By Monidipa Dey
Durga Puja. The very name is musical to the ears of many people from eastern India, especially those from West Bengal, Tripura, Odisha, and Assam. The religious festival, which is a celebration of the worship of the devi Durga in her Mahishasuramardini form, is synonymous with clear blue autumnal skies, white fluffy clouds, bright sunshine, and fields full of kash phool (a type of grass; scientific name is Saccharum spontaneum).
Traditionally Durga puja takes place twice in a year. The first one is celebrated in the month of Chaitra (March or April), and is known as Basanti Puja. The second puja takes during the month of Ashvin (September-October). According to the Bengali Ramayan written by Krittibash Ojha, Lord Ram invoked devi Durga during ashvin, and worshipped her just prior to his battle with Ravana. Pleased with his offerings, the devi blessed Rama, and gave him the secret to slay Ravana. Since the devi was invoked at a different time, other than the springtime Basanti puja, the autumnal worship of the devi is also termed as Akaal Bodhon, which means calling forth the devi much earlier than is the norm.
While the festival is a 10-day celebration pan India as the navratri, the Bengalis celebrate the last five days. It is believed that the devi at this time comes to visit her parents who reside on Earth; so, it is also the celebration of a daughter’s homecoming. The 5 days celebrated in the worship of the devi are Maha-Shashthi, Maha-Saptami, Maha-Ashtami, Maha-Navami and Bijoya Dashami. These five days also celebrate the defeat of the asura, who symbolises ignorance and evil in all walks of life. A very important part of Durga puja worship involves ‘pandal hopping,’ where families and friends visit various puja pandals together.
Pandal hopping is done not only to pay obeisance to the devi, but also to compare pandal décor, the devi’s face, lighting decorations, amongst various other things. The sixth day on which the Durga puja celebrations start is known as Sashthi. On this day, there are three main pujas: Kalparambha, Bodhon, and Adhivas +Amantran. Kalparamba, which takes place at dawn, means Sankalpa, or it is a promise made to perform the puja correctly, following all true rituals. At this time the ‘ghatastaphana’ takes place, and a copper pot filled with water is placed at a corner. The next puja is Bodhon, which takes place in the evening, and the devi is invoked at this time. The third puja is Adhivas +Amantran, where adhivas involves invoking the devi in a Bael tree (Aegle marmelos). Lastly, the devi is sent an amantran or invitation, to accept pujas from next day. Here the Sashti puja ends, and daily puja rituals commence the next day, on Maha-Saptami, and continue until the last day.
The daily puja rituals for next four days mainly comprise of pushpaanjali, hom (yagna), cooking and distribution of bhog (prasad), playing of dhaak, dunchi naach, sandhya aarti, and bali (symbolic sacrifices, made on ashtami and navami). An interesting ritual takes place during Bodhon on the sixth day or Sashti, which is the worship of Nabapatrika. Nabapatrika involves worship of nine different plants along with Kolabou (a banana tree, symbolising Lord Ganesh’s wife).
Interestingly the Nabapatrika worship (banana, colocasia, turmeric, jayanti, wood-apple, pomegranate, arum, rice, and ashoka) was originally a ritual observed by the peasants, praying for a good paddy harvest (Amon-dhan). Later the ritual became a part of the autumnal worship of the devi Durga. It is believed that nabapatrika ritual was a primitive form of the devi worship, still extant in some parts of Bengal.
Another important part of Durga puja is the ‘Sandhipuja’ that takes place at the crossover time between Ashtami and Navami. According to the Puranas and the Epics, at the time of sandhi puja (24 minutes of Ashtami, and 24 minutes of navami), the two asuras, Chanda and Munda, attacked the devi from behind. This angered devi Durga, triggering the emergence of the devi Chamunda, who killed the two asuras. It is for this reason traditionally bali takes place at this time (vegetables are offered as sacrificial items), which are a symbolical representation of the two asuras being killed. Thus, Ashtami and Navami are two days that call for special celebrations, ending with Dashami where the devi is given a farewell.
The Dashami puja involves bidding the devi goodbye, where women place sweets in her mouth and put sindoor in her hair, while performing various other farewell rituals, asking her to come back again next year. It ends with ‘sindoor khela,’ where women put sindoor on each other’s forehead and face. After Dashami puja, darpan bisarjan takes place, a symbolic bisarjan that declares end of all festivities, and later the devi is taken for immersion in rivers or other allocated water bodies.
Thus, the Dashami farewell rituals and subsequent immersion bring to an end almost six months of backbreaking labour that goes into preparing for the six days of festivities. Subsequently, the end also marks the start of waiting, for devi Durga to visit her earthly home again next year.
(The author is a well-known travel writer. Views expressed are personal.)