As the smoke gets dense, filling up the nostrils from the ambrosial camphor and incense, the drums would beat louder and louder, bells ringing high, the priest would stand tall in his white attire, holding the burning lamp up on her face, immersed in the rhythmic chant:
Ya devi sarvabhuteshu shakti – rupena samsthita
Namas tasyai, namas tasyai, namas tasyai namo namah//
I would focus on her eyes. Intense. Calm. Delivering the aura of a warrior—ruthless, yet merciful. As I would bow in solidarity, clasped hands on my heart, my wondering mind would cease at her feet. She, with her ten arms holding weapons, riding on a ferocious lion, would hover on my senses in her astute, powerful effigy. The eternal truth has sustained. Evil is incinerated. Order is reclaimed. The Mother Goddess has emerged.
Being born and raised in the city of Kolkata—where this festival is celebrated with much grandeur, Durga Puja brings back many memories. The powerful ritual of course made a daunting impression on me year after year. But everything else surrounding it also stayed with me through out. The songs we sang to welcome Devi Durga. Agomoni songs. It’s that time of the year when back in those days my neighborhood alley would buzz with activities. Stray bamboos were piled up roadside. Soon they were masterfully erected to a gorgeous pandal (structure).
The home of the deity for five days. Shashti through Dashami—the goddess would arrive, stay with her devotees, salvage them from maleficence and return to her abode in the heavens. The interpretation of the ritual however varies from persons, communities and cultures.
“Durga is synonymous with Shakti or the Divine Power that manifests, sustains and transforms the universe as the one unifying Force of Existence…Shakti is the very possibility of the Absolute’s appearing as many, of God’s causing this universe. God creates this world through Srishti-Shakti (creative power), preserves through Sthiti-Shakti (preservative power), and destroys through Samhara-Shakti (destructive power). Shakti and Shakta are one; the power and the one who possesses the power cannot be separated; God and Shakti are like fire and heat of fire.” – Swami Vivekananda
Norwegian born, Indian spirituality exponent and the Founder of Awakening Women Institute, Chameli Ardagh iterates, “In Hindu mythology where the story of Durga has its origin, the demons that she is fighting represent the forces within us, and in life in general, that generate conflict, separation, hatred and delusion. The gods and goddesses symbolize clarity, love, and awakened consciousness”.
The first grand worship of Goddess Durga in recorded history, as per Hinduism Expert, Shubhamoy Das, is said to have been celebrated in the late 1500s.
Folklore say the landlords of Dinajpur and Malda initiated the first Durga Puja in Bengal. The origin of the community puja can be credited to the twelve friends of Guptipara in Hoogly, West Bengal, who collaborated and collected contributions from local residents to conduct the first community puja called the baro-yaari puja or the twelve-pal puja in 1790. “The baro-yaari puja gave way to the sarbajanin or community puja in 1910, when the Sanatan Dharmotsahini Sabha organized the first truly community puja in Baghbazar in Kolkata with full public contribution, public control and public participation. Now the dominant mode of Bengali Durga Puja is the public version,” writes M. D. Muthukumaraswamy and Molly Kaushal in Folklore, Public Sphere, and Civil Society.
Sukanta Chaudhuri, ed. Calcutta: the Living City, Vol. 1: The Past mentions, “‘the most amazing act of worship was performed by the (British) East India Company itself: in 1765 it offered a thanksgiving Puja, no doubt as a politic act to appease its Hindu subjects, on obtaining the Diwani of Bengal.”
Since then, the Durga Puja transcended many Indian states, many continents in the world. The grandiosity too expanded in leaps and bounds with overt display of culture, ceremonies, fashion, food and affluence. These days I hear, the neighborhoods of Kolkata compete with each other on their idols, pandals, and high profile socialites with big corporates granting awards and accreditations to keep the competitions alive. The dingy alleys of Kumartuli, the quarters where the sculptors make deities from the scratch every year for generations, is left unchanged. Maybe the artists need the ambiance. Or maybe they refuse to commoditize.
Here, in the Bay Area, the festival is observed by various Hindu temples and community organizations. Prabasi (www.prabasi.org), Pashchimi (www.pashchimi.org), Sanskriti (www.sanskriti.org) and Baybasi (www.baybasi.org) are the few prominent ones connected to the ethnic Bengali community. A new one this year is Bay Area Shobar Pujo in Fremont.
The Shiva Vishnu Temple, Livermore offers detailed ritualistic ceremony as well. WomenNow will be hosting its very first Durga Puja this year in the banquet of Sneha restaurant off Lawrence Expressway from October 19-23, abiding to the dates allocated by the Hindu calendar this year.
Many organizations prefer to celebrate it on selective weekends, catering to the availability of working professionals.
Back in Kolkata, after the five days of ceremonies the deity is immersed in the Holy river Ganges and left to float away.
The immensely popular, vigorous and decorous process of Bhashaan (the immersion) is perhaps the aspect of Durga Puja that used to amaze me the most. It’s the departure time for the goddess but there is no scope of feeling low as the farewell is designed in the most ceremonious fashion with singing, dancing, parading on the streets and finally drowning the deity in the water with shrill cries and intonations.
The procreators of the Sanatan Dharma surely knew how to keep people motivated. After all, every ending is followed by a new beginning, and the wheel of life keeps rotating. Here in the United States the deities cannot be drowned in State waters, so they are preserved and recycled.
The reverence of Maa Durga remains, whether it’s there or here…everywhere…within us, till we meet again.
Somanjana Chatterjee is the Regional Editor Silicon Valley for Indian American Times, TV Talk Show Co-Host for WomenNow TV-KTSF and an activist for minority rights. She can be reached at [email protected] /www.somanjanachatterjee.com.