I just escaped the river of crowds queuing up for hours in the temples of South India to have a brief darshan of the deities, helping to wash away their sins or answer their endless prayers for whatever, or for thanksgiving.
I entered the sea of humanity thronging the Durga puja pandals; old, young, sick and healthy, children on arms, poor and well-to-do, locals and NRIs, it was a medley of civilisation. Here was no agenda, the prayers were restricted to the stipulated ‘Anjali’ timings. It was not a give and take visit like most do at temples.
If religion was the primary factor for the people in south to throng the temples, the celebrations in Bengal were otherwise. It reflected culture, plastered the often-punctured feeling of irreverence of the state in relation to the country, it tried to dust off its isolation, authenticated its cultural competency, propped up the sagging spirits of the state (save during soccer season), helped forget the lack of industrialisation or trivialities like the syndicate menace. Durga Puja, above all was a catalyst, rekindling hopes in every Bengali heart.
If Lokmanya Tilak brought out Ganesh puja to consolidate the nationalist fervour against the colonial British rulers, a dozen commoners brought out a community Puja sometimes in the 18th century, which till then was confined to the houses of landlords who monopolised the pujas to flaunt their strength and stature.
Worship of Hindu idols in temple were stern, with only Brahmins performing the rituals and the wealthy owning the gods and the poor left out in the cold. If advent of Goddess Manasa in Bengal, or the many Ammans and Muneeswarans on the outskirts of most villages of South India laid the carpet of inclusivity, it was the community pujas that gave the ordinary man a sense of belonging and participation.
Until 1840, when the British officially banned the participation of its officials in the pujas, it was normal for them to attend the celebrations, ceremonially offer salute to the Goddess and eat reverentially the puja offerings. In the villages all communities participated in the festivities.
Today, I stand awed by the gargantuan styles and grandiose themes that have come alive and further lift the puja spirits high. Sponsors stand in queues, as a leading industrialist confided that the exposure during these 5 days give them more mileage than year-round media releases. Banners of Boroline and Bata have given way to newer entrants with deeper pockets. The big organisers of Pujas are becoming bigger and the small are graduating as big, as the budget for many pujas now match the big Ganesh Chaturthi Pujas in Mumbai.
Imaginative Bengalis comes to the fore, designing newer concepts both for the idols, who sometimes come floating straight from heaven, in a boat or even shown as fighting social evils in addition to the slaying of Mahishasura, the traditional buffalo headed demon. Innovative new ideas, like painting beautiful floral motifs all along the roads, recreating popular scenes from famous movies, or even replica White House of the US President have become a child’s play for the artists involved. Gold has crept in, in the form of apparel adorned by the Goddess in addition to her ornaments to increase the wow factor. It is disproved every year that here could end newness, as further pleasant surprises spring up to stun one and all.
The Dunuch naach carrying deftly multiple incense pots by dancers, backed by a frenzied Dakh (traditional drums) and gongs accompanied with blowing conch shells in smoke filled pandals do not for once invite the scorn and scowl of an otherwise sensitive nosed Bengali. It is a sight to see as many wander from one place to other as every nook and corner of the city is embellished with one or another famous Puja Pandal, the huge abode of Goddess during the festival. All eateries, dishing out every kind of food like steaming momos, moghlai parathas, rills and noodles make a kill and redeem their year-round losses in the five-day celebrations.
State’s offices shutting down for a fortnight, banks shut for nearly a week could be during wars or calamities elsewhere in the world, but Bengal could do it just to celebrate! People forget even the Gregorian calendar, as the days of the festivals are referred with the Hindu thitis, dates as per lunar calendar, as they tend to forget all other ills, at least for a while!
Durga Puja has become truly an elixir in relation to Bengal’s culture, creativity, economy, tourism as well plurality. Today is Dashami, when the Goddess finally slays the demon and the festivities end with a ‘Sindhur Khela,’ when the ladies apply vermillion on each other and bid a tearful farewell to ‘Ma,’ Mother Durga, who smilingly enters the waters of Hooghly, only to re-emerge next year in new styles and kindling new hopes!
In pic a traditional image of Durga accompanied by Laxmi, Saraswati, Ganesh and Kartik from my locality.