An Exordium on Durga Puja
‘Durga Puja’ meaning ‘worship of Durga,’ also called Durgotsav in Bengali, (meaning festival of Durga Puja) is an annual celebration of the Hindu Goddess Durga, Lord Shiva’s consort. Celebrated across Indian states, such as Assam, Mithila, (ancient region of Nepal), Bihar, Jharkhand, Manipur, Odisha, Tripura, Meghalaya, it is the biggest festival for the people of West Bengal. The Puja alludes to all the ten days of fast, feast and worship and the last five days are observed as Shashthi, Maha Saptami, Maha Ashtami, Maha Navami and Vijaydashami.
In Bengal, Goddess Durga is worshipped as Durgotinashini, the destroyer of evil and the protector of her devotees. It is the celebration of the triumph of Goddess Durga over the buffalo-human demon Mahishasura, epitomising the victory of good over evil.
Being one of the most significant socio-cultural events in Bengali Hindu society, Durga Puja is celebrated in Shukla Paksha (from the sixth to the tenth day of the lunar fortnight) in the Bikram Sambat calendar month of Ashwin (September-October). The period falling in the fortnight that corresponds with the festival, is known as Devi Paksha (Fortnight of the Goddess) which is preceded by Mahalaya, the last day of the previous fortnight, Pitri Paksha (Fortnight of the Forefathers) and is ended on Kojagori Lokkhi Puja (Worship of Goddess Lakshmi) on the full moon night of Kojagori.
The Origin of Durga Puja in Bengal
Lord Rama, who was a Durga worshipper, performed a Durga Puja before going to war with Ravana. Of course, he also performed rites, rituals and conducted Pujas when Durga slayed the demon Mahishasura, but it was only after Durga blessed him and gave him the secret to win the war with Ravana, that Durga Puja was first observed. An early archaeological evidence of the Parshurameshvara temple built in the 6th century CE, in Bhubaneshwar, Odisha, says that Mahisamardini Durga was worshipped in Shiva temples during this period.
Durga Puja became a more prominent celebration, and well established by the medieval period in India, chiefly being a private worship in homes, using certain musical instruments, such as the mridanga, mandira and smakhya. Although a body of literature centered on Goddess Durga originated in the avirnaya in the eleventh century and in Durgabhaktitarangini by Vidyapati (a famous Maithili poet of the fourteenth century), Goddess Durga was officially integrated into the pantheon of Hindu gods, primarily in Bengal, in the early sixteenth century.
It was only in the eighteenth century that worshipping Goddess Durga came to be of paramount importance among the landed aristocrats of Bengal, the zamindars. The first Durga Puja that was organised on a grand scale was by Raja Nabakrishna Deb, founder of the Shobhabazar Rajbari (Shobhabazar Royal Palace) of Calcutta (during the emerging British rule), in honour of Lord Clive and Warren Hastings, in the year 1757. Lord Clive wished to give thanks (in a church, but couldn’t do so as the only church in Bengal was destroyed by Siraj-ud-Daulah) for the success in defeating Siraj-ud-Daulah in the Battle of Plassey.
During the British rule, this festival was celebrated with a lot of fanfare, with royalty and peasantry being invited into the homes of zamindars and the bania (merchant) community for feasting together. Durga Puja became heavily centered on entertainment, but this changed in the nineteenth century with community-based worship taking precedence.
Durga Puja – Neoteric or Antiquated?
After the Hindu reformists identified Durga with India, she became an icon for the Indian Independence movement. This gave rise to the Baroyari or community Puja, thus becoming one of the largest celebrated festivals in the world. It is also the world’s largest Air Art Exhibition, lending artistic freedom to musicians, dancers, artists, sculptors helping the Bengali community to connect in a grandiose manner.
This festival is a conglomeration of ideas today, although efforts are made to retain its antiquated flavour by sticking to primordial customs. These customs involve, offering flower worship (pushpanjali) on the mornings of the sixth to the ninth day; or ritual drummers assembling to perform during ritual dance worships and taking the sculpture of Goddess Durga for immersion into the waters (which is symbolic of the Goddess returning to her husband’s abode) on the tenth day.
It has taken an eternity for Durga Puja to be celebrated so garishly, as it is done today. When one visits exquisitely decorated pandals (large structures that house sculptures of Goddess Durga with her four children), it would be easy to say that it is the largest outdoor art festival on planet earth. Goddess Durga is at once protective and nurturing and on the other hand is fierce and destructive, and this is one of Her many forms where the Mother of the Universe or Cosmic Mother, is known to bring about a sense of belonging to the communities that celebrate Her divinity. The festival of Durga Puja today, is a pastiche, of religiosity and culture, in harmony with the modern.
By – Prerna Dusija