Durga Puja - The Festival of the Bengalis
Durga puja originated with the aristocracy of Bengal - the Maharajas and the Zamindars. It was not a community festival but a zamindari festival where the zamindars of Bengal would worship Durga with all pomp and glory. The common people would visit these ancestral zamindari houses, worship the Goddess, and enjoy the bhog. For the zamindars it was an occasion for a grand celebration and a way of demonstrating their political might with the local populace. With time, the festival became a celebration for the masses and graduated to the cultural might of the puja committees and pandals all over the country. Even today, the Durga puja in the ancestral houses of Bengal is called ‘bonedi barir pujo’ and draws large crowds as it is here that people can witness Durga puja in its true royal style. Most of the Durga pujas in these ancestral houses are 200-300 years old and have special arrangements to accommodate guests from other cities.
Cossimbazar Palace of the Roys
The festival begins from Mahalaya, a week before the actual puja when the goddess starts her journey towards her father’s home along with her children. She travels in different vehicles like the jhula, the boat, and other forms. On this day, Bengalis observe a day of penance and remember the departed souls by taking a holy dip in the Ganges and giving a special offering tarpan to their forefathers. The story of the goddess is broadcast early in the morning at 4 am on the radio on this day and later in the morning there is a dramatic dance drama on television watched by Bengalis all over.
Sandhi Puja at Cossimbazar Palace of the Roys
While the rest of India starts fasting the Bengalis wait in silence for the goddess to return home. On the 6th day of Navratri called Mahasasti, the goddess finally reaches home and is ushered in with a special arti called bodhon like the one done to usher in a bride. Then the Durga puja begins and for the next four days different rituals like kolabou snan (bathing a banana tree), giving special lotus offerings, kumari puja or worshipping a non-mensurating female child, sandhi puja or special evening arti, sahoshro pradip lighting of 100 earthen lamps on a banana leaf, etc are observed. There are various kinds of cultural events like singing, dancing, recitation, painting during these 4 days of celebrations.
There is a lavish spread at the Durga puja and food is part of the celebration. Unlike Navratri, non-vegetarian food is also included in the celebration. Sacrificing a goat on every day of the last 4 days of the puja is part of the rituals and tradition. The sacrificed goat is then cooked without garlic and onion and offered as bhog (the bhog also contains khichdi and vegetable curry) to the Goddess which is then savoured by the whole community as ‘Niramish Mangsho’ or Vegetarian Meat Curry. This ritual is particularly important on the 9th day of Navratri in Durga Puja. People generally fast before this bhog ritual and offer their pujas in form of flower prayers called Anjali. This Anjali is very special on the 8th day called Mahastami and Bengalis generally has a puri and aloo sabzi meal after this.
The festival ends on the 10th day when the goddess returns to her husband’s Lord Shiva’s home and everyone gives her a teary-eyed vidaai. On this day, married women do a special arti of the Goddess and apply vermilion on the idol. This vermilion ritual is called sindoor khela or vermilion play which involves married women applying sindoor or vermilion on each other. The men of the house perform a special dance on this day called ‘dhunuchi nach’ which is a dance with burning coconut skin. This drives away all bad omens.
After this, is the visarjan or the immersion of the Goddess along with her children and the demon in the holy waters of the Ganges.
The Bengalis celebrate woman power in the Durga Puja. It is more a cultural phenomenon of social change rather than just a festival. That is why you see different social issues being highlighted in Durga Puja Pandals. For the goddess Durga is the change maker - be it the migrant workers or the widows or the transgenders - she is a symbol for all.