Celebrating Maa Durga’s 10-day sojourn, Puja is a time to enjoy amid rituals and religious fervour. Every year, the Devi’s temporary abode is painstakingly built following traditional principles despite imbibing modern themes. Alen Paul looks at this tradition of pandal-making and discovers the creativity that goes into it. With inputs by Dilip Guha.

“Yaa Devi Sarva-Bhutessu Shakti-Ruupenna Samsthitaa
Namas-Tasyai Namas-Tasyai Namas-Tasyai Namo Namah”

Durga Puja, also known as Durgotsava, has arrived with another round of great zeal and enthusiasm to be celebrated over 10 ten nights with tapping feet and swaying to the rhythmic moves of dandiya, garba and Dhunuchi naach. People will yet again set out at night time to witness the awe-striking mesmeric creations of the divinity of the idols of Maa Durga and other major deities ~ Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha and Kartikeya. But one wouldn’t fail to notice the way the pandals are given the foremost priority with the kind of artistic decorations delivered by the creators, thus dedicating their hard work in respect to the prowess and motherly power of the Shakti.

Starting months before the Puja, sometime around August, the pandal-makers, who are brought in from rural Bengal, mainly East and West Mednipur districts, as well as Nadia and North and South 24 Parganas, begin their work. The traditional structures of bamboo and cloth form the temporary abode of Maa Durga and the other deities. Despite the impact of modern times, including the setting up of “theme pandals” the main structure housing Devi’s pratima follows the traditional principles.

The art of pandal-making is a type of folk art that is handed down from one generation to another. The pandal-makers earn the most during the two-three months of Pujas, much more than what they get the rest of the year from their farming activities. According to one estimate, a pandal maker typically earns up to Rs 1,500 a day.

Laying the foundation

Kathamo or the primary bamboo structure, which is used for making the idols (pratima) of the deities worshipped during the festival, is laid as the base of the sculpture’s creation. Every year, on the auspicious occasion of Rathayatra or Ulta Rathayatra, this ritual marks the beginning of the Durga Puja in many a Pujo Baadi.

Similar to Kathamo puja, khuti puja marks the beginning of Durga puja preparations. Nowadays, several puja committees in Delhi have started organising khuti puja, a special kind of customary ritual held before putting up pandals during the festival to initiate the festivities. This tradition comes from the centuries-old ritual of Kathamo puja, in which the wooden frame is constructed, upon which the clay idols are built at affluent family pujas ~ bonedi barir pujo (household pujas of Bengal), or at the community pujas. Every year, on the auspicious occasion of Rathayatra, potters fashion the kathamo (frame). A lump of black clay is smeared on straw to mark the beginning of the work on the structure of the idols of the deities. The primary bamboo structure becomes the base of the idols. The story behind the significance of this puja is that the permanent wooden base (bel tree) that supports the structure of the pratimas is worshiped as Kathamo and is considered as part of Maa Durga herself, to whom a rich homage is paid on this day in the presence of the family members and friends.

Khuti puja has begun gaining popularity even in the National Capital now. On this occasion, a puja is conducted to revere Lord Vishwakarma, after which artisans start constructing the pandal with his blessings. The pandals are temporary pavilions that house the deities. Agreeing that Khuti puja has caught up in a big way these days, Parthasarthy Roy Chowdhury, Cultural Secretary, D-block Durga Puja Samity, CR Park, said, “Though khuti puja is not specified in the Vedas, it is performed to ensure an auspicious beginning for the forthcoming Durga Puja preparations. It is an invocation to the goddess. Earlier, the puja was not performed in such a ceremonious manner. The pandal decorators would themselves deck a pole with garlands and plant it at a spot around which the main pandal would be built. But for the past few years, the puja committee is celebrating it in a big way.”

