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Durga Puja is said to be the festival of kings,

For all practical purposes, the countdown for the Puja starts from this day.

Bodhan (the awakening), amantran (the invitation) and adhibash (taking shelter): The evening of Sashthi, Day VI, is when the action begins and the site is the foot of a bel tree, said to be a favourite with Lord Shiva. The all-important ghot, a pot full of holy water representing the goddess’ spiritual presence, is placed there5. The tree is imagined as a form of Shiva, described in the mantras as having matted hair and a third eye, clad in tiger skin and riding a bull. The Devi, asleep in the months approaching winter solstice, is then invoked to rise, come down and rest on a branch of the tree and bless the worshipper just as she had blessed Rama, the epic hero. Some 22 items (ranging from sandal paste and pebble to flowers and yoghurt are needed to complete the next stage in which the Durga idol and the Nabapatrika are also worshipped. It is now permissible to decorate and arm the image. The bel tree is then squared off with sticks planted at four corners and tied with red strings. The idea is to keep off the unholy spirits till the day dawns for the worship to begin. It may be pointed out that bodhan is as much the awakening of the goddess as of the worshipper’s self, making him attain the purity and the consciousness that the task requires. Just as chakshudan on Day VII is not just the priest touching the Devi’s eyes with a stalk of bel leaf dipped in kajol (collyrium) and bringing the orbs to ‘life’, but also opening the inner eye of the worshipper, and gifting him supreme knowledge and realisation.

Bathing of Nabapatrika:

This ritual on the morning of Saptami (Day VII) introduces Durga as a goddess of vegetation. A branch is cut off from the bel tree at the foot of which the bodhan took place the evening before. The branch is where the divine spirit is believed to have descended and rested through the night. It is split into two halves. One half is placed on the representative ghot in front of the image. Branches of eight other trees (banana, paddy, turmeric, etc) are collected and along with the other half of the bel branch, they are tied together with a creeper. Durga is present is each of these plants with a distinct name and form.

This collection of nine branches now is taken to the nearest waterbody (or a temple, if a waterbody is not close by) to be bathed. It is quite a procession that meanders down to the riverbank—the priest carrying the Nabapatrika, preceded by the dhakis (drummers) and followed by the women of the house or the locality blowing conch shells. After the bath, the Nabapatrika is returned to the site of the puja, wrapped around with a sari and placed on a wooden seat to the right of the goddess. Usually, it is installed to the extreme right of the entourage, making its place adjacent to Ganesha. A vermilion streak is applied to the border of the sari where the forehead would be. Any representation of Durga, a wife, has to carry that mark of a married non-widowed Hindu woman.

This is followed by the great bathing of the goddess, using the mirror on the pot, as described at the beginning of the chapter. The clay idol is now invested with the divine spirit. Separate offerings are made to each god, his or her mount, Mahishasura, the Nabapatrika, Shiva and Vishnu (consorts of Durga and Laxmi) and even the gods painted on the chalchitra (see box).
The chalchitra is an intricately designed hemispherical backdrop to the goddess. Its base is usually blue, the colour of the sky, and the border is densely populated with sketches of a variety of figures from the scriptures. Bringing the unlimited within limits, showing the universal in the particular—that is what the chalchitra does, reminding us of the all-pervasiveness of the goddess. The figures include Shiva (at the centre, above Durga), the two other members of the Trinity—Brahma and Vishnu, other forms of Durga, scenes from the Shumba-Nishumba myth, the Ramayana or the Mahabharata, the great churning of the sea, deeds of Lord Krishna, Shuk-Shari (the mythical pair of birds) and the like. The choice of figures differs from house to house and depends on tradition. Another logic behind the inclusion of other gods is that many divine entities descend on earth on these days to witness Durga Puja. Though they cannot be included in the main frame, their presence is thus acknowledged and they are included in the list of the worshipped. It is also a reminder that Durga evolved out of so many other gods.

Kumari Puja (worship of a virgin): The proceedings on Ashtami (Day VIII) take into account all forms of the goddess. Even her weapons, jewellery and seat are worshipped. This is followed by the Worship of a virgin girl. She could be aged one to 16 years and should be unmarried, not embroiled in worldly affairs, not given to outbursts of passion and not into her menstrual cycle. Though a daughter of a Brahmin (the highest caste of priests) is the usual stipulation, the Devipurana prescribes a Kshatriya (caste of warriors) girl for a puja seeking a boon of victory, a Vaishya (the trading community) girl for profits, a Shudra (menials) daughter for the birth of a son, and a female offspring of the Antajas (the untouchables) for deliverance from impending danger.

Kumari Puja at Belur Math

Belur Math, the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Math and Mission, on the outskirts of Calcutta, holds the most famous Kumari Pula in the country. The Durga Puja here was initiated by Swami Vivekananda in 1901. The resolution to worship the Goddess (sankalpa) was taken in the name of Sarada Ma, wife of the great ascetic Ramakrishna Paramhansa. On Ashtami that year, several virgins were worshipped, with Vivekananda himself performing the rites for one of them. The tradition continues to this day. On Day VIII, a girl aged between five and seven is selected and dressed in a red Benarasi sari, ornaments and floral decorations. Earlier the ritual took place in the natmandir in front of the image, but the rush of devotees has shifted the venue to the open verandah where the girl is seated on a wooden throne.

The goddess has to be worshipped in separate forms depending on the age of the chosen girl. For instance, a two- year-old is conceived of as Saraswati, at 13 she is Mahalaxmi and at 16, Ambika. If the clay image serves to help human beings visualise the goddess, a living entity like the virgin girl further brings the concept within our comprehension.

It is difficult to explain the Devi as a virgin from within the bounds of human experience. But that is what she is, according to the scriptures, so what if she is wife to Lord Shiva. As Kumari, she is neither born of any womb, nor has she borne life in her womb.

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