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The azure sky with fleecy white clouds and the nip in the air marks the advent of autumn – the season for Bengal’s most popular festival, Durga Puja or the worship of Goddess Durga. Durga Puja is celebrated with customary pomp and fanfare twice a year – once in the month of March or April (basant) and again in the month of September or October (ashwin), during the moonlit fortnight. On both the occasions, the puja is a nine-day affair with the last day coinciding with Ram Navmi and Dussehra respectively. The Mother Goddess is venerated in one form or the other all over India, though her popularity is at its peak with the Bengalis.
¤ Goddess Durga Worship The right time for the worship of Goddess Durga being in spring, the prayers of Lord Rama are also known as akal bodhan (untimely worship). Nowadays, Ram Navmi is celebrated during spring and Durga Puja or Dussehra is celebrated during autumn. Prevalent in Bengal is the tale of the defeat of the demon, Mahishasura at the hands of Goddess Durga, the incarnation of Shakti, or Power. This demon was almost invincible because of a boon granted by Lord Shiva (the Destroyer in the Hindu Holy Trinity of Creator-Preserver-Destroyer) whereby no male could defeat him. But the gods found a novel solution to the daunting problem. The amalgamation of the might of all the gods resulted in the birth of Shakti in the form of Goddess Durga, who wielded an assortment of weapons in her 10 hands and rode a lion. Predictably enough, she was able to slay the demon, thus ending his reign of terror. Therefore, Durga is also called Mahishasuramardini (the slayer of Mahishasura). This holy battle has come to symbolise the triumph of Good over Evil.
¤ The Grand Celebration Durga Puja is celebrated on a mass scale with puja pandals (marquees) dotting nearly every nook and corner of West Bengal. Thanks to a migrant Bengali population, the past few years have seen a rise in the number of Durga Pujas in other parts of the country and abroad as well. Preparations for the Puja begin long before the actual day arrives. If you are looking for bargains, you won’t find a better time. Publishing houses come out with puja editions of magazines, and craftsmen and artisans do brisk business at this time of the year. During the four days of Durga Puja, Bengalis really let their hair down. Beside the actual Puja, most pandals organise different kinds of competition to regale the local people. It’s party time for both children and adults alike as they participate wholeheartedly in the fun and frolic. Local talent gets a chance to share the stage (a makeshift one more often than not) with more illustrious artists. The festivities begin from maha shashthi (the sixth day from the day after mahalaya) when the priest unveils the deity during a puja known as bodhan. On this day the women of the house fast for the well-being of the family. The fast is broken in the evening with fruits and luchis (a kind of bread made of flour), usually eaten with sabzi (vegetables). It is normal for the whole family to participate in these rituals, especially when it comes to partaking of the yummy luchis and sabzi. A trip to the local pandal is also a must. The morning of maha saptami (seventh day) is taken up with the worship of the deity, followed by anjali when a devotee offers prayers and flowers on an empty stomach, amidst the chanting of mantras to the Goddess. Only then can one make a beeline for the prasad (sweetmeat offered to the deity). Bhog (meal provided to all and sundry after the Goddess has partaken of it) at lunchtime is a welcome break for those who gather in the pandals. But come evening, and the pandal becomes a dazzling array of new clothes, shiny faces of children running helter-skelter and a spectacular display of lights. The rhythmic beat of the dhak (drums) adds to the mood of Bengal’s most popular festival. The maha ashtami (eighth day) is an especially significant day. The priest breathes life into the idol of Durga as he performs the sandhi puja (worship in the evening) to the chanting of shlokas (religious couplets). The reflection of the idol has to be observed in a bowl of water as this gives an impression of movement. This part of the puja is known as pranpratishtha (breathing life into the idol). Kumari puja (worship of young girls) is an old custom still carried out in certain temples. All these special ceremonies are interspersed with the usual rounds of anjali, prasad and bhog. Merry-making reaches fever pitch by the evening on this day. of course, amongst the highlights of the evenings are the gastronomical treats that can be bought from the stalls abounding in the pandals. Pandal-hopping is also a favourite pastime. One cannot talk about maha navmi (ninth day), without laying emphasis on the fact that meat is served in many pandals as part of the bhog, but never in the temples. This being the penultimate day of the Puja, one can feel that it is soon going to be over.