Indian Festivals – India

Indian Festivals

India is a large, beautiful and bountiful country. It could be renamed Utopia, if only there were less number of festivals! Unfortunately, whilst Christians, like the Muslims and Buddhists believe in only one God, we Indians have a multitude of them. The Bengalis have aptly coined a phrase – ‘baro mashey tero parban’ meaning twelve months and thirteen festivals! There are enough valid reasons for having so many of them – the country is large, dialects are many, climatic conditions vary from area to area. Obviously, if one part of the country celebrates a festival to pay homage to the Gods for a good harvest, those in some other area will have to wait for their turn.

Another factor which influences the decision to have a multiplicity of festivals is to honor the social hierarchy. I am no socialist, I have no ill feelings against any group but, it has to be agreed that celebration of festivals lead to monetary gains by certain sections of society. The power to interact with the divine elements is bestowed only on certain groups, hence they are very much in demand to perform the rituals and are in a position to dictate terms. In order to perform these rituals, specific items are required – as a result, those who are involved in their manufacture get an opportunity to market their products. New dresses and utensils are mandatory whereas sweets and firecrackers add to the charms of any festival – hence, these also gain importance. It, therefore, stands to reason that the more the festivals, the greater is the satisfaction level of all concerned.

Let us take the New Year. The whole world celebrates it on the first day of January. The Bengalis celebrate it on the first day of January apart from pehla Baishakh, (in the middle of April) – Baishakh being the first month of the Bengali calendar. On this occasion, the business community worships Sri Ganesha the God of Prosperity. Right from the smallest of shopkeepers to the largest of retail store owners, especially the jewelers invite their regulars and try to rope in new comers into their exclusive chain. On the other hand, worshipping of Ganeshji is a ten day festival in Maharastra and is performed in each and every household and not confined to the business community only.
The Sikhs celebrate their new year on the day prior to that of the Bengalis. The Sikhs call it Baisakhi and bhangra dances usher in the Punjabi New Year.

Similarly, the kite festival for the Bengalis coincides with the worship of Lord Viswakarma, the God of Engineering. On this occasion, every worker cleans all his machines and associated tools and worships Lord Viswakarma to seek his blessings so that outputs for the next year can be given as planned without anything adverse happening. In the South, Lord Viswakarma is worshipped during Ayudh Puja (the day previous to Dassera) and the kite festival is not linked to this at all. The kite festival is held on Sankranti day. Holi is yet another festival which is celebrated mainly in the North and the East on the full moon day – but, in Maharastra, it is shifted by five days and called as Rang Panchami.

The reasons for staggering the festivals and having so many of them seem to be related to business strategies. With less number of festivals, the sale of consumer goods get restricted to only that period but, in India, there are no such restrictions. The whole world is a stage and each day brings with it newer opportunities to jump on to the bandwagon to share the spoils!

Ganapati Bappa

The ten-day-long Ganesh festival normally commences in September/October and signifies the start of the festival season in India.

Originally a festival celebrated in the confines of ones homes, it has now become a public show celebrated with pomp and grandeur, a sort of mass movement. India’s Ironman Bal Gangadhar Tilak, during the freedom fighting days, used this opportunity to unite the masses against the British. Today, Tilak is not there but the tradition carries on. Donations are pooled together from the common man and huge pandals are erected, extensively decorated with lights and adorned with large images of Lord Ganesh, popularly known as Ganapati. Each celebration committee tries to outdo the other in decoration and lighting and young and old move from pandal to pandal taking in the spectacles with awe. Political patronage adds a new dimension and makes competitions more intense. With 2004 being declared as the election year, the codes of conduct defined by the EC cannot be violated. Hence, brains work overtime to identify escape routes, so that the dictates of the EC are taken into account while formulating the programmes and controlling the extent and magnitude of celebrations.

Last year, I had seen a Ganesh made of cashew nuts, almonds and copra (dried coconuts). It drew crowds only for its innovative presentation. The annual Pune Festival is celebrated during these festivities. TV channels transmit video footages of these pandals so that, even without moving from the house, we can enjoy and be a part of the festivities.

