Durga Puja, the most important festival for any Bengali, marks the happy and festive time of the year. It is actually much more than a festival though; it is an emotion that is deep rooted in the heart of every Bengali. No matter how old one becomes or in whichever part of the world one resides, Durga puja is the heart and soul of any Bengali. It is the cultural extravaganza that no Bengali ever wants to miss and every non-Bengali wants to experience at least once.
Families immerse themselves in this five-day gala of awesome food, pandal hopping, music and cultural evenings and welcome Maa Durga back to her paternal home. This is the time of home-coming for many Bengalis staying abroad or away from home. It is a reunion time in families and thus, it always strikes the emotional chord in every Bengali’s heart.
In the 16th Century,Bengal zamindars(landlords)of Malda and Dinajpur districts are believed to have been the pioneers of the grand celebrations associated with Durga Puja. The festival is observed in the Indian calendar months of September–October. As the time of Durga puja approaches, not only the people but also nature is in a happy mood with dancing white bunches of ‘Kaash’ flowers (Kans grass) in fields and meadows. The bright blue sky with white cotton-ball like clouds and the fragrance exuded by ‘Shiuli’ flowers (Nyctanthes arbor-tristis, the night-flowering jasmine) remind every Bengali that Durga Puja is just round the corner.
This festival marks the victory of Goddess Durga in her battle against the shape shifting devil, Mahishasura. Thus, the festival epitomises the victory of good over evil, and also celebrates the Goddess as the motherly power behind all life and creation. It is a ten-day festival, of which, the last five days namely, Maha-shashthi, Maha-saptami, Maha-ashtami, Maha-navami and Vijaya Dasami are of significance.
The festivity begins to gain its peak with ‘Bodhon’ which is held on the sixth day known as Maha-shashthi. It is the day Maa Durga reaches the mortal world from Kailash, her heavenly abode, with her children Lord Ganesh, Lord Karthik, Maa Saraswati and Maa Lakshmi. Maa’s face is unveiled on this day while devotees celebrate the occasion with much pomp and dhak beats as it marks the deity’s coming to life.
The seventh day Maha-saptami, is mainly known for Nabapatrika. The day starts with the ritual where a banana plantain with eight other plants, is tied with yellow threads and the twigs of the Aparajita (Clitoria) plant. It is then bathed and draped in a traditional red and white saree. The leaves are smeared with vermillion while various offerings are made. This is then placed on Lord Ganesh’s right side. Historically, the Nabapatrika was worshipped by farmers for a good harvest but as Durga Puja gained popularity, this ritual was introduced into the ceremony.
The eighth day, which is Maha-ashtami, is the most auspicious day and every Bengali fasts until offering Pushpanjali ( offering of flowers with folded hands to Hindu deities) to Maa Durga. The devotees repeat the mantra that the priests chant and offer flowers to Maa Durga’s feet. Kumari puja is also significant on this day. A young girl, who is yet to hit puberty, is worshipped. The young girl symbolises the Kumari f orm of Maa Durga and this puja is believed to grant many blessings to worshippers. It is said to remove all dangers. The philosophical basis of Kumari puja is to establish the value of women.
Kumari puja at Belur Math, West Bengal
Though every evening, a spectacular arati i s performed by the priests, the Ashtami evening’s arati steals everybody’s heart. Ashtami is also known for its beautiful ritual of Sandhi Puja. This takes place at the juncture of Maha-ashtami (8thday) and Maha-navami (ninthdayofthefestival). It marks the exact moment when Maa Durga transformed into Devi Chamunda to kill Mahishasura’s two army generals — Chand and Mund. One hundred and eight lamps are lit and one hundred and eight lotus flowers are offered during the puja and the occasion is celebrated with dhaak beats. While it is customary to perform an animal sacrifice on the Maha-navami day, in today’s time, it is symbolically done with vegetables.
During Durga Puja, the indomitable spirit and irrepressible energies of Bengalis literally burst forth, holding normal life to ransom. The spirit of festivity surrounds all, as hundreds of gaily-decorated pandals, those magnificent creations made of bamboo, cloth, plywood and imagination, come up everywhere. They house the mammoth but exquisitely sculpted figures of Durga and her family, and the whole neighborhood is transformed into a wonderland of lights, animation and music.
As mentioned earlier, along with the rituals, prayers and offerings during puja, what goes hand in hand during puja is food and cultural activities. Durga Puja evenings are incomplete if men and women don’t dance to the rhythmic beats of dhaak and bells, holding earthen pots billowing a fragrant smoke. The impromptu dance is called Dhunuchi Naach, a prominent custom and one of the most awaited activities during the evening festivities.
During the festival days, the cities in Bengal hardly sleep. Everyone is busy throughout. After the festivities reach their peak on Ashtami and Navami, on Vijaya Dasami every Bengali with a heavy heart prepares for Visarjan of Maa Durga. Bengali women smear ‘sindoor’ on each other’s foreheads and faces during the last ritual of Durga Puja known as ‘Sindoor Khela’ before the idol is taken for immersion into a river or a pond.
Bisarjan (immersion of idol into a river)
People feel overwhelmed and eagerly wait for another year to begin and bring yet another puja. It is a long wait for every Bengali to hear that first beat of the ‘Dhaak’ which makes their heart skip a beat and the feet tap.
Author – Sudakshina Dutta
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