There is melancholic chanting of divine hymns. 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 in autumn as established by Rama. The spring puja, known as Basanti Puja, is also done in Chaitra. It corresponds to the period between March and April of the Western calendar. This ceremony is not, observed by many and is in a small group of believers in the state of West Bengal.
In the Ramayana, Rama went into battle against Ravana. He implored the goddess to give him her blessings. Because of the battle, Rama worshipped her in the Autumn. It is also called as Akal Bodhan, premature awakening of Durga. For this reason, on the same tenth day is Dussehra in Northern India. Huge straw effigies of Ravana lights up the air.
The preparations begin for the great festival in honor of the goddess Durga. It has already been going on for some time in India. People celebrate the Durga Puja in West Bengal and Assam. The most impressive is in Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal.
This festival is also referred to as the carnival of the East. Because of the large, colorful and opulent processions during the Durga Puja. Singing and dancing, lots of sweets and joyful festivals characterize the festival. But in India, the religious roots of the festivities are much deeper than they were at the carnival in Rio.
Still, the Durga Puja is not only religious but also an important social event. In all villages and towns, people dress in new clothes. They celebrate the goddess with concerts, dance and splendid processions. There is festive food and special sweets made. The houses are being plastered out, and everywhere people build small altars. The festival preparation happens many weeks in advance.
Durga Puja Mythological Background
Durga is the mother goddess that embodies, among other things, power, action, and wisdom. In the Hindu mythology, Mahishasura was always the victor against the Deva kings. Shiva and Vishnu asked all the other Deva kings to unite their forces.
Durga was a lady of absolute beauty. She kills Mahishasura when the beautiful young man tries to seduce her. Durga remains hard and pierces him with her sword.
Durga Puja Rituals
The festival begins with Mahalaya. On this day thousands of people pray to their ancestors. People consecrate the images of the goddess. The main puja lasts three days on Maha Saptami, Maha Ashtami, and Maha Navami. The puja rituals celebrated on these days are long and very complicated. For three days, priests recite mantras (sacred verses) and Shlokas (ancient Indian verses). People perform the Aarti.
Most spectacular during the Durga Puja, yet, is Dashami. It is the last day of the festival. This day is especially devoted to the married women. Each goes to the altar, swings the butter lamp before Durga. They paint each other with Sindur, the red powder, and asks Durga to return next year.
Then small and large parades take place. People carry the large and small Durga statues to the river or to the nearest pond on trucks. Sometimes they carry the idol only on bicycles, accompanied by music and dancing. There, the statues get immersed in the water.
Durga Puja Tips for Travelers
The best is to go to Kolkata at least one week before the main holiday. At Mahalaya you can see how the sculptors make the great Durga statues in Kumartuli. On this day, they paint the eyes on the figures, an important ritual called Chokkhu Daan.
Seven days later, the priests instill life energy of the god in the idols. One takes a small banana plant, a Kola Bou. Under drums and mantra chants of a Hindu priest, bathe the Kola Bou in the river. Then she gets a kind of small sari. People carry it to the pandals in a procession and place it next to Ganesha, the son of Durga.
To see this show, you have to get up early. You should already be there at 6.00 am, in north Kolkata to the Bagbazar or Ahiritola Ghat.
In many places in the city, pandals exhibit Durga figures in various designs. The Pandal hopping during the Durga Puja is very popular. They are most beautiful at night when lights come on. But then most people also hop to the pandal.
As with all celebrations in India, the food plays an important role. During the Durga Puja, you will have the opportunity to get to know the Bengali cuisine. The restaurants offer special Durga Puja menus at the time, but also on the pandals or snack bars on the street.
The highlight of the festival is finally the sinking of the idols in the river. This event is Dashami. One of the most popular ceremonies takes place at the Babu Ghat near Eden Garden. The best way to see the spectacle is from the boat on the Hugli River.
In India (West Bengal, Assam), Durga Puja also marks the beginning of rice harvesting season. Children and servants receive new clothes.
It was during the eighteenth century, that the worship of Durga became popular. Today the culture of Durga Puja has shifted from the houses to community puja form. Raja Nabakrishna Deb, of Shobhabazar, set up an elaborate Puja at his house.
These pujas are by a committee representing a whole area. They collect funds through subscriptions, lotteries, concerts. The fund is to finance the construction of the pandal and ceremonies. Unused funds are generally donated to charity as decided by the Committee. Corporate sponsorships of puja have gained momentum since the end of the 1990s.
