It was a matter of great delight for the “city of joy” when UNESCO inscribed Bengal’s biggest festival, Durga Puja, on the representative list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. With this, Durga Puja joins other Indian great cultural practices such as Kumbh Mela. The chief minister of West Bengal had reason to cheer this distinction and remarked that Durga Puja is much more than a festival; it is an emotion that unites everyone.
The recognition, no doubt, reminds us of the legend that by worshiping Durga in the month of Ashwin, Rama began a tradition which thrives today as the biggest festival of Bengalis all over the world. The rituals and ceremonies connected with the Navratri spread over ten days, however, are as diverse as the regions of the country between the snow-bound Himalayan valleys and the warm coastal waters converging, as it were, around the feet of Kanyakumari, symbolically a manifestation of the Devi.
Shakti or the Immanent Energy assumes the form of the Devi in popular minds in Bengal from Uma-Haimavati in the Himalayas and elsewhere among the diversity of the Indian people as Durga, Kali, Bhavani, Ambika, Chandi and Kanyakumari. Whatever the form of worship, the theme running through them all has been summed up in the Durga Saptashati: “Ya Devi sarva bhuteshu shakti rupena samsthita. Namastasyai, Namastasyai, Namastasyai, namo namah” (To the Devi, who is the Immanent Energy in all beings, I bow again and again, and again). Scholars from Bengal are of the view that modern worship of the Mother Goddess is a blend of ancient traditions to which time and the fervour and devotion of the intelligentsia have given the beauty of charming rituals, forms and ceremonies.
Immersion of Durga Devi images is spectacular when Uma symbolically returns to the abode of her consort in the Himalayas where the Lord looks after all creation. The pervasive concept of worship of the Devi became the basic concept of Indian life that is universal ~ the concept of the triumph of sublime Shakti over demoniac force, or the victory of Good over Evil. Deeply rooted in the psyche of Indians, the people’s natural urge for reverence and worship of the Divine Mother spontaneously manifested itself in various ways to meet social demands.
A large number of them coalesced at several stages and finally evolved into the form of the ten-armed Goddess who dazzles us with her splendour. Remembering her tripartite function of protectress, nurturant and distributor of spiritual bliss, we reverently offer our prayer as taught by Sankaracharya: Apastu magnah smaranam twadiyam Karomi Durga karunarnavesi. (Immersed in dangers, O Durga, I turn my mind to you. O ocean of Mercy, and spouse of Siva.) The origin of the Mother Goddess can be traced in the sasthi bodhon mantras which mention a Devi worshiped in Aswatha, neem and bilva tree and Nabapatrika.
Some even claim that Durga was originally a sun goddess for bilva trees. Navapatrika and three Kalas (jars) remind us of sun worship. Haribamsa and Brahma Purana cite Kiratini for Durga and the Kalika Purana mentions savarotsava which later developed into Durgotsav. The Durga Bhakti Tarangini and Durgotsav Viveka lend support to the view that the worship of Durga flourished between the 14th and 16th centuries.
Of all the major achievements of the Goddess, the episode of her victory over Mahishasura became the most popular theme, as is evident from the wide distribution of Mahishasura Mardini sculpture. The Mahishasura theme was elaborated in the later puranas. The Varah Puranas speak of 20 arms of the goddess, but the Devi Bhagavata, Matsya Purana and Varna Purana mention 18,10 and eight arms respectively.
Nonetheless, the Goddess with three eyes and 10 arms, subduing the demon who emerged out of the trunk of a decapitated buffalo, her right foot on the back of her lion and left pressing the demon’s shoulder, has always been believed to have come down from Kailash, her permanent abode. With the change of time, the challenge of values, customs and institutions evoked varied responses. Guru Gobind Singh’s insistence with the doctrine of Shakti, Shivaji’s reliance on the power of Bhavani during the latter part of Mughal rule and the Sanyasi rebels’ dependence on Kali during British rule are examples of the need-based adaptation of the Divine Mother.
It is known that in Bengal Naba Krishna Deb, the agent of Robert Clive, started his family Durga Puja in 1757 to celebrate the victory of the British. Earlier, too, there were other families like the Sarbani Chaudhurys who had been worshiping the Goddess in their homes, which was the most important status symbol in Bengali society. Some of the family Pujas passed on to the lore of the city.
Hearsay goes that when Durga arrived in Calcutta, she went to the house of Shiva Krishna Dawn at Jorasanko to be decked out in jewels. Then she went to Abhayacharan Mitra’s house at Kumartuli to be fed and stayed all night in the Debs’ house at Sovabazar to watch dancing. Durga Puja took place in the zamindar houses of rural Bengal, where the whole village assembled to worship the Deity. Muslims also took part in the festivities.
Another development was seen in the 19th century in the shape of Barwari Puja or community puja. We find a mention of it in Kaliprasanna Sinha’s Hootum Pyanchar Naksha (Sketches by Hootum). There are references of popular Barwari Pujas in Santipur in Nadia and Guptipara in Hooghly. However, it was in Calcutta that Barwari Pujas acquired a new dimension. It became community worship based on public subscription.
The pandal became larger with grand lighting to accommodate huge crowds. The large areas connecting the pandal saw hoardings and signages. Lighting strung across the street became thematic by depicting some contemporary incident. Even the pandal underwent a thematic change.
One of the most remarkable innovations is witnessed in the construction of the Deity from material other than clay. In fact, the spirit of innovation has now become part of the Puja. Also, the cult contributed to the enhancement of nationalist fervour, as evidenced from the writings of Sri Aurobindo and others. In Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Anand Math, the country has been identified with Dasapraharanadhari Durga.
In the same strain, Swami Vivekananda told his countrymen: “For the next fifty years this alone shall be our keynote ~ this our great Mother India. Let all other vain gods disappear for that time from our minds”. It is time to note how Ramakrishna offered a remarkably broad and syncretic view of Durga. He told Keshab Chandra Sen: “Some address the same reality as Allah, some as God, some as Brahman, some as Kali and others by such names as Rama, Jesus, Durga, Hari.”
(The writer, a former Associate Professor, department of English, Gurudas College, Kolkata, is presently with Rabindra Bharati University)