Debashis Panja, General Secretary of Lodi Road Sarbojanin Puja Samity, also commented about the rising popularity of the auspicious tradition of kuthi puja, saying that earlier it was only known in Kolkata, the main epicentre of the Durga Puja. But now, with changing times, this ritual is being followed by every community pandal based in Delhi.

Theme-based

The huge temporary canopies that are held by a framework of bamboo poles and draped with colourful fabric housing the idols, called pandals, have started getting modernised in an innovative, artistic and decorative style over the past few years through the introduction of the concept of “theme-based pandals”. Past themes such as celebration of humanity, folk culture, celebration of cinema, womanhood and environmental issues, among others, have attracted enthusiastic devotees towards such pandals. Some pandals have also been centred around themes to acknowledge people with some of the political events, for instance the 2019 Balakot airstrike.

Two of the famous Durga Pujas are held every year in Mayur Vihar Phase 1: Antaranga and Milani Durga Puja in Mayur Vihar Extension and Phase 1, of which Antaranga has stuck to its traditional society puja, while Milani this time has opted for a theme-based pandal “Save Earth”, keeping in mind the initiative of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has set the goal to make India free of single-use plastics by 2022 by appealing to stop the use of single-use plastic. “As part of a no-plastic policy, the puja committee has come up with jute bags which will be given to small vendors,” said Suvankar Mitra, general secretary, Antaranga.

This year, Lodi Road Sarbojanin Puja Samity will celebrate their Platinum Jubilee Durga Puja Festival, with their exclusive artistic Belur Math theme pandal named “Love Humanity”, a mission to aspire to rise above the narrow divides of caste, colour, religion and ideology in order to be driven by love for humanity. “We will invoke the blessings of Goddess Durga, spread the message of harmony and brotherhood, indulge in festivity and celebrate the occasion with pomp and grandeur. Apart from the divine presence of the idol of Maa Durga, the celebration will also include the famous lightings of Chandannagore (Calcutta) and paying homage to our Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi on his 150th birth anniversary,” said Debashis Panja. He further laid emphasis on following the Prime Minister’s goal of celebrating a plastic-free Durga Puja this year.

The main attraction

Traditional clay sculptures of Durga are made of clay with all the deities under one structure, known as “ek-chala” (ek: one; chala: cover). The idol’s eyes not only hold great significance but are painted only in the presence of the sculptor, a process known as Chokkhu daan (offering of the eyes).

The clay is collected from different regions of the state, where the festival is to be celebrated. In the traditions of Kolkata, a custom is to include soil samples in the clay mixture for Durga from areas believed to be nishiddho pallis, or forbidden territories inhabited by the “social outcasts” from the brothels. The procedure for and proportions of the sculpture-idols are described in arts-related Sanskrit texts, such as the Vishvakarma Sashtra.

There are two kinds of embellishments that are created for the crown of Maa Durga’s pratima ~ sholar saaj and daker saaj, of which the former is popularly known as one of the most beautiful handicrafts of West Bengal. With its elegance and exquisite beauty, the sholapith craft is recognised as one of the finest examples of craftsmanship. The shola reed, having a cultural value, has its own significance, including the fact that since it grows in marshy, water logged areas, this plant is easily available for the artisans to work upon. With its softness, thinness and light weight, the white colour of the material symbolises purity and sanctity. Also keeping in mind the environmental impact, the material is eco-friendly, as it is biodegradable.

According to Kundan Ghosh, Department of Anthropology, Vivekananda College for Women, Barisha, in his research paper, Sholapith Craft of West Bengal: An Overview, “Sholapith work is popularly known as ‘Sholar Kaj’. The people engaged as sholapith craft are known as Malakar, meaning ‘maker of garland’, probably because they made garlands made of shoal for idols and for the noble class.

