Durga Puja | The Victory of Maa Durga over Mahishasura
Maa Durga or Goddess Durga is one of the most widely recognized female deities in Hinduism. She is worshipped mostly in the eastern parts of India, especially in Bengal. Durga Puja – the five day festival – is centered on the history associated with Maa Durga. It celebrates the defeat of Mahishashur at the hands of the Goddess – a symbol of the triumph of good over evil. This five-day Puja is widely celebrated by the Bengalis and is their largest, most loved and most popular festival. More than 4000 pandals or tents are set up in Kolkata alone, where the Puja takes place. You can combine the craze of Christmas in London, Diwali in Delhi, 4th of July in America, the Summer carnival in Rio and add to it the month long madness of Olympics or the Cricket World Cup and then cram it into a span of five days but you still wouldn’t know what you’re missing if you haven’t experienced Kolkata’s Durga Puja. To the Bengalis, Durgotsav is not just a Puja, it’s a huge part of their culture and heritage which they pompously boast of. They enthusiastically celebrate this elaborate festival for which preparations start months before the actual Puja. The festival is celebrated in the autumn season which the Bengalis call “Shorot kaal” and so Durga Puja or Durgotsav is also known as “Sharodotsav” or “Sharodia” meaning Autumn Festival.
The oomph of Durga Puja is also observed in other parts of the world. In India, states like Assam, Tripura, Orissa, parts of Delhi and Maharashtra also celebrate Durga Puja with the same vigor. Outside India this festival is celebrated in Dhaka, London, New Jersey, Ottawa and other places which have a sizeable Bengali community.
Durga Puja & The Matriarchal Roots Of Hinduism
One of the greatest strengths of Hinduism is its matriarchal roots. The matriarchal system is based on the equality of both sexes but it also depicts women as the beholder of shakti or power. The Mother Goddess holds a very important position in Hindu history as a symbol of prosperity and women’s empowerment and also as the protector of mankind. Maa Durga, an avatar of the Mother Goddess or Goddess Parvati is worshipped by Hindus as the destroyer of the asuras (demons). Maa Durga is the all-powerful female who defeated Mahishasur, the notorious buffalo-headed demon who had once received a boon of immortality from Lord Brahma.
The idol of Maa Durga is an emblem of Shakti itself. Maa Durga’s representation as a ten-handed woman warrior portrays the multitasking ability of a woman and the third eye on her forehead is the sign of the divine Shakti. She represents celestial energy, femininity and creation. Maa Durga is a manifestation of Adishakti who is worshipped for her gracious as well as terrifying aspects. She represents infinite and universal power and the strength of Lord Shiva, her husband. Being innately formless, she manifests in the form of Gods or Demi-gods to fight evil and establish righteousness. Maa Durga is also called “Mahishasur Mardini” meaning ‘Annihilator of Mahishasur’.
The Story Behind Durga Puja | Durga Puja & Its Tales
Durga Puja & The Slaying Of Mahishasur –
There is more than one legend behind the origin of Durga Puja. One such story talks about the notorious buffalo-headed demon Mahishasur who aspired to become an invincible force. Mahishasur, though a demon, was an intense devotee of Lord Brahma. He performed a penance with great devotion to please Lord Brahma – the God of All Creation. Satisfied with Mahishasur’s dedication Lord Brahma granted him a boon. Mahishasur asked for immortality but Lord Brahma couldn’t grant him that as it would be against the rules of the universe. Craftily, Mahishasur asked Lord Brahma that he be granted a boon so that he could never be killed by any man or God. Granting this wish, Lord Brahma told Mahishasur that as a result of the boon’s protection, Mahishasur’s death would happen in the hands of a woman. However, Mahishasur didn’t pay heed to Brahma’s warning as he believed that he now possessed the power to overcome every man and God and hence even a woman would not be able to defeat him. Filled with pride and a sense of invincibility, Mahishasur started terrorizing the world.
Residents of Tri-lok (i.e. the three worlds of heaven, earth & hell) were battered by Mahishasur’s ruthless attacks and prayed to the Gods for mercy. In response, Mahishasur even tried to capture heaven from the Gods and invaded Indra Lok (the abode of Lord Indra, the King of Gods). The Gods attempted to wage a battle against Mahishasur and kill him but due to Lord Brahma’s boon the demon continued to prevail and cause destruction unhurt.
