At the pandal of Survey Park Sarbojonin Durgotsob Committee in south Kolkata, neither Goddess Durga nor her sons Kartik and Ganesh have any weapons in their hands. Devi Durga is killing Mahishasura with a pen and has books in other hands — not just any book but literary periodicals known as Little Magazines. Her children are also carrying little magazines. The puja is a tribute to Sandip Dutta, the late founder of Kolkata Little Magazine Library and Research Centre.
This is not the only puja where the goddess has no weapons in her hands. Durga is supposed to have 10 weapons in her 10 hands. But for several decades, the trend of having the idol without any weapons has become popular in West Bengal’s Durga Puja, the biggest annual festival. This trend is seen more widely in what is popularly called ‘arter thakur’, referring to artistic representations of the deities.
This has perhaps turned Bengal’s Durga into to most liberally represented deities in Hindu society.
For example, at the Baghajatin Tarun Sangha’s puja in Kolkata, the theme is ‘Old Man and the Sea’. It’s on the fishing community and Durga and her children have ropes of fishing nets in their hands. At the pandal at Sulekha More near Jadavpur in south Kolkata, where the theme is environment, the goddess only has the trident in one of her hands and holds potted plants in the rest.
At Ultadanga Sangrami club’s puja in north Kolkata, the goddess has flowers in all her hands. At Milan Mancha’s puja on Nabin Das Road in the northern outskirts of Kolkata, there is neither any weapon nor the Asur. At Darjipara Sarbojonin of north Kolkata, the Devi has the Vedas, the Upanishads, and Puranas in her hands. At Chorbagan Sarbojojin, she has only a trident in one hand.
Most of these are major pujas that draw thousands of visitors.
This stands quite in contrast to the increasing martialisation of Hindu gods and goddesses under the influence of Hindu nationalists — from angry Hanuman to six-pack Ram and Shiva.
Veteran journalist Avijit Ghosal pointed out that the liberalisation of Durga Puja has been a direct impact of the involvement of art in the festivities which started a few decades ago. According to him, the Bengali Durga Puja had long been separated from North Indian rigidity or conservatism of religious practices by treating the festival as the homecoming of a daughter — a daughter returns to her paternal home along with her children for five days.
This treatment itself humanised the Devi and served as the occasion for all family and social gatherings among Bengali Hindus — the homecoming of everyone. The liberalisation of the Durga idol is an extension of that liberalisation of the religious event, says Ghosal.
“Art has a liberating force. It liberates objects or sentiments from straightjackets. Art helps bring things out of rigidity. This is exactly what happened with Durga Puja, especially community pujas, with the involvement of art. Artists visualised the goddess in their own ways, expanded societal imagination, and it is quite evident that this liberal expression found social acceptability,” Ghosal tells Outlook.
This journey against the militarisation of deities comes as part of a reformist approach that has been part of Bengali Hindu society for many decades, adds Ghosal.
The Hindu nationalists, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and its ideological-organisational parent the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), have, of course, not been fond of this practice. Over the past six years, senior leaders of the BJP and RSS have repeatedly criticised the trend of de-weaponisation of the goddess and called it a communist-secular conspiracy against Hindus.
The BJP’s former Bengal unit chief, Lok Sabha MP Dilip Ghosh, repeatedly criticised the trend and tried to popularise shastra pujan or worship of weapons on the occasion of Bijoya Doshomi. As of now, their efforts have not found any major influence.
This year, at least half a dozen community pujas in south Kolkata’s Haridebpur area alone had Durga idols without any weapons — Haridebpur Adarsha Samiti, Haridebpur Athletic Club, Haridebpur Vivekananda Sporting Club, Ajay Sanghati and 41 Pally, among others.
Even though the weaponised Durga’s killing of Mahishasur the demon is mostly considered an allegorical story of the triumph of good over evil, the de-weaponisation has also come as part of a conscious effort by many community puja organisers to give a message for peace.
It is not uncommon on the premises of such pujas to hear announcements on loudspeakers explaining the theme — a message for peace in most cases.
This is not peculiar to Kolkata. Dharsha Bhratri Sangha’s puja in Ramrajatala area of Howrah district is celebrating its golden jubilee. Their idol has no weapon and the devi is visualised as Megh Balika, a term that became popular from Joy Goswami’s famous love poem. Megh Balika can be translated as the cloud girl or the girl in the cloud. The puja organisers say they have not kept weapons in the goddess’ hands to preach for world peace.
At the puja of Saptarshi Sangha in Dankuni of Hooghly district, the Devi has a guitar, badminton racket, stethoscope, and cooking utensils, even a microphone. The puja is themed on women’s empowerment. At Sonajhuri Hiralini Durgotsab Samiti’s puja in Birbhum district, Durga only has lotus in her hands.
In 2019, an RSS pracharak (whole timer) in Birbhum district called for the boycott of a Durga puja at Chowrangi in the district headquarters town of Suri because the idol did not have weapons. The puja was themed on harmony. Nevertheless, the crowd that the puja pandal drew made it quite evident the boycott call had no impact — even if it did not backfire.
Not only community pujas but also several old family pujas do not have weapons in the hands of the goddess. For example, Guabagan Dutta family puja on Beadon Street in north Kolkata, the Singha family puja in Daskal village of Birbhum district, or the centuries-old Das family puja in Paschimbar village of East Midnapore district. This is because many families have visualised Durga in their own ways.
“The idol at our puja neither has weapons nor any Asur,” says Subrata Das, a member of the family and owner of the Kolkata-based Setu Prakashan.
Possibly, it is after their failure in discouraging Bengali Hindus from celebrating a liberal or secular form of the festival that the Hindu nationalist camp has taken to theme pujas.
This year, in one of their first major successful experiments, the Ram Temple-themed pandal at Santosh Mitra Square in north Kolkata —a puja organised by BJP leader Sajal Ghosh— has drawn massive crowds. The Jai Shree Ram chant rents the air all the time.
To what extent the rise of Hindu nationalists manages to influence the liberal culture of the Durga Puja in the coming years remains to be seen.