Memories of the other Puja - The Statesman

Memories of the other Puja

Memories of the other Puja

Photo: SNS

One of my fondest memories from my early life in India is the Jagadhatri puja (J puja). I was raised in the town of Chandannagar, about 25 miles north of Kolkata on the Burdwan line. Chandannagar is famous for this puja, and I grew up in the middle of all the associated festivities.

West Bengal is, of course, famous for the celebration of Durga Puja. A recent trend is to design the idols of Ma Durga and her family in unique ways with distinct themes. Visiting puja pandals has become not just a religious ritual but an exercise in appreciation of art.

Although somewhat similar to the Durga puja, the J puja is different in many ways. It is held one month after Durga puja and follows almost the same routine; a four-day event, consisting of Saptami puja, Ashtami puja, Navami puja and Dashami plus “Bisarjan” (immersion of the idol in river) with all the usual activities like Arati, Anjali etc. One interesting subtlety: although there are three separate pujas, one each for Saptami, Ashtami and Navami, they are all conducted on the day of Navami, thus giving the day of Navami more significance in the case of J puja.


The story behind the beginning of J puja is interesting. During the Nawab raj in Bengal, Maharaja Krishna Chandra was reportedly arrested and thrown in prison for non-payment of taxes by Nawab Siraj-ud-Dullah. He was eventually released on the day of the Dashami of Durga puja and realized that he had missed out on the event. Legend has it that mother Jagadhatri appeared to him in his dream and instructed him to initiate a new round of puja during the following “Shukla Paksha” and he did just that. This explains why the J puja parallels the sequence of the Durga puja with a one-month time lag.

J puja is celebrated in other cities of W. Bengal including Krishnanagar, Santipur and Rishra, but it is nowhere as grand as it is in Chandannagar. There are several aspects of the J puja in Chandannagar that make it unique and worth seeing. First, the idols are very tall, as high as a three or four-storied building. In many cases, they are fabricated right on the puja site over a period of weeks to avoid cumbersome transportation. Secondly, there are dozens of pandals for J puja throughout the city, almost one for every neighbourhood. Each pandal is a dazzling display of light, colour and artistic designs. Finally, the “bisarjan” (immersion) process is unique.

Unlike recent Durga idols of Kolkata, the basic appearance of the goddess is almost the same in all idols; the goddess sits on her “bahan” (carrier), a ferocious lion who is mauling an elephant with its claws. The goddess has a rather tall crown/tiara and a very ornate outfit, all made of a Styrofoam-type material (“shola”). A uniquely Bengali item of the outfit is a “Chand Mala” which consists of three decorative discs, connected by a string, and typically hangs from one of the arms of the goddess. There is a huge protective wall (“chalachitra”) behind the idol. Such backgrounds are also common in idols of goddess Durga, but Chal Chitra behind goddess Jagadhatri are noteworthy for their height.

The goddess is a reincarnation of Durga with the same general goal: the triumph of good over evil. However, there are key differences in their images. Mother Durga has ten arms while mother Jagadhatri has only four. The idol is covered with ornate dresses and ornaments from head to toe; only her beautiful face with large dark eyes and red lips remains exposed. Ma Durga, on the other hand, is in an outfit to fight, literally dressed to kill the evil demon who came disguised as a water buffalo. The story is that even after the killing of the Buffalo demon (Mahishasura) by goddess Durga, other gods did not appreciate her superpower.

To demonstrate her power, Ma Durga confronted them as Jagadhatri and challenged them to perform certain tasks. The other gods lost the challenge, and their collective ego was shattered. The elephant symbolizes the ego of those gods. There is an unspoken competition to make each pandal the most decorated and the most unique. Entrances to the pandals are segregated into a male and a female segment, cordoned off by ropes and there are often long lines, especially at the popular pandals, just to enter the premises – reminiscent of lines at the Disney World attractions.

The oldest J puja site is the Laxmiganj puja pandal at “Chaulpatti” (rice section). I still remember the names of a whole bunch of other puja sites including Palpara, Narua, Tematha, Besohata, Char Mandir tala, Phatakgora, Bag Bazar and Hatkhola. Every year during J puja, I would look forward to rickshaw trips with my mother and sister to visit the pandals in the evening; typically, we would cover the northern part of the city one evening and the southern part on another. A couple of pandals were within walking distance from our house. The biggest attraction of J-puja was the Bisarjan in the river Ganges which flows right next to town.

The immersion was preceded by an elaborate parade through the city. The parades were smaller versions of the great carnivals of Rio and more like the Rose parade in the US. The parade for the idol from each neighbourhood consisted of a convoy of trucks, decorated as “floats” complete with dazzling colourful light displays, flowers and loud rhythmic music performed by marching bands. Each float would have a certain theme. The most popular musical instrument among band members was the bagpipe. There is a prescribed route, about 13 km long, woven through the city that each convoy must go through. The parades and processions continue throughout the night and eventually, the idols are left at the ghat of the river.

The town had to live without electricity that night because the overhead electrical power lines had to be temporarily cut off for the idols (on trucks) to have sufficient headroom. People who had houses along this route were the lucky ones because they could watch all the festivities from their balconies or windows at their leisure.

If I close my eyes, I can still smell the acetylene gas from the lamps of the street-side vendors and the fresh aroma of roasted peanuts. The processions provided an opportunity for the local “Romeos” to exhibit their dancing skills to the onlooking young girls. I fondly remember the sound of “tasha drums” accompanying such dances. Thousands of people from all over the state and probably the whole country flocked to Chandannagar to see this spectacle. People of Chandannagar were obsessed with various pujas and other religious festivals – probably resulting from an addiction to the festivities of J puja.

In addition to Durga and J pujas, we also celebrated Laxmi puja, Kali puja, Kartik puja, Saraswati puja, Viswakarma puja, Ratha Yatra, Janmashtami, Holi and so on. We lived near a temple-like building permanently open to see and pray to goddess Bhubaneswari while one month of the year was devoted to formal worship. All these occasions served as a combination of religious festivals, social gatherings, mini-vacations and parties.

All the gods and goddesses were like my relatives! The religious ardour spilt onto my daily life. An elderly potter near our home sold small replicas of idols of various gods and goddesses made of clay. Children in this country play with dolls and action figures; I used to play with those little clay deities. I miss those days. “Koi lauta de mere beete hue deen; beete huye deen jo mere pyare pal chhin”.