Kolkata, the city of joy, as it is known, has been celebrating the Durga Puja since ages. Durga Puja, the biggest festival of the Bengalis, is the worship of 'Shakti' or the Divine Power. As most of the religious celebrations around the world, the Durga Puja also has a legend of the struggle between the good and the evil. The dark forces eventually succumbed to the divine.
I can still remember I used to love the Durga Puja as a small child as it was an occasion to get a month long vacation in school. One of my oldest memories of the Durga Puja is that of the construction of the huge pandals on the way back from my school. My friends and I used to play hide and seek in those pandals until some angry uncle would guide us out citing some lame reasons. Another memory is that of playing with friends from the neighbourhood throughout the day. In fact, the days of the pujas were the only four days of the year when I could stay out till evening and yet nobody would scold me.
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According to Hindu mythology, Durga Puja was initially performed in the month of 'Basanta' or spring time. This was known as 'Basanti Puja'. Rama first did the worship of Devi Durga in the month of Ashwin, an unusual time for this Puja and hence it is known as 'Akalbodhan', meaning 'an uncustomary time of commencement'. It is said that hundred blue lotuses are required for this Puja to be a success. He could find only 99 and hence offered one of his eyes as a substitute of the hundredth rose. His devotion pleased Devi Durga who blessed him and he finally won over Ravana, killing him in the process. The battle was started on 'Saptami', generally accepted as the starting day of the Durga Puja, and ended on the period between 'Astami' and 'Navami', called the Sandikhan, or 'the time in between'. Ravana's body was cremated on Dashami, celebrated throughout India as 'Dussera', signifying the victory of the good over the evil.
Durga Puja dates back to the 16th century, during the Mughal era. Legend has it that the first Durga Puja was organised by king Kangshanarayan of Teherpur in the Nadia district of West Bengal. King Jagatnarayan of Bhaduria soon followed after.
Gradually Durga Puja became the great annual festival that brought together family, friends, and neighbours, infusing life into the mundane life of the village communities. By the mid eighteenth century, this festival of the Bengalis had become the chief occasion of the filthy rich landlords, known as 'babus' in Bengali, to flaunt their wealth. They invited the Europeans during every evening of the five-day long event to grace the occasion with their presence and join in their feasting. The presence and participation of the British notables became a matter of pride and prestige for their hosts. As per the Calcutta Chronicle there were other notable locals who began to host the British at their Durga Puja.
Though there is much confusion about the inception of Durga Puja in Kolkata, some believe that the family of Saborno Chowdhury held the oldest Puja in the city, dating back to 1610 near Sakher Bazar in Behala. Other old Pujas include that started by Govindaram Mitra of Kumartuli and the one at the palace at Sovabazar, known as 'Sovabazar Rajbari', started by King Nabakrishna Deb of North Kolkata.
Where individual initiatives declined, collective enterprise came to the rescue even in the early years. Around 1790, 12 Brahmin friends in Guptipara in the Hoogly district of West Bengal, decided to start a community Puja. Subscriptions were raised from the neighbours for the Pujas. This is said to be the start of the outdoor Pujas in West Bengal, popularly known as Baro-yari puja(meaning twelve friends), which gained popularity in leaps and bounds.
The 'Sarvojanin Durgostav', literally meaning everybody's Puja, as we know it today started off much later in Kolkata in the 1920's.The oldest 'Sarvojanin Durgostav' is that of 'Bazbazar Sarvojanin', near the bank of the holy Ganges, at Bazbagar.
Though the celebrations around Durga Puja lasts over four days, mainly from Saptami to Dashami, the mood of the Durga Puja sets in much earlier in the life of the people of Bengal. It starts with the idol making at the famous Kumartuli, a place famous for its beautiful clay idols of Gods and Goddesses and pottery. The entire process of creation of the idols or 'murti', as it is commonly known as; from the collection of clay to the ornamentation is a holy process, supervised by rites and other rituals. On the Hindu date of Akshaya Tritiya when the Ratha Yatra is held, clay for the idols is collected from the banks of a river, preferably the Ganges. After the required rites, the clay is transported from which the idols are fashioned. An important event is 'Chakkhu Daan', literally donation of the eyes. Starting with Devi Durga, the eyes of the idols are painted on Mahalaya or the first day of the Pujas. Before painting on the eyes, the artisans fast for a day and eat only vegetarian food.
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Kumartuli is a place which is very close to my grand parents' residence. My grandfather used to take me to this place and showed me how idols were made from bamboo, clay and hay.
The 'Sharatkal' or the autumn season brings with it the ever known strands of white clouds and light cool breeze which reminds every Bengali of the nearness of the Durga Puja. The 'Kashful', a flower traditionally associated with autumn and the biggest festival of autumn, the Durga Puja is another symbol that reminds every Bengali of the auspicious occasion. Then the time comes for Mahalaya. My father used to wake us up at 4 in the morning to listen to the All India Radio where the evergreen voice of Birendra Kishore Bhadra and Pankaj Kumar Mullick still rings in my ears. Earlier it was conducted live but now a recorded version is broadcasted exactly on the same time and still it creates the same effect to the listeners.
