Nostalgia for the Past: Durga Pujo at my hometown
By Suparna Barman
“It is strange how we hold on to the pieces of the past while we wait for our futures.” – Ally Condie, author of Matched
Durga Pujo is a big deal for all Bengalis. With the global Covid-19 pandemic, almost all of us are not only waiting for Pujo but reminiscing about the past Pujos knowing this year will be unlike any other one.
Situated at the border of Bihar and Bengal, is the small town of Kishanganj, which is my hometown. Like any normal middle-class family living in Delhi, even my childhood was spent in my hometown while my parents moved and settled in Delhi. I spent my childhood with my grandparents, listening to folk stories and awaiting my parents’ arrival for the Pujo. So, Pujo has always been about getting together ever since I could remember. Then, when my parents were settled in Delhi, I was also brought here and continued my education in Delhi.
Travelling has always been very personal to me. My travel journeys are filled with family trips to our grandparents’ homes – my mother’s place in Kerala and my father’s place in West Bengal, every alternate summer. Then, in the middle of the year, my parents would take me on short trips to Haridwar, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Nainital, etc. In a world where travelling is not free but a privilege, a normal Indian’s travel history is filled with family travels, religious travels, and small miscellaneous trips. To travel is a privilege, and I am grateful for the small travel experience I have had.
Last year, I celebrated Durga Pujo at my hometown after many years. For the past twenty years, we celebrated Durga Pujo in Delhi. The small hamlet that I remember back then has advanced a lot. With a new shopping mall in the city centre and many stores and dining options emerging every day, the entire town looked somehow new to me. The one thing that doesn’t change despite modernity is Durga Pujo.
Durga Pujo is celebrated for ten days and known as Navratri, but we Bengalis celebrate it for the last five days: Shashthi (6th), Saptami (7th), Ashtami (8th), Navami (9th) and Dashami (10th). As per the Hindu mythology, it is believed that Goddess Durga comes to Earth to visit her parents during this time; so it is celebrated as a daughter’s homecoming. Another reason is the victory of Goddess Durga over the demon King Mahishasura (which I believe symbolises the women empowerment). We Bengalis are very passionate about this festival. It is the most famous festival of Bengali Hindus. With the delicious food, the sound of Dhak (large drum), Dhunochi dance (an impromptu dance performed carrying a type of native Indian incense burner in hand), the city turns into a dreamland of joy and togetherness during this time.
Origin of Durga Pujo Celebrations
There are many tales associated with the initiation of the grand celebration of Durga Pujo. It was during the sixteenth century when the first Durga Pujo was celebrated in history by Raja Kangsa Narayan of Taherpur (now in Bangladesh), the most notable zamindar and son of Hari Narayan. But the Pujo became more popular under Raja Krishnachandra Ray (1710-82) of Nadia. Some say that the first grand celebration was started by Raja Nabakrishna Deb of Calcutta in honour of Lord Clive in 1757. During those days, Pujo was a grand but private affair in the courtyard of palaces.
The transition from household to community worship of Goddess Durga was made in the last decade of the eighteenth century when twelve friends came together and organised the first public worship in 1790 at Guptipara, a village in Nadia district in West Bengal.
Interestingly, there was no Durga temple till the seventeenth century. And Durga was depicted entirely differently back then. If we look at the sculptures present in Indian museums, whether in Ajanta and Ellora caves or in Mahabalipuram, we would find different characteristics of Durga. In some, we find Durga with four hands, some with 16 hands as well, in some Durga standing over a buffalo, in some we find Durga riding a lion and killing a buffalo, and in some we find Durga chasing a buffalo demon with the human body. Also, at that time, the artists had hardly seen a lion because there was no zoo in Kolkata. Hence the lion in the statues of Durga was totally based on their imagination and somewhat looked like a horse or a donkey.
Many historians have tried to track back the present-day depiction of the Goddess, along with her children/family but it has not been justified satisfactorily!
It was my mother who suggested that we should spend this time in Kishanganj, along with our extended family. So, it was settled, tickets were booked, bags were packed and a few gifts were picked up for them. We were visiting them after two years. We landed in Bagdogra airport on 5 October, i.e. on Saptami; from there it was about two hours of travel to our place. The field was covered with Kaash flower (Saccharum spontaneum) on both the edges (a view that cannot be witnessed very often in Delhi). The entire town was decorated with lights and colourful paper banners. On our way, we stopped at a beautiful pandal in Islampur. A pandal is a makeshift shelter set up during Durga Pujo to house the Goddess. They can be located in any open space around the neighbourhood or on the roadside.
Islampur town – located around sixty-five kilometers from the airport and forty kilometers from home – falls on the way to Kishanganj. Just like Kishanganj, Islampur has grown from a little village to a busy town. From one sweet shop and a small tea stall, it now boasts of two malls, high-rise buildings, and a medical college.
Since one of my cousin-sisters lives in Islampur, we planned to stop there for refreshment. They had already made lunch for us and post-lunch, we hit the road again.