In the recent past, quite a number of our youngsters have shifted overseas to take advantage of greener pastures. They are fondly called NRIs. In order to cater to their needs, innumerable websites have cropped up offering a whole range and variety of products and services. Knick-knacks like key chains, lockets, wrist bands with the motif of Ganesh are usually in great demand. These could be of gold or silver or even platinum embedded with precious stones. Money is no problem for the NRIs because they pay in dollars and use credit cards. There are also photographs and paintings on sale. Vendors eagerly wait for the smallest of excuses to dump leftovers on the unsuspecting public and festivals of such magnitude present them with wonderful opportunities. The products are non-perishable; hence a bit of polishing can do the trick!

Then, there are the sites which help you to perform the Puja yourself – the mantras are uttered with perfect diction and, accompanied by appropriate devotional music in the background, one momentarily forgets that he is in Memphis, USA and not in Mumbai!! The process rekindles old memories and brings back what is called ‘home sicknesses’.
On the 14th day that is on Anantha Chaturdashi, the images are immersed in the local rivers or lakes. In Mumbai, these are immersed in the Arabian Sea. The TV networks dutifully relay the complete proceedings and the gorgeous affairs are really and truly breathtaking. With chantings of ‘ganapatti bappa morya, pudcha barsha laukar ya!’ we bid adieu to the Lord Ganesh requesting him to come early next year.


As October makes its entry, the monsoon clouds recede in the distant horizon to be replaced by an azure blue sky with flakes of fluffy white moving at a leisurely pace from one end of the sky to the other. There is a chill in the early morning air with drops of dew covering the grass carpet beneath your feet. The tender corns of paddy sway in the breeze, rivers are full, the trees regain their charm, flowers bloom all over the countryside and birds disturb the silence with their happy chirpings. There is no need to announce that Sharodatsav has arrived! You can literally feel the festive mood setting in. The Eastern part goes gaga over Durga Puja, the North and the South prepare to burn effigies of the demon King Ravana to celebrate Dassera, whilst the West gets ready to dance to the tunes of dandiya to usher in Navaratri.

When the train enters the boundaries of Bengal, one can immediately experience the change and homesickness grips him. In order to become one with the elements, he gets down at Khragpur station, paces up and down the platform and has a cup of tea served in a ‘khuri’ (small earthen container that can fit into your palm!) to enjoy the full Bengali flavor. Then he searches his favorite snacks – shingara and vegetable chops!!

Durgotsav, as it is called in Bengal, starts from Mahalaya – this is the day that Godess Durga is supposed to have started her journey from her husband’s house in Mt. Kailash in the Himalayas to come to her mother’s place in Bengal accompanied by her children. On this auspicious day, early in the morning, at four o’clock to be precise, a two-hour-long program is broadcast in Bengali from Aklashvani Kolkata. A translated version in Hindi is subsequently transmitted from all other important radio stations. The translation is restricted to only the text. The beautiful memorable songs are left untouched. Many of the artistes are no longer in our midst but their recorded voices still reverberate in each and every Bengali house on Mahalaya day. Titled ‘Mahisasurmardini’ (which means ‘the slayer of the demon-in-the-guise-of-a-buffalo’) this program narrates how Durga was conceived, how she was armed with a variety of weapons given by the Gods to destroy the demon and how she achieved her goal in bringing peace and happiness to the World.

A two hour pre-recorded cassette titled ‘Mahisasurmardini’ has been released by the Gramophone Company of India (Ltd), Calcutta in 1983. Recitation of the shlokas in fluent Sanskrit is by Birendra Krishna Bhadra and Music Direction is by Pankaj Kumar Mallick. It comes in a set of two cassettes and the Catalogue No. is FPHV842114/115. It was broadcast for the first time way back in 1932!! Birendra Krishna Bhadra was only 28 years old at that time. 2004 happens to be his centenary year.

