Durga puja, the ceremonial worship of the Ma Durga (mother goddess), is the main festivals of the Bengalis. The festival is observed for six days mainly, as Mahalaya, Shashthi, Maha Saptami, Maha Ashtami, Maha Navami and Bijoya Dashami. The dates of the Puja are set according to the traditional Bengali calendar. The fortnight corresponding to the festival is called Devi Paksha (‘Fortnight of the Goddess’). Devi Paksha. The previous fortnight is called Pitri Paksha(‘ Fortnight of the Forefathers’). Mahalaya is the last day of Pitri Paksha. These days are celebrated with high spirit and grandeur in India and abroad, especially in Bengal. On that day Bengalis pay homage to their forefathers. Devi Durga, the ten-armed goddess riding on a lion is worshipped passionately with great devotion.
Birth of Durga:
We celebrate those six days with great enthusiasm, but few of us know the Mythological fact behind it. According to Hindu Mythology, in the ancient times, a demon called 'Mahishasura' (demon in disguise of Buffalo) earned the favor of 'Lord Brahma' through prolonged meditation severe austerity. Pleased by his devotion, the lord blessed him with a boon that no man or Deity could kill him. Armed with this power, Mahishasura started his reign over the Earth and Heaven by killing people mercilessly and assaulting gods. Lastly, a strong army of demons, led by the king Mahishasura captured the abode of the Deities by defeating the king of gods, Indra. Then, Mahishasura took over the throne of heaven. All the gods were driven out of the heaven. After their ignominious defeat they went to the Supreme Gods, Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva to save themselves and the people on the world.
The rampage by the demons enraged the Supreme Gods. Their faces were flushed with anger. All the three worlds: the heaven, the earth, and the nether-world were illuminated by that light of flames and thunderbolts. From that energy of fire a shape of a young woman appeared. Her face was created from the light of Shiva. Her ten arms were from Lord Vishnu. Her legs were created by Lord Brahma. All the gods gifted her different kind of weapons. Equipped with all these weapons she set off, seated upon a lion. His thunderous roars shook the three worlds. Oceans swelled up and broke over the land, touching the sky. A whole new chains of mountains rose through the continents, while older ranges crumbled, cracked, and gave way to dust in a thousand landslides. Seeing these momentous and violent events through all the three worlds, Mahishasura and his demon allies turned their attention from heaven to Earth. Fierce battle was fought. Through magical spell Mahishasura kept changing his shape and form from one to another to puzzle the Devi. Finally the Goddess beheaded the buffalo and from it emerged Mahishasura in his original form. Durga pierced his chest with the trident, and relieved the world from the evil power.
The gods returned to heaven, they praised the Goddess Durga by showering floral compliments. Since then, Goddess Durga is worshipped by all the gods in heaven, and all human beings on earth.
According to Puranas (the epics), King Suratha, used to worship the goddess Durga in spring. Thus Durga Puja was also known as Basanti Puja (Basanta being spring). Though the vernal worship of Durga still goes on, it is the Ram's Akalbodhan during the autumn that came to be a most widely accepted practice.
Durga Puja Mythology: Rama's 'Akal Bodhan' ('untimely awakening of Durga')
Durga Puja is celebrated every year in the Bengali month of Ashwin (September-October) which known as Akal Bodhan. According to Ramayana (A great Epic) Prince Rama's invocated the goddess before going to war with the demon king Ravana to rescue his wife Sita, who kept her captive. This autumnal ritual was different from the conventional Durga Puja, which is usually celebrated in the spring-time. So, this Puja is also known as 'akal-bodhan' or untimely worship of the goddess. Thus goes the story of Lord Rama, who first worshipped the 'Mahishasura Mardini' or the slayer of the buffalo-demon, by offering 108 blue lotuses and lighting 108 lamps, at this time of the year. Ravana was cremated on Dashami. This is why Dashera is celebrated in India with so much of fanfare and the effigy of Raavana is burnt.
The 'Baro-Yaari' Puja and Beginning of Mass Celebration
Long ago, the puja was performed only by the Rajas and Zaminders. The community puja first started by twelve friends of Guptipara in Hoogly, West Bengal, who collaborated and collected contributions from local residents to conduct the first community puja called the 'baro-yaari' puja or the 'twelve-pal' puja in 1790. Since then mass celebration of the puja has been started.
