Durga Puja

Conventional Bengali Durga image with all five Gods and Goddesses and Mahisasura under one structure. This is known as "ek-chala" (ek=one, chala=cover).

Conventional Bengali Durga image with all five Gods and Goddesses and Mahisasura under one structure. This is known as “ek-chala” (ek=one, chala=cover).

Durga Puja, the grandest festival of the Bengalis,  commemorates the victory of Goddess Durga over a demon Mahisasur. It marks as the universal resurgence of the power of creation over destruction. 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.  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. 

“We can trace its origin to the remotest era of Aryan civilization. The Durga puja of the present day is an evolution of many mutations.” – this is from an article published in 1874 by Pratapchandra Ghosh in the publication called Hindoo Patriot. Durga puja, the greatest celebration of Bengalis, is definitely evolving even more than what Mr Ghosh wrote about 150 years ago. His article went on describing – “…In the Veda it is called the Sarodiyoutsava or the Autumn Festival. Correctly speaking, it was a festival appertaining to the seasons. In the early days when the Aryans lived somewhere near the plateau, its vernal form the Vasanti puja was in vogue…. Durga Puja as a worship of Durga can be traced to the Puranas. The earliest instance of this worship is attributed to Rama Chandra. It is said that when he wanted to destroy the ten-headed demon Ravana, he performed Durga Puja with a view to acquire extraordinary energy. In the Brahma Vaivarta Purana, an entire volume is dedicated to the discussions of Durga and her other forms Shakti and Prakriti.…”

In some structures, the images are made as separate pieces. Artistic experiment and evolution goes on with the art of creating the images

In some structures, the images are made as separate pieces. Artistic experiment and evolution goes on with the art of creating the images

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 (7th day) and Ravana was finally killed on the sandhikshan i.e. the crossover period between Ashtami (8th day) and Navami (9th day) and was cremated on Dashami (10th day). Since the period of this worship was different from the conventional festival time of spring or Basant, this puja is also known as Akaal-Bodhan or worship (bodhan) in an unconventional time (akaal).

In the Indian lunar month of Aswin (typically September/October of English calendar), on the first nine nights of the waxing new moon, Indians celebrate the worship of the Great Goddess. For Bengalis,  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. Bengalis celebrate the last four days (the 7th, 8th, 9th and 10th) with great enthusiasm, boundless fervor  and energy. Even though the preparation starts month long before the puja, typically these 4 days are marked as official Durga Puja holidays in West Bengal. The last day (the 10th) is known as Vijaya Dashami, also known as Dussera in some places. The nine nights of puja is also known as Navaraatri (Nava – nine, Raatri – night) in several places within India. In Dashami, the last day, a tearful farewell is offered to the Goddess. Most of the community pujas postpone the farewell as long as possible and arrange a grand send-off. The images are carried in processions around the locality and finally is immersed in a nearby river or lake.

Festival preparations begin a month or two in advance. The tradition to wear new clothes and furbish home is similar to Chrismas in the West. 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. 

Durga Puja was apparently observed as far back as 1610 by the Sabarno RoyChoudhuris of Barisha, in the southern suburb of Kolkata. One story goes that after Clive’s victory  at the battle of Plassey in 1757, he wanted to make a grand gesture of thanksgiving but the only church in Calcutta had been demolished. Clive consulted his supporter Nabakrishna Deb, who suggested that he makes offering at the feet of Durga at his house in Sobhabazar. The annual Durga Puja at 36 Navakrishna Street is still known as Company Puja (after the British East India Company). 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 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 baroyaari ( baro – twelve, yaar- 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 use 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 is hard to believe that these are made only for couple of days or a week. Some constructions are built as replica of world famous structures. 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.

Every pandal is unique in patterns which makes it worth walking miles after miles to watch these innovative designs.

Every pandal/stage is unique in design patterns and architecture which makes it worth to hop from one to another

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 through out the city. Special trains, buses are available; underground metro rail runs beyond regular schedule. People from suburban areas come into the city and hops around from pandal to pandal 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.

Bengalis all over the world tries to celebrate this great event of their culture. Images made out of ‘shola’ (light material) are flown to countries abroad and the NRI (Non Resident Indians) arrange puja in foreign lands. In most of the overseas pujas, the event becomes a meeting place for local Bengalis and Indians. The events are typically accompanied by cultural activites.

To put in simple, the Durga Puja, the greatest show of Bengal has been preserved honourably.

Mythological facts:

  • Which God gave what weapon to Devi Durga to destroy Asura
    • Vishnu – chakra (discus)
    • Siva - trishul (trident)
    • Varun - shankha (conchshell)
    • Agni – flaming dart
    • Vayu - dhanuk (bow)
    • Surya - tunir ebong teer (quiver and arrow)
    • Yama – iron rod
    • Indra - bajro (thunderbolt)
    • Himalayas – Lion
  • Carrier
    • Durga – Lion
    • Kartick – Peacock
    • Ganesh – Mouse
    • Swaraswati -Duck
    • Lakshmi – Owl
    • Mahisasur – Buffalo

Chronology of Kolkata Durga Puja:

  • 1606 – first recorded puja in West Bengal. Celebrated by Bhabananda, the ancestor of Maharaja Krishnachandra of Nadia

  • 1610- the oldest Puja in the city of Calcutta was supposed to be arranged by the family of Sabarana Chaudhury of Barisha.

  • 1761 – first Barowari puja in Guptipara, Hoogli.

  • 1829 – Lord Bentinck was present in a Durga Puja in the house of Gopimohan Dev in north Calcutta. Inviting British rulers in Durga Puja started from the time of Raja Nabakrishna Dev.

  • “Barowari” puja started in the city from 1860. In 1924 the name changed to “sarbojonin”. Even today some organizers use the term “barowari”.

  • 1939 – Simla Bayam Samiti Puja. Subhaschandra Bose unveiled a 21-foot Durga.

  • In the late 60′s Durga images were flown overseas and Puja was celebrated.

  • From the 80′s , corporate sponsors started offering awards for best decoration, best images, best presentations etc. Currently around a dozen of them have different kinds of awards sponsored.

  • Bakul Bagan Durgotsab, South Calcutta ( Bhawanipur/Hazra area) : Leading artists like Nirad Majumdar, Rathin Maitra, Paritosh Sen, Shanu Lahiri, Meera Mukherjee etc. have taken turn to design the images of this puja.


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