The demon ‘mahisasur’ signifies the umpteen-plus-one faces of evil and the weapons of Durga signify the innumerable weapons at our own disposal to tackle the evils that we face every day. The weapons were gifted to her by the Gods – with the single purpose of slaying the demon. Lord Shiva gave her the trident; Vishnu stepped in with his Sudarshan Chakra; Indra chipped in with thunder; Surya, the Sun God gave her the bow and arrow whilst Viswakarma gave her the shield and other protective clothing. Brahma contributed the kamandalu; Kuber, the multi jeweled necklace and Yamraj, the kaldanda! In addition, the Himalayas gave her the lion, to carry her into the warfront.

Listening to the wonderful rendering of Mahisasurmardini as the cool autumn dawn slowly breaks over the horizon while sipping a cup of tea snuggled in the comforts of the blanket is a heavenly feeling. The whole world wakes up from slumber to greet the onset of Durga Puja of which Mahalaya is the first step.

On Mahalaya day, another important ritual is to remember our ancestors by doing the ‘tarpan’. It is performed by offering token food and water in the names of those who were our near and dear ones but who are no longer alive.

Normally, bonus to all employees are paid latest by Mahalaya – hence, the shopping spree also gains momentum with shops displaying the latest designs, offering discounts on earlier unsold stocks and inviting customers to participate in various gift schemes to boost their sales.

Oh Kolkata, My Calcutta

Does anyone recollect the Calcutta where marketing on the occasion of Durga Puja used to be in the Harlalka opposite Medical College or in the India Silk House on College Street or the Kamalalaya Stores on Dharamtolla Street? Does anyone recollect that purchase of footwear would be kept in abeyance till the day when all the latest designs and prices would be disclosed on the last page of leading newspapers? Does anyone recollect a park called Wellington Square where Political parties would organize meetings on Saturdays?

Kamalalaya Stores was the only departmental Sstore where one could get lost for the whole day, without realizing it. It stocked every conceivable object from safety pins to suitcases. There was a section devoted to toys and a wonderful refreshment room – a visit to both these was a must after completion of purchases. In order to make the experience more memorable, one need not carry along all his purchases. They would automatically move to the centralized delivery counter located at the exit. Private cars were not as common as they are today, therefore, the uniformed guard would arrange a taxi for you, if you so desired.

For those with shoe string budgets, there would be products aplenty in the various Hawkers’ Corners.

Does anyone recollect trudging along to see the Durga idols at the headquarters of the fire brigade or the one at Beadon Street? Both were famous for innovative designs – I still remember the idol of the fire brigade where Asura was depicted as kneeling down in front of Devi Durga and pleading with outstretched arms for mercy. Or the idols at Beadon Street modeled in lines of Ajanta frescos. There were also the celebrations at Baghbazar where the fair was an added attraction. Microphones all around would air melodious songs released on the occasion and rendered by renowned artistes like Sandhya, Lata, Asha, Protima, Hemanta, Shyamal, Manna Dey and Talat Mahmood. There also used to be parodies by Mintu Dasgupta or comics by the duo Bhanu-Jahar. Hit films would also be released during the Pujas apart from special editions of popular magazines. An author then had the liberty of writing as per his own choice. Unlike today when he is commissioned to write on a specific subject. The reason is obvious – with so many writers in the market, there is every likelihood of repetition of themes and subjects if left to individual tastes and fancies.

Of course, there existed a great cultural divide between residents of the North and the South. Whilst the former were more conservative, their counterparts were more liberal, progressive and advanced. Soon after the release of that beautiful cinema ‘Hatari’, a restaurant of the same name opened on Rash Behari Avenue. It was an instant success and would be patronized by the youth of both North and South. Subsequently, this divide kept expanding, especially with people from other parts of the country preferring to settle down in pockets of South Calcutta. There were Malayalees, Maharastrians and Bangaloreans. Kolkata welcomed all of them with outstretched arms and, from them, emerged luminaries like Usha Uthup, Thankomani Kutty, Derek O’Brien and Dr. N. Vishwanathan.

Kolkata today is a maze of flyovers and potholes.

