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Durga Puja is said to be the festival of kings,

In the morning, the chosen girl is bathed in holy water and dressed in a new sari. She is then bedecked with flowers and jewellery. Her feet are washed and the borders are painted with aalta (a red dye). A dotted mark of vermilion is put on her forehead. A flower taken from the goddess’ hand is given to the girl. She has to fast from the morning till the puja is over. The curling wisps of smoke from the incense sticks, the chanting of the mantras and the beat of the dhak lend another-worldly aura to the girl who is worshipped as a living goddess. When the pujas get over, handsome offerings are to be made—clothings, ornaments and the like.

This ritual is said to multiply manifold the pious rewards of worshipping Durga. In some houses, there is also a tradition of holding Kumari Puja on Day IX instead of Day VIII.

Sandhi Puja (worship at conjunction): This ritual is called such as it takes place at the conjunction of Ashtami, Day VIII, and Nabami, Day IX. More specifically, the period of worship is the last 24 minutes of Day VIII and the first 24 minutes of Day IX. To explain this timing, one has to go back to the Mahishasura myth. During the buffalo-demon’s battle with Durga, Chanda and Munda, his two generals, came to attack her with huge reinforcements. At this, the Devi’s countenance turned black in anger. From her third eye emerged a frightening female form—bearing a falchion, with a huge face and red eyes, blood dripping from the tongue. This figure let out a tremendous roar and beheaded the two generals with her chopper. The time of that encounter was this period, during which every year Durga is worshipped as Chamunda, the destroyer of Chanda and Munda. The hour is also memorable for the killing of Ravana by Rama, who was blessed and empowered to do so by Durga.

The ingredients that make up the mandatory list for this ritual are 108 lotuses, uncut fruits, sunned rice, 108 lamps, bel leaves, hyacinth garlands, clothes and ornaments. More offerings are made according to traditions in individual families. After Sandhi Puja, sacrifices are made to propitiate this ferocious face of the goddess. Though it was customary to kill oxen or goats (even human beings in some rare cases till a century ago) in the Devi’s name, in most houses now people make do with the chopping of fruits, like sugarcane, banana and pumpkin. The chopper has to sever the object at one go, as any obstruction in the act is said to beget ill luck. The sacrifice is an outward representation of what the ritual is about—destruction of the animal forces within man.

Bisharjan (Immersion): This is the principal ritual on Dashami, Day X, the last day of festivities. The dhak plays a different beat carrying a mournful air. In the morning, an aarati is done with a special lamp made of a paste of rice powder. Conch shells are blown and the beat of the dhak and the kanshor-ghonta reaches a crescendo. At the end of the puja, the ghots, left at the same spot through the three days and touched only by the priest, are moved. The mirror oil which the daily bathing of the goddess used to take place is floated in a container full of water. Devotees take a last glimpse of Durga’s face and feet through the reflection. Then the priest covers the container.

While the Puja is over at this stage for all symbolic purposes, the clay image is still there to be immersed. Certain customs have been added on to this day through social usage. One such is sindur khela (vermilion festival). A preserve of married women, it brings Durga in a sorority, adding to the familial context in which the Devi is worshipped in eastern India. Women apply vermilion to her forehead (the mark of a married woman), caress her face with betel leaf and feed her (touch her lips with) sweets and paan (betel leaf. They touch her feet and entreat her to be back the next year. Then wives, young and old, apply vermilion to each other’s forehead and bless or seek blessings, as is appropriate for their respective relationships.

In the afternoon, the journey starts for the riverside. The clay images have to be immersed in flowing water. On reaching the bank, the idols are carried bodily to the water, moved around an uneven number of times (three, five or seven times, depending on tradition) and immersed, with the face facing the bank. The stress is on her return the next year. The Nabapatrika, too, is given a watery farewell to the blowing of conch shells and the beat of the dhak. Then holy water is sprinkled on one and all as a shower of peace.

Another social custom post-immersion is to return home and write out the Devi’s name on a leaf in red ink. A milk- based intoxicant is prepared in some households and passed around, even if in spoonfuls. This is called siddhi, which ensures what the name denotes, i.e. attainment of success. Sweets of all shapes and sizes are on offer as people go around touching the feet of elders. Neighbours hug each other as all enmity and acrimony are forgotten. The mood is of celebration—of the victory of good over evil. Hence the name—Vijaya Dashami, the victorious tenth day.

Setting the dates

The dates of the Puja are not fixed and are arrived at every year through calculations by almanac-makers. Most Hindu festivals are determined on the basis of the lunar calendar, or more precisely, the luni-solar calendar, and the movement of the moon is what marks out the fall of the divine fortnight right after the new moon on Mahalaya.

Planetary conjunctions on the days of arrival (Day VII) and departure (Day X of the divine fortnight) of the Devi are are also said to decide how it augurs for the rest of the year. The key is the mode of transport that the goddess is supposed to take on her way here or back. The daughter of the Himalayas has all the travel options that used to be available in the land of the Himalayas in the days when her puja started with fanfare—the boat, the elephant, the horse and the palanquin.

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