Tuesday, October 19, 2004

four days of fun

Durga Puja is really a massive affair.

Spread out over a period of four hectic days, with different rituals being performed each day, the ingredients required vary from simple things like dew drops, the soil dug up by rats and the soil from the doorsteps of a prostitute to a set of 108 lotus flowers. It is stated in the scriptures that, when Lord Rama decided to perform the Puja before starting on his journey to vanquish Ravana, the Godess Durga hid one of the lotus flowers. She wanted to test the sincerity of Rama. When Rama discovered the loss, he picked up his arrow and was about to pluck out one of his eyes and offer it to the Godess. She was pleased with his sincerity and blessed him.

By the time Mahalaya is over, the clay image makers of Kumartuli commence work on the final decorations of Durga and her retinue. With every passing day, the beautiful images take shape to adorn the pandals for four days so that devotees can assemble to offer prayers and obtain her blessings. Side by side, pandals are erected under the supervision of the committee members. The decorations attract devotees from far and near who arrive in large numbers decked out in all their finery to witness the spectacles of artistic decorations coupled with out-of-the-world lighting. In recent years, these aspects have gained considerable importance because of awards declared by leading business houses and corporate entities. In order to select the best of the best, teams of eminent luminaries visit the pandals and try to weigh the artistic appeal of one from another for gradation. A superhuman task!!

Early in the morning of Saptami, before sunrise, a banana plant is taken to the nearby river or source of water, cleaned and draped in a cloth along with nine types of leaves to form what is known as the Nabapatrika. The plants are kachu, haridra, jayanti, bel, dalim, ashok, mankachu and paddy. The banana plant itself is the ninth variety.

This banana plant is supposed to be the bride of Ganesha and the process is termed as ‘kala-bau’ snan. The ‘kala-bau’ is brought back in a procession to the sacred place of worship, located in a prominent place and the invocation of Durga begins.
This is a symbolic gesture of paying homage to Mother Nature.

From Saptami, people start thronging pandal after pandal. Road blocks are common. Children getting lost are natural. Youngsters walking barefoot holding on to their shoes by the shoe laces does not evoke laughter but pity because the poor souls have learnt where and how a new shoe pinches!! Durgotsav comes but once a year – everyone wants it to be as memorable as possible.

The next day is Maha Ashtami – the main day of the Puja. In yesteryears, there used to be a compulsory sacrifice of an animal (lamb). Nowadays, a token sacrifice of some vegetable is still performed in domestic Pujas. In community puja pandals, maximum number of devotees turns up to pray to Devi Durga for her blessings. Community lunches are also arranged on this occasion and, devotees, irrespective of caste, creed or religion sit down together for lunch – usually of khichudi.
Sandhi puja falls at the transition point of Ashtami and Navami.

This is observed mostly by the women folk. They fast until completion of the puja and then break their fast by partaking food prepared especially for Devi Durga. Sometimes, these Pujas are held early in the morning at two or three o’ clock!! And, the ladies fast up to that time.

Navami is the day when Kumari puja is done. Kumari puja means worshipping a virgin girl. Normally, a girl child who has not attained puberty is selected. She is dressed up in all finery and Pujas performed. She is then showered with gifts.
After Navami comes Dasami (or Visarjan) – the last day of festivities when Devi Durga prepares to leave for her abode in the Himalayas. She is bid adieu in the same manner as a mother would bid adieu to her daughter. The idols are then taken in a procession to the nearby river, lake or other body of water and immersed. People accompanying the cavalcade appear downcast. On return from the immersion ceremony, Bijoya greetings are exchanged; men perform ‘kola-kuli’ (hugging and embracing each other). This is followed by the distribution of sweets.

Since the idols are prepared from clay, they dissolve and do not result in pollution. Unlike some other Pujas where idols are made from plaster of paris and are harmful for the environment.

During these four days, the streets of Calcutta are busy for all of 24 hours with buses, trams and even the metro rail running non-stop. Mingling with the crowds, stepping on other’s toes and wincing with pain when others step on your own are experiences worth the trouble. At the end of it all, you return home, an exhausted individual whom the comforts of a nice warm bed welcome.