A brave hunter during his hunting expedition in the dense forest surrounding erstwhile Bonbishnupur (now Bishnupur) was enamoured by the sight of a beautiful deer. He chased the wild game desperately to make his day’s expedition fruitful. But to his utter astonishment, not only did the illusive deer vanish in the bush; the hunter also lost his way in the dense forest where even the rays of the sun could not penetrate. There were many surprises in store for the hunter.

The hunting hawk that accompanied him in his expedition stirred in excitement seeing a heron and inspired by its basic instinct chased it. But the hunter could not believe his eyes when the hawk was found being chased by the heron. When the hunter was in deep speculation about such uncanny events, he heard an oracle uttered in a female voice:

“This is the holy place where I exist. Shift your capital here. You will find a minuscule shape of my countenance once the soil here is dug up. And also set up a temple of mine here.”

Durga Puja Special: Rites, rituals and process of the making of Ma Durga

As per the legend handed down from generation to generation among the people of Bishnupur, the courageous hunter who heard that divine voice was no other than Jagatmalla, the 19th king of the Bagdi Malla Dynasty. He reigned over Mallabhum from 994-1007 CE. The divine voice was of Ma Jagadamba, another name of Goddess Durga. She directed Jagatmalla to shift his capital from Pradyumnapur to Bonbishnupur and set up the temple of Maa Mrinmoyee Devi another name of Goddess Durga. The small countenance that the king found after digging the soil was heard to be embedded in the idol of Maa Mrinmoyee which was made of Ganga clay.

According to the pundits and local historians the building of the capital town Bishnupur and the establishment of Maa Mrinmoyee Devi were done simultaneously.  Earlier a humble hut made of clay walls with shed was dedicated to Maa Mrinmoyee. Later Ramkrishna Singha Dev, the 59th king of Mallabhum, who ruled from 1876 CE to 1885 CE, built the existing building-temple.   Naturally, Maa Mrinmoyee Devi became the tutelary goddess of the Malla Dynasty. It is accepted by most of the historians that the temple of Maa Mrinmoyee Devi was established in 997 CE. So, there is little doubt about the fact that the Durga Puja of Maa Mrinmoyee Devi temple is the oldest one in Bengal and perhaps in India.

The year 2018 is going to observe the 1022nd Durga Puja in Maa Mrinmoyee Devi temple.

READ | Durga Puja 2018: What is Sindoor Khela? Significance of the Vijaya Dashami ritual

Before the conversion of the Malla kings from Saktaism to Vaishnavism during the reign of Veer Hambir in late 16th century CE, the Chamunda-appearance (Goddess Durga in the form of destroyer of two demons, Chanda and Munda) of Maa Mrinmoyee Devi had been worshipped. It is heard that even human-sacrifice before the Goddess had then been the accepted custom. At present, animal sacrifice in the temple precinct is strictly prohibited.

Durga Puja in the Bishnupur royal family is quite different from others. Maa Mrinmoyee Devi is worshipped for about twenty days. On the auspicious day of ‘Jitashtami’ with the worship of Jimutbahana the great festival starts. Other three goddesses named Barda Thakurani, Meja Thakurani and Choto Thakurani are also worshipped with Maa Mrinmoyee Devi. As the three Thakuranis are painted on ‘pata’ (canvas), they are also called Pateswari.

Barada Thakurani is welcome with nine gun fires from special cannons 15 days before the Puja starts. Other two Thakuranis are welcomed on the auspicious days of Maha Shasthi and Maha Saptami respectively. On the day of Maha Ashtami, the idol of Vishalakshi with eighteen hands, made of eight metals is worshipped. The time of Sandhi Puja indicating the transient point between Maha Ashtami and Maha Navami according to the almanac is determined by ‘Jalghardi’ (water watch). The message of the water watch is delivered to the main cannoneer, who waits on the top of a hillock called Muchchar Pahar to fire the biggest cannon announcing the auspicious moment of Maha Ashtami. The whole area adjacent to the Maa Mrinnmoyee Devi temple and its surrounding poses a tremendous look as thousands of people from in and around Bishnupur assemble to witness the firing of the holy cannons releasing huge flames of red and yellow colours. According to legend during that auspicious hour of ‘Sandhi Puja’ an all-pervading voice of “Ma” is heard in the air. There’s a popular saying: Malle ra/ Shikhare pa Sakshat dekhbi Jodi Nada Shantipur ja.

That means in Mallabhum the voice of Devi Durga is heard; in Shikhar in Purulia district the footprints of Devi are explicit on vermillion and in Shantipur in Nadia district Devi manifests supernaturally. In erstwhile Mallabhum now Bishnupur and its surrounding areas, the booming sounds of the cannons are still followed to commence ‘Sandhi Puja’.

READ: Best Durga Puja wishes, messages, quotes, images to share on SMS, WhatsApp

On the auspicious day of Navami, Kachchar Vahini (the goddess riding on mule) is worshipped. This incarnation of Devi Durga is considered dreadful. A deep silence reigns supreme in the temple precinct as the entry of the commoners in the temple is then strictly prohibited. On the day of Dashami, a holy ‘Hom’ (offering into the holy fire) is arranged. Then the three Navapatikas of three Thakuranis (Barda Thakurano, Meja Thakurani and Choto Thakurani) that were invoked are immersed. In the evening of Dashami, Nilkantha bird is shown before Maa Mrinmoyee Devi followed by the members of the royal family.

However, some of the rituals are no longer followed due to various constraints. As Bishnupur is a holy place of music, the influence of Bishnupur Gharana is reflected in the great festival of Maa Mrinmoyee Devi. According to the pundits the mantras uttered during the pujas are in tune with different ragas of classical music. However, there is no ritual of worshipping ‘Kalabou’ here.

Therefore, Durga Puja in Maa Mrinmoyee Devi temple at Bishnupur of Bankura district may be a splendid destination to the tourists of West Bengal and other provinces to savour the taste of a majestic experience. They can put up at Bishnupur for four days to cover the worship of Maa Jagadamba at Maa Mrinmoyee Devi temple. Needless to say, a short trip here will be a treasure trove to the devout people.