Thursday, 13 October 2016

What Durga Puja Really Means: A Guide for the Uninitiated

Bengalis can be faulted for many things. Consciously or unconsciously we all adopt certain characteristic features that are regarded as unbecoming by many others (even Anglicized Bongs are often ashamed of their shameful heritage for these things). Fortunately, Durga Puja can never be regarded as one of those things.

We have perfected a festival with such refinery that it has transcended its essential characteristic. It has reached a pinnacle of creativity where it is way more than just worshipping the mother goddess of power, Durga. It is a festival unrivalled in nature and perhaps magnanimity. The crowd swells multifold every year in the city of Kolkata and this festival remains an essential badge of honour for any cop in crowd management. While every city with Bengali populations will have Durga Puja, you cannot have experienced it unless you have been a part of the madness in Kolkata. Thus, while speaking of Durga Puja, I am speaking of Puja in Kolkata (and its adjacent areas, since Kolkata seems to be ever expanding) which has attained an exemplary evolutionary phase in life-cycles of festivals.

To begin with, let us just clarify what it is supposed to be about. There is this myth that when Asuras took over Devalok, Durga (she is an avatar of Shakti) was called upon by the Devatas to kill the leader of Asuras, Mahishashura. She, with the help of weapons and blessings of all the gods did succeed in killing this apparently bad guy and that is why we worship her as a force against evil. Now, the morality of the story is debated with Asuras being supposedly non-Aryans and thus it is often regarded to have casteist and racist connotations. But then most of our folklores share such infamy. So, let us just consider that people intend to worship a force of righteousness over a force of depravity. Most of us do not even regard that part with gravity. It is all about a fusion of traditions and most importantly nostalgia. It is the common thread to every childhood that gets carried on as an extension into adulthood and is then devolved upon the next generation with the same enthusiasm.

On the first day of the tithi in which Durga Puja takes place and the mother Goddess is supposed to arrive with her family (she is married to Shiva and has four children) to her birthplace (she is the daughter of Himalaya, and hence the earth is her birthplace), we have Mahalaya. It is of no significance except it is a holiday (people pay respect to their ancestors by on this day but that significance has been subdued by the popular culture) and it is a Bengali tradition (for every Bengali worth their name) to listen to a dramatic rendition of the story of Goddess Durga narrated by a legendary voice (it’s Mr. Birendra Krishna Bhadra, an excellent narrator on the touchstone of Bengali taste) early in the morning over radio or alternatively, watch the same, as portrayed diversely on every other Bengali television channel at the same time. Bengalis, who consider television unworthy of their time, are more often than not found to secretly enjoy the vision of a seething Durga jabbing with cynical pleasure at a panting and exhausted Mahishashura on this special morning. Thus begins the greatest festival of Bengal with the observance of a tradition which began when the community peaked in its cultural awareness.

The main rituals for the puja start on the sixth day of the tithi as the goddess is welcomed to her home on Sasthi (the Sixth). The rituals continue in full swing through the next few days till the tenth day (Dashami). Another important day is the eighth day (Ashtami) when the “sandhya arati” takes place on the eve of the ninth day (Navami). People also gather (girls flaunting their bindis and red and white sarees while boys sneaking peaks in kurtas and dhotis/ pyjamas) to offer prayers in the morning on Ashtami (with flowers as the medium of conveyance). On the tenth day (Dashami), the Goddess is immersed into Ganga (yes, it’s water pollution, we know that) to send her back home to Shiva.

That is however, how it is supposed to be. In Kolkata, things start a bit early. People start crowding the streets to visit pandals (the temporary structures made with a generous dollop of creativity) and the idols (also created with much love and care by artisans either at Kumartuli, the fabled place for all idols, or by a dedicated artist to the concerned club or home or whatever establishment that chooses to subject itself to such an expense) as early as on Chaturthi (the fourth day). Calcuttans (Kolkattans, if you please) forget all their famed lazy bones and set out to visit all the pandals and all the renowned clubs and heritage houses to witness the manifestations of their communal creativity. The madness sprawls over six-seven days and the roads remain packed with zealous tourists walking miles to reach spots of attraction (creating a hefty mess for the traffic and thus, the cops controlling them). 

If you venture out at midnight or even at dawn, you will still find fanatical and overpoweringly vigorous people hopping from pandal to pandal barely resting their tired sore feet on such a day. The food stalls and beverage stalls supplying round the clock aim and fail to revitalize them on their quest to essentially catch ‘em all (now literally on cellphones and cameras) and are complemented by the thoughts of those envious looks of the neighbours unfortunate enough to have not witnessed all the great ones. If you are an uninitiated pandal hopper, you will definitely be overwhelmed by the unabated enthusiasm in a crowd of thousands pushing together in a tumultuous, boundless wave en route to a pandal clicking away like pros at every step. The city, garbed in lights by the government as a mark of goodwill, will astound you with the of the sheer power of will dormant in a community perceived to be laid-back gossip mongers aroused to confront a sea of shoving limbs for an epic journey. It feels like the city is an art gallery with works of deft craftsmanship spread across its flesh and its veins are flowing with people circulating through it to reach them.

If you are in Kolkata at this time of the year, you will witness clubs competing with each other for a series of awards and recognitions in categories ranging from environmental concern to most head counts. This has inevitably gotten them fighting for the highest reviews and worst crowd pressures resulting in a chaotic harmony. Every Calcuttan will tell you how different areas of the city are ear-marked for different tastes. The North is famous for preserving the convention that is Durga Puja with a collection of family pujas and select clubs idolized for their traditions which has fused over time with innovations. The Southern part champions in thematic inspirations and innovative renditions of the concept that is Pujo. There are essential differences in sensibilities of these places are characterized by conservatism and novelty in concepts respectively. In the outskirts, it is a mixture of community pandals and thematic club pujas. All in all, if you decide to be around at this time of the year, you will indubitably experience anything but disappointment.

The youth, almost always, dress to prey upon the glances of other genders and roam around in large groups with occasional lone predators. The elderly prefer quiet company and tend to maintain their ground positions surrounding themselves with like-minded crowd gazers. The parents are often torn between the fun and the tussle of controlling a child in largely uncivil conditions. But nobody fails to have their share of fun during these four days. Durga Puja succeeds in its objective as a festival forevermore with flying colours much unlike most of the other aspects of its hometown.

P.S.: The most annoying thing, ranking over the crowd pressure during these days is the phenomenal increase in the number of amateur photographers who choose to sharpen their skills in an environment as trying as a Puja Pandal. It might grease the discord between your pride and skills as a photographer, but it is very annoying for those stalled in the steaming heat of a suffocating sparsely ventilated structure whose entrance you have clogged with your smart antics. This is a menace for the crowd controllers and is sure as hell annoying to people trying to have a nice time without perpetuating such scenes in silicon chips.

Thus, please be considerate and wish you all a happy Durga Puja and Shubho Bijaya. So long.

Written by Sayantani Saha
Writer, dreamer of world exploration and lover of high fantasy

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