The Festival of Durga Pooja

The Festival of Durga Pooja by Ashu Verma Chaubey

Durga Pooja also known as Durgotsava or Sharadotsav, which coincides with Sharadiya Navratri and which reveres and pays homage to Mother Goddess Durga, is mainly celebrated in Eastern India, primarily in West Bengal and the neighbouring states of Bihar, Assam, Odisha, Tripura, and parts of Bangladesh. It’s a ten-day long festival of which the last five days are the most significant.

The Festival of Durga Pooja
The Festival of Durga Pooja

Maa Durga along with Maa Lakshmi, Maa Saraswati, and her sons Kartikeya and Ganesha( In Bengali and Odia culture these four are believed to be children of Maa Durga) are worshipped during this festival and Maa Durga is believed to visit her maternal home with her children during these days.

Another important idol is that of frightened Mahishasura at her feet as the Devi gazes down at him. The city of Kolkata echoes with the sounds of Dugga-Dugga as the women folk move towards the Durga Pandals for ‘PUJO’.The sound of intense beats of Dhaks from the pandals along with the fragrance of Dhunuchi lit almost in every house fills the streets of the city transcending the whole atmosphere into a spiritually reverberating scenario.

Women clad in the most beautiful attires and wearing heavy jewelry and bangles along with sindoor and bindis, deeply engrossed in pleasing Maa Durga are seen almost twenty-four-by-seven in the well-decorated lavish Durga Pandals.

The first available written records of Durga Pooja are found in around sixteenth-century literature wherein Grand Durga Pooja celebrations by the zamindars have been mentioned. The Boendo Bariri Pooja( Pooja in the house of Zamindar) is still a tradition in Bengal.

The idol-making process is much more than just an art of sand and clay mixing. It is the love and devotion that is poured into idolizing the supreme form of energy that goes on, all year round in Kumartuli town (in the neighbourhood of Kolkata) on the banks of the Hooghly river. It begins with Paata Pooja( worshipping the wooden frame that forms the base of the idol) usually performed on the day of Rath Yatra.

The collection of materials used in shaping the idol of Devi, wherein bamboos, straws, husk and Punya maati( a mix of mud from the banks of river Ganga, cow dung, cow urine, and mud from the brothel also called Nishiddho pallis or forbidden territories) is the first step. The ritual behind using this mud has many interpretations, the most common being that when a man enters a brothel he leaves a part of his virtues at the doorstep, hence this mud is supposed to be pure and virtuous.

Another perspective that is based on the Vedas, believes that women fall under nine classes known as Navakanyas, who is worshipped along with Maa Durga during the pooja. The Nati(dancer) as well as Vaishya(prostitute)are among these Navakanyas. Thus, the use of soil from their doorstep is a sign of respect to them during the pooja.

The idol making begins with the stuffing of straws and husks around bamboo sticks giving a basic shape to the idol, which is then coated with clay mixed with husk to give the idol a smooth appearance. The head is moulded separately and fixed on the torso. The face of Maa is detailed with utmost care and devotion and looks fierce yet serene. The idol is then sun-dried and painted with vibrant colours.

The festival of Durga Pooja

Durga pooja is preceded by Mahalaya (the last day of pitrupaksh). It marks the beginning of Maa’s journey from her marital home to her maternal home. The festival starts at twilight with prayers to Saraswati, who is believed to be the source of internal and external activity in all existence.

On this day, artisans paint the eyes on the idol giving them a lifelike appearance in the ritual known as ChoukhuDaan. Then Ma is dressed up in gorgeous sarees and intricate jewellery before finally proceeding towards pandals. The day also marks prayers to Ganesha and visits to pandals.

Day two to five mark the remembrance of Maa and her Swaroops(forms) as Kumari( Goddess of fertility), Mai( mother), Ajima(grandmother), Lakshmi(Goddess of wealth), and Sapt-matrikaas(seven mothers) or Navadurga.

The major rituals and social celebrations begin on the sixth day or the Shashthi, with energy buzzing through the streets of the city, while the Goddess is welcomed with the sound of Dhaks and Shankh
along with the fragrance of Freshly cooked bhog.

The sixth day or Shashthi marks the entry of Devi into her abode. In all glory and grandeur, Ma proceeds towards the pandals accompanied by Dhak. In the evening Bodhana( awakening of Ma Durga for the seventh, eighth, and ninth day’s pooja) takes place. The unveiling of Maa Durga’s face takes place during Bodhana along with a ceremonial pooja.

Then, Adhivasa, or the anointing ritual, in which symbolic offerings, each representing subtle forms of
Maa, is made to the Mother Divine. The resounding ullu( the high-pitched ululation sound created by striking both cheeks with the tongue which is believed to be very auspicious and is said to ward off evil) echoes after the pooja is wrapped up.

