Amidst the gloom and doom fuelled by the Covid-19 pandemic, a ray of hope beckons as India gears up for the festive season. Starting the proceedings would be Durga Puja or Dussehera, which begins from 17th October and will last till 25th October this year. The 10-day long festival which celebrates the victory of Goddess Durga over the demon king Mahishasura, is not only celebrated with great pomp and vigour throughout India but also in diverse ways, giving the festival a unique regional dimension.
West Bengal, where the earliest historical records of Durga Puja celebrations date back to the 16th century, leads the celebrations in much of Eastern India. The festival here is a marker of Bengali culture and attracts hundreds of thousands of people from India and abroad. The first day or ‘Mahalaya’ marks the advent of the Goddess. The day has a special significance for the Bengali community who wake up before sunrise to tune in to a radio broadcast of songs and mantras in the voice of the famous Birendra Krishna Bhadra. The sixth day or “Shashthi” officially kick starts the celebrations as people throng exquisite theme based Puja pandals. The next three days witnesses humungous crowds, serpentine queues, and an unrivalled celebration of tradition, art and creativity besides stunning light works making Kolkata’s Durga Puja one of its kind in India. The tenth day or “Dashami” draws curtains on the festival and idols are immersed in river bodies with equal enthusiasm the next day. Adjoining states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Odisha and the north-eastern states follow a similar pattern although they pale in comparison to the sheer scale and exuberance at display in Bengal.
In diametrically opposite western India, mostly Gujarat, the festival adorns a new name- Navratri, literally meaning “nine nights”. On each of these nine nights, the Goddess is worshipped in different forms. The most popular attraction though are the ‘Ras Garba and Dandiya’ events held all over Gujarat where thousands gather to sing and dance to the tunes of traditional folk music. Much like the theme based puja pandals in Bengal, neighbourhoods in Gujarat teem with Garba and dandiya events, a popular craze among the young and old alike. Another popular ritual is the “Kanya Puja” where nine young girls, each depicting one form of the Goddess Durga, are worshipped and often rewarded with clothes, food and other goodies. Navratri is also associated with a period of soil fertility and monsoon harvest in this region.
In North India, Durga Puja takes an entirely new dimension. Here the festival assumes the name of “Dussehera” and celebrates the victory of Lord Rama over the demon King Ravana as narrated in the Hindu mythology Ramayana. ‘Ramlilas’ or stage dramas enacting the Ramayana are the most popular in this part of India. The festival culminates on ‘Vijay Dashami’ or the tenth day when large effigies of ‘Ravana’ are burnt, signifying the victory of good over evil.
Down south, celebrations are mostly low-key. In Karnataka, the festival goes by the name “Dasara” and is largely known for the Mysore Dasara festival. Epic dramas from puranas (ancient Hindu texts) called “Yakshagana” are enacted during the nine day festivities. Besides, in Mysore street processions of Goddess Chamundi are also carried out. It is also a time when many in South India conduct the “Ayudha Puja” wherein all tools, books, machines, automobiles are worshipped along with Goddess Saraswati. Like the rest of India, the festival draws to an end on Vijaya Dashami or the tenth day.
Thus, Durga Puja epitomises the victory of good over evil and ushers in the long festive season in India. It is a time to come together and celebrate the many colours of tradition, rituals, and the divine which has held us all together for centuries. The many different forms this festival takes is also a reminder of India’s strength as a land of diversity.