The Story of Durga Puja
Durga visits her father’s home in Autumn each year after pleading with her husband – Shiva. Legend has it that Shiva is an ascetic who maintains a very simple life in a cave in the forbidding and cold Himalayas with his family. He is an indulgent husband and father and loves his family very much. But, he does not get along with his father-in-law, the proud and rich king, Daksha who hates the ‘poor ascetic’ his daughter has married even more than Shiva dislikes him.
As in any household, there are great fights every year when Durga pleads with her husband to be allowed to go to the plains with her children to visit her mother. Meanwhile, her mother also pleads with her husband, the proud king Daksha, who believes Shiva, a beggar, had cast a spell to make his daughter fall for him. He is absolutely adamant and refuses to relent.
This drama lasts all Monsoon and the skies rain Gauri’s – another name for Durga’s – tears on Earth which in turn enriches the Indian soil.
Finally, the women are able to bring both their husbands around and Durga lands on earth accompanied by her four children, five animals that the five of them ride on. On the way, she slays a few demons including Mahishasur in a scary combat.
Ten Days of Durga
The festival that is publicly celebrated for five days, actually lasts 10 days. The first day, also known as Pitri Tarpan Diwas is celebrated by listening to the melodious tunes of Chandi Paath and songs in praise of the Devi. It describes in detail her valor and how she kills one demon after another to rid the world of darkness – this is the most serious part of the celebrations because the entire household actually wakes up as early as 5.30 am to listen to the telecast of the Chandipaath on radio and TV – a huge sacrifice. Later, ancestors are worshiped and crows are fed in their memory.
It is also the day when pran pratishtha or putting life into the clay idol takes place. The craftsmen who sculpt the goddess, draw eyes on the yet to be finished idols which, it is believed makes the clay figures come alive. It is one of the most photogenic part of the actual ritual and one that has been captured for years but still manages to capture the beauty of the gesture.
From Panchami or the fifth day of Durga Puja, the scene hits the various pandal venues where collective celebrations take place. The sound of the drums called Dhak, the smell of the incense burning in dhunochi and the chanting of mantras is intermixed with the crackle of fresh starched sarees in crisp cotton, the mundane Western attired men dressed to kill in Dhuti and Panjabi (dhoti and kurta) become a sight to behold and the pretty girls and boys dressed in vibrant hues volunteering cheerfully have stayed unchanged for decades.
On Panchami, when the Goddess is yet to arrive at the pandal, the local ladies prepare mouth-watering dishes and put them up for sale. Everyone buys from the make-shift stalls in the under-construction tents and the sense of bonhomie is released in the air.
The aroma of food will linger in the minds of the people and for the next six days all kitchens will be closed as most families eat bhog in the afternoons at the pandal and fill-up on delectable delicacies from the stalls outside the venues all evening and move the party to a restaurant at night.
Some say, Bengalis don’t pray, they make it an occasion to party.
Bengalis say, of course! When a daughter comes home, she should have the best of times and enjoy her stay. It’s all about giving her a good time during the annual homecoming.
Today is Shashti. Durga comes to the pandals across the world today and her devotes will ensure that no stones are left unturned to welcome her and to make her stay a grand success.
If you do a round of local venues today, you will find frantic volunteers and artisans frantically putting the last minute finishing touches to the idols and the venue. There will be a lot of nervousness, tension and high octane rushing around to set the lights, put up the decorations and placing the chairs and erecting the food stalls. Volunteers have worked all night and tempers would be all over the place.
In the middle of this chaos stands Durga with her eyes hidden by a piece of cloth. That is because the unveiling will happen in the evening by priests in a ceremony called Bodhon. When the eyes are revealed amidst chants and music of several dhakis playing in unision, dancing to their own tune in the sweet-smelling fog of incense burning in terracotta stands while the local troupes sing agomoni songs welcoming the goddess on earth from the stage. It’s a goose-bump arousing moment that should be attended at least once in your lifetime.
For the next four days it will be worshiping the goddess, eating bhog in the afternoon followed by siesta and then, on to pandal-hopping in beautiful new clothes and making memories.
What to lookout for at Puja pandals
Apart from beautiful people and the most awe-inspiring idols in the pandals, here are some other things that you can do:
Goes without saying that food is an integral part of the five-day festival. Go in the afternoon to the local celebration venue and indulge in a sattvik vegetarian lunch of, khichuri, labra (mix-vegetables), luchi, cholar dal, payesh and chatni. All this followed by delectable payesh and roshogollas and all for free.
In the evenings the food stalls around the pandal come alive and there’s no dearth of awesome street-food to fill your hungry stomach and soul.
Keep a lookout for famous singers, dancers and drama troupes who come down to perform. If you are lucky you may even catch a well-known Bollywood personality on-stage and this too is for free. Just ensure that you go well before the famous guest and find a seat for yourself.
Competitions to showcase hidden skills
Take your children to the nearest pandal for various activities like, games, drawing and fancy dress competition. If you love reciting poetry or your kids do then, evenings are marked by well-attended soirees where you can participate and win both an award and appreciation. Bengalis love poetry as much as they love music and singing!
Many Durga Puja pandals are works of art just like the idols. There are themed pandals that can be as varied as created on a current news topic to a famous monument in India or abroad. Must see because they will be most cruelly-taken down on Dusshera after the goddess is taken out for immersion.
Go to the various puja venues to get a shot of Bengali culture. From the ethnic clothes, to Rabindra Sangeet playing in the background to the food served as bhog, it’s all Bengali. If you want to get a feel of a Bengali marriage household and want to hear the language spoken by the group, head for the nearest pandal and indulge in a living breathing float of Bengali sensitivity.
If you love Bengali sarees, music and books, then you will get all of it in the bigger pandals. Head out for some shopping and soak in the Bengali feeling in whichever city you are.
For Bengalis all over the world it is a time to indulge their cultural roots by thorwong the biggest, most lavish party in honor of the daughter called Durga.
So, what are you waiting for? Put on your best clothes and head for the nearest Durga Puja celebrations. There is something interesting in the pandals for everyone.
Happy Durga Puja!
(All images from the Internet)