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Bengali Durga Pooja

Navaratri in India is an elaborate festival. Particularly Bengalis have it as their state festival. This was told by Anindita Banerjee in an interview with A Journalist Reveals. I found that the celebrations have somewhat become like Ganeshotsav in Maharashtra.

Anindita Banerjee
Anindita Banerjee

Over to Anindita for details:

What is the significance of Navaratri in Bengal?

Navaratri in Bengal is very different from the way the rest of the country celebrates it. While in Northern India, as well as among the Gujarati and Marathi Communities the festival is essentially a puja lasting nine nights, among Bengalis, the festival is literally a celebration or ‘Utsav’ extending within only the last five of the nine days. It is thus ‘Durgotsav’ here, not just ‘Durga Puja’. Suffice to say it is the most important festival of Bengal- the official state festival so to say.

The state, especially the capital city of Kolkata is decorated like a Christmas card, with little lights brightening up buildings, roads and even trees. Add to that the resplendent pandals (bamboo and cloth structures) which house the idols of the deities and the whole place looks like something out of the fairytale.

While rest of India worships Durga as the Mother Goddess, Bengal welcomes the Goddess like a daughter coming to visit her parents from her in-laws, complete with her set of children.

There are multiple stories and folktales about how Durga came to be worshipped as a daughter in Bengal, but nothing is known for sure. For hundreds of years however, in Bengal, Durga is welcomed with her two sons- Ganesh and Karthik and her two daughters- Lakshmi and Saraswati, and their respective animal mounts.

The goddess is worshipped in the form of Mahisuramardini— she rides atop her lion and is seen to be slaying the buffalo demon Mahisasura.

There is a commonly known story that is sort of derived and customized from the ‘Purana’ story- Goddess Durga apparently argues with her husband Shiva about coming to her home on earth (which for some reason is Bengal). He refuses at first, they fight and ultimately he agrees to let her come for four days, provided she returns without fail on the fifth day.

Whenever there is thunderstorm on the days preceding the pujas, Bengalis smile in glee and tell their children- ‘You hear that thunder? It’s Shiva and Parvati (whose manifestation is Durga) fighting. She will win and she will come to visit us…

And she comes, year after year, without fail.

A typical ceiling covering chandelier found in old family pujas
A typical ceiling covering chandelier found in old family pujas

How do you celebrate the festival?
Though Durga Puja in pre-British Bengal was limited to rich and influential families, post-independence saw the rise of people in a particular area getting together to do celebrate the festival.

In current times, the corporate culture has taken possession of the festival with big brands sponsoring the over 12 thousand pujas in and around Kolkata alone and several thousand in the other districts. There are multiple awards presented both by the government and by private companies for which not just the big clubs, but also smaller clubs and even apartment complex pujas compete.

But instead of the money taking away from the true spirit of the festival, it has only added to it. For instance the various awards and contests have introduced the concept of ‘theme puja’ where the whole setup, the pandal, the surroundings and even the deity is based on a particular theme- could be a state, or an art form, or some social message.

Like I said before, this is Bengal’s biggest festival so the festivities start pretty much early in small ways. For instance on the day of the Rathayatra the framework on which the idols will be made are worshipped and the first layer of soil is applied.

Soon after various big clubs conducting pujas start with the Khunti puja or worship of the first bamboo on which the foundation of the pandals will be based.

Local media starts a countdown from hundred days on and the shopping season begins. It is a tradition among Bengalis to buy new clothes for the puja days and to also gift new clothes to family, relatives and friends.

Mahalaya morning sees Bengali households awake before dawn with their radios tuned to the Mahisasuramardini audio play- a tradition that has been going on for the past century. On Mahalaya morning ends the Pitripaksha and begins Devipaksha –these are both cycles on the lunar calendar that Hindu festivals follow. Men perform a ritual of paying tribute to their ancestors and seeking their blessings. In the evening various cultural gatherings and performances are held over a sumptuous spread of traditional Bengali food.

Following Mahalaya, the Navratras begin but the first day of puja in Bengal is on the sixth day or Shashthi, when the Goddess is invoked to come down to earth. Saptami (7th), Ashtami (8th) and Navami (9th) days see regular pujas offered to Goddess Durga and her family.

Since according to the religious texts this puja was untimely and performed as an emergency puja by Rama before he went to fight Ravana in Ramayana, the puja is begun halfway through the actual Navaratris.

Along with the main pujas, each day sees an additional ritualistic puja taking place. On the 7th day, a banana plant is bathed and clothed before being worshipped as Navapatrika– this is worshiping the earth goddess, another manifestation of Durga and her capacity to give life and provide food for her children.

At the juncture of the 8th day ending and 9th day beginning Durga is worshiped as Chandi– her most ferocious form. This is a salutation to the Goddess as pure raw Shakti which according to scriptures manifests as the power of movement in living creatures.

