A very popular festival here in Bengal among the youngsters is the Saraswati Puja. Goddess Saraswati is represented as a graceful woman in white, a symbol of purity and peace. She is the Goddess who signifies knowledge, learning, arts and culture. She is seen as the serene Goddess wearing a crescent moon on her brow riding a swan and seated on a lotus flower. Saraswati Puja is performed to pay allegiance to the Goddess of learning. The festival is celebrated every year on the fifth day of the bright fortnight of February (magha) on the day called 'Basant Panchami'. The most significant aspect of this day is that children are taught reading and writing their first words on this day as it is considered an auspicious day to begin a child's education. Educational institutions organize special prayers for Saraswati on this day.
Adults also participate in this festival, though with a lesser zeal for better professional improvement and getting better opportunities in the workplace. There are various rituals that are followed in the worshipping of goddess Saraswati. Families gather together before the idol of Saraswati and pray for the blessing of knowledge. Flowers and wild berries are offered to the goddess and students place their books before the deity and do not do any reading or writing that day. An elaborate puja, with sandalwood, ghee, joss sticks, and incense is done to the sound of shlokas, conch shells, and drums. On this day, people eat vegetarian food and initiate children into the world of the written word.
A special kind of fruit available during this time is the narkeli kul (ziziphus), a kind of Date fruit, which is very delicious and available just for a few days during this time. Parents generally don’t allow their children to eat this fruit before the saraswati puja day as they believe it will lead to poor performance in studies. The ones common to all those worshipping Saraswati are that the idol of the goddess is clothed in white, the other predominant colour in the celebrations is yellow, to indicate the onset of spring after a long and cold winter and the blossoming of mustard flowers. It is the colour of the energy-giving Sun, of the mustard fields in bloom which are bright yellow. Therefore, the radiance is associated with knowledge- symbolised by Goddess Saraswati.
The festivities that accompany Saraswati puja is a part of the social celebrations. Young girls are seen in yellow saries. Bright palash flowers, an ink-pot and wheat grain beads are offered that are a part of the worship. Young people enjoy the day with each other. Cultural programmes are staged at night. The Goddess who is the patron of music, culture and learning is revered by singers and musicians with great devotion. The children dressed up in bright clothes visit their schools, colleges and their friend’s houses where the puja is being done with great enthusiasm. The boys generally wear the punjabi & churidar and the girls generally wear the yellow coloured saree and flowers in their hair which are traditional costumes to wear during the puja. Parents generally give a bit of freedom in this day to their children to stay outside home even without their permission.
Bengalis always have their own valentine's day and that is Saraswati Puja. This is the day for which many love-struck youngsters in school and college wait for months. Many of them finally succeed in expressing themselves to their loved ones- verbally or by letter, while others fail to make it for lack of confidence or other reasons. The boys get easily attracted to the girls in the beautiful costumes and the girls also try to lure the boys by dressing up beautifully and they get to meet and spend time with each other for a few hours as they get the extra freedom from their homes. Young couples (many in their schools) spend the day in gay abandon in parks, streets, theatres and other places.
After the festival the idols are immersed in water after one or two days and some also keep it in their homes till the next year when a new idol is worshipped and the old one immersed. Children eagerly wait for this festival throughout the year especially for the freedom that they get during that day and some also perhaps to choose their life partners.