We, Bengalis see Devi Durga as mother (Maa), who has divine power against all evil. To us, mother comes to her maternal home from in-laws home. This autumnal festival is popularly known as Sharodotsav. On the tenth day she goes back to her in-laws home in Kailas. Maa comes on the earth to bless all her sons and daughters; we worship her to seek her blessings. This event has a significant presence in Bengali life. Numerous poetries, novels, and short stories have been written based on this festival. Modern traditions have come to include the display of decorated pandals and artistically depicted idols (murti) of Durga, publication of Puja Annual magazines and exchange of Vijaya greetings. Durga Puja is an occasion when the familiar sound of Dhak( a special kind of drum), Dhunuchi nachh( dance with a special earthen pot made for puja) , the mild fragrance of Shiuli(night jasmine), gives a familiar attraction to every Bengali heart. Dressed in attires of latest fashion, hopping from pandal to pandal, and having many kind of delicious food at home and in the restaurant are the main activities of the people. Bengalis all over the world wait through-out the year for these four days. To us it is not only a festival; it’s the time of reunion with near and dear ones. Parents wait to see their sons and daughter who live far away from home. It’s the time to come home. It’s time to get the mild fragrance of shiuli at dawn in the little cold. It’s time to walk on the dew-drenched grass in the morning. It’s time to have food cooked by mother at home. However, everybody is not lucky to go home at this time. Our present life, demanding job, and children’s education bar us to go home. So, the Bengalis who live on the other parts of world use to perform the pujas at the places where they live. Even in the USA and Europe, and in the Far East Bengalis try to celebrate this occasion, though they cannot perform the puja according to the Bengali calendar. For the convenience, in the USA, Bengalis perform the puja in the weekends in the autumn season.
I saw the last Durga puja in Calcutta in the year of 2003. It had been eight long years I couldn’t stay at home with my parents during this time. Unlike other Bengalis I love to stay at home to spend time with parents instead of pandal-hopping. Durga puja always reminds me, my childhood. I always miss the sweet cold breeze of the early dawn, the mild fragrance of shiuli (night jasmine) from the tree in front of our house, the festival magazines and the Puja vacation of school and college. My father was not that much wealthy to provide us very nice expensive dresses. However, whatever dresses my parents used to present us were stitched by themselves. We sisters, especially I, sometimes didn’t like the dresses they stitched for us. Unfortunately, at that time we were too young to understand the love and affection. Those days were gone and won’t be back.
This year was the fourth year I spent puja-time in the USA. I was not very enthusiastic about puja this time. Somehow I felt that I lost my all energy to celebrate the time. On the top of that, I couldn’t wear my contact lenses and my granny like specs discouraged me to deck-up for the puja. My husband also didn’t show any enthusiasm this time. I knew that he was missing the puja in Calcutta. I decided to celebrate this puja by cooking some delicious dishes at home, and I knew that my foodie hubby was going to like that. Anyway, we went to Foster City Saturday evening on 1st October to attend ‘Bay-Basi’ puja. There my husband found some of his old pals and we had a good time. Next day we went to ‘Paschimi’ Puja at Fremont. When we reached there, the friends of my husband told that, the food-stalls were not ready, so they were going to a restaurant near-by. We didn’t go there; because I already cooked in the morning .Bengalis are extremely foodies. Whenever few Bengalis talk, the main topic of the conversation surely will be food. There is no Bengali festival with any special food. Different festivals are associated with different kind of food. When Durga puja is the main festival, then it is associated with many delicious dishes. Though there are some special dishes for the four days, in modern days all kind of dishes all over the world become associated with the festival. Anyway, as the next day was Monday, so, we didn’t go to the puja at Paschimi. I wanted to go in the morning on Tuesday, because that day was the Ashtami(eighth day of the puja), but my husband was not interested go , and I also didn’t tell him my desire. That evening it started down pouring, so it was out of question to go. Wednesday, my husband decided to go at Paschimi puja. His friends told that they would come, if there was no rain on the evening. It was extremely cold. So, I decided not to wear sari, which I love to wear in any festival. We spent some times there, chatting with each other and decided to go again on Friday for Sindur Khela. Sindur (vermilion) Khela(play) is an important part of the festival. On the last day of the puja the married ladies put sindur on Ma durga’s forehead head and then put sindur on each other. This year I didn’t to take part in Sinder-Khela, but my friends put vermilion on my forehead. Again on Saturday we went to another community Puja at Hayward. The community is known as ‘Prabasi’ which is the oldest Durga Puja in the Bay Area. They performed the puja on Saturday and Sunday. We went there Saturday afternoon and spent some times. We also wanted to go Sunday afternoon, but I was not feeling good. So, we decided to go in the evening. After spending the evening there we went to have dinner in Fremont with some of my husband’s friends.
We enjoyed those days with friends. Sometimes I felt sad, that we couldn’t enjoy with our family back home. When I think that they also missed us during the time of the main festival, I felt an uneasiness in my mind. A fear of loss loomed over me. I felt that something I missed my life which would never be back.