Durgapuja- Worship of Devi Durga is biggest festival of Bengalis. Devi Durga holds a very soft spot in hearts of Bengalis. She is wife of Lord Shiva, mother of Lakshmi (goddess of wealth, prosperity etc), Saraswati (Goddess of knowledge, art etc), Lord Ganesha (Good luck, wisdom etc) and Lord Kartikeya (The God who leads the army of Gods). Bengalis believe that she comes to visit Earth from heaven along with her family for five days of puja. The idol is constructed in just the way it pleases those who are organizing the puja.
In my home all five deities are standing close to each other on a single frame (it’s called ekchala in Bengali, the way I have vaguely sketched in the picture.
The mythological story is in ancient ages a demon procured a boon from Lord Brahma (the creator of universe) that no man, demon, god or other creature will be able to kill him (due to sheer arrogance he ignored mentioning the female counterparts, and that caused his destruction). After gaining the boon he captured earth, heaven (hell already was his) and brought down havoc on all three. The Goddess was born out of the fury of defeated Gods. She destroyed Mahishasura (Buffalo demon) in spring.
When Shriram went to Lanka to save Sita he worshipped her during the autumn. The Goddess was pleased and blessed him. That is why this puja is called Akalbodhan (the waking up of the goddess in improper time). The real Durgapuja is held in June (mostly), it’s called Basantipuja.
Let me take you to a trip to a rural Durgapuja in West Bengal. In West Bengal this is the greatest festival, and you will see it in every colour. Performed by the poorest of the poor to crème de la crème of the state.
My family performs this Puja for more than 150 years I believe. Never had the interest of checking the date it started but its more than a century old, that much I know.
Durgapuja starts on Mahashasti in the families which perform the Puja in home; this is a very expensive puja, so mostly it is performed in Pandals, where the cost is collected from local people.
Let’s start the journey, shall we?
Mahashasti meant first morning of five blissful days. The house is already starting to fill up with the relatives, who will leave for our village home together.
A centuries old house, surrounded by older ruins stands alone during the rest of the year. Looking at the sandy banks of India’s second widest river Damodar (I am not sure about its being second widest but it’s very wide). A river which was named sorrow of Bengal quite aptly. When it fills up from one bank to other it looks really intimidating. It takes more than five minutes to cross the bridge in bus. If the bus moves smoothly, at normal speed.
That river bank contains sweetest of my memories, the hours I have spent their, alone or with gang of cousins. Sitting there for the longest possible time; Singing, reciting, playing, chatting…….
Now, back to home in Burdwan, by ten o clock bullock carts start to pull in the garden, to carry materials. We had to carry EVERYTHING there, even a needle.
A decade ago Bullock cart was the only vehicle that reached our home, now every thing goes. May be they have started a bus by now too. I have been there in 1998 last. After that only once, don’t remember the year, most probably 2002, for two days.
When Bullock Cart was the only vehicle to reach there the elderly members used to ride them, believe me, every person who is able to walk would rather walk than riding a bullock cart in a village road.
I tried once for fun, descended within five minutes.
The Bullock carts are packed up with the packed things, the packing has been done last night, only the bedding etc was packed in the morning.
By the time the Bullock cart leaves a truck pulls in. We always preferred traveling together, the whole gang; hence those who came by their cars usually got rid of the cars at Burdwan and boarded the truck.
The truck takes one hour to reach my ancestral home. That hour is fun filled. After all if you meet people you like after full one year you are soaring in the seventh sky.
By the time we reach our village home the cooks who have arrived there in morning have started cooking.
A late lunch is mandatory on Mahashashti. It used to drag upto five p.m. during Bullock cart days, and then it settled itself to 3 P.M.
A late lunch, unpacking, changing and heading for the Pujadalan (the place where the idol is kept, you can call it a hall now, that’s how it looks).
The Pranpratishtha starts in the evening. This is the most precious moment of the puja. Pranpratishtha means bringing to life. The Purohit (priest) brings the Goddess down inside the clay deity. She becomes mother. It’s a divine and very sentimental experience. Simply heavenly.
It usually finishes past eleven; by the way we used to forget watch and newspaper after reaching there. So no one bothered to look at the watch. It’s just an assumption. As it never started before seven and took quite long time I believe it continued till eleven.
After Pranpratishtha we used to return to the rooms where staying arrangements were made. a huge hall with three four small rooms attached to it. The hall and the rooms had huge windows. Three of them giving a full view of the river bank, which started ten feet away from the house.
A quick dinner swallowed just for formality before hitting the beds. Four busy days were about to start.
Its still pitch dark outside. My eyes were glued with sleep, after all the strain it has been through yesterday my body was tired to the core.
