Durga Puja, Durgotsava or Sharadotsav, whichever name you call it by, it means the same thing. A time for rejoicing and invigorating ourselves, a time for reminding ourselves of our cultural values and most importantly, a time for getting together with our loved ones.
The puja is for a period of ten days, but the real celebration takes place during the last four days. The last day or the tenth day is known as Vijaydashmi and marks the victory of Goddess Durga over the demon Mahishasura. While the festival is celebrated all over the country and even by Indians abroad, nothing can match the grandeur and gaiety with which it is celebrated in West Bengal.
The Bengal Bonaza
For West Bengal, the Durga Puja is the biggest festival of the year and it is a five day vacation. For the average Bengali, nothing is more important and greater than Durga Puja. Bengali communities even in other parts of India get together and the celebrations are just as chaotic as they are fun. Music, dance and a general atmosphere of hope and happiness pervades the area where Bengalis get together. It is so infectious that places like Kali Bari in New Delhi become a no go zone for vehicles and the road becomes one big fairground even for Non Bengalis. However, to experience the true glamour and glitz of the occasion, one must be in West Bengal and especially Kolkata. The city is decorated and lights put up in every alley. It is one big fair and the entire city turns into a fairground. Loudspeakers will be blaring popular Hindi and Bengali film songs along with traditional and devotional music, however, the cacophony only adds to the atmosphere. Giant wheels, merry-go-rounds and other such attractions are setup in various places. This is also probably the best time to enjoy Bengali delicacies as food stalls are setup in every available space. Pandals with decorated idols of the goddess are setup in numerous places and there is also a competition and prize for the best pandal. A very famous activity that has become a tradition on its own is ‘pandal hopping’, that is, visit as many pandals as you possibly can. The tenth and last day is pure frenzy. Idols from all over Kolkata and indeed West Bengal are carried towards the various ghats of the Ganga River. People take part in the customary dance in front of the goddess to the beats of the traditional drums with lighted lamps in their hands. Finally the statues are immersed in the river amid delirious cries and maddening celebrations mark the end of the affair, only to be continued the following year.
Durga Puja is also an important festival in the states of Assam, Tripura, Bihar and many other places. The festivities in these places may not match the fervor of Kolkata, but no will bet on calling them dull. Full of energy and enthusiasm, the festivities are carried on in much the same vein as in West Bengal. Special pandals housing statues of Goddess Durga are heavily decorated with lights and flowers are setup across these states.
In Gujarat, this festival is known as Navratri and dedicated to Goddess Amba as Durga is known in this part of the country. Apart from the rituals, the highlight of the festival in Gujarat is the nine nights of celebration which include the traditional dances Garbha and Dandia. These days, it is common to see even non-Gujaratis in other parts of India also dancing the Garbha and Dandia during the Navratris.
The British Connection
It is widely documented that before independence, British soldiers and other officials frequently visited and took part in the Durga Puja festivities in Kolkata and other parts of Bengal. In fact, some even go on to say that in 1765, East India Company officials also performed a thanksgiving puja to the goddess. However, many Indians settled in the UK celebrate the festival there along with their British friends. So, the British also have a right to claim association with festival for centuries. Since 2006, the immersion of Goddess Durga statues has been allowed in the Thames river,
Durga Puja is also widely celebrated by Indians in various other countries. USA, Australia, China, Indonesia and may other parts of the world. In many places, purohits or pujaris are especially flown in from India to conduct the ceremonies.
A different shade of green
There are also many environmental concerns raised by environmental activists regarding the immersion of thousands of idols in The Ganga as well as many other water bodies across the country. The materials used to make the idols as well as all the decoration that is added like paints, etc., endanger the ecological balance of these rivers and streams. In recent times though, efforts have been made to make the statues as well as the decoration in eco-friendly products that will not stress the rivers.
In fact, West Bengal has taken the lead in this initiative as well by having its own environmental protection agency that has successfully curbed the use of hazardous substances in the idols. While the country looks up to West Bengal to celebrate Durga Puja, they should also emulate their example in celebrating responsibly.