The pandal in Islampur was distinct because of its use of stark colours – green and blue. These two colours do not generally come to mind at regular pandals. The green and blue gave the effect of earth and sky coming together. The term aesthetics has a Greek root, ‘aesthetik’, which means sensations or feeling. The emergence of the field of aesthetics could be traced back to Aristotelian and Platonic associations to objects which provoke sensation. The Islampur pandals provoked our sensations. With the advent of technology, new aesthetic imaginations are possible; Durga Pujo at Kishanganj has adapted to modernity. There was no such pandal during our childhood; devotees prayed standing in front of the temple complex. The technology used today for lighting, decoration and music is quite new.
We reached home at around eight that night. Nonetheless, we did the usual rejoicing, catching up and gossiping with each other. The next day was Ashtami. This day is the most important and celebrated with much enthusiasm. All of us took an early shower and went to the Durga Bari for Pushpanjali. Durga Bari (which means Home of Goddess Durga) is the nearest temple from our house. Devotees might not offer pushpanjali (Push = flower + Anjali = offering) every day, but they never skip the Ashtami one.
I remember asking my uncle about the crowd and frequent buses on that day. He said that most of the devotees from nearby villages come during Ashtami or Navami morning and they return by evening. During those two days, roads and pandals become extremely packed.
There are approximately thirty big and small pandals organised by different clubs/ temple committees in the town and among them, one of the oldest is Durga Bari, which is more than a hundred years old. My family has been a part of this society since ages. Thus starting from the Shashti’s first rituals till Dashami’s ceremony of bidding the Devi (Goddess) goodbye, someone from the house is always present there, especially the ladies.
Bhog is a very important part of Durga Pujo. It refers to the food which is served to all who come for the Pujo. Bhog serves a dual role: serving the community and being an offering to the Goddess. Typically it is prepared without onion and garlic and consists of Khichudi (made with rice and lentils) served with different vegetable fries or bhajas like brinjal, potato, cauliflower and mixed vegetable dishes like labra (wet) and chyachra (dry). To end the meal, a sweet or payesh (rice and milk pudding) is also served.
On Ashtami, a non-stop ten-minute long dance was performed by a Santhal tribal group, known as the Santhali Dance. Santhal is the third largest tribal group in India and they are widely found in West Bengal. In the Santhal belief, peacock feathers give protection from evil spirits and black magic. That is why they wear Peacock feathers in their headgear.
The town sprang to life during the evening with a variety of local delicacies at every corner of the road. Craftsmen from nearby villages set up their stalls during these few days and sold artificial flowers, colourful balloons, and stone jewellery. The many performances, a collective spirit, and the celebration of a feast during the worship of the Goddess contribute to a carnivalesque atmosphere.
Soon the tenth day – Dashami or popularly known as Dussehra – arrived. It is believed that the Goddess Durga emerged victorious over the Demon on this day and that is why it is known as ‘Vijayadashami’ (Vijay = victory). As we bid goodbye to the Goddess, the statue of Durga is paraded through the streets and then immersed in water, known as Visarjan.
Another integral part of this day is ‘Sindoor Khela’ (playing with vermillion). Women, especially married women dressed in a red-bordered white sari, proceeds to worship the Goddess before the farewell. Sindoor is a traditional element in a Hindu wedding and married women apply the vermillion powder to the Goddess and then to each other. This ceremony is said to be a symbol of marriage and fertility.
It was around 5.30 pm when all the customs ended. With a strange sorrow in our heart, we sent off to Maa Durga as she was paraded through to the entire town.
The walk started from the road in front of our house. People joined in as we marched around the town. It took us around an hour to reach the nearby Ramzan River. The moment arrived finally, as devotees scrambled to touch her feet one last time and bid goodbye to their beloved mother Goddess Durga. The idol was immersed in the river.
I asked my aunt about the fate of the idol after it was immersed. Did it pollute the river? Her answer amused me. She said that the remains were pulled out from the river the very next day. As mud got dissolved, the fabrics and artificial ornaments were separated out. Few organisations took their wooden frame back to use it for the next year’s Pujo, which I feel is a good way of recycling. Even the Durga Bari used the very same old wooden frame year after year, repairing some parts when required.
Experiencing the Pujo in Kishanganj, I realised how Delhi’s traditional Pujo has adapted to the demands of modernity. The simple old festivities seem to have been lost due to the increase of sponsorship and media hype. Now, it has started serving the business interest with advertisement campaigns in the form of hoardings in the food and other stalls. Various competitions and cultural shows which are organised nowadays to attract crowd were never a part of the primary ceremony. While the social gathering at the local Pujo pandals with active participation in every program is a popular tradition now, Kishanganj still holds on to traditional beliefs.
My travel to Kishanganj made me understand how a national festival like Durga Pujo is celebrated differently in different states. In Delhi, the pandals remain open at night and, in fact, the streets get lively during the entire night. However, this is not the case with Kishanganj, as things start shutting down around eleven at night. The crowd as well as the gossips are totally different.
Travel teaches us to be respectful of difference. It also give us an opportunity to experience things in an entirely new way that we never forget in our life.
Suparna Barman is pursuing Masters at IGNOU. An enthusiasm for food and culture as well as a passion for travel made her pursue tourism studies after receiving Bachelors in Botany. She has around two years of experience in designing exotic travel itineraries. Her recent project includes a budget-friendly Europe trip in 2022.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.