Smiling blue skies trimmed with fleecy white clouds, gentle breeze, warm sunshine and the 'kash' flowers usher in the month of Aswin (September-October).
It is time for Durga Puja, the main festival of Bengal, bringing with it new hope to the hearts of all Bengalis. Durga Puja or Durgotsava starts off a chain of festivals which end with Saraswati Puja.
Mahalaya and the pre-dawn recitation from the Chandi announce the advent of Durgotsava. Preparations and expectations culminate in the Puja days, Shashti, Saptami, Ashtami and Nabami. The beat of drums, the clash of cymbals, the ringing of bells, dances
before the image of Durga, incense wafting in the air, all form an integral part of Durga Puja. All too soon it is Bijoyam the day when the images are taken in a procession and immersed in the river. Bengalis go back to their mundane lives to wait another year to welcome the goddess.
Durga Puja, as we know it today, is a festival that binds together people from all walks of life, irrespective of caste, creed and religion. It is a community festival, though in some houses they still have private pujas. Durgotsava has turned out to be a source of livelihood for people in different spheres. The image maker, the priest, the florists, the dhaki (drumbeater), grocers, confectioners and volunteers are all part and parcel of this festival. It is a time to exchange gifts. This is a season for new clothes. The puja generates enthusiasm as well as income for countless people.
A notable feature of Durga Puja is the Puja Issue of a magazine. This cultural aspect is a literary offering on the eve of Mahalaya. This unique feature of Bengal reminds us that it has always been in the forefront of culture. Associated with the Puja, cultural functions and melas (fairs) are held. These melas create mass contact and develop various folk arts and cottage industries.
A peep into the past presents us with a rich background of the mythological and historical aspects of this great festival. Durga was a Puranic Goddess. In the Puranas, the struggle between the Gods and demons or asuras is mentioned. The Gods could not subdue Mahisasura, the king of demons, who
drove the gods out of heaven. They went to Vishnu who told them that it would be possible for someone other than a God to defeat Mahisasura. The name Tilottoma and not Durga is found in the Puranas. She was created with all the special attributes. Shiva gave her his trident, Vishnu his die, the spear was given by Yama, Agni gave a dart, Kubera a club, Kala a sword, Surya a quiver full or arrows for a magical bow given by Vayu; Varuna provided her with a conch to announce her victory; Viswakarma a battle axe and Indra his thunderbolt. Himavan gave her a mount - a ferocious lion. She was also adorned with jewels.
She subjugated Mahisasura and is also known as Mahisasurmardini, who disappeared into nothingness. Mahisasura is identified with a black buffalo.
The war between the asuras and the Gods took place in spring, the season for war. It is said that Ram invoked the blessings of Chandi in Autumn before attacking Lanka. This was not the proper time for war. Therefore Rama had to invoke Chandi so as to be victorious. The Chandi-worship of Rama was called ''Akal Bodhan" the untimely worship.
Another myth centers around Parvati, the daughter of Menaka and Himalaya. She unwillingly married Shiva. The Durga mythology slowly crept into the social mainstream and gave rise to poignant yet common social feelings. Durga has other common houselold names like Uma, Gouri, Lalita and soon.
The very name Durga is not Aryan but Asianic. This name
Durga, came from aboriginal sources like the Santhal folk lore. The kingdom of Champa (modern Pataliputra, Magadh) was ruled by Harmaid Durga. The Aryans could not defeat him. They engaged a beautiful courtesan to entice Harmaid Durga. She was so successful that, when the Aryans attacked, Harmaid Durga, busy with his courtesan did not bother to protect his kingdom. Consequently Harmaid Durga was killed and the Aryans worshipped the courtesan. The feminine of Durga should rightfUlly be Durgi. The worship of Durga became the annual Aryan festival and the Durga cult was established among the Aryans. Incidentally, the Aryans called the non-Aryans 'dashyu', 'dashya', 'dasa' (slave) and subdued them. This explains the presence of the black buffalo.
Durga Puja was not prevalent anywhere in Bengal before the 15th century. In the folk songs of the Bauls (wandering minstrels of North and West Bengal, the arrival of Gouri in Autumn, has been sung.
The historical evidence of Durga Puja can be traced to the time of Hossain Shah Sultan of Bengal. It was the Golden Age of Bengal, the end of the fifteenth century. Political power was in the hands of the zamindars. The zamindars of North Bengal were all powerful. There was great rivalry between the zamindars of Dinajpur and Malda for social supremacy. The zamindars of Dinajpur initiated Durga Puja. Akal Bodhan, on the day when Rama worshipped Durga. He spent 9,00,000. There was great pomp and pageantry and the climate was excellent as it was autumn.
The zamindar of Malda to out-beat his rival performed Basanti Puja according to Puranic tradition in Chaitra and spent 9,50,000. From the next year, both did Durga Puja in Autumn.
Later, the centre of Muslim rule shifted from Gaur to Dhaka. The zamindars flourshed in East Bengal. They vied with each other and Durga Puja was performed by most. In the eighteenth century, it spread to other parts of Bengal. It is difficult to pinpoint the date but Radhakanto Deb and Kalikrishna Thakur brought the festival to Calcutta.
The Maratha dacoits or Borgis would annually invade Bengal. They adopted Durga Puja and carried it westward with them. It is performed with different names in many parts of the country, particulary in the Eastern region and specially in Bengal. In Nepal it is performed as Chandi Puja.
Durga Puja as we know it today has undergone a vast change from the past. It is performed by Bengalis all over the world. Twelve friends or Baro Yar first joined together and performed a community Durga Puja. It came to be known as Baroyari, then Baroari.
A few Durga Pujas in Calcutta are organized wholly by women, Durgotsav is now a community festival and has spread to every nook and cranny of Bengal.