Finding themselves helpless, the Gods approached Lord Vishnu for help. After assessing the circumstances using his omniscience Lord Vishnu informed them that only a woman or a Goddess could kill Mahishasur. He asked all the other Gods to unite and focus all their energies creating a supernova, throwing flames in all direction. Slowly, all that energy and light combined into one and evolved into a female form. Hence, Maa Durga was born from the energies of all the male divinities, with a thousand hands that depicted her infinite powers.
However, in order to kill Mahishasur she needed weapons. The group of Gods came together to hand Maa Durga numerous weapons from their arsenals – Lord Shiva handed her his “Trishul” or Trident, Lord Vishnu his “Sudarshan Chakra”, Lord Indra his “Bajra” or lightning bolt, Lord Varuna his conch, Lord Vayu his bow and arrow, while other Gods gave her a lotus, a sword, a spear and a club. Agni, God of fire blessed her with strength and splendor. Then the mighty warrior-Goddess mounted her “vahana” or animal carriage, the lion and rode off to slay the wicked demon. Maa Durga fought with Mahishasur for a period of over fifteen days during which the latter used his shape-shifting powers to transform into different animals to distract and mislead her. Lastly, when Mahishasur took the form of a “mahish” or buffalo Maa Durga stabbed him with her trident and killed him.
Durga Puja & The Legend Of Ramayana –
According to the Ramayana Lord Rama is believed to have performed the Durga Puja to seek the blessings of Maa Durga for his victorious battle against the demon king of Lanka, Ravan. It is believed that prior to this time, Durga Puja was celebrated in the spring season and was known as “Basanti Puja” but Lord Rama in order to seek the blessings of Adishakti before going to war, performed this Puja in autumn. This is the reason why Durgotsav is also known as “Akaal Bodhon” which means ‘untimely awakening of the Goddess’.
Before going off to war, Lord Rama needed blessings of the omnipotent so as to win the battle. After performing this Puja, Lord Rama offered the Goddess 108 rare blue lotuses. To test Lord Rama’s devotion the Goddess hid one of the lotuses. While making the offering of the lotuses Lord Rama noticed that one lotus was missing. In order to compensate for the missing Lotus, Lord Rama decided to offer one of his blue eyes instead. Seeing his willingness to sacrifice a part of himself, Mass Durga was pleased with him. She appeared before him and returned the missing lotus allowing him to continue the ritual. Finally, she blessed him and assured to protect him from all evil during his war against Ravana. Consequently with the help of powerful allies like Lord Hanuman, Lord Rama was able to free his wife Sita and emerge victorious in his war against Ravana.
These myths behind Durga Puja are versions of the universal battle between the divine and the devil, righteousness and falsehood, knowledge and ignorance. But these are also tales of wiping out the larger-than-life ego of the demons who thought they had sole dominance over the tri-lok. These stories also focus on the restoration of the balance of the universe by the Adishakti.
History Of Durga Puja & Its Celebration
One of the earliest versions of the Durga Puja which paved the way for today’s large-scale Durga Puja celebrations was the Shobhabazar Rajbari Puja organized by Raja Nabakrishna Deb in the honor of Lord Clive, the then Governor General of the East India Company in Kolkata. Lord Clive wanted to celebrate his victory in the Battle of Plassey (1757) in a church but the only church in Kolkata at the time was destroyed in the battle against Siraj-ud-Daulah. As a result the victory was celebrated in the form of large-scale Durga Puja celebrations which seeded the modern version of the festival.
Another instance of community-wide celebrations of Durga Puja was the organization of festivities by Saborno Roy Choudhury at his house in Barisha. He was the wealthiest Zamindar (landlord) of Kolkata before the British Rule and his family had been celebrating Durga Puja since 1610. Even today the Roy Choudhury family organizes eight Durga Puja celebrations in neighborhoods located in and around Kolkata – six are at Barisha, seventh at Birati and eighth at Nimta.
