cap pistol (remember those?), rahul dev burman, new clothes, midnight movies, razia sultan, drumbeats, ghugni, exams, flowers in my clasped hands.

the one with ten arms comes to my mind on many things. she’s been around for a long long time, quite taken for granted, part of life. to be worshiped, to be gazed at in awe, to be surrounded by noise and joy, to be danced and acted before, to be rejoiced with food and friends, to be prostrated before with agarbatti and incense, to be praised with lotus and sandalwood paste, to be exulted over with mantra, bells, and drumbeats, to be ignored if so one wills.

pujo. there was such a reassuring regularity to its return. durga thakur would come down to earth every year, with her four children, two boys… two girls, with her three eyes, her gorgeous visage, her bright effulgence, her maternal love, her anger and fire, her borsha – the long and mighty spear – stabbing the heart of mahishashur, the shape shifting buffalo demon. though i always thought of as it borsha, the weapon was actually a trishul, a trident.

i must pause here and delight again in the glee i felt at this slaying, so gentle me is really a sham, i am all for a spot of blood and gore apparently. i particularly liked a fiendishly well conceived image of mahishashur, bilious green and buffalo beneath, human-like but awfully mean looking baddie emerging above; ma durga in deep red saree, black hair flowing, large long eyes full of knowledge, courage, and kindness, nine arms arrayed gripping weapons, trident in arm number ten taking care of the demon that’s hassled the gods for far too long.

she always rode a lion, her vahan; and the look of the king of the jungle was very important to me too. had to be a fierce and majestic creature, taking active part in the vanquishing of evil by the goddess as she made her way to the mortal world to visit her parents’ home. the annual homecoming of the married woman was also a part of the durga pujo story. so kartik, gonesh (ganesh), lokkhi (lakshmi), and shoroshshoti (saraswati) came along as well with their vahans for the trip to their grandparents’ as was the custom: gonesh had his mouse, kartik his peacock, shoroshshoti her rajhans or swan, lokkhi her white owl.

it was a complex story actually. for she not only came killing off a demon, nor just visiting her mother and father, she appeared at a time she isn’t supposed to, to help ram defeat ravan. the primeval good and evil theme again (although hindu thought doesn’t ponder evil the way many faiths do). but what always got my attention and deep sighs was that bit about her, the divine one, coming when she’s really not scheduled to, because a mortal called her with utter and deep devotion.

pujo is akaal bodhan, the out-of-season invocation. in bengali, this sharat or early autumn manifestation of durga is said to be outside her kaal, her time. she is basanti (pron: bashonti), a spring goddess. a benevolent harvest related deity. but she in her most formidable form arrives at an unscheduled hour to bless ram, who invokes her before the battle with ravan.

okay, complexity has no end obviously. in the ramayan, the priest who invokes ma durga on behalf of ram, is guess who, ravan himself. so that the goddess may bless his enemy, so that his enemy may kill him. deep long breath.

of course, no goddess is just an icon or image, certainly not durga. she is adi shakti, the ancient force. she’s adi parashakti, the primal supreme power. she creates, she destroys, she is all. she is ma, mother.

for some reason, we have for a long time, perhaps forever, understood power, shakti, as a female idea. both prithvi – the earth, creation – and shakti are female in hindu thought. the worshipers of shakti, tracing their beginnings in the farther reaches of time, have prayed to this female principle. she has evolved over time, and remained essential even as later ideas have come and held our imagination.

i have no idea when the worship of shakti began. when i go to cambodia and see uma yonis… uma, another name of durga… or i read of sixth century durga images being found in java, i get a feeling hard to describe. there’s a sense of familiarity in it, a bonding, perhaps even a thrill. shakti has been pivotal in our perception of divinity for many centuries, across many parts of the earth clearly.

durga. i was struck by the meaning of her name when much later in life, sometime in my thirties, i learnt it. durga literally means impassable, invincible, unassailable. the name is related to durg, or fortress, difficult to break down and enter. or defeat. some believe her name derives from dur – difficult, and gam – to pass, go through. she is not to be broken, not to be overpowered, she stands there invincible. a goddess whose name first appeared in the vedas, with this strong feminist mooring. she can be tender, sweet, and kind, but if you’re evil or wrong, or up to some mischief, you’ve had it.

