As the Durga Puja gets nearer, one can find every Bengali waiting eagerly with a smile on his face. This autumnal festival brings in a wisp of freshness in the air in welcome of Mother Durga. The clear blue sky, the mild fragrance of the white Shiuli flowers, the swaying of the Kash flowers in the fields and the shakti chants make the entire atmosphere holy. This festival in the autumn or Sharat signifies the power of the female Shakti, the ten armed Godess Durga, over all that is bad and evil.
Eagerness knows no bounds with the advent of Mahalaya, a week before the main puja, when one hears the holy chant of ‘ Ya Devi Sarva Bhutesu Shakti Rupena Samsthita, Namastasye Namastasye Namastasye Namoh Namaha’.On Mahalaya, with chants and incantations, Godess Durga is invited to descend on the earth. During the Durga Puja, the Goddess is worshipped along with her two sons, Ganesha and Karthik, and two daughters, Lakshmi and Saraswati, and her husband Lord Shiva.
But the preparations for Durga Puja start quite early. The making of idols of the Godesses and the pandals start much before the actual puja. Making of idols is a long and cumbersome process. A finished idol is an exquisite piece of artistry. Such is the perfection that, one group of artisans does the bamboo structure while others does the clay mixing. And then there is a different set of people who do the head, palms and feet. The artisans who do the head of the goddess are regarded the highest grade of craftsmen or Pals. Great care is taken to do the head and eyes of the Goddess. As the artisans complete the idol, it looks as if life has been infused into the Goddess. The artisans of Kumartuli in Kolkata are famous for their idol making.
Another very important aspect of Durga Puja is the mammoth sized Puja pandals. Over the years they too have taken the form of art. It is considered the abode of the Goddess for the four days of puja. Hence it is built with aplomb and grandeur, sometimes depicting famous architectural splendors. And then they are decorated with numerous lights. These decorations attract huge crowds during the four major days of Durga Puja.
The four main days of puja are called Maha Shasthi, Maha Saptami, Maha Ashtami and Maha Navami. The festivities begin from Maha Shashthi (the sixth day from the day after mahalaya) when the priest unveils the deity during a puja known as Bodhan. And the fifth day is called Bijoya Dashami or Dusshera, when the Goddess is immersed in water. But the most important days of puja are Ashtami and Navami.
The Maha Ashtami (eighth day) is especially a significant day. It begins with a long series of puja and rituals. The Goddess is worshipped with a lot of food and cloth offerings. The offerings include fruits, items of bhog, items for Aarti, 22 bowls of madhupakka (honey, ghee, curd), 26 noibiddos or rice prasad. Similarly cloth offerings include one sari for Ma Durga, new clothes for Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha, Karthik, Shiva, the nine planets, the demon and their respective rides. The puja and the ceremonies are interspersed between usual rounds of Anjali (flower offerings to the Goddess), bhog and prasad. The Maha bhog is served to each and everyone coming to the pandal. It consists of ‘Khichdi’ and a special preparation of mixed vegetables known as ‘labra’. Every Bengali’s taste buds are aroused by the simple mention of the Maha Bhog which actually tastes heavenly!
It is believed that the priest infuses life into the idol, by chanting of shlokas, during the Sandhi Puja which takes place in the evening.
The first glimpse of the goddess is observed through a reflection in a bowl of water. It gives an impression that the Goddess is actually moving. This part of the puja is called Pranpratishtha (breathing life into the idol). Merry making reaches its fervent pitch by the evening, as people throng the pandals to get a glimpse of the varied decorations and their favourite goddess. Everyone is dressed in their newest clothes which is actually a compulsion. The food stalls abounding the pandals also feed the gastronomical wishes of the pandal-hoppers. Lots of love stories also come to life during these four days of puja. The best thing about Durga Puja is perhaps the way people from every community, caste, creed and religions throng these puja pandals to pay their tributes to the Goddess and enjoy the festivities around it. All of these people are greeted with open arms and warnth.
The Maha Navami puja is the last day of the puja. The atmosphere begins to grow sad as the day slowly draws to close at the prospect of the Goddess going away the next day. But Navami also has its share of puja and merriment. Lots of puja items are required on Navami such as 22 finger rings made of Kusha, one nose ring, iron, two conch shells, a box of vermillion, flower garland, belpatra, a yagna or fire sacrifice items, gift for the priest etc. In the evening there is an Aarti competition where each competitor has to perform Aarti before the Goddess. Whoever performs the best wins the competition.
The last day appears to be day of sadness as the Goddess prepares to depart to her heavenly abode. This day coincides with Dusherra and is called Bijoya Dashami. Married women bid farewell to the Mother Goddess through various rituals, asking her to come back year after year. During the procession there is a playful ritual called Sindoor Khela in which women smear each other’s, hair, faces and bangles with vermillion powder. Later the idols are taken to the nearby ponds or rivers, and immersed, bidding a tearful adieu to the Mother Goddess.
In the evening of Bijoya Dashami, friends and relatives visit each other. The young ones touch the feet of the elders to take their blessings. No guest is allowed to depart without having made to eat a variety of sweets as it signifies adding sweetness in relationships.
With the immersion of the idols on the Bijoya Dashami the puja gets over. The devotees with a heavy heart bid farewell to the mother and wait in anticipation for the next year till she comes back. Such is the enigma of the Goddess that she becomes a part and parcel of every household for the four days she is worshipped, more like a family member. The Durga Puja gives us a chance to heal our wounds, to let go of our angers, and share this tranquil joy with one and all. And one thing that makes the Durga Puja unique is its representation of our culture. It is an occasion not only for worship, but also celebration, music, dance and everything that make our culture unique.