If you have heard of the state of West Bengal, there is a chance you have heard of Durga Puja. It is not a mere pious celebration, it is a way of life for the people in Bengal. It goes without saying, the festival goes hand in hand in representing the state and their culture at its best.
As the air starts getting sweet, and the blooming of the seasonal shiuli phool (Night-flowering Jasmine) and the khaas phool (Saccharum spontaneum), it is the indication of that time of the year when people of Bengal are expectant of the holidays they are about to receive. They go shopping for new clothes and get ready for the festival they have been waiting for since last year.
Navratri (nine nights), a religious festival that spans over nine long days, and is observed by Hindus all over India every year in autumn. Having a varied culture, differing from state to state, this festival is celebrated in its own unique way for various reasons. In West Bengal, Navratri and Dussehra is celebrated to worship Goddess Durga putting an end to Mahishasur, the evil incarnate.
Durga Puja pays homage to Goddess Durga who is an embodiment of nari shakti (women power) and victory of good over evil. The festival related rituals are performed in public by making pandals (temporary stages using canvas, bamboo and decorative clothes). The entire festival lasts for 10days where the last 5days are of quite the significance.
Mahalaya – The Prelude
Mahalaya marks the commencement of the festivities. Mahalaya is known to be the Day 0 of Durga Puja. According to the mythology, Mahalaya was the day when goddess Durga had descended on Earth (or as in some myths, started a journey to her natal home with her children from Kailash, her marital home). This day is significant for another reason as the artisans who mould the clay soil of the deity, paint the eyes and thus marking the Chokkudaan ritual and the completion of idol.
In every household of a Bengali, on the day of Mahalaya, a tradition of waking up early to listen to Chandi (hymns) scriptures has been passed down over generations. From the days of radio, Chandi recited from Devi Mahatmya, had been broadcasted in every channel on this day. Regional channels on televisions broadcast the journey of Goddess Durga with Chandi hymns playing in the background.
Significance Of The Last Five Days Of Durga Puja
Maha Sashthi – Sixth Day
The sixth day of Durga Puja or Sashthi is very significant from the first five days, as it is when Goddess (along with her children – God Karthika, God Ganesha, Goddess Saraswati and Goddess Lakshmi), believed to reach her natal home. She is welcomed with frivolity and gusto.
This is for the first time since the beginning of the festivities that she (clay idol) is unveiled in front of the general public. As the unveiling proceeds, many rituals (like Amontron and Bodhon) are performed along with playing of dhaks (a type of drums that are linked with Bengali culture) by dhakis (men who play dhak). This keeps the ambience excited even during the monotonous chants of the rituals.
Maha Saptami – Seventh Day
The rituals for the seventh day of Durga Puja or Saptami begins before dawn where a banana tree is dipped in water. After completion of the ceremonial bath, the Kola Bou (banana bride) is then draped in a red-bordered saree and kept beside God Ganesha.
There are various theories as to the Kola Bou being the bride of God Ganesha. Whereas, others refute by claiming Kola Bou to be a representation of Maa Durga (mother Durga).
Maha Ashtami – Eight Day
The eighth day of Durga Puja or Ashtami is recognised as the day when Maa Durga finally defeated the evil Mahishasur. Early in the morning, Anjali (prayers) are offered in an empty stomach. Then the whole locality is served with various delicacies like Khichdi in the form of a feast. On this day especially, men wear traditional Bengali attire, kurta, and women wear sarees.
The Astami evening is celebrated with dhunuchinaach. In this dance, camphor along with coconut husks are burnt in an earthen vessel, held in the palms of the people and danced. Furthermore, this evening ends by Sandhi Puja where the Goddess is offered 108 lit oil lamps and 108 lotus flowers.
Maha Navami – Ninth Day
Navami or the ninth day of Durga Puja is the day when Maha Aarti (the great prayer) ceremony is performed. It is part of the closing ritual to the entire festival. You will witness innumerable people taking part in this Maha Aarti as huge queues emerge.
