This year I visited a durga puja pandal and was lucky enough to attend the Sandhi puja, which is performed at the juncture of ashtimi and navmi. During this juncture (the “Sandhikhan”), Durga is worshipped in her Chamunda form. This puja is often shown in Hindi movies, with a pujari rhythmically rotating aarti diye, dhols and shankh in background, and bengali women making peculiar (prolly auspicious) noises. The pandal decorations, puja ceremony, cultural events were very well organised by the DLF Bengali Society, though I didn’t have any prior specimen to compare with because this was my first durga puja, discounting the one 15-20 years ago.
While in the pandal, I couldn’t really make out much of what was happening, so came back home to wikipedia and learnt some interesting facts:
The worship always depicts Durga with her four children – two daughters Saraswati and Lakshmi, and two sons, the valorous Kartik riding a peacock, and Ganesh, the bringer of success, and occasionally two attendant deities and some banana-tree figures. The above picture is like the one in the olden days, when all five idols would be depicted in a single frame, traditionally called pata.
Durga Puja and Kali puja are different, though Kali was born from Durga’s forehead to save heaven and earth from the growing cruelty of the demons. Kali Puja is celebrated on the day of Amavasya, on which Diwali is also celebrated.
The most interesting story is related to the original of these celebrations: Durga Puja was apparently observed as far back as 1610 before the founding of Calcutta, by the Sabarno Roy Chaudhuris of Barisha-Behala, the original landowners who negotiated with Job Charnock in 1690. The story goes that after Clive’s victory at the battle of Plassey in 1757, he wanted to make a grand gesture of thanksgiving but the only church in Calcutta, St. Anne’s, had been demolished during the siege of the City. Clive consulted his supporter Nabakrishna Deb, who suggested that he make an offering at the feet of Durga at his house in Sovabazar. As a result, the annual Durga Puja at 36 Nabakrishna Street is still known as Company Puja.
“When the city became wealthy, the new mercantile Bengali elite – the babus, saw Durga Puja as a splendid opportunity for public relations. The ceremony was held in their newly built thakur dalans in increasingly grandiose style. Even today it is impressive in certain private houses, with the arrival of the potters who place Durga inside the thakur dalans, closely followed by the dressers as daker saj.”
It is quite interesting to note how even the most important festival among Bengali Hindus all over the world is so greatly influenced by the cultural impact arising due to the change in social classes in early twentieth century. The rise of mercantile class has played such roles in religion many times in history, a mere change in the style of celebrations is the least one could expect. In fact to quote an example, during the 200 B.C – 300 A.D, India saw a rise of mercantile community with a cause and effect in improved roadways, communications, economic relations with foreign lands. One can see most of the changes in religions Buddhism and Jainism, which were in their heydey in that period. Both the religions were split as per the conflicting needs of the affluent and the improvised and other differences in ideas which lead to forming of two sects in each religion. Romila Thapar clearly states:
” The association of prosperity and power with a religion can sometimes lead to schisms.”
Fortunately, durga puja is not so much about religion. Durga Puja in Bengal is a carnival, where people from all backgrounds, regardless of their religious beliefs, participate and enjoy themselves to the hilt. It was a treat to be a part of such celebrations this year, when irrespective of caste, class, religion, faith or beliefs, people were gathered together in front of Durga’s idol and rocked to the ritual chants during puja.