Despite a lot of resources used to organize a Puja, the entry of visitors in pandal is free. Every year new experiments enhance the puja with more and more innovative ideas. The communities create awards for best pandal, best puja, and other categories.
After West Bengal, in Silchar in Assam is more than 300 pandals. There are sculptures and other art forms. After Bihu, Durga Puja is the most popular festival of Assam. The current worship of Durga in Assam became established in the Ahom Kingdom. It was under the Kings Susenghphaa or Pratap Singha. King Naranarayan of Koch Bihar celebrated Durga Puja. The king heard about the festivities and the magnificence from Sondar Gohain. He was a prisoner of the Koch Raja.
King Pratap Singha then sent craftsmen to Koch Bihar to learn the art of building idols. He organized a so-called celebration of Durga Puja in Bhatiapara near Sibsagar. This was the first time that the Durga Puja was in Assam, at the popular level. The worship of Durga was already held in Kamakhya, Dirgheswari. Others are Maha Bhairabi, Ugro Tara, Tamreswari Mandir. After this, similar ceremonies were by other kings and nobles. Nowadays the Durga Puja is the most important festival. It is in all the towns and villages of Assam, for five consecutive days with great religious fervor.
The Durga Puja is one of the largest festivals of Patna in Bihar. Even in this state, they are hundreds of pandals. The city observes a dramatic increase of visitors during the four days of the Maha Saptami. People prepare more than 100 pandals. They are with lights, sculptures, and other art forms. Among the oldest Durga Puja in Patna are Badi and Choti Patan Devi temples. There is the Maa Shitala Devi Temple near Agam Kuan Mandir.
Since the season of puja in Bengali is Sharat (autumn), it is also known as Sharadiya Durgotsav. In Kolkata and Bengal, in general, there is the most pomp. Each year, Maa Durga comes for nine days and nights with the festival of Navratri. During the period of Navratri, Garba dance is in Gujarat. It is in praise of the various movements of Mahishasurmardini. The Puja is Kullu Dussehra in Kullu Valley, Himachal Pradesh. It is Mysore Dussehra in Mysore, Karnataka. It is Bommai Golu in Tamil Nadu and Bommala Koluvu in Andhra Pradesh.
The goddess is in nine different forms of Durga, Kali, Jagadamba, Annapurna, Sarvamangala. She is Bhairavi, Chandika, Lalita and Bhavani in nine different names. Shailaputri, Brahmacharini, Chandraghanta, Kushmanda, Skandamata, Katyayani, Kalratri, Mahagauri and Siddhidatri. The Durga Puja is also celebrated in Nepal and Bhutan according to local traditions.
Durga comes with Lakshmi, and Saraswati. Then there is Ganesha, riding on a rat and Karthika, riding on a peacock. The Goddess in her ten hands holds ten weapons given to her by the Devas to fight the Mahishasura. She rides on a lion. Also known as Mahishasuramardini, Durga defeated Mahishasura.
The countdown to the celebration begins a month earlier, from the day of Janmashtami. The ultimate essence is in the four days of the carnival. The final preparations start from the day of Mahalaya, after the end of Pitri Paksha. With the onset of the Devi Paksha, the time of the Goddess begins. It continues till the Kojagori Lokkhi Puja on the next full moon night.
Sculptors make the idols in a place called Kumartuli. Artisans work day and night for almost half a year to craft some exquisite clay idols. These are then placed inside these pandals and worshipped for the four days. The entire process of creating the Murti from clay is a sacred process. It is as per the rites and rituals.
From the time of Akshaya Tritiya, sculptors collect the clay for the idols from the banks of a river. They prefer the Ganges, and also from the prostitute houses. An important event is the Chokkhu Daan when sculptors paint the eye in the idol. It is 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.
There is midnight chanting of hymns of Mahishasura Mardini a two-hour radio show. It became popular since the 1950s. Mahalaya sets the perfect mood and an ecstatic feeling for the start of the Durga Puja. In the early years, it was broadcast live, in the following years was broadcast recorded.
The Bengalis wake up at 4 am on the morning of the day of Mahalaya. They listen to the voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra and Pankaj Kumar Mullick. It plays on All India Radio, reciting hymns from the scriptures or from Devi Mahatmyam or Chandi Path.
The Pujas get into a rhythm from Saptami, the seventh day. The kola-Bou Snan is worshipping a banana plant draped in clothes. The extravaganza already starts from Maha Sasthi, the sixth day. The Bodhan and Chokkhu Daan give life to the mud idol. The Kumari Puja follows. The Sandhi puja and Dhunuchi Naach takes place on the midnight of Maha Ashtami and Maha Navami. These are the eighth and ninth day. 108 lamps would be lit near the goddess along with a hypnotizing dance performance by the smokes.