When I was in my junior school, I was a member of the Rama Krishna Mission drama and play team. On the day of Mahalaya we used to enact a play on goddess Durga. I still remember the month long practices before the event. After school I used to go to Rama Krishna Mission for rehearsals of the acts. The sense of achievement after successful enacting of the play was really a memory to cherish. And the ice cream treat from my mother made it all the more memorable.
The idol of Goddess Durga has 10 hands which hold 10 different weapons used to fight the evil, 'Asura'. It is believed that Goddess Durga got the 10 weapons from 10 different Gods who gave their weapons to Goddess Durga to combine all their strength to fight the evil, as 'Asura' was unbeatable by any other God. The conch shell in Durga`s hand symbolizes the 'Pranava' or the mystic word 'Om' The bow and arrows represent energy. The thunderbolt signifies firmness. The lotus in Durga`s hand is not in fully bloomed, it symbolizing certainty of success but not finality. The 'Sudarshan-Chakra' signifies that the entire world is subservient to the will of Durga. The sword that Durga holds in one of her hands symbolizes knowledge. Durga`s trident or 'trishul' is a symbol of three qualities - Satwa (inactivity), Rajas (activity) and Tamas (non-activity). Devi Durga chose the 'lion' as her vehicle or 'Vahana', which signifies the 'taming of the wildernesses'.
As a child I used to be a little afraid of the huge lion. My mother used to always say that Goddess Durga would send her lion to punish me if I did some mischief. But gradually as I grew up, I started liking the 'Vahana' of Goddess Durga. In my school, I was even selected as one of the judges for 'best lion contest' conducted by my school.
Lighting, in and around the Puja 'pandals', also form an integral part of this elaborate decorations. Chandannagar is the destination where most of the big community pujas look to get their lightings done from. Traditionally light bulbs of different colours were used to decorate various 'pandals' but nowadays mostly light emitting diodes of various colours are used to save electricity as well as carry out the different intricate collections much easily using microprocessor chips.
As a child I was a great fan of one of the Pujas held at College Square. It was famous for its lighting arrangements. As it is one of the most popular pujas which attracts a huge crowd, my father used to take me to visit this 'puja pandal' in early hours when the light would be still on and the crowd also would be less.
Ritual drummers or 'dhakis', as they are commonly known as, also add to the ambience of the Durga Puja. The 'dhunuchi nach' and the beat of the drums is something which goes hand in hand. Many local competitions are held to find out the best 'dhunuchi' dancer and it is really a matter of pride for the Bengali male to have won such a competition.
Many Bengali films and music albums are published to coincide with the Puja. Many magazines, like the 'Anandamela' and 'Shuktara', among others, come up with a special Puja Special issue just for this occasion. As a child I was great fan of 'Shuktara' and gradually I shifted from the 'Anandamela' to 'Desh'.
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In Kolkata alone, more than two thousand pandals are set up, all clamouring for the admiration and praise of the populace. The city is adorned with lights. Traffic comes to a standstill, and indeed, most people abandon their vehicles to travel by foot after a point. A special task force is deployed to control law and order. Durga Puja in Kolkata is often referred to as the Rio Carnival of the Eastern Hemisphere.
In my college, I was more interested in 'pandal-hopping' than being a part of my neighbourhood Puja. My friends and I used to go 'pandal-hopping' throughout the day and sometimes even throughout the night. At that time the number of pandals covered used to be a great matter of pride and all my friends tried to compete with each other to visit the highest number of pandals.
At the end of four days, the idol is taken for immersion in a procession amid loud chants of 'Bolo Durga mai-ki jai' (glory be to Mother Durga) and 'aashchhe bochhor abar hobe', meaning 'it will happen again next year' and drumbeats to the river or other water body. This is a happy occasion for some who celebrate by offering sweets to guests and relatives while a sad one for some like me to whom it means a wait of another long year to relive and enjoy the festivities of the Durga Puja.
Environmental hazards from the materials used to make and colour the idols pollute local water sources, as the idols are brought directly into the river at the end of festivities. Efforts are underway to introduce eco-friendly materials to the artisans who make the idols. West Bengal has been credited by its own environmental agency as being possibly the first Indian State to successfully curb the use of hazardous paints. However, by their own account, only two-thirds of the idols made are currently coloured with eco-friendly paints.
During the Puja season emotions are high with thoughts of homecoming, happy reunions with parents and daughters married to distance places, between brothers separated across the oceans; the beat of drums thud across the twilit skyline releasing a fresh boost of life amidst the locality numbed by its numerous problems. Everyone tries to forget at least for the four days the hard-pressing reality and utmost practicality of everyday life as they take the welcome break from routine life and lose their work-a-day identity in the swirl of festivity. Thus Durga Puja indeed plays an integral part in every Bengalis life, which every Bengali however far from his motherland, feels at the bottom of his heart.