the pujo pandals or tents in duliajan in assam, where i grew up, used to be simple affairs. the iconography of durga unadorned by any modern take, classic and with that roaring lion i liked, the mahishashur very ugly indeed. you ran into the pandal, clasped your hands in a quick greeting to the goddess and whizzed off to the stalls alongside, where games, food, and cap pistols waited. i remember running around in my new frock sent by my grandmother from delhi, blasting my pistol at a friend; well as much blasting as a tiny toy gun with a strip of red percussion caps that released a puff of smoke upon exploding could do.

durga pujo is when you wear new clothes, of course. everyone gifts you clothes. you count as they come in. do you have eight, just right for the number of visits to the pandal over the five days of pujo? one year, in calcutta (not kolkata yet) i had some seventeen sarees. still smile at the thought. i spoke to an aunt yesterday, she has twenty nine new sarees this year she said.

i believe the way durga pujo is celebrated these days is a fairly recent practice. began with rich zamindars holding elaborate pujos in their homes, back in the late 1500s and early 1600s. the community pujo, which is what we see everywhere now, started in 1790, when twelve friends of guptipara in west bengal got together, collected contributions from the neighbourhood and had the first “baro-yari” or “the twelve friends” pujo. friends are inbuilt in the idea i realise.

the petals are wilting in the clammy hands of a twelve or thirteen year old standing with eyes closed tight, muttering pleas under her breath in between the difficult sanskrit mantra the priest is shouting out. ya devisarvamangalya… please let me pass my exams, let me pass, let me pass… shakti rupey… please, please… paritranaye… i promise to study hard.

the mantra is over, i throw the flowers and leaves i’d been clutching frantically. my offering, my anjali, must reach the goddess’s feet. i try to peer over the heads of all the anjali givers, i am not sure if i’ve succeeded. okay i have two more turns.

the dhak plays, the dhaki twirls, pujo drumbeats fill the air. your brother and his friends are about to ruin your memory of these quintessential pujo sounds by coining some horrid lyrics to it. but never mind, nothing can obliterate the sense of durga in those beats.

in delhi, in my teens, pujo meant late night bengali movies at the pandals. sriman prithviraj, stree, teen bhuboner paarey, dhonni meye, anthony firingee… and jatra: street theatre with an open stage, where large and usually loud characters, often historical, always in colourful satin and campy makeup, told tales of war, patriotism, love, death, and betrayal. razia sultan in pink and zari flamboyance, laughing mockingly at some treacherous cretin, etched in my heart.

the year i was nine, i went to boarding school in calcutta. it was the time of the naxal movement, of terror, and yet durga pujo was celebrated as usual. “money podey ruby ray/kobitay tomake”… i remember you, ruby ray/in poetry… one of rahul dev burman’s songs for pujo released that year. pujor gaan would play everywhere as the big days approached, some of the nicest songs they were.

on the last day of pujo, doshomi, ram finally killed ravan. and durga, her work done, returned to her divine abode. but before that, bengali women bid her farewell with a touch of vermilion and lots of sweets, with the hope she’ll have a good journey and be back again next year. then she and her children are taken across with fanfare and noise to the river, to be immersed. by the yamuna, i have stood with my uncles and aunts and cousins and watched her go. by the tipling too, in assam, with my parents and siblings and friends. you can’t hold onto her, every time she must go, that too is a part of her arrival.

however, the sweet eating to celebrate bijoya (victorious) doshomi would carry on for a few days. and you’d keep count of how many different sweets you ate as through the day you visited your elders to touch their feet and take their blessings. along with the sweets, you’d be served some great savouries too. kucho nimki, shingara, ghugni…

i am sitting here on panchami, the fifth day of pujo, just before the festivities begin, writing about the one i have often ignored. as i’ve grown older. as i’ve outgrown many things. but the new sarees, they sit in the cupboard, i think they’d be disappointed if i didn’t don them and go see how the mahishahshur is coping with things.



i have referred to wikipedia for some clarifications and dates, etc. have a good durga puja, dussehra, and diwali.


indrani’s index

we invite you to read our stories, poems, articles related to the this festive season.

navratri and dussehra : an ode to the festive season

ma durga’s sons : about kartik and ganesh

the call of love :  a short tale set in the time of durga puja

headcount : a story about ravan