Durga Puja and Navratra are simultaneously celebrated all over India just before the advent of winters. Hence the time is known as Sharad Navratra. It is not the time of the year when the mood of festivities catches on like wild fire and everybody regardless of who they are and where they are in India join the celebration. Durga Puja is the celebration of the Goddess in all her different forms. Whether it is called Navratra or Durga Puja, the ten days are days of reverence to the woman who is pure energy – without whom even the gods cannot sustain.
The festivities Durga Puja last for ten days, however the main ritual is only for the last four days. Each day of Durga Puja has a special significance and the preparation for the festivals begin months before the festival.
On the day of the ‘Rath Yatra’ or the Chariot Festival, the artisans make the foundation for the Pratima – Durga effigy. Part of the clay used in the festival is brought with the blessings of Courtesans or sex workers, signifying the all encompassing love of the mother. Some people also believe it is because, courtesans are believed to be adept at all the arts. A special puja is done before the collection of the clay.
The Pratima is made over the next two months by skilful craftsmen who have been doing this work for generations. They have mastered the art of making beautiful effigies, which in themselves are exquisite pieces of art.
Mahalaya day, or the first day of Durgotsav, is the day the Goddess is invited to come to earth with her children with Agomoni. It is the last day of the Pitri Paksha and the day of new moon. Historically this day has come to be associated with ‘Mahisasur Mardini’, an All India Radio program that plays the Chandi Path and Bhakti songs in Bengali in West Bengal and in Hindi all over India.
The ‘Chakkhu Daan’ - literally, the giving of eyes ritual, happens on the day of Mahalaya. The eyes of the Devi are drawn on this day. This ritual signifies the spirit of the Goddess getting instilled in the clay effigy.
India celebrates Durga Puja wherein the community comes together for a ‘Sarbojanin Puja’ - community worship. Huge decorative structures called ‘Pandals’ are constructed for the prayers, bhog and cultural functions. These pandals are mostly temporary structures and are made especially for the festival.
On the sixth day of the moon called Shasthi, Durga is welcomed with a ritual called ‘Bodhon’ in which the Pratima is unveiled for the public. Mothers fast for their children and their wellbeing. The fast is broken in the evening with fruits, vegetable and luchis/ pooris.
The next day, Saptami starts with the bath of ‘Kola Bou’ – Banana Plantain. The twigs of white aparajita plant along with nine bunches of yellow threads are used to tie the Nabapatrika and then it is bathed in holy water.
Nabapatrika or the nine plants of worship depicts nine forms of goddess Durga. The banana plant represents Goddess Brahmani, the Colacassia plant represents Goddess Kalika, the Turmeric plant symbolises Devi Durga, the Jayanti plant denotes Kartiki, the Wood apple represents Goddess Shivaa (another name for Durga), the Pomegranate represents Raktadantika, the Ashoka tree symbolizes Sokrahita, and the Arum plant represents Chamunda and the Rice plant Goddess Lakshmi.
This ritual predates the Durga Puja Celebration as it derives from the nature worshipping rituals of the farming communities in east India, as this time also coincides with harvest time.
Ashtami is the most important day of Durga Puja. Pushpanjali (offerings of flowers) is offered in the morning and Aarati is done by the priest. This is also the day of Pran Pratishthan – infusing of life in the murti. In this ritual the Pratima is reflected on a wide bowl of water.
At the time when Navami begins and Ashtami ends, Sandhi Puja is performed. It was at this moment Devi Durga transformed into Devi Chamunda to kill ‘Chand’ and ‘Mund’, the two generals of the demon Mahishasura . A 108 diyas are lit during the Sandhi Puja and dhak is played with fervency and people dance to the beats.
It is customary to perform a sacrifice during the Sandhi Puja. Obviously only a symbolic animal sacrifice is perform these days with vegetables like banana, cucumber or pumpkin.
Subhasini Puja, Kanya Puja, and Dampati Puja are observed on Mahanavami day in Navratri. On this day, the goddess Durga is worshipped in the form of Aparajita, and is offered sugarcane stalks. This day signifies Durga`s victory over Mahishasur (The Buffalo Demon). This the last day of last day of Durga Puja and a Navami Bhog is served to the people. Goddess Durga is offered food which is later distributed among the devotees. The ninth day of Navaratri is also called the Ayudha Puja. This is the day we worship our tools and instruments, and other objects used in daily life because they help us achieve our goals. It is the manifestation of our earthly being.
Dashami is the day when Goddess Durga and her children set off for Kailash, her husband`s abode. Starting with Sindur Khela – married women play with vermillion like on Holi, and apply it on each other and give sweets to each other. This day is also called the Vijaya Dashami, celebrating the victory of Durga over the Mahisasur.
The clay idol of Durga is immersed in the Hoogly or a nearby river or water body in the rest of the country. After the immersion people greet each other with Bijoya greetings, and the young seek blessings from the elders.
The ten days of Durga Puja is not just a religious ritual following, it encompasses everybody around without discrimination. The community celebrates it signifying its unity, love and passion. The various cultural aspects are also a big part of the whole celebration, the music the passion of the dhakis, the pandal and its decor, are all a part of the festivities.
The 10 days of the Navratras and the Durga Puja are a big part of any Indian family. And the rituals signify the greatness womanhood and the energy of the universe. May this energy permeate this Navratra and spread around the blessings of love and peace all over the world.