Durga Puja is the most important festival of Bengalis around the world and is widely celebrated in Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Tripura and West Bengal,
Ma Durga (Mother Durga) is the embodiment of shakti, the divine feminine force that governs all cosmic creation. It is believed that Ma Durga was born from the energies of all the Hindu gods, including the supreme trinity of Shiva, Vishnu and Brahma, to vanquish the demon Mahishasura.
She is also seen as the demon-fighting form of Shiva’s wife, Parvati. Durga idols and images depict her as a beautiful woman with a third eye (like her husband Shiva), riding a lion, and wielding ten weapons in her ten hands.
Durga puja lasts about four days and it is believed that this is the period every year when Durga come down to her father’s home, the Himalayas.
Celebration of Durga Puja
All Hindus celebrate this festival in different ways in different parts of India.
The goddess is honoured all over India during the annual Navratri festival (nine day festival), which marks the beginning of autumn. On each day of the festival, nine different forms of shakti or Mother Durga are worshipped.
In West Bengal, Durga Puja takes place on days six through ten of Navratri. On the tenth day, Durga’s victory over evil is celebrated as Vijayadashami in Bengal and Dussehra in North India. Dussehra also celebrates Rama’s vistory over the demon Ravana.
Where to celebrate Durga Puja
Though Durga Puja is celebrated in several cities with fanfare, the best place to witness the festival is in Kolkata, the home of Durga Puja. During the festival, life comes to a standstill and Kolkata is adorned with lights. The atmosphere is electric and resembles a mad carnival with all-night crowds, live music sessions, open-air theatre, literary fairs, poetry readings, and lots of food.
Traffic comes to a standstill and a special task force is deployed to control law and order. Elaborate structures called pandals are constructed all over Kolkata and the idol of the goddess is kept inside these. The pandals are the center of the festivities throughout the puja period.
The West Bengal government gives a fortnight of holidays for the pujas. In the run-up to the pujas, people shop for clothes and jewellery as it is customary to wear a new set on every day. It is also mandatory to give gifts to all family members and friends. It’s also a long night of food tours with people sampling the many different kinds of food at temporary food stalls set up by restaurants and residents.
Witness the preparation
If you visit Kolkata a few weeks before the puja begins, you can witness the beautiful Durga idols taking shape – from a crude clay on hay structure – under the expert hands of artisans at Kumartuli in Kolkata.
There are about 400 workshops in Kumartuli run by artisan families that have been doing this for generations. They create close to 4,000 Durga idols every year. Some are shipped abroad as Durga Puja is held in places with Bengali population all over the world.
A series of rituals are scattered through the making of the idol which invlove an age-old custom of collecting a handful of soil (punya mati) from the nishiddho pallis (forbidden territories) where sex workers live, and adding it to the clay mixture which goes into the making of the Durga idol. An important event is ‘Chokkhu Daan’, when the eyes are painted. This is done last – seven days before Durga Puja starts.
Go pandal hopping
Durga Puja has a strong secular side which is reflected in the themes of the pandals (temporary structures which house the idol). Thousands of people go ‘pandal-hopping’ with their friends and family. Of the 4,000-plus pujas in the city and its suburbs, around 1,000 pandals are theme-based. Over the years, pandals have become elaborate works of art. Traditional rural houses, important Indian monuments, replicas of the White House, Jurassic park, the RMS Titanic, Opera House of Paris and Harry Potter have all been themes.
The art of making Kolkata pujas pandals has found many admirers outside the city. In 2010, one of the pandals was selected by German artist Gregor Schneider to be replicated and exhibited across the globe. The Hermitage Museum of Russia and London’s Tate Gallery have also expressed interest in some of the idols. The structures are amazing and take a lot of time and money to build.
Sounds of a different drummer
Spend some time in a pandal in the evenings when arati (a religious ritual of worship)takes place to the accompaniment of the sound of dhaaks (drums) played by dhaakis (ritual drummers), carrying large leather-strung dhaks with attached feather plumes. The beats start off nice and slow and then build to an increasingly faster rhythm.
Enjoy the feast
Food stalls set up all over the city makes the nights of pandal hopping into a never-ending feast. You can choose from biryani, cutlets, fries, rolls and kebabs, and Chinese, Bengali, Punjabi and South Indian food. Within the pandals also, you get food blessed by the deity – bhog (khichdi) and payas (kheer).
Enjoy sindur khela
On the last day of the puja, before the idol is taken for immersion, the festivities begin with married women placing red sindoor (powder) on the idol of Goddess Durga. This is a ritual called sindur khela. Sindur is the red vermilion paste worn by married women in India and ‘khela’ literally means ‘play’.
Bid goodbye, but the party’s not over yet
In the evening of last day of Durga Puja (known as Dashami), the idols are immersed in nearby water bodies. The most popular immersion point in Kolkata is Babu Ghat on the Hooghly river. An excellent way of witnessing the rather poignant scene is by boat. West Bengal Tourism offers boat tours. while taking the idols for immersion, the crowds shout out : Aaschhe bochhor abaar hobey (we are coming back next year)!
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