Maha Dashami – Tenth Day:
The tenth and final day of Durga Puja is called Dashami where the deities (Goddess Durga and her children) are immersed in the river Ganga. This immersion of the deities is an act of saying farewell to Maa Durga returning back to her marital home, Kailash, with her children, called visarjan.
Right before visarjan, married women wear traditional Bengali saree, white saree with bright red borders, and take part in sindoor khela (playing with vermilion). They smear the vermilion on other married women’s bodies as a sign of prosperity, fertility and celebration of married life.
On this day, from sindoor khela to visarjan, people fill every corner of the streets as they line up for huge processions. In the spirit of the festivities, everybody dances and cheers saying asche bochor abar hobe (it will happen again coming year) as the streets of the state of Bengal echoes with the sound dhak. After visarjan, a custom of visiting relatives’ houses and wishing them Bijoya Dashami is followed.
When Is Durga Puja Held?
Generally, Durga Puja is held during the season of Autumn. The dates vary every year according to the beginning of Ashwin, Indian calendar month. It usually falls from September to October, and very rarely during November. The festival is so world renowned that the search engine, Google, updates the dates of ten days of the religious festival every year.
Where To Visit The Durga Puja Pandals?
Durga puja is particularly popular in the states of West Bengal, Odisha, Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Tripura and neighboring country, Bangladesh. It is still held and celebrated all over India (and foreign countries) in its own way. Here are some of popular spots to know in case you visit during the puja time.
In West Bengal, at every nook and corner of the street you would find people in a pompous mood. As the festival originates from Bengal, the pandals in each part of the state are so frequent and numerous that every locality, community or club funds one.
There are a few spots that are sponsored and host a pandal annually. Some of them are Lakes Town’s Sree Bhumi Sporting Club, Nabinpalli Pandal at Hatibagan, Salt Lake Pandal, Kumartuli Park, Dum Dum Park, Ahritola Sarbajanin Durgatsab and many more.
Every year the popular pandal spots of West Bengal are updated and pinpointed on Google Maps making it easier for people to get around.
Although not as many as in West Bengal, there are a few places where you can experience Durga Puja in Delhi. The mini Kolkata of Delhi, Chittaranjan Park, there are few pandals that you absolutely cannot miss. One is conducted by the Kali Mandir (Kali Bari), another close to Market 2 and lastly at B Block. Other than this spot, there is also the Minto Road. Alipur Road at Kashmiri (Kashmere) Gate is regarded as one of the city’s earliest Durga Puja being held.
In Dadar at Shivaji Park, the Bengal Club grandly celebrates the Durga Puja. It is said that the spot has been used since the 1950s to conduct the festival every year. In Andheri West’s Lokhandwala Garden, a luxurious pandal is arranged as well, where lots of celebrities are known to attend. So does North Bombay’s Durga Puja pandal. Bengal Welfare Association and the Spandan Foundation hold one pandal each in Powai.
What Makes Durga Puja Special?
The entire festival is like a never-ending exhibit; as if you’re walking through a gallery and every craftsman alive has put their best front at display. From the making of Goddess Durga using clay to the decoration of the pandals and idols, everything is preplanned and well thought. No idea or theme is repeated.
Over the years, people participating in preparation of the festivities, put their creativity to test. They arrange in themed pandals of different size and shape. The clay idols of Goddess Durga (along with her children and Mahishasur), are all made and selected months before the festivities. Their clothes along with costly (and real) jewelries are all hand selected.
Kumartuli is the place where artisans spend each day and night perfecting the sculptures of the year. Many videographers and photographers visit each time before the beginning of the puja to get a first hand look into the process of it all. Durga Puja is a season in itself as it is nothing short of a carnivalesque festival. The locals get into a state of frenzy and exaltation during the entire process. A time when the nights are spent sleepless, at every corner of the eye there are pops of colors and the roads are never empty – bustling with various food vendors and people high on revelry. The entire state comes to life as it is bathed in colors and lights.