Durga Pooja is the biggest, the noisiest and the most colourful festival among Bengalis across the world. The soft-hued golden light of the sun in September reminds us that the Goddess is about to arrive from Mt Kailash with her four children to visit her mother’s home – mother earth. She stays here for five days and leaves on Bijoya Dashami or Dassera. Durga Pooja coincides with the harvest season.
The sun begins to shed its cow-dust rays on earth and it is time for celebrations. Her devotees light up the world with lights, music, and decoration and dress themselves in shimmering new clothes every day on the five days of the festival. Pandals put up in every street corner in Kolkata vie with each other to bag trophies for the best concept, the best execution, for a pollution-free and smoke-free pandal and so on. Some bring Japan to earth and the Goddess along with her children is turned into a Japanese goddess and her Japanese children.
Durga, consort of Shiva is the embodiment of Shakti, of the triumph of good over evil, of strength over weakness, of creation over destruction. The legend of Durga claims that Sakti, though neutral in its primal sense, can assume ambivalent forms, each complete unto itself, ranging from the world-mother who bestows infinite compassion to her destructive manifestations. The unitary concept of Sakti did not evolve into any solid personification of the goddess Durga until the 6th century A.D.
The legend that describes her origin goes as follows: When the gods in heaven failed in their efforts to suppress the oppression of the demon Mahisasura, they appealed to Vishnu and Shiva to come to their aid.In their anger and their powerlessness, the gods spouted streams of fire from their mouths. The combined mass of energy that thus came forth took the shape of a single flame, with distinct qualities derived from each of the gods.
This flame condensed into a concrete form of a multi-armed goddess – Durga. This divine woman comprised of the potent energies of each god who spouted fire, was given weapons and a lion as her vehicle. When the gods saw the result of their collective and unified wrath, they paid their obeisance to this Adi Sakti, the perennial abstract-neuter energy, and the individuated manifestation of the infinite cosmic energy in female form.
In the fierce battle that ensues between Durga and Mahisasura, Durga succeeds in defeating all the demons one by one. During the most uncontrollable phase of this war, she spontaneously creates, from her brow, a wrathful form of herself, and this is Kali. Durga and her various forms such as Shakhambhari, Uma, Sati and Parvati represents potentially fertile and life-generating powers. Kali, Chamunda and Vindhyavasini on the other hand, embody the other extreme of Sakti – destruction, violence, and death.
During Durga Pooja the entire state in West Bengal and Bengali neighbourhoods in other Indian cities come alive as if with the touch of an invisible magic wand. Strung across every street, lane and road are colourful buntings, banners, paper streamers and floral decorations with loudspeakers put up in every corner playing loud songs from Hindi and Bengali films.
Serpentine queues are on the whole day with people coming in from all corners of the state to see as many idols as they can in one day.
Roadside food stalls are ready with their spread drawn from across different parts of South Asia and India and thirst-quenchers from the humble coconut to the sophisticated soda fountains and hot coffees and green teas and the works.
Drummers or dhakis as they are called, walk in with their massive drums decorated with coloured feathers, playing on their drums to celebrate the sanctity of this holy festival.
Multicolored lights spark up the evenings with decorations, Tinsel ribbons flutter away in the breeze and bawling kids harass their mothers for one more cup of ice-cream!
Newly married brides decked in bridal finery tuck their pretty elbows into the eager arm of their gleaming husbands. Some clubs hold entertainment programmes every evening while others arrange all kinds of competitions for kids.
The air is rich with the fragrance of dhoop, incense sticks, flowers and sandalwood. The kitchen goes dry because everyone eats out. No one goes to the movies but those who cannot go pandal-hopping must sit back and watch the fun on the television news channels who give a minute-by-minute display of the festival round the clock! The evenings are also dotted with the beautifully performed dhunuchi dance performed by one and all, enriching the festival with another dimension of creativity and performance.
The story goes that the Goddess is immersed in the Ganges on the last day because she can go back to Kailash only along a watery route.
It is the Arabian Sea in Mumbai, the Bay of Bengal in Bangladesh or the Icchamoti River where both West Bengalis and Bangladeshis come to immerse the idols on either side of the river, the Thames River in London, the Rheine in Germany and the Seine in Paris!
In the morning of Bijoya Dashami, married women of all ages play around with vermillion powder or sindoor just like people play with gulaal during Holi. Red-bordered white saris in different textures and styles are in great demand among married women on Asthami day for the big pooja and also on the last day of the immersion. Traditional royal families of Kolkata such as the Shobhabajar Raajbari even bring out a daily bulletin during Pooja days while the family members are dressed in all their finer to celebrate their family pooja that is open to the public. Special tours are organized for tourists who drop in and a couple of agencies even take the tourists on a sailing tour into the Ganges on immersion day.
Another story is that since the Goddess is shaped out of clay from the Ganges, she should go back to the Ganges!
The actual ceremony of the immersion along the different banks of the Ganges and the Hooghly on different days are celebrations in themselves with the public transport system stopped after lunch-time to make way for the processions making their way, dancing and singing and drumming away to merriment to the river banks.
The streets and bylanes and main roads spill over with truckloads of people smeared with vermillion across their faces making their way to the immersion ghats. When the festival comes to an end, the ghats are filled with the skeletal remains of the straw and the bamboo the idol was made out of and small boys flood in to pick up the head of a slaughtered Mahisasura or the zardozi jewellery of the different goddess icons for a fast buck.
The sounds of the dhak recede into silence, the colours fade away, the fineries are stored away and the long wait for the festival next year begins…….
Written byShoma A Chatterji
Dr. Shoma A. Chatterji is a freelance journalist, film scholar and author based in Kolkata. She has 20 published titles, has won the National Award twice and the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Rotary Club of Kolkata Metro. She has done her post-doctoral research on cinema and has juried at national and international film festivals over time