the Puja goes far beyond religion. In fact, visiting the pandal in recent years, one could say that the Durga Puja is the largest open-air art show in the world. In the nineties a large number of architectural models were made on the outer parts of the pandal, but today the architectural motifs also extend to the elaborate interiors, executed by skilled artists, with consistent stylistic elements, carefully executed and signed by the artist himself.
The idol sculpture also evolved. Once the five figures were painted in the same framework, traditionally called pata. Since the eighties, however, the tendency is to depict each idol separately. The oldest puja is in north Kolkata with Baghbazar Sarbojonin, Kumartuli Park, Ahiritola, Md. Ali Park and College Square. Some of the newest ones are at Behala, Bosepukur Sitala Mandir, Santosh Mitra Square, babubagan, Maddox Square, Sealdah Athletics, Jodhpur Park, Selimpur Pally, Suruchi Sangha, Badamtala Ashar Sangha, Mudiali, Ekdalia Evergreen, Singhi park, Hindustan Park, Ballygunge Cultural etc.
Notable Durga Puja's outside Kolkata are held at Siliguri, palace of King Naranarayan of Cooch Bihar, Kamakhya, Dirgheswari Temple, Maha Bhairabi Temple, Ugro Tara Temple, Tamreswari Mandir, and Silchar in Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Kashmir, Kerala, Chittaranjan Park in New Delhi, Orissa, Punjab, Tripura, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Goa. Outside India, it is celebrated grandly in Bangladesh, Singapore, United States, Switzerland, London and Australia.
Durga Puja is also a time for re-union among family, friends and alike and getting lost in countless hours of fun with your loved ones. From the long informal chat sessions (addas) to pandal hopping (more than 3000 of them all vying for your attention) for the four days for the pratima darshan with friends in the latest ethnic and western wear, and an occasional stare into a beautiful girl, dressed especially for the occasion, it’s all an integral part of the pratima darshan.
Millions throng the sleepless streets and bylanes of their city almost in a un-organized procession and each pandal almost attract a million people everyday. And by the time you return with the swelling feet and blisters created from the new shoes, your mind still start planning for the next day.
There are also elaborate food preparations also during most households during the four day with breakfast serving of luchi (fried puris) and alu dam, a special potato curry and the lunch consisting of khichuri made of rice and lentils, phool kopir dalna made of cauliflower, beguni (fried brinjals), papad, chutney along with, sweets and yogurt (mishti doi) as dessert.
But as all good thing comes to an end so is the Durga Puja with the Bijaya Dashami on the final day. It is the time when you can spot a drop of water from the cheeks of one an all for it is the time for Maa Durga to leave. The baron takes place where women offer sweets and betel to Maa Durga along with the sindur khela or playing with vermillion among the married women.
The idol is carried in procession amid chants and drumbeats to the river or other water places, and is immersed in the water of the holy Ganges or other rivers, also known as Bishorjon, Bhashan and Niranjan, to indicate the start of the goddess to the home of her husband Shiva in the Himalayas, with chants of Bolo Durga Mai Ki Jai (glory to Mother Durga) and Asche Bochor Abar hobe (next year again) filling up the air. After the immersion people wish each other Subho Bijoya (may all good prevail) and touch the feet and takes blessings from their elders along with distribution of sweets.
Durga Puja is a festival which may have all the flavors of religion, but is beyond religion. It is about encompassing basic human values, of celebration of life, culture and love for the Goddess.The main essence here is the creativity of life which tries to go beyond our thoughts to create something which is admired and remembered by million for years to come. The vibrant atmosphere beckons you to be a part of it and be one with the feeling.