Different Methods Of Celebrating Durga Puja
Methods of celebrating Durga Puja have evolved into two very distinct styles in current times. One is the “shabeki” meaning old and traditional. This approach is usually taken in princely houses and is characterized by very traditional methods with adherence to ancient rituals. The idols and pandals are designed conventionally as well.
The other style of celebrating Durga Puja is more in line with modern practices where both the pandals and the idols are customized to modern themes which range from topics like ‘Save the Earth’, ‘The Titanic’, ‘Harry Potter’ and more.
Durga Puja celebrations can also be classified based on the where the puja takes place and who organizes the puja. There’s “ghorowa” or family puja which takes place in the household where family members organize and manage the entire event.
Then there’s “sharbojonin” which means including everyone. This usually takes place in clubs where they have a Puja committee and many members of the club are involved in the organizational activities. This is also known as “Barowari” or “Baroyaari”or community puja. Here “Baro” means twelve and “yaar” means friend. The first Baroyaari Puja took place in Guptipara in Hooghly, when twelve friends were barred from participating in a family puja and hence they decided to organize Durga Puja celebrations on their own. This is also how Baroyaari got its name.
The Idol of Maa Durga
According to Skanda-Purana (the largest Vedic script titled after “Skanda”, the son of Shiv and Parvati) Maa Durga has a thousand hands and three eyes. Her thousand hands indicate her power and might. However, Maa Durga is represented in images with ten hands and hence she is also known as “Doshobhuja” where “Dosh” means ten and “bhuja” means hand in Bengali. In each hand she has a different weapon given to her by the Gods. She has a third eye on the forehead and each of her eyes is believed to represent a different aspect of her characteristics. Her left eye represents desire-the moon, the right eye represents action-the sun and the third eye represents her spirit-the fire. It is believed that Maa Durga projected Goddess Kali (another form of Adishakti) out of her third eye.
Maa Durga is usually represented as being dressed in a red saree with the colour red signifying passion and action. She is mounted on her vahana-the lion which symbolizes unlimited power and omnipotence. The lion is also a symbol of animalistic characteristics like anger, greed, jealousy, etc. Maa Durga being seated on the lion reminds us that we are not controlled by any of those animalistic impulses thus instilling faith in our ability to live a righteous life.
Images of Maa Durga typically represent her in the stance of killing Mahishasur. Her two front hands holding the trident, shoving it into Mahishasur’s chest with the lion at her feet placing one of its paws on the demon’s thigh and drawing blood from it.
Along with Maa Durga her four children stand beside her with their respective vahanas. On her right stands her eldest daughter Goddess Lakshmi with her owl and her eldest son Lord Ganesh accompanies by his wife “Kolabou” which is a banana plant draped in a saree and smeared with vermillion. Alongside Lord Ganesh is his vahana-the mouse. Maa Durga’s youngest daughter Goddess Saraswati stands to her left with her swan and Lord Kartik (also known as Lord Skanda or Lord Murugan) stands beside Goddess Saraswati, mounted on his peacock. There is also a bust or photograph of Lord Shiva, Maa Durga’s consort, placed on top of the idol.
Making Of Maa Durga’s Idols
Maa Durga idols for Durga Puja celebrations are normally made up of hay and clay extracted from the Ganges. A small town in North Kolkata called Kumortuli specializes in the making of such idols. The name Kumortuli literally translates to ‘domicile of sculptors’. A large number of sculptors have their workshops in this area where they build, paint and decorate Maa Durga idols. The finest of sculptors wait for Durga Puja to show off their skills and make a living in the process.
There is also an unexplained practice of using soil from the land of a sex-worker to sculpt the idol of the Goddess. The idol requires four very important things – mud from the banks of Ganga, cow urine, cow dung and soil from “Nisshidhho Palli” (forbidden territories) without which the sacred idol of Maa Durga is said to be incomplete.
In addition to this, there are also many ways of decorating Maa Durga’s idols and each has a different name. Among them one of the oldest and most popular is “Daak er shaaj” where “Daak” means post and “Shaaj” stands for beautification. This kind of decoration is done using Styrofoam and glittery papers. In the olden days these weren’t available in Bengal and had to be imported from foreign countries. As these materials used for the decoration of Maa Durga’s idols arrived on Indian shores via post or ‘Daak’, it came to be known as “Daak er shaaj”.