On Ashtami, the crowd gathers in the morning. They offer Anjali or Pushpanjali with flowers and sweets. It continues till Bijaya Dashami tenth and the final day. With a remorse heart, people give a grand farewell to the goddess in the form of Thakur Baran. The Sindur Khela takes place where married women play with Vermillion. People offer sweets to each other and finally embrace each other in the form of a kola-kuli.
The songs, the fragrance brings exuberance in the atmosphere. Millions of people in a milieu of sorts bring out the opulence and the sheer grandness of this festival. And it's not the puja but the preparations that begin since a month before. It is another celebration of sorts.
It is the time when every Bengali will have a new set of clothes for the festive fervor. They wear them 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. They attract as many customers as possible. People would come shopping with their family even after office hours. And it is not 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 fairyland. Tiny lights glow all over to the rhythms of traditional music. The houses fill with the smell of new clothes.
There is the Pujabarshiki, Sharadiya Sankhya or Sharadiya Patrika. These are special magazines published during the time. People hum the Bengali Adhunik Pujor Gaan special music releases. These contain stories of many writers, already established or newcomers. And have many extra pages. Some notable examples are Anandamela and Shuktara.
Wherever there is a bit of space, people mount elaborate structures or Pandals. These are temporary structures made of cloth, bamboos, jewels and other precious items. For this, the budget would almost run beyond millions. The theme of the Pandals come from anything and everything in this entire world. There are religious motifs and famous landmarks. Major world incidents get portrayed with minutest of details. The Puja committees decide on a particular theme, the elements of which are in the pandal and the idols. Popular themes include ancient civilizations like the ' ancient Egypt or Inca. Contemporary subjects like Titanic and Harry Potter have been the object of pandals.
It is similar with the lighting too. There are dazzling creations of illusions of national and international events. The deafening sound of the dhakis makes the entire atmosphere effervescent. The smoke of the Dhunuchi with the sweet fragrance of incense sticks waft in the air. In the rest of the world, the Puja is within Bengali communities.
Today the Puja goes far beyond religion. 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 on the outer parts of the pandal. Today the architectural motifs extend to the elaborate interiors, executed by skilled artists. There are consistent stylistic elements, executed and signed by the artist himself.
The idol sculpture also evolved. Once the five figures were in the same framework, called Pata. Since the eighties, the tendency is to depict each idol. The oldest puja is in north Kolkata in Baghbazar Sarbojonin, Kumartuli Park. There is Ahiritola, Md. Ali Park and College Square.
Some of the newest ones are at Behala, Bosepukur Sitala Mandir, Santosh Mitra Square. There is Babubagan, Maddox Square, Sealdah Athletics, Jodhpur Park, Selimpur Palli. There is Suruchi Sangha, Badamtala Ashar Sangha, Mudiali, Ekdalia Evergreen. Adjacent is Singhi Park, Hindustan Park, Ballygunge Cultural.
Notable Durga Puja's outside Kolkata are at Siliguri. Durga Puja also takes place in Kashmir, Kerala, Chittaranjan Park in New Delhi. Then there is Orissa, Punjab, Tripura, Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, and Goa. Outside India, it is in Bangladesh, Singapore, United States, Switzerland, London and Australia.
Durga Puja is also a time for a reunion with family, friends and alike. It is also getting lost in countless hours of fun with your loved ones. From the long informal chat sessions (Adda) to pandal hopping. More than 3000 of them vie for your attention for the four days for the Pratima darshan. People go out 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. Each pandal almost attracts a million people every day. People return with the swelling feet and blisters created from the new shoes. Still, the mind starts planning for the next day.
There are also elaborate food preparations in most households during the four days. Breakfast serving includes Luchi and Alu dam, a special potato curry. The lunch consists of khichuri, Phool Kopir Dalna, Beguni, Papad, and Chutney. There are sweets and 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.
The idol goes in procession amid chants and drumbeats to the river or other water bodies. It is also known as Bishorjon, Bhashan, and Niranjan. People chant Bolo Durga Mai Ki Jai (glory to Mother Durga) and Asche Bochor Abar Hobe (next year again). After the immersion people wish each other Subho Bijoya. Young ones touch the feet and take blessings from their elders.
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 the celebration of life. There are culture and love for the Goddess. The main essence here is the creativity of life which tries to go beyond our thoughts. People create something which they admire and remember for years to come. The vibrant atmosphere beckons you to be a part of it and be one with the feeling.