A change of name is not an indication of a change of character or culture. The roads get waterlogged even now, as it used to fifty years ago. Does anyone recollect that song – ‘the ladies of Calcutta…’ sung by Peter Sellers in the film ‘the Millionairess’-

Idols of Durga 2004

As is well known, Bengalis are basically artists and poets art heart.

Every year, the Durga Puja presents opportunities to them to showcase their talent. This is revealed in the extraordinary methods employed and the innovativeness displayed in the makings of the idols. Conventional Pujas use a straw skeleton on which layers of clay are applied to give it the shape of the relevant deities. The mandaps (place where the idols are kept, rituals are performed and devotees come for darshan) are normally made of bamboos and different colored cloth pieces. However, on the occasion of these annual festivities, imagination goes wild and you find most unconventional materials being used. Based on reports in newspapers, I have compiled a few examples which I feel are worth putting on record for posterity.

There are a few prestigious Pujas where finance is never any constraint. Like the Ekdalia Evergreen, the Singhi Park, Santosh Mitra Square, Mohammed Ali Park, College Street, Park Circus Beniapukur etc. For the organizers, conventionalism is passe. They do not feel it necessary to advertise them since they know people will flock to their Pujas, come what may. But, a whole lot of others leave no stone unturned to capture one of the prizes on offer by the corporate houses. Including sending spies a-la James Bond to find out the themes and strategies of competitors!!

So, here goes –

Khudiram palli (Behala) – the idols are made of mahogany tree trunks. The artist had, last year, made the idols of special clay called ‘pora mati’ – the idols were not immersed as is customary but were retained by a five star hotel for display in its lawns!

For Ajeya Sanhati, Haridevpur, the theme is Nagaland.

The theme of New Alipore Suruchi Sangha last year was Kerala, this year it is Rajasthan. The fine workmanship of the intricate grille work is likely to take your breath away. Golf Club Road Puja also has Rajasthan for its theme. The Golden fort of Jaisalmer is depicted on the outside whilst, the Junagad fort is inside. The 45-feet-high mandap is made of plywood and bamboo.

The Adarshpalli puja on Roy Bahadur Road is displaying South East Asian Buddhist pagodas.

In North Calcutta (Ram Mohan Roy Road), ten lakh pencils have been procured to prepare the mandap. In Udayrajpur (Madhyamgram) the idols are made of wood shavings, whilst in Priya Nath Mallick Road (22 palli, Hazra) coal has been extensively used (nearly 1.5 tons). Bhawanipur Durgotsav Committee has resorted to jute and its products – an added attraction here is an exhibition of jute products. Simultaneously, Vivekananda Athletic Club is promoting silk cocoons – tasar, muga and edi ) – here also an exhibition will be held on the life cycle of silk worms, history of silk etc. Haridevpur 41 palli has employed the hard shell covering of ‘kad bel’s, strips of bamboo and leaves of the palash plant to construct their pandal. These ingredients were brought from Orissa, Jharkhand apart from districts of Bengal.

Lokpalli (Santoshpur Lake) has procured 40,000 hand held fans (called ‘talpatar pakha’ – fans made out of the leaves of palm trees) from South Bengal – on them stories of Manasa Mangal will be depicted through drawings and paintings. The pandal will also be made of these hand fans!

The Putiary Club of South Calcutta is celebrating its platinum jubilee – hence, its pandal is being made of marble. Ichapur Harisabha Sangha, Barrackpore, is displaying an ancient palace with ancient carvings on its walls. Alongside, the Lake View Park Sarbojanin is building a pandal like that where Godess Athena is worshipped – the idol of Durga is in Grecian fashion.

Regarding different themes, Kalighat Sarbojanin Maha Shakti puja has selected Tagore’s favorite poem – kumar parar gorur garhi (means ‘the bullock cart of the den of potters’). A complete potter village, replete with bullock carts and characters created by Tagore will be on display. Similarly, South Selimpur 94 palli is putting on display that famous short story of Tagore – Kabuliwallah (the man from Kabul). There was a hit film based on the same story where the role of Kabuliwallah was played by Chhabi Biswas, the doyen of Bengali films. The influence of Tagore is evident in some other pandals also. like Jadu Mallick Road in North and Nepal Bhattacharji Street 66 palli on Rash Behari in the South – the former has selected ‘bidushak’ and the latter ‘khudita pashan’ (the hungry stones).

