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Mahalaya: When we invoke the Devi to descend on this mortal world and bless us with her divine presence

Aswiner sarada prate beje utheche alokomonjir,

Dharanir bohirakashi ontorhito meghomala

Prakritir antarakashe jagorito jyotirmoyi jaganmatar aagomono-barta,
Anandamoyi moha mayar padodhyani

Ashima chande beje uthe roop-lok o raso-lok e aane naba
bhabomadhurir sanjeeban,

Tai anandita shyamoli matrikar chinmoyi ke mrinmoyi te aabahon..
Aj chitchaktiroopini bishwajanonir sharodo-sribimondita protima;

Mondire mondire dhyan bodhita….”

The baritone voice of Shri Birendra Krishna Bhadra waking us up at 4 AM on the morning of Mahalaya is perhaps my first memory of Durga puja as a Bengali. Some three and half decades ago when the “Mahisasuramardini”(composed by Shri Pankaj Mullick) was still just a radio programme aired by AIR, my Dadu would wake us kids up along with the grown-ups to gather around the big wooden ‘Grandpa’ radio and listen to this musical narration of the ‘invocation of Devi Durga & eventual destruction of Mahishasur by her hands’.

The radio program “Mahisasuramardini” was first composed and aired in 1931 by AIR and till it was recorded in 1966, was an annual radio transmission on the dawn of Mahalaya which marks the end of Pitra Paksha and the advent of Devi Paksha( Lunar phase as per Hindu calendar) and the much loved Durga puja. Bengalis across the world are connected by this tradition of listening to this for over eight decades now.

Many versions and new innovative portrayals aside, it is this original composition in the voice of BK Bhadra that strums the heart-strings of each and every Bengali soul! But what before 1931 some may ask? Durga puja and Mahalaya is obviously not a new tradition. As far as I know through family elders, the Mahalaya day was traditionally observed with early morning puja (many people did final Pitra tarpan rituals) and recitation of the “Durga Saptashati” or as we call it “Chandi Paath”. My Dadu recited the entire Chandi/Saptashati every day during the Durga puja… a tradition my mother has tried to carry forward.

Today I, along with most of the Bengali community will again wake up in the wee hours and collectively invoke the Devi to descend on this mortal world and bless us with her divine presence. Mahalaya 2018. For a Pravasi Bengali kid like myself, in the absence of a ready-made community, staying rooted in my culture and heritage required extra efforts and dedicated participation.

Durga puja in its entirety, right from the planning phase a few months before till the “Bijoya Milonee”s after Vijayadashami is what my being Bengali has centred around. In Bengal Devi Durga is not only the divine mother but also the daughter of every household and Durga puja marks the annual visit of that beloved daughter with her four children to her “Baap-er Bari”.

So much time, effort, planning and preparation go into organising a Durga puja (even if one keeps aside the extravagance) that it is impossible to not feel heartbroken when she finally takes leave on Dashami. Having seen my grandparents, parents and elders giving tearful farewells to the ‘Ma’ (mother yes, but Bengalis often address daughters as Ma/Mamuni too) I used to often wonder as a kid, ‘what is wrong with these grownups?!’ but now my own eyes tearing up at every “Bhashaan”, I know why.

Durga puja is a lot of things for a lot of people – shopping, holidays, annual travel, food and hogging, pandal hopping, cultural entertainment and all the works. But before and even after all this and more, what people are slowly neglecting is the fact – that, first and foremost, Durga puja is a puja!!

Right from the “kathamo pujo” which is the puja of the of the basic wooden frame on which the Durga Pratima is constructed to the “khunti pujo” which is done before the Durga puja pandal is erected, each and every aspect of this grand festival is a puja/rituals. Some may prefer to ignore this aspect and only indulge in the “secular and fun” features of the festival, but I was lucky enough to be born in a family which though settled far away from the land of their forefathers, believed in passing the relevant traditions to the next generation.

Durga puja is such an elaborate and intricate puja that very few households would conduct it on their own, even in the past it was the rich Zamindars and merchant class who used to organize Durga pujas at their homes which would be attended by the entire surrounding community. Now the last few surviving “Bonedi Bari” (affluent) Pujos are our window to the past, and here unlike the baroari/community pandals, the puja starts from “Pratipad/Prathama” day (first day after Amavasya) with daily Chandipaths.

Growing up, our puja used to start from Panchami – the day our community puja would bring in the Durga Pratima amidst the divine beatings of the “Dhaak” and which was kept veiled until Shashti. Causing immense curious excitement amongst the young and old alike. After the “Bodhon” ritual the Panchami evenings were traditionally kept for “Anondo Mela” and the highlight would always be the ladies of the community putting up home-cooked food stalls followed by cultural programs performed by us kids. On the food note, I’d like to add – yes Bengalis, unlike many other communities, eat non-veg during the Durga puja. But there is always enough vegetarian options available for everyone to enjoy. We are traditional “Shaakts” and the puja involves a Bali/sacrifice (not an animal anymore, but done using fruit & veggies nowadays). Ashtami is vegetarian day and Navami is traditionally where meat is eaten. With our diverse heritage, I don’t see the need for any of the sides (veg and non-veg eaters during puja) to antagonize each other.

