Bhoot Chaturdashi & Kali Puja
When the whole of India lights up to celebrate Diwali and worships goddess Lakshmi for wealth and prosperity, the Bengalis have a different kind of celebration.
For the people of Bengal, Diwali means the worship of goddess Kali, a demon slayer, and the better half of Lord Shiva.
On the day, India celebrates Diwali, the Bengalis end their Kali Pujo and begin preparations for Bhai Fota, a special festival when sisters vouch to protect their brothers from Yama. They perform a puja and prepare a grand feast to ensure that the God of death won't take their brother's life.
The Bengalis begin this unique Diwali celebration, with an Indian version of Halloween called Bhoot Chaturdashi. Unlike the West, the Bengal folklore is filled with unique ghosts of different varieties who commit mischief and harass people. None of these folklores are about evil ghosts. Saakchuni, Bramhadayita are solitary ghosts and teach people a lesson. The ghosts of Bengal are quite amicable and they live in trees and often steal food from households. They have a special affinity for fish and rather than being scary, Bengali ghosts are funny and not menacing.
Some of the ghosts of Bengal and their lifestyle in these pictures by artist Dev r Nil
14 lamps or choddopradip
Born out of this folklore began the idea of Bhoot Chaturdashi which is celebrated 2 days before Diwali. On this day Bengalis light up candles and eat special food to ward off ghosts and the evil. There is a significance in these rituals of lighting "choddopradip" or 14 lamps and eating "choddoshaak" or 14 herbs. There is a belief that evil spirits lurk in the darkest night of the year, that is, the first new moon night after Durga puja, and so on this day the spirits are pacified by worship. Hence this day is also called Narak Chaturdashi or Yama Chaturdashi which means Hell and the God who can take you to Hell isYamraj. Mythology suggests that Devi Chamunda (a form of Kali) descends on earth along with her 14 ghostly spirits and they are warded off by lighting of these 14 lamps.
Choddoshaak or 14 herbs
According to Historians and anthropologists, while lighting lamps before Kali Puja signified warding off evil, the eating of 14 different herbs signifies warding off the evil of illness and bad health. As winter knocks on the door, the eating of these 14 herbs or different medicinal plants is a good way to keep allergies and infections away. The lighting of the lamps in memoryoftheancestors is similar to All Souls Day observed by Christians after Halloween. The 14 lit lamps symbolise 14 generation of ancestors, thus the ritual is famously called ‘choddopurusherchoddopradip’ meaning 14 lamps for 14 generations. After this unique food festival and the 14 lit lamps, is the ultimate festival day, the Kali Puja.
The idol of Kali is depicted as a dark Goddess wearing a garland of severed heads from the demons that she has slain and her mouth is red after drinking their blood. The Goddess holds a dagger in her hand as a weapon to slay demons. Unlike other goddesses, Kali is worshipped at night. She is the goddess of death who resides in the crematorium. So, on the day of Kali Puja, the goddess is worshipped for the entire night and offered a vegetarian meat curry as an offering or bhog. This bhog is a vegetarian meat curry cooked with the flesh of the goat that was sacrificed. The veg meat curry follows the ancient tradition of cooking meat in a vegetarian form that is, without the use of onion and garlic. A popular genre of Bengali folk music is attributed to this festival and as Kali, the dark-complexioned Goddess is known as ‘shyama’ meaning ‘dark coloured’, this brand of devotional music is called shyama sangeet or music for the goddess Kali. Playing shyama sangeet is an integral tradition of this festival.
This 3 day Diwali celebration in Bengal is about Life and Death and helps us prepare for a better life.