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Durga Puja Celebrations

The celebration of Durga Puja

The celebration of Durga Puja goes back in history and there are abundant references to it in India literature from 12th century onwards. However, today Durga Puja is generally a community festival. The Puja celebration over the years has changed color often. Earlier, it was the most expensive of all festivals and could only be performed by the rich and the powerful like feudal lords, rajas and big businessmen. However, it always evoked great enthusiasm and popular support.

But in today's ethos, The evolution of many clubs, associations and societies has made the Puja cosmopolitan in character. The social and ritualistic significance of the Puja has also been modified to a great degree. Today, this festival has become an occasion for pageantry and extravaganza. Age-old conch shells and drums have given way to loud film songs and sometimes the goddess is modeled on popular film actresses. On the flip side, animal sacrifices, a must earlier, have been dispensed with at many places and shrines.

While earlier Durga was worshiped alone, now it is, more often than not, the goddess with her family. Durga is portrayed as the supreme head; and the presence of Ganesha, Kartikeya, Shiva etc marks a wholesome picture of divinity. In southern India celebrations constitute a display of images of God and toys at home for nine days. But despite the various ways in which this festival is celebrated the feature that is common is that of the worship of the mother goddess.

The right time for the worship of Goddess Durga being in spring, the prayers of Lord Rama are also known as akal bodhan (untimely worship). Nowadays, Ram Navmi is celebrated during spring and Durga Puja or Dussehra is celebrated during autumn.

Prevalent in Bengal is the tale of the defeat of the demon, Mahishasura at the hands of Goddess Durga, the incarnation of Shakti, or Power. This demon was almost invincible because of a boon granted by Lord Shiva (the Destroyer in the Hindu Holy Trinity of Creator-Preserver-Destroyer) whereby no male could defeat him. But the gods found a novel solution to the daunting problem. The amalgamation of the might of all the gods resulted in the birth of Shakti in the form of Goddess Durga, who wielded an assortment of weapons in her 10 hands and rode a lion. Predictably enough, she was able to slay the demon, thus ending his reign of terror. Therefore, Durga is also called Mahishasuramardini (the slayer of Mahishasura). This holy battle has come to symbolise the triumph of Good over Evil.

The festival of Durga puja comes with its own retinue of mythological stories. The most prevalent among them is the one involving Lord Rama, the hero of the Hindu epic, Ramayana. When Ravana (the 10-headed demon king of Lanka, now Ceylon) abducted Lord Rama’s wife Sita, and held her hostage in Lanka, a fierce battle ensued. Although there were huge casualties on both sides, Ravana could not be defeated. So Rama decided to seek the blessings of Shakti or Goddess Durga in order to defeat the 10-headed demon.

But here comes the twist in the tale. 108 black lotuses were needed for the worship of the Divine Mother and Rama had managed to procure only 107. He was on the verge of laying one of his eyes that was lotus-shaped and black in colour at the Goddess’s feet when Shakti, satisfied with the measure of his devotion, granted her blessings. and the righteous eventually triumphed.

Durga Puja is celebrated on a mass scale with puja pandals (marquees) dotting nearly every nook and corner of West Bengal. Thanks to a migrant Bengali population, the past few years have seen a rise in the number of Durga Pujas in other parts of the country and abroad as well. Preparations for the Puja begin long before the actual day arrives. If you are looking for bargains, you won’t find a better time. Publishing houses come out with puja editions of magazines, and craftsmen and artisans do brisk business at this time of the year.

During the four days of Durga Puja, Bengalis really let their hair down. Beside the actual Puja, most pandals organise different kinds of competition to regale the local people. It’s party time for both children and adults alike as they participate wholeheartedly in the fun and frolic. Local talent gets a chance to share the stage (a makeshift one more often than not) with more illustrious artists.

The festivities begin from maha shashthi (the sixth day from the day after mahalaya) when the priest unveils the deity during a puja known as bodhan. On this day the women of the house fast for the well-being of the family. The fast is broken in the evening with fruits and luchis (a kind of bread made of flour), usually eaten with sabzi (vegetables). It is normal for the whole family to participate in these rituals, especially when it comes to partaking of the yummy luchis and sabzi. A trip to the local pandal is also a must.

The morning of maha saptami (seventh day) is taken up with the worship of the deity, followed by anjali when a devotee offers prayers and flowers on an empty stomach, amidst the chanting of mantras to the Goddess. Only then can one make a beeline for the prasad (sweetmeat offered to the deity). Bhog (meal provided to all and sundry after the Goddess has partaken of it) at lunchtime is a welcome break for those who gather in the pandals. But come evening, and the pandal becomes a dazzling array of new clothes, shiny faces of children running helter-skelter and a spectacular display of lights. The rhythmic beat of the dhak (drums) adds to the mood of Bengal’s most popular festival.

The maha ashtami (eighth day) is an especially significant day. The priest breathes life into the idol of Durga as he performs the sandhi puja (worship in the evening) to the chanting of shlokas (religious couplets). The reflection of the idol has to be observed in a bowl of water as this gives an impression of movement. This part of the puja is known as pranpratishtha (breathing life into the idol). Kumari puja (worship of young girls) is an old custom still carried out in certain temples.

All these special ceremonies are interspersed with the usual rounds of anjali, prasad and bhog. Merry-making reaches fever pitch by the evening on this day. of course, amongst the highlights of the evenings are the gastronomical treats that can be bought from the stalls abounding in the pandals. Pandal-hopping is also a favourite pastime.

One cannot talk about maha navmi (ninth day), without laying emphasis on the fact that meat is served in many pandals as part of the bhog, but never in the temples. This being the penultimate day of the Puja, one can feel that it is soon going to be over.