On Halloween, I discovered the horror of losing my own festivals

I was quite taken aback when on the evening of 31st October, a bunch of kids from my society came “trick or treat” -ing at my door. I was terribly unprepared for the poorly mimicking Halloween visitors, both mentally as well as a ‘household running aunty’. Barely managed to get over my shock and scrambled around to fetch some of my chocolate stash and sent off the visibly happy kids!! The one thing I couldn’t shake off was my feeling of complete displacement viz a viz to those happy halloweeners.. What was wrong?!

I immediately shared my agony to a bunch of like-minded friends group, and a wise one tried to calm me down telling me “it’s alright Joga, in a globalized world celebrations are going to cross over. As far as they celebrate ours properly, that should be fine.” That’s a wise, rational thought indeed.. But I couldn’t pull my “Halloween Spirits” up, for what I see is not a case of – adding more celebrations to our basket of festivities, BUT replacing ours for theirs!! Do we actually see our kids getting as excited to dress up as Krishnas, Radhas, Rams & Hanumans etc for Janmashtami, Dussehra anymore?

It’s pointless getting into the celtic pagan roots of Halloween before it got appropriated like everything else, but in the process of trying to settle my mind I sat down to recollect what other “desi” festivals we celebrate around this same time of the year? In my limited-ness of knowledge I reached out to own roots and wham! It hit me… it was the Jaddhatri Puja just 2 days before Halloween. As a kid I remember Ma telling me about this third, yes that’s right the “third” annual Durga Puja celebrated back in Bengal. She told me – the first and the original puja was the Basanti Durga Puja, next the Sharadiya Durga Puja & then was the Jagaddhatri Puja.

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Basanti Puja as the name suggests is a spring season puja observed in the Chaitra month of the Bengali/Hindu calendar corresponding to the Northern Navaratri culminating with Ram Navami. Ritualistically Basanti & Sharadiya Durga pujas are the same, the difference only lies in their season of celebration and origins of course. As I’ve been told, it is stated in the Markanda Puran that while wandering in the jungles after losing his kingdom, King Surath met sage Medha and upon his advice performed the first Basanti Puja invoking Goddess Durga and got his lost kingdom back. What Ma told me was, that once Basanti puja used to be celebrated with equal fervor and grandiose in Bengal. But over time the spring festival lost out to the autumn celebrations, and presently only a handful of Bengali households there perform the Basanti Durga Puja.

The second Durga puja in the Sharad or autumn season which now happens to be the main and the biggest festival for Bengalis all over the world, came about thanks to Lord Ram. He performed the “Akalbodhan” (‘Akal’= untimely and ‘Bodhan’= awakening) to invoke the Goddess and seek her blessings before going to war with Ravan. Since then, it’s said that his devotees started performing the Sharadiya Durga puja which kept gaining popularity and relegated the Basanti puja to a limited audience. Though from a non competitive practical aspect, I think the costs involved in carrying out two massive ten-day rituals and festivals, especially after the Rajas & Zamindars lost all their show off money, led to people choosing and settling for one of the two Pujas!

The third Durga puja or Jagaddhatri puja takes place exactly one month after the Sharadiya puja, celebrated on Gosthastami. This year 29th October was the date. Jagat-Dhatri or the “Holder of the World” is just another form of Goddess Durga worshipped mostly in West Bengal and Orissa. According to the ‘Puranas’ and ‘Tantras’, this form of Durga is depicted in the color of the rising sun, she has four arms as compared to Durga’s ten. Ma Jagaddhatri is the calm form Goddess Durga symbolizing the ‘Sattva Guna’, while Durga and Kali represent the Rajas & Tamas gunas. Together these three forms of ‘Aadi Shakti’ make up the ‘Prakriti’ or ‘universal nature’. This ‘tri-netri’ Goddess is armed with chakra(disk), conch, bow and arrow and adorns a ‘nagajangopaveeta’ which is a symbol of Yoga and the Brahman. She rides a lion as well and is seen standing over the elephant demon called Karindrasura, which gives her the name Karindrasuranisudini (Slayer of the Elephant Demon).

As far as the origin history of Jagaddhatri Puja in West Bengal goes, it’s disputable and I’ve come across about three to four possible stories of how and who started it. It is said that Ma Sharada, wife of Shri RamKrishna Paramhans initiated the Jagaddhatri puja and so now it is celebrated across all Ramkrishna Mission ashrams. The other two popular yet very contentious origin stories are that of the pujas of Krishnanagar and Chandannagar started by Maharaja Krishna Chandra of Nadia and Indranarayan Roy Choudhury of Chandan Nagar respectively.

Krishnachandra Roy (1728-1782) of the Nadia Raj family was a very prominent figure in the Hindu Bengali society of that period, who is remembered for his resistance to the then prevailing Mughal rule as well as being a generous patron of the Hindu culture and arts. Later he was given the title of ‘Maharaja’ by Lord Clive. Before establishing the Jagaddhatri puja in Krishnanagar, it is said that the Raja was known for conducting grand Durga pujas(sharadiya) in his palace with full ritualistic rigour and pashu-balis and festivities.

So the story around his starting Jagaddhatri puja is – in the background of Krishnachandra’s skirmishes with the Mughal rule of the land, he along with his son were imprisoned by the Nawab of Bengal right before the Sharadiya Durga puja. Knowing very well how fond he is of his Puja,this was a plot to break the will of the Raja and take over his kingship. The Raja was only released on the last day of the puja, but despite his ragged state he ran towards Krishnanagar still wanting to worship Durga in a grand fashion. Unfortunately, he fell unconscious on the way due to weakness from the imprisonment and couldn’t make it for the Durga puja. That night he saw a divine dream in which Durga comes to him and tells him to worship her now in her Jagaddhatri form during the upcoming Kartik Shukla Navami. Maharaja Krishnachandra formally initiated this puja in the year 1754 it’s believed.

Apart from Krishnanagar, the Jagaddhatri puja of Chandannagar is equally famous and often said to be predating Krishanachandra’s puja. Indranarayan Choudhury, the Zamindar of Chandannagar was one of the richest businessmen in Bengal and a good friend of Raja Krishnachandra. It’s said he started the Jagaddharti puja at his residence around 1713 and the Raja was a regular visitor. Though neither of the dates or claims can be verified now due to the lack of any written evidence, there’s no doubt that this particular form of Durga Puja does go back to about 250 years in antiquity. There are a few pujas in Nadia, Chandannagar, Hooghly, Kolkata areas which claim to be hundred plus years old and have the originating families still associated with the current pujas. Like the Bose family who used to conduct the Jagaddhatri puja at their ancestral home in Murshidabad in the 1700’s which was later moved to its present location in Chandannagar. The family claims the puja to go back as far as 1640 as per their family’s records.

In popular culture, Ma Jagaddhatri finds mention in the famous ‘Anandamath’ written by Bankim Chandra Chatterjee where he shows his protagonists worshipping the trio of Dura, Kali and Jagaddhatri as the three aspects of “Bharat Mata”. In Orissa, the Jagaddhatri mela of Bhanjpur is the second biggest mela after Ratha Jatra in the Mayurbhanj district. The small cities of Krishnanagar and Chandannagar also owe their renown to the Goddess of the whole world, Ma Jagaddhatri!

I share this today to reconnect with my roots, history and culture once more, so that next time no strange borrowed festivals would make me uncomfortable. I share this today to learn and re-learn what I may have forgotten and what I didn’t know at all, so that tomorrow I may pass it to my next generation and when they go out to embrace newer celebrations, they’ll do so with their roots firmly in the ground… The chain unbroken!

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