When autumn heralds festivity

It is not often that I write a post dedicated to someone in particular. Interestingly, this one is. How? Well, actually, last week, during a conversation with Anamika of thebespectacledmother.com, while discussing about Durga Puja, I had casually mentioned about how even though I’m not one to follow religious rituals, to me Durga Puja is all about a spiritual connect with the goddess who signifies strength, courage and positivity – and why it is so important to me – something that I draw sustenance from, each day. She suggested I write a post as she was keen to know more about it. With at least one reader assured, I bravely went ahead with the idea. 🙂 I did cover some aspects of the Durga Puja festival in my previous skywatch post, but many would not have read it. I do hope I have been able to do justice to the topic, as I’m writing after a short break and (here’s an honest confession!) more than anything, I’m desperately trying to get back into my writing groove.

                     P.S. I am done with Durga Puja now for another year, I promise 😀

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In Bengal, the advent of autumn brings along with it a slight nip in the air. From a distance, one can spot soft fleecy clouds spread all across the azure sky and the fields are covered by the beautiful ‘kaash’ flowers on the sides and the ground strewn with fragrance of “Shiuli” (jasmine) everywhere.

shiuliAutumn means celebration, the arrival of goddess Durga and many other fun activities. It means kites in the sky flying high, crossing each other. People gear up for the echo of the “dhaak” and the “dhol” and the excitement reaches a final crescendo as the final preparations are almost over for the biggest festival of the year – the celebration and worship of Goddess Durga over the next few days.

My earliest memories of Durga Puja begin with the recollection of waking up at the wee hours of the morning to the intensely beautiful ushering in of goddess Durga on “Mahalaya”, that comes a week before, with Birendra Krishna Bhadra‘s Mahishasur Mardini, a collection of shlokas and songs, on the radio.

He was an eminent broadcaster and there used to be so much power in his soaring invocation to the mother goddess to descend on earth – “Jago Tumi Jago. (Rise, oh Mother!) that I used to, and still do, get goosebumps each time I listened to it. As a child, the arrival of pujas meant unparalleled excitement – new clothes, the festive feel to the air and plenty of fun with friends at the local Durgabari -all of which made it all feel so special. Rain or shine, nothing could take away the joys from those few days.

We’ve all grown up listening to the many legendary tales of Durga. The Hindus see Her as a manifestation of Shakti or the power of God. She is said to assume different forms at different times to destroy the “Danavas/Asuras” or the workers of evil. It is believed that the first ever Durga Puja was performed by Lord Rama in the month of “Ashwin” (September-October, according to the Hindu calendar) to invoke the blessing of the Goddess before declaring war on the mighty demon, King Ravana. This Durga Puja was quite different from the traditional worship of the mother goddess; therefore, this puja ceremony is also known as “akal-bodhan, which stands for out-of-season worship. The event marks the epoch of universal rejoicing and festivity amongst the Hindus – the proverbial victory of good over evil, of light over darkness.

Although all Hindus equally worship the Durga, to a Bengali, this festival is evocative of some of the finest memories of celebration with the near and dear ones, when the goddess is said to return to her “maternal home” on Earth, from Mt Kailash, along with her children Ganesh, Kartik, Lakshmi and Saraswati. Celebrated as a bunch of festivals over six days Durga Puja starts from the day of Mahalaya, to be followed a week later, by Maha Shashti, Maha Saptami, Maha Ashtami (Durga Ashtami), Maha Navami and ending on Vijaya Dashami (the tenth day of Victory),. when the goddess returns to the Himalayas.

Over the centuries, Durga Puja has transcended the boundaries of religion and is today, heralded as one of the largest outdoor festivals, one that gives the Bengali community an opportunity to showcase their art and culture throughout the world. Since the 1990s, the “pandals” have become an extension of the Durga Puja itself. Stylistic elements are now added to its exteriors as well as interiors and artists work for months, rather painstakingly, to create unrivalled craftsmanship and detailed work that makes each pandal more attractive and striking than the other. Corporate sponsorships have taken it a whole new level and prizes are awarded to encourage the artists, many of whom dedicatedly work on these alone to make ends meet.

During the mornings, while the priest performs the puja, people queue up to offer “pushpanjali”, or offerings of flowers to the goddess, by chanting of the mantras. Everyone is dressed in their finest traditional wear, specially allocated for each of the five days and there are plenty of volunteers who work alongside the organisers to ensure everything proceeds seamlessly, before it is time for the “bhog” to be offered to the goddess.

As a custom, everyone who visits the pandal is treated to this special lunch, the menu being similar to what is offered to the goddess, but this is usually cooked in large vats and pans to cater to the large crowds. Who can forget he memories of steaming hot “khichuri”, the colourful medley of vegetable curry (“Labra“), tomato “chutney” and the delicious  – a sweetened rice pudding,”payesh”, liberally topped with dry fruits and raisins? I still recall queuing up with friends, eyeing the best places, before finally getting a chance to grab a seat – that joy of being part of a huge gathering of people, a part of that merry gang, still fresh in memory – something, that many like me, still look for, even now, as we now celebrate the festival in different cities, far removed from the towns and familiar neighbourhoods we grew up in. It is heartening to see people getting their friends to join in for the “bhog“, which, I feel, brings people across communities together on a common platform, in an otherwise socially stratified society, so common in our Indian cities.