On the 9th day, is the most splendidly unique ritual of Kumari puja where a little girl (one who is yet to reach puberty) is worshiped as a form of the Goddess- a respect paid to the feminine power of creation.

Two very important characteristics of Durga Puja in Bengal are Dhaaks or traditional drums which are played during the pujas, and Dhunuchi or a smoke lantern made out of earthen pots filled with coconut husks and camphor incense which are lit. Dancing with these fire-lit dhunuchis, is one of the most daring and popular activities during Durga Puja.

Pujas are a time of happiness and festivities. People living in other states and countries come home during the pujas. Little kids are seen pandal hopping with their families. People stay out all night, celebrating with friends.

I’m not quite sure how to exactly describe it, but those five days feel like the city itself comes alive to celebrate with her residents. Fairs are organized, cultural performances, music shows are held all over the city every day. Some of the biggest film releases are scheduled for the pujas which draw a large audience to the theatres.

Thanks to television and social media, a lot of influences from other states have also been imbibed into the festival. So Dandiya and Garba festivals are also organized around the city. Traditional Navaratri is also performed by the Bengal’s very large non-Bengali population, complete with regular Jagratas.

Four days of fun, happiness and celebration later, on the fifth day, or actually the tenth- Dashami, the Goddess bids adieu to all. Among tears women apply vermillion on the Goddess and treat her to sweets before wishing her a safe journey back, requesting her to come back next year and asking for her blessings. The women then apply vermillion or sindur on each other. This is another very beautiful custom of Durga Puja.

The idols are immersed in the Ganges with a lot of last minute frolicking. The processions carrying the idols to the river is typically characterized by dhaaks, dhunuchi and wild dancing to beats of band instruments.

One of the most spectacular sights takes places on the Bengal-Bangladesh border. India and Bangladesh share a river on its eastern boundaries. The Bangladesh side is known the river Padma and river Ichhamati on the side of India. On the day of Dashami, idols from both countries are carried in boats to the middle of the river and immersed in a very unique fashion of two boats going separate ways while the idols immerse in water. Think it’s kind of the Goddess’ way of saying don’t ride on two boats, or you’ll fall!

After the immersion, the tradition of Vijaya Dashami begins. While Delhi is famous for the burning Ravana idol, Dashami in Bengal is more peaceful. Following the Goddess’ successful victory of good over evil, the young of the family touch the feet of their elders to seek blessings, while everyone celebrates with sweets and wishes each other Shubh Vijaya (or Shubho Bijoya in the Bengali pronunciation). This time people visit each other with sweet boxes, wishing the year is as sweet as the last four days were, until Durga (or Uma as she is known as in her daughter form) comes home again next year.


What are the food items you prepare during this festival?

Those celebrating Navaratri have a very strict vegetarian diet for all nine days with food including deep fried snacks like thepla, or namkeen and various sweets.

Bengalis meanwhile do not follow a vegetarian schedule. One of the most gourmet communities of the world, nothing short of food-binging goes on for all the days. While some cook traditional Bengali food like different fish dishes of Hilsa and Prawn, mixed vegetable curry, chutney and traditional mutton curry, most prefer to eat out, as all are in a holiday mood.

Restaurants do a year-worth business in those five days and it is not at all surprising to expect a long queue outside popular food joints. To meet demand, temporary food stalls are set up and every possible corner. Phuchkas (Bengal’s version of pani puri) are the biggest hit with friends challenging each other to a phuchka contest. Similar contest happen over Bengal’s most famous sweet- Rasgollas.

In recent times, Biryani has grown to be in demand among people in Bengal, as has Thai food like momos and thukpas, along with the classic favorite Chinese.

Some households observe vegetarian only on Ashtami, while Navami is traditionally preferred for the classic mutton dishes. Not sure why, but just that it’s the custom.

On Dashami however, Bengalis make sweets at home along with Nimkis (a flour and spice fried snack) and ghugni (a tangy curry made of lentils). Ghugni, Nimki and Mishti form the golden trio of celebrating Vijaya Dashami. People visit each other with boxes of sweets- homemade or shop bought.

At the places where the pujas are performed, the menu remains vegetarian and the coveted Bhog or prasad is served. It is a classic spread of khichdi, curry, dahi and sweet along with an assortment of fruits. Immediately after the immersion of the idols, those involved in the puja have a dish called Dadhikarma, which is basically a mixture of fruits mixed into a sweet sticky porridge with milk and curd.

About Anindita Banerjee: This is what she thinks of herself, “A resident of Kolkata, I am a post-graduate in film and television media and work as a Creative Director. I read a lot and write a little which will hopefully take the form of a book in the near future. I watch way too many films and when the going gets tough I go and paint. My practical mind and bohemian heart are in perpetual clash with each other and hence I usually find myself lost with no idea about what to do with my life.”

About Gayatri T Rao

A double post-graduate (MSc. - Botany and MA - English Literature) Gayatri T Rao is a Senior Multimedia Journalist with vast experience in writing on varied topics.

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