Shakti Sadhana

Girlhood Memories of Durga Puja in Kolkata
 by Chumki (blueblackeyes)

We Bengalis believe that the Durga Pujo celebrates Durga Devi coming to visit her paternal home for four days out of the year, having spent the rest in Her husband's abode of Kailash in the Himalayas.

For Bengalis, Durga Pujo is the greatest festival of all -- and that's saying a lot! We have 13 major festivals a year, meaning at least one a month. But the one we really anticipate and look forward to for the whole year is Durga Pujo -- the wait begins right after the last pujo, right after Vijaya Dashami or the Tenth Day of the celebration. Ma Durga has only just left us, and we're already waiting for Her to come again!

Pujo, of course, also means shopping! Just as with Christmas time in the West, we Bengalis begin shopping for pujo at least couple of months in advance. During this time, the shops are crowded and open late. Women, especially, are shopping for the latest trendy sarees, made just for the pujo celebration. The tailors stand ready to take orders for made-to-measure clothing. One really has to hurry up -- because if it gets too close to Pujo, they will not accept any more orders.

The kids are more interested in toys, of course. When I was a child, my brothers and I mainly received clothes and a few toys for pujo. Our relatives would also exchange gifts. I remember talking amongst my girlfriends as to who got what and how many sarees we each received. We would also look forward to special Puja editions of popular magazines -- we actually reserved copies well in advance of publication, because they sold out fast!

It rains heavily during the Pujo season. Combine all of the shoppers in the streets with the incessant rain, and you obviously have a recipe for chaos. But it's a joyful chaos; it's hard to explain the scene unless you are there.

Many families would go on vacation during the Pujo season -- to get out of town during those crazy days. But not our family. Our parents were very enthusiastic and encouraged us to participate in all of the festivities, including the religious aspect of the pujo. They made sure that we offered our Anjali during these days. Many people eat only vegetarian dishes during this time; some feasted only on delicacies, then fasted before offering Anjali. Household servants and cook would be given time-off. My mother would take over the cooking -- though since we were out most of the time, she kept the meals simple. She also bought sweets for us.

On the Fifth Day of Durga Pujo -- The Panchami -- Ma Durga arrives for the Festival, along with her children Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh, and Kartik. Her means of transportation is different every year. Some years she travels by elephant. In another, she may travel by boat. This year, she will travel by horse. It is said that this mode of travel signifies destruction, so all in her path will be trampled upon.

As I write this, in early October 2002, Kolkata is experiencing heavy rains -- and this is consistent with her imminent arrival. The most auspicious mode of transport is by elephant, which is considered a peaceful mode. But whatever mode of transportation is used, Ma Durga will use that very same vessel to depart the Festival.

On the Sixth Day -- The Shasti -- the priest, in consultation with the panji (which is like an almanac) dresses Ma Durga and the other idols in sarees and jewelry. When I was a kid, I recall that these idols were made of wood and straw, and then plastered in a special type of clay. The clay would be allowed to dry and then painted. In each of her 10 hands, the priest would place an implement, or astra. For example, a trishul would be placed in one of her hands. This is like a spear, which was given to her by her husband Shiva, to conquer Ashura (Evil). The priest dressed her children Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh, and Kartik. Ganesh's wife Kalabou, is also dressed --in a simple sari made with a branch of a banana tree.

All of this was done behind a cloth as the public was not yet allowed to see Ma Durga in all Her splendor. But of course we, as children, could not wait -- and even though the pujo had not started, we'd go to have a 'sneak' preview on the goings-on with the preparations. We walked to the many different pujo sights, (called 'pandals' in Bengali) around town to take in the sights of the pujo preparations.

On the Seventh Day -- Mahasaptami -- the actual Pujo begins. We'd get up early in the morning and get dressed in our finest . We all wore our new clothes and shoes. (And of course there was no school or homework, so we were even that much more excited!!) We would usually go to our neighborhood pandal for the celebration first, before going to other neighborhood pandals. All over town loudspeakers would blare out different festival music and there was lots of chaos and crowds. And we walked all over town to join in the celebration since cars could not be taken to the sites given the streets were closed. (And in our new shoes we trudged along, ignoring our aching feet!).

My father would hire rickshaws to get to some of the sites, giving extra tips or 'bakshis' to the rickshawalas because of pujo. The streets were decorated with many lights and there were many vendors. The smell of mouth-watering food was everywhere. There were competitions on which of the idols among the pandals were the best.

The eigth day, or Mahaashtami, is the most auspicious day for Bengalis. We would have our best clothes set aside to wear on this day. In the morning, we would fast and then we would offer our anjali to the goddess for her blessings. (By that time we were starving -- but we believed that if we did it, then she would bless us. Afterward, we would take the prasad from the priest conducting the pujo. Prasad is a mix of fruit that is offered to Devi and then later distributed amongst the devotees who had come to see the pujo.

