I can’t believe I almost missed Durga Puja! This is the very last day of the 10-day festival, also celebrated as Navaratri or Vijayadashami, also known as Dasara. Confused, yet? Never mind. The bottom line is that good has triumphed over evil, and it’s time to celebrate. Happy Durga Puja!
What is this festival?
Since I’ve been studying north-Indian roots for some of my Rana Stationers, I’m slightly more familiar with the kind of Durga Puja celebrations one finds in Kolkata. For that reason, it’s where I’ll focus most of this post.
But the underlying reasons for the season remain the same. Success after an epic battle, a cosmic triumph of good over evil. It’s the end of the monsoon season, and has its origin in ancient harvest festivals. Reasons aplenty to celebrate! Happy Durga Puja!
Who is Durga?
The best part for me is that Durga Puja celebrates a strong, triumphant goddess, Durga. This woman is so awesome she rides a lion or a tiger! Possibly in part because she’s also the mother of the universe, she has lots of arms (anywhere from 8 to 18). Sometimes moms need that many! Mother Durga also wields ten different symbolic weapons in her ongoing efforts to protect the world.
The moment of glory celebrated in the Durga Puja festival is a long, hard-fought battle. She defeated a shape-shifting water-buffalo demon named Mahishashura. The festival lasts ten days (or seven, or nine, or fifteen, depending on where you celebrate) to commemorate how long and hard the battle was.
How is Durga Puja celebrated?
There are lots of Durga Puja celebration traditions in Kolkata (which, as I said, has so far been my primary focus). Several websites offer suggestions for tourists, although it’s highly likely that local people observe the festival privately in other ways. But here are some of the things always mentioned in the online sources I can access. Three “Happy Durga Puja” approaches are via food, pandals, and rituals.
Although some traditions observe fasts, the rule in Kolkata seems to be feasts. Bhog is the food most closely associated with the festival, since it is served free at every pandal during Durga Puja. Appropriately for the climactic finish of the festival, the word bhog means “pleasure” or “delight,” but also “to end or conclude.”
These are structures–some temporary, some more permanent–in and around which the festival is celebrated. They usually seem to be built by families or groups, who decorate them with stages (the site of amateur theatrical presentations) and the iconic idols, which are sculpted and sumptuously decorated.
Many aspects of the festival are performed as rituals. There is a particular day (Mahalaya; this year it was Sept. 28) when the eyes may be painted on the idols. There are different offerings at different times of the day. Apparel (such as the white saree with red borders), particular dances, music, and more. All are done in particular ways on particular days.
An example is the bathing of the Kala-bou or “banana bride” on Mahasaptami, the seventh day of the festival. Read more details here. Another is the use of sindoor (red pigment) on people’s faces during Durga Puja. Traditionally, only married women apply sindoor, but recently the custom has grown to be more inclusive in some places and among some groups, possibly spurred by tourist exuberance.
However you celebrate it, I wish you a very happy Durga Puja!
IMAGE CREDITS: Many thanks to Snapgalleria via 123RF, for the “Subho Bijoya” greetings for Durga Puja. I also want to thank Baishampayan Ghose, Flickr, and Lonely Planet for the delightful photo of the Durga Puja statues, and Amarnath, also via Flickr and Lonely Planet, for the dhunuchi dance photo.
The photo of many trays of bhog is from Holidify (however, their source link to the photographer’s credits ends in a 404 error). Many thanks to the Hindustan Times for the YouTube video of pandals in Kolkata.
The “Rituals” montage consists of photos from two different sources. The photo of the kala-bou (banana bride) is from the “This is Utkarsh Speaking” blog, possibly taken by the author?The photo of the women applying sindoor (red pigment) to each other’s faces is by Biswarup Ganguly, CC BY 3.0., via Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons.