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Palaces and Courtyards

Palaces and courtyards

Start Of Durga Puja

Raja Surath and Rama, who worshipped the deity in spring and autumn respectively, are both mythical figures. To what extent their puja resembles what we see today is also a matter of conjecture.

Though archaelogical evidence of Durga’s existence dates back much earlier, Durga Puja, in its present form, is said to have started in the Mughal era in the 16th century. Raja Udaynarayan took the initiative to hold the first puja in around 1580. His dream was a show of strength on the lines of the elaborate Rajasuya’ or Ashwamedha2 Yagna that kings organised in mythical times.

But most historians conclude that Udaynarayan could not fulfil his dream. It was left to his grandson Raja Kangshanarayan to achieve the feat. Kangshanarayan created a stir in his time by organising Durga Puja at an expense of about Rs 8 lakh at Taherpur in the Rajshahi district of undivided Bengal (now in Bangladesh).

Unanimity, however, exists about a puja that took place a little later—in 1606. The worshipper was Bhabananda Majumdar of Nadia, ancestor of Raja Krishna Chandra Roy. In 1610, another puja—perhaps the first in Calcutta—was launched by Laxmikanta Majumdar, founder of the Sabarna Roy Chowdhury family. The zamindar family is linked to the history of Calcutta for the sale of land rights to the East India Company of three villages that formed the city decades later. Both Bhabananda and Laxmikanta came to prominence thanks to the titles and largesse bestowed on them for services rendered to the empire by Raja Man Singh, general of Emperor Akbar and later, ruler of Amber.

Other Hindu kings came forward as well and the Puja spread far and wide to Gaur, Rajmahal, Murshidabad and Krishnanagar. Soon, Durga Puja became the most important annual festival, offering the local landed gentry the chance to flex their financial muscle and also bringing together family, friends and neighbours, infusing life in the placid rural community.

Festive fervour in the villages centred around the puja in the house of the raja or the local zamindar. Large-scale feasts and gifts of clothes and foodgrains on these days added to the cheer. Everyone had a slice of the action. Some offered to fetch water from the Ganges, some were assigned the job of finding faultless animals for sacrifice, others washed the puja utensils or collected flowers and bel leaves. It was a busy time for the professional communities too. The potter would be up at night giving shape to the pots amid urns, the sprinkler for the Devi’s baths, 108 lamps for Sandhi puja and the like. The artisan got busy with the idol. The priest shifted address to the palace even before the start of the festival. The cobbler or the blacksmith did duty as dhaki; the milkman’s wife coated the puja courtyard with cowdung and clay. The barber’s wife came over to adorn the feet of the women of the house with aalta. The weaver readied stocks to supply all family members with new clothes. People, who stayed away on work the rest of the year, would be back home during this period. And when it was time for the Devi’s bodhan, the entire village flocked at the courtyard of the zamindar’s house.

Glory in the glitter

There are numerous accounts of splendour in such festivals. Raja Krishna Chandra Roy (1710-1782), ruler of Nadia, organised one of the most lavish pujas of his time. In his palace in Krishnanagar, work on the clay idol started on the holy day of the Ultarath festival (the day of the return journey of Lord Jagannath in his chariot) in the month of Asharha (June-July) with the firing of a cannon. Durga was dressed as a warrior, clad in armour and masculine apparel. Her mount was not a lion but a mythical creature: half-man, half-lion. The number 108 played a key role in all rituals. The volume of clay used for creating the images was 108 maunds. The morning of Saptami would announce the start of the puja to the flourish of the beat of 108 dhaks. The lotuses used in the puja numbered 108. As many as 108 goats were sacrificed. And during immersion, 108 carriers transported the goddess from the palace to the Jalangi river about two miles away. The influence of the nawabs of Murshidabad (rulers of the province of Bengal, appointed by Mughal decree who were virtually independent before the British replaced them) had rubbed off on Krishna Chandra. He introduced nautches to add to the festive cheer.

October 17,1829, edition of Samachar Darpan points to the ruler from Krishnanagar as the one to have transformed the festival into a glitzy affair. “It is due to this (the Raja’s puja) that the rich are no longer afraid to flaunt their wealth before the British rulers and are increasingly spending more ,” the chronicle wrote.

Krishna Chandra, credited with starting many of the modern practices of worship, also did much for the spread of Durga Puja. He issued orders to the zamindars under him to start the autumnal festival and even offered financial help to those who could not afford it.

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