The Saptami ceremony starts before dawn with the pre-dawn bath of ‘Kola bau’(Banana Bride) or the Navapatrika snan. She is believed to be the wife of Ganesha and a form of Durga herself and is represented by the nine natural plant forms (crops and noncrops, signifying that Devi is not merely the power inherent in the growth of crops but the power inherent in all types of vegetation) of MahaDevi. This is also of agricultural importance as Durga Pooja is a post-monsoon harvest festival.

The Mahashtami or the Durga Ashtami is celebrated as a day of glory and grandeur. People dressed up in new clothes head towards the pandals as the celebration moves towards the Sandhi Pooja. During this nine small pots with flags of different colours each representing a different form of shakti are installed and the Shaktis are invoked and worshipped.

People offer Pushpanjali to the Goddess during which flower petals along with bel patra are distributed among the devotees, which they hold while the priest recites the mantras. These flowers are then collected and offered at Devi’s feet. Pushpanjali is a part of Saptami, Ashtami and Navami rituals.

Several competitions like Rangoli drawing, singing, dancing, cooking, etc. are also held during the festivities. The last twenty-four minutes of Ashtami and the first twenty-four minutes of Navami is considered as the Sondhi kaal or the Sacred cusp, during which Devi is worshipped in her Chandi Avatar, and Maarkandeya puran is recited during this pooja, narrating the story of how Durga took the form of Chandi to kill the two Asuras Chand and Mund, during her battle with Mahishasura.

108 lotuses are offered to Maa and 108 lamps are lit during the Sandhi aarti during this time as people dance with joy to the sound of Dhak and Aarti. It is a forty-eight-minute ritual in totality commemorating the climax of the Battle between Chandi and Chand-Mund.

Many rituals are observed during this cusp, the main being Bali(sacrifice). In some regions, a Buffalo or a Goat is also sacrificed during the ritual but mostly there is no animal sacrifice. Bali is mostly done with pumpkin or sugarcane.

On the ninth day-Navami, Homa or havan is performed. Homa is the fire sacrifice and is a combination of Vedic and tantric traditions. Then Kumari pooja is done. Young unmarried girls who haven’t reached their puberty are worshipped during Kumari Pooja as forms of Devi Durga and Dakshina are offered to them. Then the day ends with Dhunuchi dance and aarti.

Dashami or the tenth day is known as Bijoy Dashami when the Devi starts her journey back home to Kailash. Married women dressed in white sarees with a red border, perform Sindoor Khela in which they offer betel leaf, sweets, and sindoor(vermillion) to the Devi, after which they apply sindoor on each others forehead and smear the rest of it on their faces, wishing a blissful marital life. This ritual is believed to be a prayer to the Devi for the health and peace of their spouses.

Followed by this ritual the idol of the Devi as well as the Navapatrikaare are immersed (Bisorjan) in the river, concluding the Pooja ceremony after which the water from the immersion spot is sprinkled over the devotees as Maa’s blessings.

The Pooja rituals involve Mantras, Sholkas, Chants, Aartis, and Offerings. The Shlokas and Mantras praise the divinity of the Goddess. According to these Shlokas, Maa Durga is omnipresent as the embodiment of power, nourishment, faith, intellect, health, wealth, emotions, desires, beauty, satisfaction, virtuousness, righteousness, fulfillment, nourishment, forbearance, and peace.

Durga pooja in the city of Kolkata has been recognized on the list of Intangible cultural heritage list of UNESCO in December 2021.

Ya Devi SarvBhuteshu Shakti Rupen Samsthita, Namastasyai, Namastasyai, Namastasyai, Namo Namah
Ya Devi SarvBhuteshu Bhakti Rupen Samsthita, Namastasyai, Namastasyai, Namastasyai, Namo Namah
Ya Devi SarvBhuteshu Matr Rupen Samsthita, Namastasyai, Namastasyai, Namastasyai, Namo Namah
Ya Devi SarvBhuteshu Buddhi Rupen Samsthita, Namastasyai, Namastasyai, Namastasyai, Namo Namah
Ya Devi SarvBhuteshu Shrishti Rupen Samsthita, Namastasyai, Namastasyai, Namastasyai, Namo Namah
Ya Devi SarvBhuteshu Daya Rupen Samsthita, Namastasyai, Namastasyai, Namastasyai, Namo Namah
Ya Devi SarvBhuteshu NavDurga Rupen Samsthita, Namastasyai, Namastasyai, Namastasyai, Namo Namah
Hail Maa Durga…

-Ashu Verma Chaubey

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