Happy viewing to all Calcuttans – for others, if you can make it to Calcutta, you can add to the list, appreciate the variety and understand why Bengalis are what they are!!

Puja Fashions 2004

Durga Puja festivals are the mother of all festivals.

The shopping spree on this occasion is something that remains unmatched in any part of the country. The latest fashions jump out from the popular soaps on TV and, by the time parents are able to satisfy the needs of their children, they are hard put to find items suitable for their own selves. The bigger the budget, the more difficult it is to satisfy all around. As is well known, this is the age of mini families – the breakaway groups suffer from a sense of guilt complex and feel that they also have to contribute some thing or the other to those who had nurtured them through thick and thin. Hence, when in the shops, these persons will buy tit bits for the old woman of the house called the mother or the old man, better known as the father. Added to these are the inclinations to please the in-laws, in case they happen to reside nearby. And then there are the domestic helps – they also need to be pampered to a certain extent, if one has to enjoy better services for the ensuing year!

A craze in 2004 is the ‘Nandini skirt’. It is a dress worn by one of the actresses of the most TV serial of the decade. Price starts from 250. The premier outlets are Treasure Island, Pantaloons, West Side, Bardan Market, Shopper’s Stop, Sri Ram Arcade, Metro Plaza etc.

The latest entry in the saree section is, undoubtedly, the Swarnachari sarees – a cousin of the Baluchari sarees – it is an example of superfine workmanship of golden zaree on silk. A product of Bishnupur, these are priced upward of Rs 3000 whereas the Balucharis are normally in the range of Rs 1800 up to Rs 3000.

Regarding other accessories of fashion – while some of the youth are going for spikes, others prefer Tom Cruise haircut. In the women’s section, options are U-cut, layers and front fringe. Shoes of the ‘crocodile mouth’ designs are the most popular.

Of course, the attractions in all purchases are the free gifts. As an outlet has announced – sweet packets worth Rs 51.00 will be given to purchases of Rs 500.00 and above. On the jewellery front, gold coins will be given free to purchases of over Rs 25000 and silver coins over Rs 10,000. Some jewelers declare ‘lucky draws’ while others offer rebate on the ‘making charges’. The enticement of the readymade clothes dealers is ‘buy one and get one free’.

As they say, it takes all sorts to make a world!

Probasi Pujas 2004

The exact point of time when Probasi Durga Pujas (also called Bahir Banger Pujas) was started is difficult to ascertain. It can be safely stated that it was but natural for the festivities to spread to neighboring states like Orissa and Bihar due to their proximity. Its reach widened when Bengalis took the bold decision of venturing out of their mothers’ apron strings. Initially, they were in the category of scientists and engineers – later, others joined the exodus when local opportunities started to dwindle. As a result, wherever there was a concentration of Bengalis, efforts were initiated to start the Pujas. Obviously, places like Jabalpur (ammunition factory), Bilaspur and Nagpur (headquarters of divisions of the railways), Bhilai, Raipur and Durg (steel factories), Mumbai (cine personalities, goldsmiths and silversmiths and BARC), Pune (Telco), Nasik (security press, aircraft factory), Bangalore (PSUs like HAL, BHEL, HMT etc.). Delhi (government servants, IAS officers etc.) took the lead in propagating Durga Pujas.

These celebrations last for four days and considerable amount of funds are involved. These funds are usually generated through voluntary donations of Patrons and well wishers, a large percentage of who belong to communities other than Bengalis. Therefore, the cultural programs organized on these occasions have to cater to their tastes too. In the recent past, the growing popularity of the Navaratri festivals and Dandiya dances, which coincide with Durga Puja, has affected the fund generation programs of most Puja committees.