The evenings are a different scene altogether. At the altar of the goddess, the priest performs the “Sandhyarati“, followed by a special dance, by those adept at the “dhunuchi” dance, which involves dancing while holding an earthen pot, filled with burning coconut fibres along with camphor, as an invocation to the goddess- a dance that has now become synonymous with the festival itself. This is followed by the evening cultural show, which includes concerts by well-known songwriters and singers with each pandal competing to attract the best names for their event, subject to their budget and organizational prowess!

As night descends, the pandals come alive with festive lighting with crowds thronging the live arena on one side and rows of food stalls, on the other, that all kinds of cuisines, besides traditional Bengali delicacies and sweets.

The four days of festivity ends finally on the fifth day with “sindur khela” when married women smear vermillion on the diety’s forehead and feet, and then on each other, symbolising long lasting marital bliss. Amid loud  drum beats and chants, all the idols are carried in a procession, and immersed in the waters, symbolic of the departure of the deity to her home with her husband in the Himalayas. Thus ends the five days of festivity, with rituals thrown in aplenty for those believe and follow them.

For me, these puja days are reliving the childhood excitement and feeling a very strong spiritual connect with the deity, even though I am not a great follower or believer in traditional rituals and customs in general. For the very same reason, my husband and I have never forced our son to believe in them either, who until very recently, was a staunch agnostic. Now, at age twelve, he reckons God is a belief that exists within him, in much the same way as I do, a faith that miraculously emerged within him, although we have never indoctrinated him either for or against it.

The vision of the goddess in all her glory reaffirms my faith in myself and tells me that all that is dark and negative will be destroyed. She, who is the remover of all the three types of miseries – physical, mental and spiritual, helps me draw strength from within, as it has been for all these years. I draw my sustenance from this universal spirit and feel energised as my soul begins to get purged off fear, anxiety and worry, all negative thoughts, sadness and anger and I rise anew to face life and its volleys once again. I cannot stop what is to come but I can certainly prepare myself for the uncertainties that lie ahead.

The vision of that fearless pose of goddess Durga in her “abhay mudra” stays with me long after those five days are over, fuelling my reserves every now and then, reminding me that I am part of that Universal spirit too. The idols may come and go each year, but She lives on within me forever.

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7 thoughts

  1. First of all Thank you Esha for giving in to my gentle coaxing for publishing this post 🙂 The post brilliantly describes the tradition of Durga Puja to a lay(wo)man like me. As we had discussed, in my childhood my mother told me about the tradition as she had heard from her Bengali friends but being away from the cosmopolitan culture for very long erased my memories. Understanding and connecting with the spiritual aspect of the festival gives it more meaning, devoid of which, it is just like any other pomp and show and I feel spiritual connect is highly personal. Another example of this is the festival of Karva Chauth which is being celebrated today, a festival marked by commerce more than anything else.

  2. beautifully written Esha, Now I am missing all the fun of Pujo. We used to have Durga Puja at home and it was such fun. Since an entire generation is now settled outside Kolkata, no more Pujo at home! When you see all the culture tradtion from close quarters you get to know so many things!

    1. Thank you Tina! You’re right. Even in my hometown, everyone is now scattered all over the country and beyond and the familiar faces are all but lost. Puja makes me extremely nostalgic about the childhood days and the days when we grew up with friends and family around us. How times change. Few things still hold the Bengali traditions together as Durga Puja does, even today in the farthest corners of the world.

  3. Such a beautiful post Esha. Loved to read and understand some of the nuances. You mentioned pandals being elaborate since the 1990s. Actually, in the 80s also the pandals were very elaborate. I remember visiting the only pandal near my home in Mumbai. It used to have so many special effects and decorations. Would love to see Durga Puja in Kolkatta some day.

    1. Thank you so much, Lata! Yes, you could be right, probably way back in the late 80s or so. Happy to know you’ve been to one back then. Actually, its only now that its becoming very cosmopolitan and more people across cultures are seeing the festival so closely! Kolkata puja is a unique experience, the only problem being that to make the most of the pandal viewing, you need to walk to most places as the traffic comes to a total halt. Nowadays, my folks back home prefer to watch them on TV instead. 🙂

  4. You know, Esha, I don’t know much about rituals or the significance of everything that we have been doing since childhood, you know celebrating the festivals that we do as Bengalis. As a child, I wasn’t interested much but Durga Puja was and still is a part of my identity. Whether as a Bengali or just the sense of belonging that it brings to me, I cannot quite explain. I wasn’t and still am not so religious but spiritual, yes. For me the relationship between Maa Durga and me or Lord Shiva and me is something that has nothing to do with a third person, they have been with me every step of the way and I turn to them for everything in life, for solace most of all. So, every autumn like you, I look forward to those five days when I’m connected to myself as a person and my past more than any other time of the year. These are my days of celebration not only with my family but the reaffirmation of my rapport with the Goddess. 🙂

    1. True, Nabanita. Durga Puja remains and will be so for many like us, who feel very strongly connected spiritually with the diety. I love the social side to the festivities definitely but I feel emotionally drawn much more to the festival in general as I cannot imagine not being a part of it even when I’m away from India, as I did for ten long years. Actually, even the Bengali diaspora feel that way and so, there’s always some puja somewhere, wherever one goes. I do feel the same way you feel connected, looking forward to those five days to feel alive and strong from within. Hope you had a great puja back home this time with your little one. 🙂

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