“The Malakars belong to the Nabasakha group of artisan class and they are involved in this craft from generation to generation. The nine craft communities are: Kumbhakar, Karmakar, Malakar, Kangsakar, Sankhakar, Swarnakar, Sutradhar, Chitrakar and Tantubaya. According to the Brahma Vaivarta Purana, their ancestor was born of divine Viswakarma and pious Sudrani mother Ghritachi, a cursed Gopi girl. Their progeny were named as Malakar. In Brihad Dharma Purana, the Malakars are referred as the progeny of Brahman father and Vaisya mother.

“The Malakars believe in their divine origin ~ they are the descendants of Lord Shiva and his consort Parvati. There is a legend behind the use of shola crafts in India. It is said that while going to wed Himalaya’s daughter Parvati, Shiva desired to wear a conical white hat. As the celestial artist Vishwakarma began looking for an appropriate material to make the hat, a kind of plant grew in the wet land as desired by Shiva. This was the shola or sponge wood plant. But Vishwakarma was used to working with only hard materials like stone or wood and not with soft shola. Once again at Shiva’s desire there appeared in the marsh a handsome young man and he was named Malakar. All those who are now connected with the shola craft are thus known as Malakars and belong to the Hindu community. Malakars worship Shiva as they believe they owe their existence to Shiva and, therefore, are obliged to worship him.”

Days of festivities

Of the last five days that involve certain rituals and practices, the festival begins with Mahalaya, a day on which two things take place ~ Hindus perform tarpana by offering water and food to their dead ancestors and the day also marking the rise of Durga from her marital home in Kailash. Mahalaya marks the awakening of the goddess’ journey to her maternal home. The main celebrations begin on the sixth day, the day of welcoming the goddess with rituals. The festival ends on the 10th day (Vijaya Dashami), when devotees embark on a joyful yet nostalgic procession that carries the worshipped clay idols to a river and immerse them, which is a symbol of her return to her marital home with Shiva in Kailash. On the sixth day of the festival (Sashthi), devotees welcome the goddess, marking thus the inauguration of the festivities. All the gods and goddesses accompanying Durga are worshipped on the seventh (Saptami), eighth (Ashtami) and ninth (Navami) days, marking these days as the main days of worship with the recital of important scriptures. Of particular importance is the Mahalaya, consisting of Chandipath by the legendary Birendra Krishna Bhadra, legends of Durga in Devi Mahatmyam. Visits to the elaborate pandals creatively decorated and illuminated, forms part of the festivities.

In Bengali tradition, Kartikeya, Ganesha, Lakshmi and Saraswati are considered to be Durga’s children. Hence Durga puja is believed to commemorate Durga’s visit to her natal home with her children.

History of the festivities

Though the origins of this festival has always remained shrouded in mystery, no real account of it has ever been found. However, according to one of the theories, landlords/zamindars from Dinajpur and Malda had first started celebrating between late 16th century and early 17th century. According to another source, Raja Kangshanarayan of Taherpur or Bhabananda Mazumdar of Nadiya organised the first Sharadiya or Autumn Durga Puja in Bengal in around 1606.  Also it is believed that in the first ever tradition of community puja had originated in the 1790s, when 12 friends from Guptipara in Hooghly district of West Bengal had collected funds from the locals and neighbours, who later organised their community’s first Durga Puja, also called as Baro-Yaari, or the “12-pal” puja.  Yet, according to Somendra Chandra Nandy in his article, Durga Puja: A Rational Approach, published in The Statesman Festival, 1991, “The baro-yaari puja was brought to Kolkata in 1832 by Raja Harinath of Cossimbazar, who performed the Durga Puja at his ancestral home in Murshidabad from 1824 to 1831.”  “The Baro-Yaari puja gave way to the Sarbajanin, or community puja, in 1910, when the Sanatan Dharmotsahini Sabha organised the first truly community puja in Baghbazar in Kolkata with full public contribution, public control and public participation. Now the dominant mode of Bengali Durga Puja is the ‘public’ version,” wrote M D Muthukumaraswamy and Molly Kaushal in Folklore, Public Sphere, and Civil Society.