In this brief piece, I will mention a few selected locations in Maharastra.

Since I am from Nasik, I will begin from here. In Nasik, there used to be only one Puja up to the late sixties held under the auspices of the Bengalis of the India Security Press and the Government of India Press. When the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited set up a factory in Nasik for the manufacture of fighter aircraft, there was a sizable induction of manpower – among them there were quite a few Bengalis. The location of the factory was 25 kilometres away – hence, it came as no surprise when a second Puja was started by these Bengalis in a place called as Ojhar. This puja is now 35 years old!!
At a later date, an Air Force base was set up – along came one more Puja. Likewise, to cater to the growing Bengali population in the industrial areas of Satpur and Ambad, where many ancillary industries found permanent footholds, separate celebrations started. One of the main reasons for multiple pujas in the same city was the deterrent called distance – all the locations are at least 10 to 15 kilometres away from the city centre and spread out in different directions like the spokes of a wheel! Most of the idols are of the conventional types and made in situ by artistes brought from Bengal. Each is unique in its own way. Whilst one relied on cultural programs with local talents, another encouraged small groups from Bengal giving them a chance to exhibit their specialties. Of course, orchestras by troupes from Mumbai and Pune had a universal appeal.

It is reported that in Mumbai, there are as many as 74 pujas!! The pujas in Madhavbagh of Jhaveri Bazaar is 75years old, similar to that of the Mumbai Durgabari Samiti’s pujas. The pujas in Navy Nagar are performed by the naval persons whilst at Sion it is the turn of the air force persons. Shivaji Park pujas is nearing the 70 year mark. In Bandra, the Notun Palli pujas is headed by film personalities. In Lokahandwala, the main organizer is the singer Abhijeet.

The largest puja in Pune is the one at Shivajinagar Congress Bhaban. During the festivities, stalls of Bengali sarees, sweets and eatables are added attractions. Bengalis from all over the city converge at this venue and, for a moment, you forget that you are far away from Calcutta!!

Four Days of Fun

Durga Puja is really a massive affair.

Spread out over a period of four hectic days, with different rituals being performed each day, the ingredients required vary from simple things like dew drops, the soil dug up by rats and the soil from the doorsteps of a prostitute to a set of 108 lotus flowers. It is stated in the scriptures that, when Lord Rama decided to perform the Puja before starting on his journey to vanquish Ravana, the Godess Durga hid one of the lotus flowers. She wanted to test the sincerity of Rama. When Rama discovered the loss, he picked up his arrow and was about to pluck out one of his eyes and offer it to the Godess. She was pleased with his sincerity and blessed him.

By the time Mahalaya is over, the clay image makers of Kumartuli commence work on the final decorations of Durga and her retinue. With every passing day, the beautiful images take shape to adorn the pandals for four days so that devotees can assemble to offer prayers and obtain her blessings. Side by side, pandals are erected under the supervision of the committee members. The decorations attract devotees from far and near who arrive in large numbers decked out in all their finery to witness the spectacles of artistic decorations coupled with out-of-the-world lighting. In recent years, these aspects have gained considerable importance because of awards declared by leading business houses and corporate entities. In order to select the best of the best, teams of eminent luminaries visit the pandals and try to weigh the artistic appeal of one from another for gradation. A superhuman task!!

Early in the morning of Saptami, before sunrise, a banana plant is taken to the nearby river or source of water, cleaned and draped in a cloth along with nine types of leaves to form what is known as the Nabapatrika. The plants are kachu, haridra, jayanti, bel, dalim, ashok, mankachu and paddy. The banana plant itself is the ninth variety.
This banana plant is supposed to be the bride of Ganesha and the process is termed as ‘kala-bau’ snan. The ‘kala-bau’ is brought back in a procession to the sacred place of worship, located in a prominent place and the invocation of Durga begins.

This is a symbolic gesture of paying homage to Mother Nature.

