In earlier times, people would generally observe Durga Puja during the month of Chaitra or the season of Spring. That celebration was known as Basant Panchami. In fact, Lord Rama worshipped Mother Durga during Autumn to seek Her blessings just before his battle with Ravana. Afterwards, Durga Puja came to be observed during this season. Hence the festival also acquired the name 'Akhaal Bodhan' or 'Untimely Welcome'. Mahalaya proclaims the descend of Mother Durga to bestow Her blessings during Durga Puja. It marks the end of Pitru Paksha and the beginning of Devi Paksha. It is a belief that during this time the Gods are awake in the heaven. During Mahalaya Amavasya, people offer prayers to their ancestors at early dawn. The ritual is called Shraddh or Tarpan.
While the most recent revival of the Autumnal worship of Goddess Durga can be traced to revivalist tendencies in the early freedom movement in Bengal. The first such Puja was organized by Raja Nabakrishna Deb of the Shobhabazar Rajbari of Calcutta in honour of Lord Clive in 1757. The puja was organized because Clive wished to pay thanks for his victory in the battle of Plassey. He was unable to do so in a Church because the only church in Calcutta at that time was destroyed by Siraj-ud-Daulah. Indeed many wealthy mercantile and Zamindar families in Bengal made British Officers of the East India Company guests of honour in the Pujas. The hosts vied with one another in arranging the most sumptuous fares, decorations and entertainment for their guests.
A considerable literature exists around Durga and its early forms, including avnirnaya (11th century), Durgabhaktitarangini by Vidyapati (14th century), etc. Durga Puja was popular in Bengal in the medieval period, and records show that it would be held in the courts of Rajshahi (16th century) and Nadia district (18th century). It was during the 18th century, however, that the worship of Durga became popular among the landed aristocracy of Bengal, the Zamindars. Prominent Pujas were conducted by the landed Zzamindars and Jagirdars.
Many of these old puja exist to the present day. Interestingly the oldest such Puja to be conducted at the same venue is located in Rameswarpur, Orissa, where it has been continuing for the last four centuries since the Ghosh Mahashays from Kotarang near Howrah migrated there as a part of Todarmal's contingent during Akbar's rule. Today, the culture of Durga Puja has shifted from the princely houses to Sarbojanin (literally, "involving all") forms. The first such puja was held at Guptipara - it was called barowari (baro meaning twelve and yar meaning friends)
The sculpture of the idol itself has evolved. In earlier times, all five idols would be depicted in a single frame, traditionally called pata. De facto, Durga Puja commemorates the annual visit of the Goddess with Her children to Her parents' home, leaving finally on the Dashami to be re-united with Shiva. This leaving ceremony is symbolized by the immersion of the idols on Dashami. Durga Puja is also a festivity of Good (Ma Durga) winning over the evil (Mahishasur the demon). It is a worship of power of Good which always wins over the bad.
The actual truth behind the celebration of Durga Puja is to gain knowledge of the self or the underlying essence of the manifested world. The manifestation of Durga, the expression of the Paramatma (Consciousness, Siva, Ultimate truth, the Self) with reference to the emergence of Durga to slay Mahishasura is about destroying the evil tendencies in one to realize one's true essence or the self. Let us look into the symbolism in the manifestation of Durga.
Durga is hailed as Mahamaya. Maha means great and Maya means illusion. However to consider the Mother Divine to be an illusion is but a fallacy in one's understanding. Maya constitutes the cosmic manifestation, the universe or all that is created. The creative energy of Consciousness (Siva) or the supreme truth is hailed as Shakti (Power) or Durga. Shakti or Durga, the power of the Lord, is verily the form of the ultimate truth which one is seeking. The worship of Durga (Durga Puja) ushers in the truth of living in the present moment for truth is but Herself (Manifestation of Durga) right in front of one in myriad forms.
On Mahadashami, Sindhoor Khela or the smearing of vermilion takes place where women offer vermilion to Goddess Durga and apply on one another's forehead for the longevity of their husband and the blessings of Goddess Durga in general. Mahadashami marks the end of the elaborate Durga Puja festivities. Idol immersion of the statues is the culminating aspect of most of the Hindu festivals, as popularly practised in Ganesha Chaturthi celebrations. Idol immersion carries the profound significance of the Vedanta thought in it.
The idols are modeled out of clay. The idols signify the manifestation of the absolute truth. The formless God is glorified and worshipped in these idols during the four day celebration of Durga Puja. Every aspect of Durga Puja has the Vedantic truth embedded in it, right from the emergence of Durga to the slaying of Mahishasura as Mahishasuramardhini.
Navaratri worship differs from place to place. While in the South it is celebrated as Navaratri, in the Eastern parts it is celebrated as Durga Puja commencing from the seventh day of Mahalaya for four days. It is also called as Dasara in both North and South India. The first three days of Navaratri worship are dedicated to Goddess Durga, the second three days to Goddess Lakshmi and the last three days to Goddess Saraswati. All these forms are but the different aspects of the same energy. The divine Mother stands for the Supreme Self (Paramatma) or the ultimate truth and Mahishasura stands for the ego laden Jivatma (Individual self) with the combination of Rajo (demonic) and Tamo guna (Inertia). The infirmities of the individual self are destroyed by the Supreme Self for the ultimate self realization, the goal of life.
In conclusion it can be said that the essay attempts to reveal some vital aspects of Durga Puja and how Sharod Utshab came into being as the most popular form in lieu of Basant Panchami. Moreover the essay also shows how the rituals mentioned in a number of passages open the paths of self-realization for the worshippers. The very secular aspect of this puja is that it brings the message of peace erasing all deadly things and teaches human beings to be non-communal through gaining the knowledge of truth.
The writer is Assistant Professor, Department of English and Modern Languages, Central Women's University, Dhaka. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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