Mahalaya is a religious ritual performed by the Bengalis on the day of Amavasya, which consists of prayers to invoke the spirits of the ancestors. In Celtic times the year began at Samhain, which was a festival of the dead, in which the deceased friends, relatives and ancestors was remembered on the 11 new moon of the lunar year. Samhain begins the dark half of the year. The Samhain night was considered a kind of timeless time between the worlds.
The Samhain feast was also dedicated to the Raven goddess Morrigan. In Samhain, the division between the worlds is very thin, it is said, past and present are united, and the spirits of the ancestors are awakened.
The rituals start early. The festivities begin with the people on an empty stomach remembering their ancestors through tarpan and Chakku Dan, the ritual of drawing the eyes in a Durga statue. Some also take a holy dip in the river Ganges. Devotees buy clothes and sweets to offer their ancestors.
After the tarpan ceremony, people gather to eat in the same place. Therefore, food vendors are also part of this event. The banks of the river Ganga become a sea of people. Charity in the form of food is very important during this ceremony.
This event starts early in the morning and it is the prelude to Sharadiya Durgotsab, the most important religious festival of the Bengali community. Sacred hymns and mantras broadcast on radio across the country are common in the day of Mahalaya. In each household a recording recites the immortal verses of Chandi Path, narrating the reincarnation of Durga. From midnight several hymns of Mahishasura Mardini by Birendra Krishna Bhadra is broadcasted, initiating the beginning of Durga Puja. It is only from the day of Mahalaya that preparations for the Durga Puja reach the final stage.
Legend behind the origin of Durga
Mahishasura was a powerful Asura King and warrior of vedic times, who came into conflict with the Deva Kings. Mahishasura is known for the struggle waged with the Deva warrior, Durga, in which he lost his life.
Legend has it that Rambha and Karamba, sons of Asura King Danu, were still without offspring and have prayed for. Later a crocodile killed Karambha. On the way home, Rambha fell in love with Princess Shyamala, whom he married and after birth of their offspring named him Mahishasura, who was a pious boy.
The deva kings and asura kings were often at war and in one of the battles Rambha was killed by Indra. As Mahishasura grew older and became aware of the fate his father, he prepared an invincible army and went on to become one of the most dreaded Asura rulers of his times.
He defeated the most powerful Deva King Indra, along with other Deva Kings, who participated in the war. When the Asuras defeated the Devas, Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, they gathered to decide how to defeat this invincible Asura and approached the dreaded warrior Durga, a young woman of great beauty to take revenge.
The description of the struggle between Mahishasura and Durga is reported in many vedic texts. Durga was well equipped with the main weapons of the Devas, such as the trident used by Shiva, the disc used by Vishnu, the thunderbolt used by Indra, the spear used by Agni, the lasso used by Varuna, the arrows used by Maruta and others. According to legend, Durga created the Deva Sena,
When Mahishasura learned it he immediately dispatched his army. This, however, was destroyed by Durga. Thereafter there was a duel between Durga and Mahishasur. Deva Sena fought with the army of Mahishasura for nine days.
On the tenth day, Durga herself screaming frightfully, headed straight for Mahisasura, killing thousands of demons that tried to counter her, who underestimated her power. It was an intense battle between Mahishasura and Durga, with no side bowing down. While Mahisasura considered females as insignificant and inferior, Durga, then drank a potion to boost her power and dashed towards Mahisasura, while skewering him with the spear and finally cutting off his head with the sword.
It was the day of the waxing moon and after that Durga was known as Mahishasura Mardini. This victory of good over evil is celebrated as the Durga Puja among Bengalis across the world, especially in Bengal and as Dussehra and Navaratri in other parts of India.
After the war, Durga latter taught the Deva Sena the knowledge of jewelry to earn for their livelihood. The name of the southern Indian city of Mysore in Karnataka was derived from Mahishasura and a modern statue of Mahishasura is placed in the Chamundi Hill.