From Saptami, people start thronging pandal after pandal. Road blocks are common. Children getting lost are natural. Youngsters walking barefoot holding on to their shoes by the shoe laces does not evoke laughter but pity because the poor souls have learnt where and how a new shoe pinches!! Durgotsav comes but once a year – everyone wants it to be as memorable as possible.

The next day is Maha Ashtami – the main day of the Puja. In yesteryears, there used to be a compulsory sacrifice of an animal (lamb). Nowadays, a token sacrifice of some vegetable is still performed in domestic Pujas. In community puja pandals, maximum number of devotees turns up to pray to Devi Durga for her blessings. Community lunches are also arranged on this occasion and, devotees, irrespective of caste, creed or religion sit down together for lunch – usually of khichudi.

Sandhi puja falls at the transition point of Ashtami and Navami.

This is observed mostly by the women folk. They fast until completion of the puja and then break their fast by partaking food prepared especially for Devi Durga. Sometimes, these Pujas are held early in the morning at two or three o’ clock!! And, the ladies fast up to that time.

Navami is the day when Kumari puja is done. Kumari puja means worshipping a virgin girl. Normally, a girl child who has not attained puberty is selected. She is dressed up in all finery and Pujas performed. She is then showered with gifts.

After Navami comes Dasami (or Visarjan) – the last day of festivities when Devi Durga prepares to leave for her abode in the Himalayas. She is bid adieu in the same manner as a mother would bid adieu to her daughter. The idols are then taken in a procession to the nearby river, lake or other body of water and immersed. People accompanying the cavalcade appear downcast. On return from the immersion ceremony, Bijoya greetings are exchanged; men perform ‘kola-kuli’ (hugging and embracing each other). This is followed by the distribution of sweets.

Since the idols are prepared from clay, they dissolve and do not result in pollution, unlike some other Pujas where idols are made from plaster of paris and are harmful for the environment.

During these four days, the streets of Calcutta are busy for all of 24 hours with buses, trams and even the metro rail running non-stop. Mingling with the crowds, stepping on other’s toes and wincing with pain when others step on your own are experiences worth the trouble. At the end of it all, you return home, an exhausted individual whom the comforts of a nice warm bed welcome.

The Other Side of Durga Puja

All of us must have seen the specialist drummer boys who are in demand even today – may not be in such a large scale as it used to be 20 years ago, but in demand all the same. Known as the ‘dhak’, this musical instrument, if it can be called that, is slung over the shoulder of the drummer boy ‘dhaki’. He creates tunes by deft manipulation of a pair of sticks on the skin covering the instrument. In this way, he is able to produce extraordinary music, which prompts people to dance. The drums are decorated with beautiful colored feathers and, as the dhaki sways with his dhak, these feathers sway adding to the charms of the festivals.

At some puja pandals, a pair of dhakis is contracted – they dance together and invite others to join. The famous dhunuchi naach (dancing with a pair of dhunuchis) in tandem with a pair of dhakis is an attraction in quite a number of pandals. Once an exclusive arena of men, there are instances where women have inched their way in. Thanks to the electronic media, we are treated to such scenes regularly on TV channels.

Dhakis are basically cultivators – on the occasion of such festivals, they move around and come to the cities to augment the meager income that comes from tilling the land. On the evening of Sashti (the day preceding Saptami), groups of these drummer boys along with their drums can be seen at Railway stations, bus stations or road crossings – waiting their turns to be hired for the four ensuing days. Those who do not succeed trudge back to their villages, hoping for better luck next year round.

Another set of people who contribute towards making the Pujas so attractive are the decorators and the electricians. Struggling day and night, these artisans bring the Taj Mahal or the Pentagon or the Kremlin palace right into the heart of Kolkata. Using bamboo, thermocole and cloth, they create replicas of world famous monuments – based on the requirement of the Puja committee. The electricians add to the beauty by their magic of lighting. Together, they present some unparalleled creations – a few of these get rewarded by the award selection teams.

