Durga Puja: A Melting Pot of People, Rituals & Cultures!

An artist paints the eye of an idol of goddess Durga on Mahalaya at a Kumartuli workshop, in Kolkata, on Sept. 23, 2014. (Photo: Kuntal Chakrabarty/IANS)

Durga Puja and Bengalis are almost synonymous! It’s that time of the year when the ‘City of Joy’ literally goes berserk, soaking itself in festive fervor. Durga Puja is undoubtedly the biggest and the most popular festival of the Bengalis. Countdown of this mega celebration starts right after the Mahalayas and continues till Bijoya Dashami. Be it the rhythmic beating of ‘dhaaks‘ or drums, gorgeous puja pandals, intricate décor, mesmerizing lights, authentic and lip-smacking Bengali food, quintessential puja ‘bhog‘ or offerings or the grand idols of the divine Goddess, everything about Durga Puja is drenched in devotional ardor!

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Kumartuli is the traditional potters’ quarter in North Kolkata, where majority of clay idols are sculpted by artisans. Many of them are iconic artisans with fame. Durga Puja begins on Mahashasthi with Devi’s ‘bodhon’ or inauguration of worship and ends with the idol’s immersion on Bijoya Dashami amid much fanfare.

On Shasthi, unveiling of the deity’s face is the most important ritual. On Saptami, ‘Kola Bou’ or ‘Nabapatrika’ is given a pre-dawn bath and it’s a traditional ritual of worshipping nine types of plants. It is considered the symbol of the Goddess.

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The main puja takes place for three consecutive days – Mahasaptami, Mahashtami and Mahanabami. The rituals of this puja are elaborate, time-consuming and complicated. Everything is handled by expert priests who chant mantras and shlokas, offering various items to the Goddess along with the obligatory ‘aarti. These days, Durga Puja is both traditional and family-oriented and community based. The community pujas mostly follow a theme with ornate embellishments, illuminations with various forms of the deity. The family pujas typically adhere to age-old traditions and practices with conventional idol of the Goddess.

Mahashtami is considered the most auspicious day with ‘Sandhi Puja,’or the inter-linking of Mahashtami and Mahanabami, aarti and lighting of 108 lamps. Previously, animal sacrifices were observed in many places and families as part of puja customs, but now, such traditions have been replaced by vegetable sacrifices. Many people observe fasting during Mahashtami and offer anjali to the Goddess. Kumari Puja or worship of little girls as the mother Goddess is a special part of most traditional and family pujas on Mahashtami.

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Mahanabami is the concluding day of Durga Puja and Nabami bhog is offered to the Goddess, which is later given away as ‘prasad’ to devotees. On Dashami or the last day of the festival, the idols are carried in processions and are bid a tearful farewell by immersion in nearby rivers and lakes. Before immersion, married Bengali women engage in a ceremony known as ‘sindoor khela’ or smearing of vermillion on forehead. They also apply sindoor to the Goddess and offer her sweets. Dhunuchi (incense burner) dance comprises an integral part of the farewell procession.

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Hence, the homecoming of Durga from her heavenly abode with her children Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh and Kartick is welcomed with much affection and enthusiasm. Goddess Durga is epitomized as the ‘daughter’ of every Bengali household, and hence, her homecoming and farewell entails happiness and melancholia at the same time!

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Durga Puja in Bengal, especially Kolkata, has a flavor, essence and life of its own! People here buy new clothes and flock to crowded puja pandals and streets of the city to get a glimpse of the divine Goddess. Pandal hopping is a common phenomenon. For children and young folks, this is a crazy time, since they get to meet new people, friends and distant family members.

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Time literally stops during this time, when people of all ages celebrate the occasion with full exuberance and gusto! Today Durga Puja has crossed all geographic barriers and isn’t limited to Bengal or Kolkata, but other parts of India and the world. People, irrespective of their religion, take part in this puja and offer devotion to the Goddess. Bengalis living abroad comprise a huge community and Durga Puja for them means mingling, bonding and coming together of one and all. Hence, this festivity is truly all embracing!

Although there’s sadness and emotion filling up the air post immersion, but there’s also the hope and reassurance that the Goddess will surely return next year!

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