One knows that Durga Puja, the biggest festival of the Bengalis is around the corner if one looks at nature.Verdant blue skies with fleeting clouds, Shiuli flowers flowering ,Saptaparni trees growing dense with the intoxicating flowers, the iconic Kashphool swaying in the gentle breeze means it’s time to usher in the Goddess to Earth. Durga Puja is not limited to being a religious festival alone but in essence it is a celebration of life and a coming together of disparate elements and stratas. As we bid adieu to the Goddess in 2020 with restrained celebration but with a lot of faith amidst the Pandemic, I thought of looking back in history, about the origins and changing nature of the Pujas.
Ancient origins of Ma Durga
The Durga temple of Aihole (550 AD) is the oldest temple dedicated to Hindu goddess Durga, yet quite surprisingly, worshiping the Goddess turned into the biggest annual festival in another part of the India, especially in the state of West Bengal, that too, presumably not before 16th century. A recent research suggests that Gosanis of Odisha were probably the predecessors of Mahisasurmardini Durga worshipped in Eastern part of India. How did the Goddess gain popularity in the neighbouring region more than her place of origin?
Durga became a celebrity goddess in Bengal long before the two states separated in 1930s. The earliest Durgapuja recorded in Bengal history is in 1583, probably arranged by one of the zamindars of Rajshahi, who started Durgapuja as a substitute of Aswamedha Yagna. Historians also point out that the Durga worshipping culture bloomed as an expression of Hindu identity in Bengal under Islamic rule during the regime of Murshidkuli Khan and Alivardi Khan. However evidence of a Durgapuja arranged by Raja Baidyanath in Dinajpur by 1760s under patronage of Nawab Alivardi Khan supports a different opinion: worshipping the Goddess was in fact, patronised by the Mogul emperors. They favoured Durgapuja through their local representatives as an option to enhance brotherhood with the Hindu subjects in this region.
Tracing origins of Durga Puja in the city
The first Durgapuja in Kolkata was celebrated by the Barisha Sabarna Ray Chaudhuri family, when the puja was started in 1610. This puja was in celebration of the receipt of a Jagir from Humayun. Another school endorses the view that the festival took its current shape after the Battle of Plassey (1757). The new English rulers were keen to patronise the festival in order to win the hearts of the local Hindu subjects. Durgapuja in a sense was a ploy to reconstruct the relationships between Hindu Zamindars and the British. Maharaja Krishnachandra’s Durgapuja in Nadia district is a perfect example of British patronage. Krishnachandra, was not in the good books of the Murshidabad Nawabs and was even jailed that prevented his participation in Durgapuja in his own home in Krishnanagar. during the power struggle between British and Islamic rulers, he supported the British and in return was awarded the title “Maharaja” by Lord Clive. the Durgapuja with Krishnanagar royals became a festival to mark the re-establishment of Hindu cultural traditions in the region. Similarly, Raja Nabakrishna Dev, the founder of Shobhabazar Rajbari, who was awarded royal title by British,invited Lord Clive to participate in Durgapuja in 1787. In the beginning of establishing their rule, English rulers found patronising Durgapuja an option to establish power amicably in Bengal.
Durga Puja and 19 th century Socio- political milieu
The new group of zamindars post Permanent Settlement to confirm as well as to boost their social and economic status did not spare the scope of using the religious festival as a medium to establish own brand. Inviting Europeans following the trend set by Shobhabazar royals became wide practice for the same reason. There are plenty of newspaper reports of that time showing the growing number of Europeans attending the festival. 19 century Bengali literature, especially satires written by Kaliprasanna Simha, Trailokyanath Mukhopadhyay can be considered as literary evidence explaining this scenario.
How community pujas evolved
Durgapuja as a community festival started in 1790 as the first Barowari puja, organised and sponsored by 12 friends together in Guptipada of Hooghly district near Calcutta, was a display of wealth and power. Raja Harinath of Kashimbazar adopted this collective form of puja in 1832.“Hutom Panchar Naksha” (1862) by Kaliprasanna Singha gives a vivid description of Calcutta Barowari (public) Durgapujas: how these were organised, celebrated and how the celebrations used to be dragged for weeks.This can be interpreted as the beginning of democratization of Durga Puja. Power-shift from old orthodox land-owners to the merchant class Zamindars encouraged them to show their gratitude to the ruler by accepting the British queens as incarnation of the goddess — best expressed when look of some of the Durga idols resembled Queen Victoria!