I mention prasad now, as I discuss the Eighth Day, but in fact it is offered on all the days of the pujo festival. It is a special occasion on the Eighth Day, however. For Devi's lunch we offered bhog -- a mix of rice and lentils cooked together (quite tasty as I remember!). Like prasad, the bhog is also later distributed by the priest to the devotees. The bhog and prasad are believed to be blessed by Devi, and are therefore considered auspicious.

In the evening we would go see the arati. There was much incense (or dhup and dhuno) burning. Dhuno looks like small powdered pellets. All the smoke would make us teary eyed but we stayed to watch anyway. Again the loudspeakers would be blaring, and many people were beating drums and bells and dancing in circles, and the priests were chanting ... it made for quite an eventful day for all of us! The blowing of the conch (or sankh) is also part of the pujo celebration; they say it drives evil spirits away. But I remember it would sound funny sometimes because some people were not able to blow it the right way and a distorted sound would come out.

The Ninth Day --or Mahanavami -- is actually the third day in our Bengali pujo. Similar festival activities would take place on this day as on the previous two, Mahasaptami and Mahaashtami: Bhog and prasad are offered to Devi and blessed.

And finally there comes Vijaya Dashami, the Tenth Day -- which is the fourth and last day of the Bengali Pujo. The Tenth Day celebration was like any other Pujo day; however, there was no anjali offering in the morning. In the afternoon, we'd play the game of 'Sindoor Khela.' Sindoor is the red powder that married women wear on their forehead; Bengali married women (but not widows) also wear Sindoor in the parting of their hair. And Sindoor is also applied to Ma's feet.

As part of the game, women would just smear each other with Sindoor playfully -- it is a fun game and full of laughter. My aunts and married cousins would come to our house and -- along with my mother -- go to participate in Sindoor Khala. Us girls would tag along to watch the fun. But however much fun we had, Sindoor Khela brought with it a mixture of joy and sadness, because it marked the end of the pujo. It was a sad day for all of us; I remember seeing Devi's eyes glistening, as if she was teary-eyed. Perhaps someone applied something glossy to her eyes to give that impression. I don't know to this day.

From this day on onward for about a month or so, family and friends would go and visit each other. Sweets would be offered. Men, dressed in traditional Bengali clothing -- the 'dhoti' and 'kurta' -- embraced each other. This show of embracing is called 'Kola Kuli'. Women would wear their newly purchased sarees, and the children would also wear the new clothes that were first worn during the pujo days.

Also it was customary for the younger generation to touch the feet of elders with their right hands, in a gesture of 'pronam', and then place that same hand on their own forehead. As a blessing, the elder will place their hand on their head. The Tenth Day is also Devi's 'Bisharjan,' when she will be immersed in the 'ghat' or the Hoogly river (part of the Ganges), another marker of the pujo's end.

Streets would be closed along Durga's procession route to the Hoogly river. The overhead tram car lines would be taken down so that the tallest of the images could pass -- some images were several stories tall! The crowds along the route would chant 'Durga mata ki jai'!! (There goes Durga !) We would be clutching our parents' hands as to not get lost in the crowd, we were so excited (and a little sad too)!

At the ghat, Devi would be placed between two boats and followed by Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesh, Kartik and 'Kalabou'. The boats would separate and all of the images would be immersed in the river. (It was sad to see the still-smiling face of Ma Durga gradually sinking into the water. The 'kumor' or the potters who make the images would immediately salvage the frame, the clay that made the images turned to 'patti'. The frame would be dried and kept for next year's pujo.)

Well, pujo celebrations have changed drastically since my childhood days. For many people, times are difficult now. Because of the crowds, many opt to stay home and watch the festivities on TV. They may venture out to the neighborhood pandal; most do not go from pandal to pandal like we did when we were growing up. There are of course people who celebrate like we did; the festival only comes once a year, so why not? Villagers also come into the city; they have the most difficulty since they cannot afford a car. Their journey to the crowded city is one of hardship. Thinking of their plight, makes one appreciate one's own good fortune.

Durga Pujo is a complex pujo. As I understand it, if one takes the plunge in performing this pujo, then one has to perform the Lakshmi pujo, which follows within the next seven days. Kali Pujo is also very complex; one has to know Sanskrit and be devoted to worship. But of course, I believe Ma Durga will accept any form of worship from her Bhakta as long as it is in true earnest. Worship need not be elaborate; it's the true feeling that comes from one's heart. Total devotion is all that is required and she will be there for you.

Rupong Dehi, Joyong Dehi, Josho Dehi, Disho Johhiye. Sharba Mangalle Mangalle, Shive Sharbartha Shadhike, Sharanee Tramboke Gauri, Narayoni Namaha Stute. Sharanagoto Dinartho Paritrano Parayone, Sharbashathi Hare Devi, Narayoni Namahastute. Ya Devi Sharbabhute Shu Shakti Rupena Sanghasthita, Namaha Stoshoi, Namaha Stoshoi, Namaha Stoshoi, Namaha, Namaha. Om Durgaoi Namaha.