It started softly, in the pujadalan, and then the sound started to move towards the rasmanchha (a small building from where holi is played) situated beside our window. The drummers were giving signals to those who are interested to get involved in puja’s arrangements. It’s a huge task, handled by mostly family members, the puja is done following every rule, and for every rule there are more rules attached.
Mahasaptami means getting Ganesha’s bride bathed and placing her beside her life partner. Besides that the Mangalghat (a pot of clay) is filled with river water. An essential item of puja, it’s said that this is the symbol of the Goddess. She comes down inside its water.
I can see my uncles getting up and going outside, so I too follow them. Brush my teeth, change into a silk sari and head for the flowering trees nearby. The villagers don’t object if we pluck flowers from there plants these four days, and we don’t cross our limits. We pick up and pluck those flowers that are not planted with special care. Like harsingar, tagar and krishnakali- three plants that give lots and lots of flower, so if we fill up a basket with them the owner won’t even feel that we have.
While I was busy collecting flowers, my uncles have headed towards the river with the purohits, the napit, and the kamar, almost all the men of the family in tow. To fill up the Mangalghat and dress up Ganesha’s bride kalabou.
My aunties and sister in laws have headed for Lakshmi’s room, to make the arrangement of puja.
A couple of hours later we hear the drums in the distance. Two of the girls run for the pujadalan, pick up two pitchers (kamandalus) and head for a junction, a slope on the main road, which splits in right angle to stretch in front (and across) of our main door.
Another fifteen minutes or more later we see the men pop up one by one from the corner of the road; soon we can see the purohits following them with kalabou and Mangalghat.
The girls holding the kamandalus sprinkle water in the road in front of them and guide them to the pujadalan.
After that the puja starts. It finishes for time being after pushpanjali, an offering of flowers by all willing persons for the deities.
Then the Prasad is distributed and we hit back to the hall (the rooms where we live). It was originally the court room of our ancestors, their living quarters have almost crumbled down to ground, and only the court room is still standing due to regular repairs.
After a quick breakfast we usually went out for a long stroll in the village. It’s a very beautiful place for long strolls; the sandy banks of the river, bamboo groves, ponds, and gardens- too many temptations for city folk.
Once we are done we return for the lunch and a little rest. A very welcome thing after short nap of night.
Late in the evening the drum rolls once, that means we have to get up and change into new dresses (after an age the most boring part of puja, you have to change, or else you will hear all sort of preaching, hence with zero interest you get up and change).
The second round of drum means Sandhyarati has started the evening puja of Devi. In Sandhyarati no mantras are chanted, only the deities are offered various things like clothe, flower, fruit etc etc.
It’s a very stuffy atmosphere for sure. The whole pujadalan is packed with family members and villagers. To add up the thick fume of incense sticks and dhuno (a powder which is added to simmering fire to create a perfumed smoke).
Its fun to watch the small children of village, their colourful dresses, and innocent happiness is so very heart tugging.
After at-least an hour the Sandhyarati finishes and we drag our tired legs to home (We have to stand all through it- no sitting at all).
Then a long session of chatting starts usually, chatting or singing, finally eating and slipping to beds for a very short nap. Who needs a nap when you are relishing life to the core?
Mahashtami is the crown of Durgapuja. It starts on Mahashasti evening and ends on Vijayadashami morning, before and after that there are only rituals.
The moment when two days meet- Mahashtami and Mahanavami (as per Hindu calculation) is the holiest moment of Durgapuja it is called Sandhikshan. I have seen it falling on 9 AM and have seen it falling as late as 1 AM in night.
If it falls early in the morning then every one is running around the home. That means we will have to make two sets of arrangements of puja in that small span of time, first for Mahashtami and second for the Sandhipuja.
Every family has special rituals for Sandhipuja. Ours is offering the Goddess 108 lotus and holding her arati with 108 lighted pradeeps (earthen lamps).
It’s such a gorgeous sight to see those 108 full bloomed lotuses being offered to her by the purohit and then the arati being held by 108 pradeeps.
We all gather in pujadalan to artificially bloom those lotuses, ha ha! We softly disentangle the petals and make the flower bloom by our fingers. It’s a delicate affair and a get together.
If the Sandhipuja falls in evening or later we leave the pujadalan after Mahashtami puja is finished. Some give the Mahashtami pushpanjali only and skip the Sandhipuja. Some give the Sandhipuja pushpanjali no matter how late it was, I was in this category. No matter what, I never skipped it.
Those who gave it following the orthodox rules did not sipped a single drop of water before giving the pushpanjali. Eating any thing was of course out of question.
This day was usually spent in a leisurely manner if Sandhikshan fell post evening. Or else the day was spent just normally.
A quick breakfast after Sandhipuja pushpanjali then a stroll in the village, lots of chatting and fun.
