Durga Puja is the quintessential celebration of faith, camaraderie and collective joy
It’s Durga Puja, and every Bengali you know is talking about nothing else. If you’re not Bengali, it could be hard to understand why this five-day festival seems to be at the center of every Bengali’s year. However, Durga Puja is not just a religious occurrence, but rather an expression of the Bengali spirit.
This article will take you through the origins of Durga Puja as it is celebrated today, as well as the reasons for its significance to the Bengali people.
At the turn of the 17th century, a class of Hindu zamindars gained power in Bengal. They were immensely powerful, commanding enormous tracts of land and ruling much like kings. However, local authority continued to remain with the Nawab of Bengal. When the English defeated the Nawab in 1757 and took over Bengal, the zamindars had to change their loyalties and political affiliations.
In such a turbulent social landscape, elaborate celebration of Durga Puja was the zamindars’ way of asserting influence and dominance. The symbol of the warrior goddess Durga also gave the zamindars religious authority. According to historian Tithi Bhattacharya, “The festivities around Durga and Kali were thus essentially drawing together two different kinds of identities- political and religious…”
With the rise of the East India Company in Bengal, there emerged the city of Calcutta as well as a class of merchants who became prosperous due to the new trade opportunities. These merchants worked with the British to gain a strong footing in the city and its trade-based economy. For these merchants, Durga Puja was a demonstration of financial ability and social status.
The celebration of Durga Puja in Bengal underwent its most significant shift when the partition of Bengal was announced in 1905. Historian Rachel Fell McDermott states that “Bengali-owned papers of the period were full of advertisements for the Poojahs, nothing bideshi, everything swadeshi.”
In the 1920s with the rise of Gandhi’s rebellion against untouchability, Bengali leaders established religious celebrations that included everyone irrespective of caste or class. This gave birth to the “sarbajanin” or universal Puja, which is how Durga Puja is celebrated today- open to everyone regardless of birth or residence. The first such Puja was called the “Congress Puja” and was organised in Maniktala in north Calcutta.
Durga Puja, as it Stands Today
Clearly Durga Pujo was integral in cementing Bengali culture to its current form. This can be seen in the pomp and ceremony with which it is celebrated. Despite being religious in nature, it is common to see people from all backgrounds participate in the festivities in equal numbers. The city is decked in ‘pandals’ – enormous canopies of bamboo and fabrics with idols of the Goddess installed within. They stand tall for five days, and draw huge crowds on their ‘pandal-hopping’ trips around the city. As years pass, pandals become more creative, hosting images and even sculptures alongside particular “themes.”
The modern Durga Puja experience in Bengal and especially in Kolkata revolves around the following few elements:-
No festival means anything without the right people. For Bengalis around the world, Durga Puja is the time to either return home to Kolkata/Bengal, or come together in their own locations to organize pujo. No matter where you are, from Lucknow to Lancaster, there will be Bengali communities getting together to create pandals, welcome the Goddess and celebrate for five straight days.
What is a Bangali without food? Unhappy, that’s what.
During Durga Puja, the city becomes a treasure house of food, even more so than usual. Every street corner is a haven for food-lovers, offering unending supplies of street munchies – rolls, chowmein, mughlai paratha, mithai. Restaurants are packed with groups looking for the perfect meal to start or wrap up a day of exhausting pandal-hopping.
On most days, pandals are also packed with throngs looking to savour puja bhog – food offered to the goddess and then distributed as prashad. Ashtami, one of the most auspicious days, has the most elaborate bhog and the largest crowd to partake a plate of it.
As mentioned before, Kolkata and all of Bengal comes alive with numerous pandals, many of which are enormous and elaborate. For example, the pandal located in Mohammad Ali Park showcases magnificent architecture of ancient monuments and temples. In 2019, the Jodhpur Park pandal revolved around creation and was built to resemble a Shiva temple. It was built with ash, which in Hindu mythology, is associated with the mountain-dwelling god and the idea of rebirth.
Almost everyone in Bengal goes out with family or friends to visit multiple pandals. Lines for the really popular ones often stretch for kilometres, which depicts how determined crowds are, and how they will endure heat, aching legs and discomfort to view their beloved Goddess in all her divine glory.
A highlight of Durga Puja is sindur khela or the vermillion game. On the last day of Durga Puja AKA the Vijayadashami, married women apply sindoor to the feet and forehead of the Goddess and “feed” her sweets as a farewell. Then, they do the same to each other, much like a game of Holi with vermillion.
There are multiple theories regarding the origin of this ritual. One says that it emerged 200 years ago in zamindari houses to create camaraderie among housewives. Whatever its cause for emergence, sindur khela is one of the most anticipated, beloved and photographed elements of Durga Pujo.
This is a bittersweet ritual, in which Bengalis say goodbye to the Goddess as she returns to her husband’s home in the Himalayas. After sindur khela, the idols of the Goddess and her children are taken to the Ganga and immersed in the water. These processions are heavily crowded, as people from all over the state come together to escort their divine mother to the sacred waters.
Often bhashaan gatherings also feature traditional music, mantras and deep shows of emotion. Devotees fill the air with chants of “Bolo Durga Mai Ki Jai” (Victory to the Goddess Durga!) and “Asche Bochor Abar Hobe” (We shall celebrate again the coming year!) Tears are shed, blessings are sought, and Bengalis stare into the water long after the idol has been immersed, consoling themselves with the hope of welcoming the Goddess in another year. While it might sound cliche (and every Bengali and doubtlessly said this once in their life), Durga Pujo is indeed not just about religion, but rather, the experience of collective joy. Camaraderie, collective organizing, meeting up with one’s favourite people, gorging delicious food, bidding a tearful farewell – all of these form the rich tapestry of commemoration of the Bengali spirit. Bengalis carry the feeling of pujo throughout the year because, “Asche Bochor Abar Hobe!