Bengalis prefer to believe that this is the time when Goddess Durga arrives at her parental home on earth from her bridal home in Mount Kailash. And she arrives with her children in tow – Ganesha, Kartikeya, Lakshmi and Saraswati. Even though Durga is worshipped in her demon-slaying pose, she is therefore seen flanked by her children. The goddess and her children are depicted along with their animal mounts. Myriads of rites and rituals take place during the five days of the actual Puja, extending from Sosthi (the sixth day of Navaratri) to Dashami (the tenth day, Vjayadashami or Dussehra). Here are a few of the most popular rituals.
The actual Durga Puja begins on Sosthi. It is believed that this autumnal worship was initiated by Rama to seek the help of the goddess in defeating Ravana. Hence the goddess has to be specially invoked through the ceremony of Bodhon, which is performed in the evening. Several other rituals are performed prior to this during the day, including assuring the goddess that all ceremonies would be performed according to the norms, readying the place of worship, etc.
It is a curious ritual that probably indicates the agrarian roots of the society. Nine plants, of which the banana plant is the most visible, are tied together to form the Nabapatrika (nine leaves). They represent the nine forms of the female power Shakti – Brahmani (banana), Kalika (colacassia), Durga (turmeric), Kartiki (jayanti), Shiva (wood apple), Raktadantika (pomegranate), Sokrahita (ashoka), Chamunda (arum) and Lakshmi (paddy). Nabapatrika is taken for a bath (Snan) in the river (Ganga in Kolkata) after which she is wrapped in a sari and placed next to Ganesha. As the leaves of the banana plant is most prominent, the Nabapatrika is popularly called Kola Bou (banana bride). The Nabapatrika Snan takes place on Saptami (the seventh day).
While the priests perform the rites and rituals associated with worship of the goddess, everyone else gets to pay their respect through Pushpanjali (floral offering made with cupped palms) or Anjali for short. Anjali takes place on all three days – Saptami, Ashtami and Navami. The auspicious hour for Anjali, always in the morning, is announced beforehand. It is customary to fast until you have offered the day’s Anjali. At the scheduled hour, everyone bathed and dressed in new clothes, gather in front of the goddess, clutching a fistful of flowers along with bel leaves. They repeat the mantra after the priest and throw the flowers at the goddess in the end. Three rounds of floral offerings take place.
Kumari Puja takes place on Ashtami (eighth day). A pre-pubescent girl is selected to be worshipped as the living incarnation of Durga. Dressed in new clothes and decked up with floral ornaments, she shares the stage with the goddess. One of the most popular destinations to see the Kumari Puja is Belur Math, the headquarters of the Ramakrishna Order founded by Swami Vivekananda.
It is at the juncture when Ashtami ends and Navami begins that Sandhi Puja happens. It marks the moment when Goddess Durga emerged in her angry Chamunda form to kill the demons Chanda and Munda. One hundred and eight lamps are lit. The priest utters the mantra. And the drummers (dhaki) break into a frenzied beat. Earlier, it was customary to make an animal sacrifice too. But it has been largely discontinued and vegetables are symbolically sacrificed.
One of the riotous but fun-filled rituals which takes place on Navami (ninth day) evening. Clay pots are filled with burning charcoal. People take it in their hands and start dancing to the beating of dhaak. Those more expert, hold the clay pots on their head, sometimes even holding a pot by their teeth. Earlier a forte of men, dhunuchi naach is also performed by women now.
Traditionally, Hindu women, whose husbands are alive, wear the vermillion mark on their forehead. On Dashami, the goddess is bid farewell before being taken out for immersion in the river. One of the rituals include Sindur Khela where married women (but not widows) offer vermillion and sweets to the goddess. After that they smear each other with the vermillion. Photographers go click happy during this ritual. Of late, some women have started to question the custom of not allowing widows to participate in the festival.
The goddess and her children are taken out in a procession for Bisorjon or immersion in the river, indicating her return to Mount Kailash. Even today, some of the old households (bonedi bari) follow the custom where the idols are placed on a bamboo platform and carried on the shoulders of men. But most carry the idols on a truck upto the river bank. Then the idols are placed on a boat and taken to the middle of the river for the immersion. West Bengal Tourism and many private tour operators arrange for boat cruises to observe the immersion ceremony.
This marks the end of the annual festival. Young people touch the feet of elders. Elders bless the young. Men of the same age perform Kolakuli, a kind of hugging gesture. Special sweets, especially Naru or roundels made with coconut and jiggery, are distributed. Earlier, it was the women’s job to make different kinds of savouries and sweets at home to be distributed during Bijoya. Nowadays, people mostly buy the eatables from shops.