Public Durgapuja started gaining popularity late nineteenth century onwards. At that time, donations were collected from the people of the locality or community members staying close to the puja venue. Some of these old public Durgapuja are still being organised in Kolkata. One of them is Bagbazar Sarbajanin Durgotsav, started in 1919. The term, “Sarbajanin” started being used instead of Barowari puja for the community Durgapuja by early 20th century.
Durga Puja and the political language in the freedom movement
This, in turn, contributed in Bengal’s freedom movement as well. In the imagination of the freedom fighter, India as a country was transformed to mother-goddess and image of this “Bharatmata” intermingled with the goddess Durga based on Bankimchandra’s poem “Bande Mataram”. During this time, Durga became the symbol of power against colonialism. The history of Durgapujas organised by Simla Byayam Samity of Anushilan Samity proves this. Anushilan Samity organised a Durgapuja combined with weapon-worshiping in a hidden location in North Calcutta where Maharashtrian activist leader Vinayak Damodar Savarkar played the role of a priest once. Even British ruler became aware of the trend of power shift evolving around the Goddess by that time and that was their reason for banning the Simla Byayam Samity’s puja between1932–34. . Swami Vivekananda started Durgapuja in 1910 in Balur math (1908). Bharat Sevashram Samgha and some others followed suit. Durga became the Goddess for Bengali community free from caste or religious bias — supporting the cause of Hindu nationalism of Bengal.
Theme Pujas and footfalls
As celebrations became much more festive rather than being ritualistic, the dramatic twist in this came with the introduction of themes in 1990’s and the emergence of corporatism in the whole event. The makeshift pandal was no more a beautifully decorated shelter for the idol, but representation of Bengal’s cultural life, people’s understanding of global history, politics, economy and current affairs.The Badrinath temple or the ancient Egyptian temple or Harry Potter’s world began to be recreated. With all these concepts, pandals and the idol were designed by an artist conceptualizing the theme atleast six months before.individual donations were no more adequate to meet the huge cost. At the same time, number of footfalls in the Durgapuja venues were converted into an advertiser’s canvas. presence of almost all business sectors covering FMCG, CDIT, electronics, apparel, mobile networks and apps, automotive, banking etc in the puja sponsor’s list. Durgapuja, became a corporate event showcasing power as market force.
Durga Puja and the political lexicon now
Interestingly, Durgapuja provided the political parties of Bengal good opportunity for public relations. Following the footsteps of pre-independence political motivators, political leaders kept on using the occasion of Durgapuja as their best scope for public communication — the way to achieve political power in a democracy. Many influential political leaders became Puja organisers in own locality. Even Communist Party of India,could not avoid opening kiosks near the famous Puja venues in Kolkata. With government funding to Durga Puja these days, Durga, the Mahisasuramardini continues to be the symbol of political opponent slayer.
This Durga Puja many of these did not happen except the government funding.Pandals were declared no entry zones and pandal hopping was ruled out by the High Court in the event of the Pandemic. Durga Puja once again went back to its ritualistic form as the main focus shifted from counting footfalls to observing the religious rituals.For the first time in history, Pujo became virtual as there were live streaming of the bodhon, anjali, sandhi pujo and bisarjan across the world.
Looking ahead amidst the Pandemic
Amidst a different flavour to the celebrations this year, many things continued to remain same. Ma Durga blessed us all, her eyes glistened during Sondhi Pujo which became watery as well on Dashami. The kaash phool swayed, the shiuli filled up the early morning fragrance, the Saptaparni flowered and so did the lotus bloom.People expressed their bonds through traditional food as Chandrapuli, Kheer takti, Bonde, Mihidana, Ghugni did make star appearances at most houses. A deafening silence engulfed the festive days no doubt but hope did make its way through as we fervently wished to enjoy once again the hues and spirit of a Sarbojanin or a traditional family pujo.