Durga Puja is the biggest festival in Bengal. This is also known as Dussehra and Navaratri in other parts of India. Durga is the Goddess of divine power against all evils. The story goes that Mahisasur, the Buffalo Demon, through years of praying, received blessing from Lord Brahma, that no power can kill him which means he is invincible. But once gaining this power he started ravaging the whole world and killing people. And finally he wanted to uproot the Gods too.
Durga Puja is the biggest festival in Bengal. This is also known as Dussehra and Navaratri in other parts of India. Durga is the Goddess of divine power against all evils. The story goes that Mahisasur, the Buffalo Demon, through years of praying, received blessing from Lord Brahma, that no power can kill him which means he is invincible. But once gaining this power he started ravaging the whole world and killing people. And finally he wanted to uproot the Gods too. The Gods, in dismay, combined their powers to create a beautiful maiden, and each placed his or her most potent weapon in one of her ten hands riding a lion. Her return in each year in the Bengali month of Aswin (September-October) commemorates Rama’s invocation of the goddess Durga before he went into battle with Ravana. The traditional image of the Bengali Durga follows the iconographic injunctions of the Shastras. It is similar to the Durga of Aihole and of Mahabalipuram (seventh century). The tableau of Durga with her four children – Kartik, Ganesh, Saraswati and Lakshmi, representing respectively the Protector, the Initiator of the puja, Knowledge and the Provider – signifies the complete manifestation of the goddess.
Another legend has it that Lord Rama went to rescue his abducted wife Sita from the grip of Ravana, the king of the demons in Lanka. Before starting for his battle with Ravana, Rama wanted the blessings of Devi Durga. Pleased with Rama’s devotion, Durga appeared before him and blessed him. The battle started on the saptami and Ravana was finally killed on the sandhikshan i.e. the crossover period between ashtami and navami and was cremated on dashami. Since the period of this worship was different from the conventional festival time of spring or basant, this puja is also known as akal-bodhan or worship (bodhan) in an unconventional time (a-kaal).
Festival preparations begin a month or two in advance. Employees of different Govt. and private organizations get extra money as Puja bonus to enjoy the festival. If not, then processions and posters press the demand for Puja bonus, as the bread-winner has to meet many demands for new clothes and furbishing for the home. Businesses have special advertisement campaigns before Puja and stock themselves with special products. Pre-Puja bargain sales and exhibitions introduce the sartorial style for the coming year. Bengali newspapers and magazines publish special issues “Sharad Sankhya” – the platform for many budding author, besides the works by well-known writers. Music companies have a number of new discs and cassettes published in every Puja and the music lovers await eagerly for the new releases.
The festival starts with Mahalaya, the first phase of the waxing moon in Aswin. Thousands offer prayers to their ancestors at the city’s river banks (ghats), a ritual called Tarpan. A special pre-dawn program of readings from the Chandi and Aagamani songs welcoming the goddess are relayed by All-India Radio. This traditional program, conceived by Birendrakrishna Bhadra, has become an institution: a chorus of protests led to its restoration after a change was attempted one year.
The festive mood builds up as Dhakis (drummers) from the countryside starts gathering near the city. They beat feathered drums to attract the attention of local Puja organizers. The first recorded Durga Puja seems to have taken place in Nadia district in or around 1606. In those days it was more of a family festival for the rich or landlords. The oldest Puja in Calcutta, as some believes, was used to be the family Puja of Sabarna Chaudhury of Barisha which dates back to 1610. The first publicly organized puja happened in Guptipara of Hoogli district when twelve men were stopped from taking part in a household puja. They formed a twelve man committee and held a puja. Since then these kind of puja arrangement is known as barowari ( baro – twelve, yar- friend). Later the term ‘barowari’ was replaced by ‘sarbojonin’ ( for all men and women). The first community puja in Calcutta was held at Balaram Bose Ghat Road in 1910.
The construction of images start months back. Kumartuli, a place in north Calcutta, is famous as a place for expert artisans who uses clay modeling to build the images of Durga, Mahisasur, Kartick, Ganesh, Saraswati and Lakshmi. This is a wonderful form of art and part of a deep rooted culture. In the recent years, eminent personalities from the painting and sculpture world also did lots of creative work on Durga images. Another group of people starts building a pandal ( a covered huge stage ) with paper, wood, bamboos, clothes and other materials. They come up with beautiful structures , most of the times they are so beautiful and real that, it tough to believe that these are made for only couple of days or a week. Some constructions are built as replica of world famous structures.
The inauguration starts on Mahashasthi. The main puja is for three days – Mahasaptami, Mahaastami, Mahanavami. The puja rituals are long and very detailed and complicated. Three days of Mantras and Shlokas and Arati and offerings – needs an expert priest to do this kind of Puja. Because of these facts, the number of Pujas held in the family has reduced and Durga Puja has mostly emerged as a community festival. The city of Calcutta takes a different look during these three days, specially at night. Millions of people come to the city and line up before the pandals. The streets are lighted and the electricians display all different kind of light shows. The restaurants are packed and numerous temporary food stalls are opened though out the city. Special trains, buses are available; underground metro rail runs beyond regular schedule. People from suburban areas come into the city and roam around through out the nights.
Schools, colleges, offices remain closed during these four days. Some people use the holidays to go out for sight seeing and travel. Trains to tourists spots get reserved months before puja. Bengalis in other cities in India visit their relatives in West Bengal.