On Shashti in the morning, the Maha-Shashti puja is conducted under a Bel or wood apple tree (most community pujas create a makeshift “Bel Tola” using a branch of bel tree planted on a clean spot somewhere next to the Pratima). Then in the evening is when the Pratima is unveiled and the rituals of “Amantran & Adhibaash” are conducted. The Devi Pratima is adorned with her various ‘astra-shastras’ and other decorations.

Each day the pujas are conducted as per the muhurta timings specified in the panchang and hence, the timing changes every year. The Maha-Saptami morning is the day for the “Nabapatrika Prabesh and Mahasnan” before the Saptami puja followed by Anjali. Many of you may have noticed a freshly cut banana tree adorned in a white saree with red border and sindoor on it kept beside the Pratima of Shri Ganesha in the Durga puja mandaps.

‘Nabapatrika Pravesh’ on Saptami morning

This banana tree or which is commonly known as “Kola Bou” or literally the banana bride is the “Nabapatrika” that is assembled ritualistically on the Saptami morning. Nine trees(bel, banana, paddy, turmeric, pomegranate, Ashok, Jayanti, black Kachu, maan Kachu) representing the Nine forms of Durga are tied together and given a ritual bath (maha snan) and then adorned with a traditional Bengali red bordered kora saree and sindoor as a newlywed bride.

This entire mahasnan ritual is carried out by married women with the priest presiding over the puja and chanting of mantras. Then this Kola Bou is carried with much fanfare of ululations, conch shells and beatings of the dhaaks to the Ganesha Pratima and set beside him on his right side on a platform. This is followed by specific Saptami puja, Ghat sthapana and Pran Pratishtha, Devi bhog and offerings. Evenings would be all about Sandhya-arati followed by “Dhunuchi” dance, Dhaak playings and various cultural performances… and this is common for all 5 evenings of the Puja.

Maha-Ashtami is the biggest of the 5 days of festivities. The Ashtami puja is long and elaborate consisting of such exclusive and impossible items at times like – 108 small naivedyas, water from oceans and rivers, specific fragrances etc. etc. Most devotees offer personal pujas with offerings of saree/adornments-sweet-fruits and condiments to the Goddess and the puja mandap turns into a heap of offerings in no time.

My mother preparing the “kucho/smaller naivedya”

I remember, for years manning this entire process of – accepting devotee offerings, handing out tokens, assisting the Purohit to perform each individual offering puja and then handing back the puja prasad to the devotees – cycle at my local community puja… horsing around in a saree!

After the Ashtami puja and Devi bhog and pandal full of people offering Anjali mantras, comes the most important part of the day – “Sandhi puja”. Sandhi puja is the precise 48 minutes of overlap between Ashtami and Navami tithis. It is believed that Devi Dashabhuja slayed Mahishasur in this very time slot, making it immensely important a ritual.

A Sandhi puja requires 108 lotuses to be offered, oil lamps to be lit (all at very specific times) and bhog apart from a ton of other elaborate rituals like the “Bali” which finishes the Sandhi puja ritual.

108 oil lamps lit during “Sandhi Puja” arranged by my dad in the shape of Om.

An ash gourd, banana, sugarcane and cucumber is set on a freshly made mud “bali-bedi” and sacrificed symbolically.

Personally, this is my favourite part of the Durga puja and I’ve felt divinity up close and personal during these 48 minutes! Maha-Ashtami is also the day when “Kumari puja” is done by household Durga pujas and at Ramakrishna Mission Durga pujas. The Kumari is chosen each year and is prayed to ritualistically as a form of Durga on Ashtami and is a grand sight to behold.

The pujo on Maha-Navami is frenzy is at its zenith. Another elaborate morning puja ritual is followed by the afternoon bhog which on Navami is mostly a special platter at most community pujas. Maha-Navami puja also includes a ‘yagna’ after the Navami puja. Saptami and Ashtami puja bhogs are traditional Bengali khichudi-labda-chutney bhog which is savoured by thousands of people at across pandals. But Navami special bhogs draw the most crowd, perhaps that being the last puja bhog of the year also has a role to play! It’s not like only devotees enjoy the bhogs daily, but they enjoy the bhog-prasad once it’s been offered to the Devi first and the bhog offerings are cooked daily only by Brahmin women of the community keeping in line with the prescribed rituals.

Dashami puja in the morning is the final puja followed by “Dadhikarma & Darpan Visarjan”. Darpan visarjan marks the leaving of Devi’s essence from the ghat that was set and Devi’s pran pratishta was carried out in and is signalled by the breaking of the holy threads around the ‘puja ghats’ by the priest.

Devi is bid farewell by the married women through the ritual of “Sindoor Daan” and rest of men, women and children all offer their pranams to the Gods and Goddesses before the Pratimas are taken for Visarjan.

 

The Visarjan procession is a gala affair of hundreds of community puja pratimas and their participants dancing and frolicking on the trance beats of the dhaak proceeding slowly to the river ghat winding through the city amidst thousands of devotees lined up to offer their last prayers to the Devi. It’s a mix of immense joy and sadness… of love and devotion and of hope for Ma will come back again next year.

Aashchhe bochhor abaar hobe…”

Visarajan

(Note: This write-up is my personal experience of Durga puja focusing on the ritualistic aspect of this expansive festival which is impossible to capture in totality in a few words)

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