Durga Puja is the most important festival for the people of West Bengal, the Eastern Indian state that has been home to three Nobel Laureates – Rabindranath Tagore, Amartya Sen, and Mother Teresa – as well as Oscar awardee Satyajit Ray.

Durga Puja, or Pujo as it is usually referred to, ushers in a sense of well-being, with Diwali following close on its heels. The timing is just right: the sweltering heat, and the post-monsoon humidity gives way to Sharat or autumn.

Here Comes Pujo!
Here Comes Pujo! [Illustration by Shiju George]
In rural India, the pace of life is more relaxed because the new crop is just coming up. There’s a freshness in the air and the belief is that even nature is keen to welcome the goddess from her heavenly home to earth, her maternal home.

The Puja falls in the period that’s celebrated as Navaratri (nine nights) in most parts of India, that herald the most festive season in India. The Puja starts from the day of Bodhon , when the goddess is welcomed on earth.

The group festivities begin on the sixth day, and continue till the navami or the ninth day. Durga’s stay on earth comes to an end on the dashami or the 10th day, when the goddess’ clay idol is immersed in the Ganga. She goes back to her heavenly home.

The Puja means many things to the Bengali. It means ritual and worship, of course. But more than that, the pujo is a chance to rediscover old sights, sounds and smells – the open blue sky, the golden sunshine, the special Dhunuchi nachh or dance, the mild fragrance of white Shiuli flowers, and the delicious vegetarian bhog or feast!

The Legend of Mahishasura

The Puja celebrates the legend of the defeat and death of buffalo-demon, Mahishasura, at the hands of goddess Durga.

After much penance, the demon had procured a boon from Lord Brahma, granting that he could not be slain by gods, men, spirits or any aspect of nature. Convinced that nothing could destroy him now, he tyrannised the entire world, vanquished the gods and ruled in their place.

The gods appealed to Lord Shiva for help. He suggested that the three great gods in the Hindu Trinity – Brahma, Vishnu and himself – should combine their energies to create a woman.

She would be powerful enough to vanquish the demon, as he had foolishly forgotten to name women while asking for the boon. The three gods then combined their energies to create Durga, a beautiful woman with 18 arms. Each god presented her with his special weapon and a lion was to be her vehicle.

When Mahishasura heard of Durga’s beauty, he wished to marry her and sent across a proposal. Durga replied that she would marry him on the condition that he defeated her in battle first.

Enraged, Mahishasura accepted the challenge and a fierce battle ensued. Durga sliced off his head in the course of the battle. Flowers rained on the goddess as the gods rejoiced.

Legend has it that Shiva declared that the ninth day of the bright half of the month of Ashvina in the Hindu calendar (which falls in October) would be celebrated as the great day of victory of good over evil.

When Durga visits her maternal home

There’s another charming legend why the puja is celebrated. According to local belief, Durga comes to the earth, her parental home, during this time. She arrives on the sixth day of the month and returns to her heavenly home on the 10th day. For the four days that she is here, however, she is welcomed and honored as a family would its married daughter.

Creating the idols

Preparations for the festival begin many months in advance. Local artisans are involved in making beautiful clay images of the goddess. Bengal specialises in preserving the age old tradition of making clay idols by the Pals — clay artisans who have an age-old tradition of making these idols.

Kumartuli and Krishnanagar, two small towns on the outskirts of Calcutta, are well known for the making of these idols. Months before the Puja, clay artisans start to breathe life into the images of Durga.

Preparing for the goddess’ visit

Celebrations for the festival span a period of ten days. Since it is essentially a community affair, almost every colony or locality in Bengal erects tents for the grand Puja. So do Bengalis living outside the state. Artisans create beautiful tents or pandals, and there is rigorous competition to see who puts up the most lavish pandal.

On the first day of the festival, hymns are recited to invoke the goddess in the heavens. This special recital is known as Mahalaya. The next five days are spent preparing for the grand yearly visit of ‘ma’, or mother as Durga is affectionately called in Bengal.

Putting life into the idol on the sixth day

On the sixth day, called Mahashashti, the idol of the goddess is placed on a raised platform in the pandal. This is the day when the goddess is believed to arrive, accompanied by her children Ganesha and Kartikeya, as well as Lakshmi and Saraswati.

It is then the turn of the priest to “put life” into the idol. This is done by a priest’s ceremony. For the next four days, the idol is treated as the goddess herself.

The celebrations begin!

The cycle of fasting and feasting begins. Dressed in new clothes, many Bengalis start the festival with a fast only to break it with great relish after the arti or prayer in the evening of the shashti or the sixth day. Houses, too, get a clean look.

For the next three days, thousands of people throng the puja pandals and make a round of all the special ones in the city to get a feel of the festival — the arti , the food, the cultural programmes slotted in the evenings.

‘Dhunuchi nach’ or ‘the dance with effervescent smoke’ is a traditional dance form from Bengal, which is performed in front of the idol to the beat of the dhaki, the traditional drums. There are music and dance programmes, quiz shows and screening of favourite Bengali films.

The puja gatherings are also a time for people to catch up with friends and relatives, to flaunt their new clothes and see who is wearing what, as also to do some serious match-fixing.

Many an anxious girl or boy have found each other while offering flowers to the goddess. For anxious parents with marriageable children, the puja pandal has always been a happy hunting ground.

As per legend the ninth day is celebrated with great enthusiasm for it is believed that the goddess was conceived and sent to earth by the gods on this day.

The tenth day: mission accomplished

The tenth day or Bijoya (the victorious tenth day) is both a day of joy and sorrow. Joy, for the goddess’ victory over the demon is hailed, and sorrow for it is time for the goddess to return home, her mission accomplished. The idol of the goddess is taken to the river to be immersed on this day.

The final farewell

The idols sit in the back of huge trucks, accompanied by delirious crowds, dancing, singing and to the sound of drum beats. As the idols are immersed in water, the clay dissolves.

The festivities come to an end.

In keeping with the spirit of the festival, on the tenth day, people visit each other’s houses in the evening, the young touching the elder’s feet as a mark of respect and then tucking into platefuls of Bengali sweets with great gusto.

And they start their wait for the next pujo!