The Sandhayarati announced the packing up for the day if Sandhipuja was already performed, or else, it was simply Sandhyarati. The evening worship of the Goddess.
After which we left the pujadalan to return back for the Sandhipuja.
Mahanavami morning brings sadness with it. It means last day has arrived. There is hardly any puja offered on Vijayadashami morning, Vijayadashami means the call has arrived for Divine mother from her celestial home.
Everyone wants to spend maximum time in pujadalan on Mahanavami. Any way, Mahanavami brings another extra activity like Sandhipuja on Mahashtami. A hoam (offering to Gods through fire) is held on Mahasaptami, Mahashtami and Mahanavami. The Mahanavami Hoam is special because all the family members indirectly participate in it.
So after the Pushpanjali and breakfast we return to Pujadalan. The hoam has already begun. 108 leaves of bel (a special tree) are offered to the fire, these leaves are nipped in a specific way (like in the painting) three leaves- they look like three eyes of the Mother.
After offering the 108th leaf the purohit gestures, we all stand up, touching each other, and our senior most family member touches the purohit’s right arm (We are not allowed to touch the purohit while he is offering a puja, this is the only exception). The purohit offers a ghee soaked banana to the fire- this is called purnahuti (complete/final offering.
After that we sit down and the Purohit extinguishes the hoam fire, brings out a piece of wood, crushes it, adds some ghee to it and paints a tilak (an elongated dot) on our foreheads.
After hoam we all return to hall, then lunch and a little rest. Mahanavami Sandhyarati is the longest one.
This evening no one counts the minutes, everyone patiently waits for it to go on and on.
The eyes open with sadness and ache in heart. Last few hours while Goddess is still here.
Since childhood we have heard that the Goddess comes down to the deity every year. So many villagers have vowed seeing her in these premises that we feel in the core of our heart that she is there with us.
Her eyes glitter in a way in the light of pradeeps that we think that they are twinkling.
Vijayadashami meant I was the only one present in pujadalan to stitch garlands. Very few are required, time-limit unlimited so none else appeared.
After the final Arati the purohit softly tilts the Mangalghat. That symbolizes goodbye to the Goddess. She leaves the deity to return to her heavenly abode.
Another special set of family rituals are performed after that. The married ladies bring a pot filled with paddy from the Lakshmi’s room. It’s carried back to the Lakshmi’s room by our elder-most married relative (lady). This is called kanakanjali. The whole family follows her.
The men return with inkpot and pen from there (now girls too join them), the purohit ties a vine of aparajita in their wrists; they collect three bel leaves (nipped in the same style), then they settle down with those bel leaves and pens, write the name of Devi Durga thrice in every leave 3x3x3.
These leaves and that aparajita vine has to be surrendered in the river along with the Mangalghat when they are finished writing.
When they are finished they follow the purohit as he leaves with the Mangalghat towards the river.
Married ladies head for the pujadalan with vermillion powder. They apply the vermillion on the Goddess and of-course on each other. People who don’t want to get smeared in a permanent red colour don’t even show up there. So, till date I have never seen it with my own eyes. This is called sindurkhela- playing with vermillion powder. Vermillion powder is the symbol of married Hindu women. Married Hindu women wear it in the parting of their hair and forehead.
By evening the Devipratima is carried out of the pujadalan and placed before our main gate. Villagers throng to touch her feet.
We change our dresses at dusk and one by one go out to touch her feet. Every heart is heavy, eyes are moist.
Men and villagers gather around her. The deity is lifted on strong shoulders and the journey starts toward the river.
It’s a really tearful scene by then. I have seen my sister in laws, sisters crying incessantly.
As the men turn the first turn in road we run for the roof.
The devipratima can be seen for a long distance, one or other of our family members keep flashing a powerful light on her face, so we can see her face glowing in the pitch darkness.
When the dhakis start returning we come downstairs and start our small tour. Bowing our head in front of all the deities in nearby temples. There are at-least a dozen of them.
Then we start touching feet of elders, starting from the eldest. By the time we ladies have finished men return. Then we touch their feet too.
Finally entire family gathers in pujadalan. There a beautiful ceremony starts. Men who have changed in traditional Bengali dress dhuti-panjabi sit in ascending order of age.
Then they start to touch feet in rotation, of the elders and hug each other. It’s a fantastic scene to see.
After it’s done the purohit applies us another tilak and gives us flowers from the flowers offered to goddess as pushpanjali.
These are kept in holy places at home.
The formalities over; we return to hall. A session of ghost stories start in the night, after dinner, it’s a great experience, sharing those creepy stories sitting amidst those ruins, in semi darkness, and then going to bed.
Already waiting for next year.
17.09.2010, 13.10.10, 14.10.10, 15.10.10, 16.10.10, 17.10.10
Have a beautiful, blissful puja!