Monday, 29 October 2012


It took for me to come here to India to witness a holiday as great (if not greater in West Bengal) than Thanksgiving and Christmas combined. This holiday is called Durga Puja. Durga Puja is THE greatest festival in West Bengal, India. It is a celebration of Goddess Durga’s victory over the evil demon. In the states, we celebrate our holidays for one or two days the most (not including the number of days to celebrate Hanukah). Indians celebrate Durga Puja for about five consecutive days. This festival/holiday is more than just a festival, it’s a celebration of life, culture, traditions and it is a time for families/friends to reunite and spend quality time with one another. This is also the time where Indians exchange gifts with each other.

I included many sections to help you understand the meaning behind this famous Goddess, Durga and the Durga Puja celebration here in West Bengal, India. 

 Story behind Durga Puja: Once upon a time there was a powerful demon called the Buffalo Demon. After several years of praying, the Buffalo Demon had his prayers fulfilled from Lord Brahma (a powerful God) that made him invincible to all powers. No power could harm him at all. Once the divine powers were bestowed upon him, he started ravaging the whole world and killing people and eventually wanted to uproot the higher Gods too. The Gods, in dismay, combined their powers to create a beautiful maiden, Goddess Durga, and each placed his or her most potent weapon in one of her ten hands riding a lion. Eventually, Durga killed the Buffalo Demon and won the heaven back for the Gods.

Meaning of Durga: Durga means ‘one who is difficult to approach.’ Since she is considered the mother of the universe, she also embodies love, wealth, power, and beauty. Durga also represents destruction of evil and protection of good—that is one of the main reasons why she is worshiped.

Durga Puja celebration time: Durga Puja is celebrated in the month of September/October every year. When I celebrated this holiday in 2012, it ran from October 20-24. The dates of the festival are determined by Hindu calendar. *All schools, colleges, and businesses in West Bengal remain closed for the duration of the holiday.

How is Durga Puja Celebrated: Months prior, thousands of clay images of the goddess and her family are made by a series of very artistic craftsmen. In addition to the clay statues, temples are also built to house the clay statues. By Puja time, Kolkata is PACKED with friends and families who spend time with one another via walking the streets of Kolkata to witness the different/amazing clay statues of Durga and her family. Each day, people complete a series of rituals and offerings to the Goddess and give each other gifts. People exchange gifts as a way to wish each other for success in one’s new endeavors. By the last day the statues are immersed in the water after the festival.

Festival preparations: Like I said before, festival preparations begin a month or two in advance. All the preparations take place in  Kumartuli (the Art district of Kolkata). Artists basically use clay from the ganges (river) to build the image of Durga and her kids who are also famous gods/goddesses: Mahisasur, Kartick, Ganesh, Saraswati, and Lakshmi. In addition to the clay images, another group of people start building a pandal (a huge covered stage) made out of paper, wood, clothes, and other materials. I just cannot find the words to describe how beautiful the people end up making the pandals. Some constructions are built as a replica of world famous structures.

Mamata Banerjee aka Didi (nickname in Bengali for elder sister)
LOL!! This is the closest I got to Didi right
before she blessed the pandal---I am SO extra!!
Rituals to Durga Puja: Right before the puja celebration, the first day begins with a whole day of rituals and prayers for one’s ancestors. The first day of prayer is the only day that’s held in the family because each family prays to their ancestors. By the second day, Bengali’s (that’s what Indians living in West Bengal call themselves) join others within their community to begin the puja celebration. The main puja lasts for three days (excluding the first day of prayer). As a community, Indians fulfill more rituals and offerings that are long, very detailed, and complicated. But, before these rituals can begin, Goddess Durga and her children must be officially recognized. In Kolkata, Millions of people come to the city to line before the pandals and see Durga. Considering how much of a deal it is to reveal the Goddess, the first person to see the Goddess in Kolkata, has to be Mamata Banerjee, the current Chief Minister of West Bengal. She is the first woman to hold the office.

Despite the density of the crowd  (mainly the photographers) around Didi, I found a way to get really close to Didi, exchange a few words with her in Bengali (nOmoshkar Didi, amar nam Sandy. Amar desh Amrikay--Hello Didi, my name is Sandy. My country is America), and take a quick picture before she went ahead to reveal Durga. 

Since myself and the other Fulbrights were really not too sure what to expect, we banked on hanging out with as many locals to see how they celebrate Durga Puja. Thankfully our Bengali teacher, Protima-Di, kept insisting that we come to her community to witness the revealing of Goddess Durga at her community’s pandal (see left). I am SO GLAD I went! The pandal of Protima-di’s community was beyond beautiful. Even with all the 50+ pandals I went to see that week, that pandal was my favorite. The pandal was so beautiful and real that it is hard to believe that it was only made for a couple of days or a week.

For the duration of the festival, people walk all over Kolkata to admire the different versions of Durga and her kids

FINAL DAY= WOMEN'S DAY!:The last day is actually my favorite part of the festival because it demonstrates women empowerment and the role of women in the family. Indian women of all ages, married and unmarried join together to embrace one another as they send-off a power woman, Durga, to continue fulfilling her role as an inspiring Goddess who never lets evil come between her and her loved ones.
After all the dancing and putting of the sindoor (red powder—see my post on Indian Wedding), the women from each community must walk the streets to guide the Goddess back to the ganges to be immersed in the water.
I met this lady earlier that day, and she didn't mind me
taking this picture of her performing a farewell prayer to Durga.
*After visiting far too many pandals and see many versions of Durga--we went back to Protima Di's community to celebrate with her the final rituals for Durga. 

Goddess Durga (within the Gold/shimmering pandal)
Protima-Di performing her farewell ritual to Durga
Protima-Di also gives prayer and offering to Durga's kids
As an 'unmarried' woman, I do not get to put the sindoor on Durga but I still got to celebration for Durga.

*Below you will see me, Carolina (ETA), Kara (ETA), and our unmarried/married friends, having fun dancing together. When completing her prayersand offerings, the women usually put the sindoor on themselves and other women (married & unmarried).

Later that night, male members of the community carefully move Durga and her kids on a truck. The women from every community will march down the street with their 'Durga' to eventually lead her to the ganges to return back to her husband until the next year.
While walking with the women, this news reporter from some station wanted to interview me,
a 'foreigner' to ask me  how I felt about Durga Puja.
All the women in Protima-Di's community marching together, Durga is behind us.

 *Since the distance from the ganges and the community is so great, the women only paraded the main streets of Kolkata. Once they returned to their own community, designated members of the community went to the ganges to officially send Durga and her kids into the ganges.  Considering how tired Carolina and I were, we also decided to go home. Nevertheless, look below to see an example of how Bengali's give away the Goddess and her kids in the ganges.
Immersion of Durga in the water


No comments:

Post a Comment