Durga puja was originally restricted to only a few families – the zamindars. On this occasion, the complete village would be invited to witness the Pujas and partake the Prasad. They would remain as spectators and were not allowed to participate in any other way. However, with the partition of Bengal and influx of refugees from East Bengal to West Bengal (Bangladesh was not existing at that time) the Durga puja ceased to be an exclusive purview of a few families. Interested Bengalis pooled their resources, collected money in the form of donations and started performing the Pujas as a group. These came to be known as the ‘Baroari Pujas’. ‘Baro’ means twelve and ‘yaar’ means friend. ‘Baroari’, therefore, means a group of twelve friends – in other words, a community. Moreover, with the gradual disintegration of the joint family system and the moving out of succeeding generations to greener pastures within the country or abroad, the family Pujas lost their shine. But, in order to keep the tradition alive, all family members are expected by the family elders to assemble at least once a year in their ancestral home – for the sake of these Pujas.

This home coming, on the face of it, is indeed a pleasant experience, an opportunity of exchanging notes. But, fraught with hidden pitfalls as well. The evil side of human nature surfaces, it may not be expressed in so many words but the minor achievements of one family pales into insignificance when compared to the major achievements of another, like the jewellery acquired and exhibited by the woman of one family to prove one-upmanship over others.

While everyone makes efforts to conceal their feelings, the fact remains that such situations cannot just be wished away. It is difficult to hide under a veneer of artificiality!

Bijoya Dasami

Bijoya Dasami is the last day of celebrations. Godess Durga departs for her own house in the mountains of the Himalayas. The pandals are deserted and people move around aimlessly, looking crestfallen – even, the shine on the faces of the clay idols appear dull. The rituals of this day are the darpan bisarjan followed by the sindoor utsav. The sindoor utsav is for the married women. Sindoor (red vermillion powder) is an auspicious item for any Bengali married woman – it is normally applied on the ‘sinthee’ (the parting of the hair on the forehead). In the sindoor utsav, these women apply sindoor on the sinthee of the Godess Durga and then on the sinthees of all women assembled. While performing this ritual, each and everyone sends a silent prayer to God Almighty to bless them so that this mark of happiness is never obliterated and remains a faithful companion until the dying day! (Application of sindoor ceases from the instant a woman becomes a widow – hence, this silent prayer.)

After the sindoor utsav, the idols are loaded on to suitable vehicles and taken to the immersion spot in a procession. On the banks of the river or lake or pond, the youngsters carry out aarati and burn firecrackers to extend the celebrations as long as possible. But, all good things have to come to an end! Hence, after immersion, the people return to the empty pandal and exchange greetings – the younger do ‘pronams’ of their elders by stooping down and touching their feet. The elders return the gesture by blessing the younger ones. Those of the same age group do ‘kola- kuli’- they hug and embrace each other. The last item on the agenda is the exchange of sweets.

This exchange of sweets was what Bijoya was all about – an activity we used to look forward in our childhood. It may be hard to believe but, from the day following the immersion, the children would assemble at one spot and then move from one house to another – never wanting to miss out on the different types of sweets and snacks that our neighbors would keep ready for us. Then would follow the comparisons of what one aunty had done and what another aunty tried to do but failed!! In those days, unlike today, children were encouraged to learn about the world from first-hand experience and not become bookworms like today.

For those friends and relatives who live out of town or are settled abroad, Bijoya greeting cards used to be sent. Now, however, it is all through the electronic medium – e-greetings, e-cards etc. Some enterprising individuals have shortened the process still further via ‘SMS’. Things today have become instant; we have lost the person to person touch. Things have become impersonal; we do our duty as if in a trance.

In other parts of the country, Bijoya Dasami is the day of burning effigies of Ravana, the ten headed demon King. Signifying the triumph of good over evil, huge effigies of Ravana are built in prominent locations. These are decorated with concealed crackers, rockets and other such items. Once a signal is given, a wick is lighted and, in the fraction of a second, the beautifully constructed effigy catches fire and the fireworks start going off.

For the Bengalis, it was Godess Durga’s victory over the Asura, for others it was Lord Rama’s victory over Ravana. The hidden message in both cases is that of the triumph of good over evil!!