The Ten Weapons Of Maa Durga
Each weapon help by Maa Durga has a different denotation as it was given to her by different Gods.
- The Trident or Trishul symbolizes wisdom to overcome challenges in life and eradication of negativity.
- The Chakra signifies dharma (righteousness) and duties towards other human beings.
- The lightning bolt indicates supremacy and authority.
- The conch shell is a symbol of happiness. It teaches us to find pleasure and drive out hatred.
- The sword stands for elimination of vices.
- The bow and arrow, each held in different hands, are associated with the righteous virtues of Lord Rama, who instructs us to overcome difficulties without losing touch with our ethics and morals.
- The club is a reference to Lord Hanuman. It is an emblem of devotion and surrender to the supreme consciousness.
- The half-bloomed lotus represents detachment. It’s a symbol of how we should live our lives free of detachment like a lotus which can grow in dirt without its beauty being tampered.
- Lastly with the open palmed “mudra” (hand gesture) she bestows her blessings, forgiveness and protection on her devotees.
Maa Durga and her children are usually adorned with a lot of jewelry of gold and silver just like other Indian Gods and Goddesses.
Rituals Of Durga Puja
Durga Puja takes place in the Hindu month of Ashwin (last half of September or first half of October). The actual puja is held from the sixth to the tenth day of the bright lunar fortnight (also called “Shukla paksh”). This period is also called “Devi paksh” meaning fortnight of the Goddess. Devi paksh begins from the day of “Mahalaya”, the last day of the previous lunar fortnight (also called “Pitri paksh” meaning fortnight of the forefathers) and ends on a full moon night during which the “Kojagori Lokkhi Puja” (the main Laxmi Puja of the Bengalis) is organized.
It is a common misconception that Durga Puja is only a five-day affair but many people don’t know that preparations for this puja start from the day of Rath Yatra (a Hindu festival comprising of chariots) during which the clay used in making of the idols is collected from the banks of a river, commonly the Ganges. Durga Puja involves elaborate rituals and strict rules are followed at every step.
On the Day of Rath Yatra –
The idol is made on a structure of bamboo and then the hay and clay are piled on to create the features. This primary structure is known as “Kathamo” and on the day of Rath Yatra “Kathamo Puja” is celebrated to mark the beginning of Durgotsav.
Mahalaya is the last day of Pitri paksh which is a new moon night (Amavashya). On this day the Pitri paksh ends and Devi paksh starts so it is observed as a very auspicious day by Bengalis. This day is celebrated by “jhol daan” which is the offering of water to the forefathers. This rituals marks the last day of Pitri paksh. The men of the household travel to the ghats of the Ganges, offer prayers to their forefathers and seek their blessings.
Then Durga Puja celebrations are kicked off by Bengalis with a two hour radio show-Mahishasurmardini, which has been a tradition since the 1950s. Bengalis wake up at 4 am on Mahalaya to listen to this program recorded by the Late Birendra Krishna Bhadra. Mahishasurmardini is a script in Bengali which talks about the Devi, her story and her deeds.
On the sixth day of Devi paksh, known as “Shasthi” the actual puja begins. It is the day of “Bodhon” that is awakening of the Devi. The eyes of Maa Durga are painted on this day during a ritual called “Chokkhu Daan” which introduces her soul in the idol. The Earth is regarded as the Devi’s parents’ house where she comes to visit once a year from her husband’s house, Kailash. She is welcomed with the playing of a drum (traditionally called ‘dhaak’) and an aarti that welcomes her into the house (known as ‘Boron’).
Maa Durga is believed to travel to Earth from Kailash in different modes of transport and this is important as each mode of transport represents a different trajectory in the lives of people in the impending year. The different kinds of transport are a boat, a horse, an elephant and a palanquin. The Boat signifies both good harvest and flood. The horse is the most destructive form as everything in its way gets trampled. The elephant is the most peaceful mode of transport and indicates good harvest. The palanquin signifies the impending outbreak of an epidemic. If the Goddess’s arrival and departure vehicle is same then it indicates famine, natural calamities and political mayhem.
