There are a lot of customs and rituals that are performed in the Bengali families during Durga Puja, and to celebrate these festivities, they wait for this 10-day festival the whole year. But beyond such rituals, is the fun and the love shared by the families that remain with them forever.
The establishment of a rare idol, ‘Ardhanarishvara’ this year, which depicts Lord Shiva on one side and Goddess Parvati on another by the transgender community of Kolkata, speaks volumes about how the Bengali communities intend to make their most awaited festival unique every year. A sense of enjoyment is a common sight in the Bengali families during Durga Puja, which only ends with ‘Sindoor Khela’ played on the last day- an affair mostly visible in West Bengal.
Shilpa Paul, a college student from Kolkata, and her family believe the festival is all about relishing delicacies and spending time with family members. Shilpa’s mother makes sure to eat only vegetarian food on ‘Sasthi’ (sixth day) and visits various pandals to offer “Sosti puja” to the goddess Durga as a customary that mothers do for the welfare of their children. The pandals set up at various areas consist of the large idols of Maa Durga, whose eyes are covered with small pieces of cloth that only opens on the sixth or the seventh day.
For the seventh day, also knows as ‘Saptmi’, Shilpa’s family put some “giri mati” (clay) at the threshold of the house early in the morning. “Since Durga maa is considered the daughter of Giri Raj Himalaya or Himavan, we put ‘giri mati’ at the doors believing that maa is coming to her home,” Shilpa says. On the eighth day, ‘Ashtami’ goes by offering ‘pushpanjali’ (flowers) to the goddess while chanting holy mantras at the pandals and eating vegetarian food for Shilpa’s family.
Even for Jhilik Dutta Singha Roy, a dance teacher and choreographer, ‘Ashtami’ holds a lot of importance where she and her family keep a fast the whole day and offer flowers to the goddess. “Sondhi puja is offered at the exact merging time of Ashtami and Navami (the ninth day) and 108 Lotus flowers are dedicated to Maa Durga with 108 diyas,” Jhilik says, adding that Navami is famous for the ‘bhog’, a devotional food offering, at lunch.
As Dashami, the last day, also known as Dussehra, approaches, Jhilik, like most of the Bengali women, wears a white saree with red borders to celebrate the ‘Sindoor Khela’ by applying sindoor or kumkum (both meaning vermillion) to each other. It is celebrated after ‘Devi Baron’, a ritual of offering sweets, sindoor, and other items to the goddess. The day also consists of people participating in the Dhunuchi dance, where the dance is performed by holding Dhunuchi, a Bengali incense burner in hands accompanied by ‘Dhaak’ beats.
Jhilik, who currently lives in Bengaluru, originally belongs from a small town, Raghunathganj in West Bengal, where many stories related to the festival are popular. She dwells into one such tale and says, “I have heard a story from my elders that ‘Devi Pet Kati’ is a famous and well-known form of Maa Durga there. It is believed that Devi had swallowed a small girl, who later, was rescued after cutting the abdomen of the goddess!”
Though Jhilik has many memories of Durga Puja from every year, she feels the ‘Prabasi Durga Puja’, that she had once got to attend in the USA was the most special one. “It is only celebrated on weekends there but is amazing. Within two days, all the rituals from Shasthi to Dashami are performed. All the Bengalis, far from their country enjoy this festival with the same passion and attachment. With loads of fun-filled activities like eating authentic Bengali food, performing together and the Dhunuchi Naach, it becomes unforgettable,” she says.
The fondest memory of Arijita Mukherjee, a Yoga teacher from Kolkata, is when she was worshipped like Maa Durga during her childhood days. On the occasion of Kumari Pujo, ceremonious worship of young girls during Durgashtami as a divine incarnate of the goddess, she visited Kali Mandir at Durgapur, the city in West Bengal, where she grew up. Decked in traditional white and red saree, she sat next to the huge life-sized idol of goddess Durga as her divine reflection. “I remember feeling overwhelmed with love while the old and young touched my feet and revered me like their Maa Durga personified,” she says, remembering the old times.
Since Durga Puja is more of ‘Uma ghorey elo- the return of the daughter to her father’s place, in the Bengali community, Arijita makes it a point to visit her maternal grandparents in Cooch Behar, West Bengal every year. And, soon, with the exchange of gifts and new clothes for all five days, it becomes one of the most cherishing moments for her and her family. The major ritual in her family includes the ‘sandhya aarti’ (the evening prayer) and enjoying art and music like many Bengali families during Durga Puja. However, the diet is not restricted to a veg one, except on Sashti. “We have a full course non-vegetarian meal to suit our palate!” she says.
Remembering memories from some decades ago, Arijita’s grandfather used to have his own family Durga puja at home in Bangladesh before the partition. However, as the partition took place and the family broke into nuclear ones, the ritual of having their own Durga Pujo got restricted to just visiting the goddess in different pandals. Even though, Arijita’s grandparents did not stop participating in the cultural functions and competitions of different associations during pujo. “I remember one such event, where Didun (grandmother), then 82 years, took part in ‘Ananda Mela’ with her huge food stall, cooked her personal delicacies with my Dadubhai (grandfather), then 85 years, as the cashier at the counter. They had even won the second prize for it. The love and involvement for Durga puja are more heartfelt than just being an act of worship,” Arijita says.
On the other hand, with the pandemic in place since 2020, a lot of such moments that often occurred during the Puja have been snatched away from the families. And, in such a time, there is nothing left but the old cherished memories for them to be cherished again.