Today is Mahalaya – the herald of the advent of Ma Durga on Earth. Let me shed a little light on the significance and celebration of this festival in my native state of West Bengal.
The festival of Navratri celebrates the victory of Good over Evil. Unable to bear the persecution by the demon Mahisasura, the Gods had approached Lord Vishnu to help them out of the predicament. Following this plea the powers of Lord Brahma, Lord Vishnu and Lord Shiva were combined to create a powerful Goddess with ten arms – Goddess Durga, the unapproachable. Riding on a lion, this fearsome Goddess engaged Mahisasura in a fierce battle which culminated in the felling of the demon at the hands of the Goddess. Even today, the idols of the Goddess depict her killing the fearsome demon with her trident.
Durga Puja in Bengal is also considered as the homecoming of the Mother. It is celebrated as the time when the Goddess, along with her four children – Lord Ganesh, Goddess Lakshmi, Goddess Saraswati and Lord Karthikeya – visits her paternal home. Like any daughter, She is pampered and taken care of and on Bijaya Dashami she again bids goodbye to be reunited with her husband, Lord Shiva. At this time, Bengali households look forward to having their own married daughters back with them. Since Goddess Durga is traditionally worshipped at springtime, this Sharadiya (autumnal) festival is also known as Akaalbodhan (untimely invoking of the Goddess).
For Bengalis this is one of the most important festivals and preparations start for it months back. One of the time-honored customs is to gift new clothes to near and dear ones. Pujor bajar (Puja shopping) is the buzzword on everybody’s lips. In the days leading up to Mahalaya, shops are packed with Bengalis doing their shopping. Construction for the Puja pandals also begin in the meantime. Pandals refer to temporary structures built for housing the idols during the festival. These are usually not ordinary pandals – most of them are no less than a work of art. Each pandal is usually constructed on a particular theme and every year there is a competition to judge which are the top three pandals. The Goddess idols are also moulded by expert artisans, the most renowned of them hailing from Kumartuli. On Mahalaya, after a day’s fast, the eyes of the idols are painted, a ceremony which is known as Chakshudanam, which literally means giving eyes.
On the sixth day of Navratri, Ma Durga finally arrives with pomp and splendor. Durga Puja in Bengal is one festival where religion actually takes a backseat. It is more of a sociocultural festival, when people of different faiths and beliefs dress up in their finery and go pandal-hopping. Crowds throng the street, meeting up with old friends and sampling delicious food at the pandals. Many people like to hire cars and go around the city, visiting the different pandals and speculating which one will be adjudged the best of them all. Cultural programs like plays, singing and dancing by professional or amateur artistes are scheduled for the evenings at the puja pandals, giving an outlet for the creative expression that is so dear to Bengalis.
The day of Bijaya Dashami or Dasshera (the tenth day) dawns and it is the time for the Goddess to return to her heavenly abode. Married women play with vermillion in a ritual called sindoor khela wherein they smear sindoor on the Goddess’ feet and on each other, praying for the long life and prosperity of their husbands and families. On this day, people visit each others’ houses with sweets. Younger folks take the blessing of their elders and families and friends meet up and exchange wishes. The Goddess and Her children are immersed and looking forward to the prospect of Her returning the next year, the festivities come to a close.