Durga Puja, also known as Durgotsava, or Sharodotsava, is an annual Hindu festival originating in the Indian subcontinent which reveres and pays homage to the Hindu goddess, Durga. The last five days involve certain rituals and practices. It is believed Goddess Durga undertakes this week-long journey with her children — Ganesha, Kartik, Lakshmi, and Saraswati, on a vehicle of her choice. It could be a palanquin or a boat, an elephant or a horse.
To begin with, the day of Mahalaya marks the beginning of Devi Paksha and the end of the Pitri Paksha, the latter of which, is a period of mourning. Hindus consider Pitri Paksha to be inauspicious, because shradhh or death rites are performed during this period. It is a 16-day lunar period during which people remember and pay homage to their ancestors using food and water offerings. But Mahalaya is a happy occasion. While there are many stories and/or folklore associated with the day, largely, people believe that on this day, Goddess Durga officially begins her journey from Mount Kailash, where she resides with her husband Lord Shiva to her maternal home on Earth. Bengalis celebrate it with much fervour and remark intermittently, about the festive autumn weather and the ‘pujo-pujo‘ feel. Mahalaya is celebrated roughly seven days before Durga Puja. Every Bengali household wakes up early in the morning — even before the sun — to customarily listen to a collection of songs and mantras called ‘Mahishasura Mardini’, in the sonorous voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra.
The actual Durga Puja starts on Shashti with a welcoming ceremony called Bodhon. It is believed that this autumnal worship was initiated by Rama to seek the help of the goddess in defeating Ravana. So, the goddess has to be specially invoked through the ceremony of Bodhon. On Bodhon, the face of the goddess is uncovered amid the sound of dhak (drums) and shankha dhwani or the sound of the conch.
The next day is Maha Saptami, which starts with a ritual called the Nabapatrika or the Kola Bou Snan. A small banana plant, symbolising the wife of Ganesha, is wrapped in a red bordered saree and bathed in the Ganges river. The banana plant has night leaves from nine auspicious trees tied to it. The nine leaves signify the nine avatars of Goddess Durga; Shakti – Brahmani (banana), Kalika (colacassia), Durga (turmeric), Kartiki (jayanti), Shiva (wood apple), Raktadantika (pomegranate), Sokrahita (ashoka), Chamunda (arum) and Lakshmi (paddy). As the leaves of the banana plant is most prominent, the Nabapatrika is popularly called Kola Bou (banana bride). Nabapatrika is significant for farmers also. In West Bengal, farmers offer special prayers for a good harvest.
While the priests perform the rites and rituals associated with worship of the goddess, everyone else gets to pay their respect through Pushpanjali (floral offering made with cupped palms) or anjali. Anjali takes place on all three days – Saptami, Ashtami and Navami. The auspicious hour for Anjali, always in the morning, is announced beforehand. It is customary to fast until you have offered the day’s Anjali. Before the scheduled hour, you have to bathe and get dressed in new clothes. During the Anjali, gather in front of the goddess, clutching a fistful of flowers along with bel leaves. They repeat the mantra after the priest and throw the flowers at the goddess in the end. Three rounds of floral offerings take place.
Kumari Puja takes place on Ashtami. A pre-pubescent girl is selected to be worshiped as the living incarnation of Goddess Durga. She is dressed in new clothes and decked up with floral ornaments. She shares the stage with the goddess.
Sandhi Puja is at the juncture when Ashtami ends and Navami begins. It marks the moment when Goddess Durga emerged in her angry Chamunda form to kill the demons Chanda and Munda. This is a grand ritual that requires the lighting of a hundred and eight diyas, hom or yagya and Chandi Path or mantras dedicated to Goddess Durga. One hundred and eight lamps are lit. The priest utters the mantra. And the drummers (dhaki) break into a frenzied beat. Earlier, it was customary to make an animal sacrifice too. But it has been largely discontinued and vegetables like pumpkins are symbolically sacrificed.
This is a very special part of the celebrations. Dhunuchi Naach is performed usually on Ashtami and Navami evenings after aarti. People dress up and dance to the beats of the dhak with dhunuchi or clay pots filled with coconut husks, powdered incense and camphor. Clay pots are filled with burning charcoal. When the coconut husks are lit along with the incense and camphor it creates a very unique atmosphere. The grandeur and the euphoria of this event attracts revellers to the puja pandals. People take it in their hands and start dancing to the beating of dhaak. Those more expert, hold the clay pots on their head, sometimes even holding a pot by their teeth.
Traditionally, Hindu married women, wear the vermillion mark on their forehead. On Dashami, the goddess is bid farewell before being taken out for immersion in the river. During Sindur Khela, married women (but not widows) offer vermillion and sweets to the goddess. After that they smear each other with the vermillion. It’s a happy site to behold. Though, the fact that widowed cannot participate in this ritual is facing a lot of backlash recently.
The goddess and her children are taken out in a procession for Bisorjon or immersion in the river, indicating her return to Mount Kailash. Even today, some of the old households (bonedi bari) follow the custom where the idols are placed on a bamboo platform and carried on the shoulders of men. But most carry the idols on a truck upto the river bank. Then the idols are placed on a boat and taken to the middle of the river for the immersion.
This marks the end of the annual festival. Young people touch the feet of elders. Elders bless the young. Men and women of the same age perform Kolakuli, a kind of hugging gesture. Special sweets, especially Naru or roundels made with coconut and jiggery, are distributed. People mostly buy different kinds of savouries and sweets and distribute them to relatives and neighbours.