Friday, March 19, 2010

Worship, Arts Fair, or High-Society Wedding?

Durga Puja is also a festivity of Good (Ma Durga) winning over the evil (Maheshasoora the demon). It is a worship of the power of Good which always wins over Evil. Durga's Puja is celebrated from the sixth to tenth day of the waxing moon in the month of Ashwin (Aahin in Assamese), which is the sixth month in the Hindu calendar. In the Gregorian calendar, these dates correspond to the months of September and October.

The actual worship of the Goddess Durga, as stipulated by the Hindu scriptures, falls in the month of Chaitra (Sote in Assamese), which roughly overlaps with March-April.

Since the Goddess is invoked at the wrong time in September-October, it is called Akaal Bodhon (or untimely invocation). In the Ramayana, Rama invokes the goddess Durga in his battle against Ravana. Although she was traditionally worshipped in the spring, due to contingencies of battle, Rama had to invoke her in the autumn akaal bodhan. Today it is this Rama's date for the puja that has gained ascendancy, although the spring puja, known as Basanti Puja, is also present in the Hindu almanac. Since the season of the puja is autumn (or Shôrot), it is also known as Shôrodia puja.

The pujas are held over a five-day period, which is traditionally viewed as the coming of the married daughter, Durga, to her father, Himalaya's home. Although it is a Hindu festival, religion takes a back seat on these five days: Durga Puja is a carnival, where people from all backgrounds, regardless of their religious beliefs, participate and enjoy themselves to the hilt. In Kolkata alone, more than 2000 pandals are set up, all clamouring for the admiration and praise of the populace. Durga Puja in Kolkata is often referred to as the Rio Carnival of the Eastern Hemisphere.

The first such Puja was organised by Raja Nabakrishna Deb of the Shobhabazar Rajbari of Calcutta in honour of Lord Clive in the year 1757. The puja was organised because Clive wished to pay thanks to the divine for his victory in the Battle of Plassey. He was unable to do so in a Church because the only church in Calcutta at that time was destroyed by Siraj-ud-Daulah.

Durga Puja was popular in Bengal in the medieval period, and records exist of it being held in the courts of Rajshahi (16th century). It was during the 18th century, however, that the worship of Durga became popular among the landed elite of Bengal, the zamindars. Prominent Pujas were conducted by the landed zamindars and jagirdars, enriched by British rule. Today, the culture of Durga Puja has shifted from the princely houses to Sarbojanin (literally, "involving all") forms. The first such puja was held at Guptipara.

As one who has visited Durga Puja across Delhi, West Bengal, Orissa and Assam, I would not hesitate to say that Durga Puja is the largest outdoor art festival on earth. In the 1990s, a preponderance of architectural models came up on the pandal exteriors, but today the art motif extends to elaborate interiors, executed by trained artists, with consistent stylistic elements. The art motifs observed have been history (ancient civilizations like the Incas and the Egyptians), mythology, science – and even the Titanic and Harry Potter!

In Delhi, there are approximately 400 registered pujas, which are celebrated with great fanfare by Bengalis, Oriyas and Assamese settled in Delhi. Unlike most of the Durga Pujas in Kolkata, the atmosphere in Durga Pujas celebrated across Delhi, in general, are less commercial and more religious affairs.

In Orissa, Durga Puja is celebrated in two different: apart from the different pandals (called "Medho" in Oriya), devotees also worship the deity in Shakti Peethas (temples of goddess) with proper rituals for 10-16 days, the period known as Shodasa Upachara. Dussehra in Nepal is called Dashain. Interestingly the oldest Puja to be conducted at the same venue is in Rameswarpur, Orissa, where it continues for the last four centuries since the Ghosh Mahashays from Kotarang near Howrah migrated as a part of Todarmal's contingent during Akbar's rule.

As Nepal is chiefly a Hindu nation, the pattern and dates of the festivals coincide with those of India. Durga Puja is organised by the Indian diaspora in the US, Europe and Australia. Although pandals are not constructed, the idols are flown in from Kumartuli in Bengal. The desire by the diaspora to keep in touch with their cultural ties has led to a boom in religious tourism, as well as learning from priests versed in the rites. Also recently, the immersion of the Durga idol has been allowed in the Thames River for the festival which is held in London. In the US, the pujas are often hosted during weekends.

According to historian Benudhar Sarma, the present form of worship of Durga with earthen idols in Assam was started during the reign of Ahom King Pratap Singha. The King heard about the festivity, the pomp and grandeur with which the King Naranarayan of Koch Bihar celebrated Durga Puja from one Sondar Gohain, who was under captivity of the Koch raja. King Pratap Singha sent artisans to Koch Bihar to learn the art of idol making. The King organised the first such Durga Puja celebration in Bhatiapara near Sibsagar. Previous to this, the Devi was worshipped only in Durga temples like Kamakhya, Digheswari, Maha Bhairabi, Ugrotara, and Tamreswari.

Now-a-days, the Durga Puja is mostly a community festival celebrated in all the cities, towns, villages of Assam with great festivity for five days. The Pujas in every corner of Guwahati are mostly spectacular and sumptuous extravaganza. The lighting done by mechanics borrowed from Siliguri – a bit of a drain of resources. And in all this opulence, perhaps a bit of the spiritual significance is silently lost.

Durga Puja in Guwahati has become more a celebration of wealth than a celebration of the soul. The general people cannot even go near the Durga Pratima for worship in most pandals. But the Durga Puja at Shanti Sabha is different. The lights here are for illumination, not for dazzling the devotees with the opulence of the organisers. In this puja, you will get to offer your anjali, and you will get your prasad. On every day of the Puja, after the puja is over, you will get your payash (kheer) and khichdi served in the first floor hall. You will get to join in the celebration of Assamese culture in the Ozapaali and Bhawna.

And most importantly – you will have the opportunity of having a quiet word with the Divine in a genuine Puja – not an arts fair masquerading as a high-society wedding!