Mahasaptami is the seventh day of Devi paksh and on this day “Nabapatrika” is celebrated. Nine kinds of leaves are tied to a banana plant-the “Kolabou” and bathed in the river. The Nabapatrika is then draped in a white saree with a red border and is smeared with vermillion and worshipped. This Kolabou is also identified as Lord Ganesh’s consort but is actually another form of the Devi.
This is the eighth and the most auspicious day of Devi paksh. This is the day when Maa Durga defeated Mahishasur. On this day the Goddess’ “Chandi” avatar is worshipped. Maa Durga had transformed into Chandi to kill the notorious beast on the juncture of Mahashtami and Mahanavami. So during this juncture “Shondhi Pujo” (“Shondhi” means joint) is performed. 108 diyas are lit during this Puja and 108 lotuses are offered to the Goddess. Sometimes a goat is scarified in honor of the Devi.
On this ninth day, Maa Durga is worshipped in numerous ways as it is the second last day of her stay on Earth. Aarti is done and a special type of aarti with “dhuno” (outer skin of coconut from which rope is made) is also performed to the rhythm of the dhaak. This is called “Dhunochi Naach”. The coconut coir is lighted up and stuffed in a clay pot/holder and then men and women dance with those pots in their hands in front of the Devi.
Vijaya Dashami –
On Vijaya Dashami, Maa Durga’s victory is celebrated. The word “Vijaya” translates to victory and “Dashami” translates to ‘tenth day’. On this tenth and final day of Devi paksh, Maa Durga leaves for Kailash leaving her devotees heavy hearted and teary eyed. On the morning of Dashami, aarti is followed by the immersion of Maa Durga’s idols in water – a ritual called “Bishorjon”. A copper mirror (“dorpon”) is waved in front of Maa Durga and then immersed into a pitcher of water kept at the feet of her image/idol. It is believed that during this ritual the Devi’s soul instilled into the idol on Shosthi is transferred to the dorpon which is then immersed in water. A larger mirror is then placed at the edge of the pitcher and the reflection of the Goddess is projected on the water. This ritual is known as the Bishorjon and it is followed by two other rituals known as “Shindur Khela” and “Bhashaan” in the evening.
Married Bengali women dressed in white sarees with red borders (“laal par shada saree”) smear shindur (Vermillion powder) on the foreheads of Maa Durga and her children and feed them sweets as a way of bidding farewell to Maa Durga. Women then smear shindur on each other’s faces and foreheads and celebrate “Shindur Khela” (“Khela” means play). After this the idols are mounted on trolleys and they are carried to a nearby river ghat along with a parade of men and women dancing to the beat of the dhaak. On arrival at the river ghat, the idols are immersed in the water. People return home, distribute sweets among one another and rejoice to bring an end to the five days of fun and excitement.
This day is also celebrated as Dusshera in Delhi which commemorates the victory of Lord Rama over Ravana, the demon.
Celebration Of Durga Puja Outside India
Durga Puja is celebrated with the same oomph outside India as well. Bangladesh which has a huge Bengali community celebrates this festival just like the Bengalis of Kolkata. Parts of UK and USA also celebrate Durga Puja though the length of the celebration is often curtailed. They usually celebrate it in the nearest weekend to Durga Shosthi. In order to control pollution of their rivers the idols are not immersed and reused every year. Similarly Canada also sees wide celebrations of Durga Puja.
Relevance Of Durga Puja In Modern Times
In recent years there has been criticism about the pollution that this festival creates every year. Immersion of huge idols along with the decorations and flowers pollutes the Ganges and the nearby areas. This has been taken into account by the government and measures are being taken to minimize this pollution.
Previously Durga Puja was just a religious event but nowadays it has transformed into a larger community celebration. It is no longer limited to the Bengalis and even people of other communities in Bengal await this Puja with equal eagerness. Devotees often engage in pandal-hopping during the five days between Panchami (the day before Shasthi) and Dashami. Pandal-hopping at night is a huge attraction among the youth as well as the the elderly and the enthusiasm is infectious. Many cultural groups also organize social gatherings to allow people to mix with each other. Over and above this, tourists from across the world also visit Kolkata during the festival to witness the spectacle that is Durga Puja.