Durga Puja for rajas and zamindars
It’s that time of year when wild sugarcane grass, commonly known as kaash phool, blankets the landscape with snowy hues. Cumulus clouds drift lazily across a vivid cerulean sky on sunny days, accompanied by a gentle breeze rustling through the lush green paddy fields. In the quaint town of Guptipara, about three hours outside the bustling city of Kolkata, patua artisans of West Bengal are adding final artistic touches to Mrinmayee Durga idols.
Guptipara, nestled along the banks of the River Hooghly, boasts a rich history as a stronghold of Vaishnavite culture tracing back to the 17th century. The town plays a pivotal role in Bengal’s Durga Puja narrative because here in Guptipara, the concept of Barowari or Community Durga Puja took root, marking a significant chapter in the cultural heritage of the region.
Until the late 1700s, the Durga Puja in Bengal wasn’t a festival accessible to the masses. It was primarily confined to the residences of rajas and zamindars. While some commoners attended these pujas, it was strictly by invitation and in a limited capacity. During this period, Durga Puja because of the expense involved, was exclusive to the wealthy and powerful. The festival lasted for four days and involved numerous intricate rituals. Common people could not afford the celebration.
Guptipura democratizes Durga Puja
The turning point came when Guptipara – a nondescript village in the Hooghly region – played a crucial role in democratizing Durga Puja.
The pioneering figure behind the shift of Durga Puja from its customary celebration in the spring to an autumnal festival was Kangsha Narayan from Taherpur in the Nadia district of West Bengal. A notable zamindar, Kangsha Narayan orchestrated the first recorded autumn Durga Puja in Bengal in the Middle Ages – around 1500 CE. He transformed this religious celebration into an annual event known as the Saradiya (Annual) Durgautsav.
Historical records do not explain exactly why Kangsha Narayan chose to move the timing of the Puja from spring to autumn. Some historians speculate that the prevalence of diseases like smallpox during the spring season may have made it less conducive for a festive occasion. In contrast, the autumn harvest season was considered more suitable for joyous festivities. It is presumed that Kangsha Narayan might have changed the Durga Puja calendar date to make himself more popular among the masses.
In 1610 CE, Laxmikanta Majumdar, an ancestor of the Sabarna Roy Chowdhury family, organized what is believed to be the inaugural Puja in Kolkata.
Narratives dating back to 1759 offer different theories about the origins of Barowari Puja. One account suggests that a group of women from Guptipara visited a zamindar’s residence to pray but were turned away, perhaps because the family did not want outsiders offering prayers in their home. The perceived insult angered the men in the village who decided to perform their own puja in which the entire community could participate.
Baro-yaar-i (of 12 friends)
One of the earliest written records in English on Barowari Puja lies in the May 1820 edition of The Friend of India, a precursor to The Statesman newspaper. The article describes a new form of puja – Barowaree – introduced thirty years earlier in Guptipara near Santipur town. It states that a group of Brahmins formed an association to celebrate a puja independently of the rules outlined in the Shastras.
The May 1820 report offers insights into the origins of the Barowari Puja and how the villagers of Guptipara created a blueprint for Bengal of what is now recognized as Barowari or Community Puja.
The article notes, “They elected twelve men as a committee, from which circumstances it takes its name and solicited subscriptions in all surrounding villages. Finding their collections inadequate, they sent men into various parts of the country to obtain further supplies of money, of whom many according to current reports have never returned.”
This marked the start of Barowaripuja, also known as baro-yaar-i (of 12 friends), in Bengal.
During this period, devotees worshipped a deity called Bindhyabasini, a manifestation of the Goddess synonymous with Jagadhatri. The Friends of India notes,
“…they celebrated the worship of Jugudhatree [sic] for seven days with such grandeur, drawing the affluent from over a hundred miles away. The ritual followed the established practices of Hindu rituals, but beyond that, the entire event was organized in a manner not endorsed by the Shastras. They engaged the finest singers in Bengal, hosted every arriving Brahmin, and spent the week immersed in the revelry of festivity and enjoyment. With the successful conclusion of the venture, they decided to make the puja an annual affair, and since then, it has been observed with unwavering regularity.”
Eventually, the Barowari or community Durga Puja would transcend the borders of Guptipara and make its way to Kolkata where elder statesmen like Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Mahendra Nath Dutta got involved in the evolution of the ekchala idol.
Meanwhile, in quaint Guptipara, the Jagadhatri Puja at Bindyabashini tala still takes place – a silent remnant of a watershed moment in Indian history.