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A priest worshipping a contemporary idol of Durga, shown riding her lion and attacking the demon Mahisasur. (Delhi, 2004)

In Hinduism, Durga is a form of Parvati or Devi, the supreme goddess. She is depicted as a woman riding a lion with multiple hands carrying weapons and assuming mudras, or symbolic hand gestures. This signifies life. This form of the Goddess is the embodiment of feminine and creative energy (Shakti). She is married to Lord Shiva.

According to the prevalent version of the myth, the form of Durga was created as an warrior goddess to fight the demon Mahisashur who could not be defeated by any of god or man due to a boon he received after intense prayers to Brahma. By virtue of this power, he invaded the gods, who went for help to the supreme trinity - Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, but Mahishashur defeated all of them and unleashed a reign of terror on earth, heaven and the nether worlds. Eventually, since only a woman could kill him the gods got together with the trinity and created a dazzling beam of energy out of which Durga was born. Her form was blindingly beautiful, with a face sculpted by Shiva, torso by Indra, breasts by Chandra (the moon), teeth by Brahma, bottom by the Earth, thighs and knees by Varuna (wind), and her three eyes by Agni (fire). Each god also gave her their own most powerful weapons - Shiva's trident, Vishnu's discus, Indra's thunderbolt, etc.

The word Shakti, meaning strength, reflects the warrior aspect of the goddess, embodying a traditional male role. But she is also strikingly beautiful, and initially Mahishasur tries to marry her. In her other incarnations such as Annapurna or Parvati, she is more mother-like, and as Karunamayi (karuna = kindness), she is softer.

Mahishasur's story is also of interest. His father Rambha, king of the demons, once fell in love with a water buffalo, and mahishasur was born out of this union. He is therefore able to change between human and buffalo form at will ("mahisha" means buffalo). After conquering the three worlds, he is finally challenged by Durga. After several days of battle during which his army is decimated, he is finally killed on the tenth day of the waxing moon.

This day of victory is celebrated as Vijaya Dashami (East and South India), Dashain (Nepal) or Dussehra (North India) - all these words literally mean "the tenth day". The actual period of the worship however may be over the nine preceding days Navaratri (N. India) or the five days (Bengal / Orissa).

The Worship of Durga (Durga Puja)

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Post-modern symbolic depiction of Durga, with the three religions of India watching from behind bars while Durga attacks evil disguised as a Bengali gentleman. (Calcutta 2004)

The worship of Durga in the autumn month of Sharat is the major festival in Bengal. Puja means worship, and Durga's Puja is celebrated from the sixth to tenth day of the waxing moon in the month of Ashvin, which is the sixth month in the Hindu Calendar. Occasionally however, due to a misalignment between the lunar cycle and the solar months, it may also be held in the following month, Kartik. In the Gregorian calendar, this corresponds to the months of September/October.

In the Krittibas Ramayana, Rama invokes the goddess Durga in his battle against Ravana. Although she was traditionally worshipped in the Spring, due to contingencies of battle, Rama had to invoke her in the autumn ([akaal bodhan]). Today it is this Rama's date for the puja that has gained ascendancy, although the spring Puja, known as Basanti puja, is also present in the Hindu almanac. Since the season of the puja is sharat (autumn), it is also known as shaaradiya.

The Puja's are held over a five-day period, which is traditionally viewed as the coming of the married daughter, Durga, to her father, Himalayas' home. In the tradition of the woman visiting her parent's house, she is accompanied by her four children: Ganesh, Kartik, Lakshmi, and Saraswati. It is the most important festival in Bengal, and Bengalis celebrate with new clothes and other gifts, which are worn on the evenings when the family goes out to see the pandals. Although it is a Hindu festival, many religious groups participate in the ritual.

In Kolkata alone more than a thousand art galleries (a.k.a. pandals) are set up, all clamouring for the fickle attention of the populace. Across the world, Durga Puja serves as a community gathering and a connection to roots for the widespread Bengali diaspora. Tokyo has nearly ten Pujas, and North America has several hundred. Bangladesh, with its 10% hindu population has at least a hundred pujas.

Octavio Paz has commented on the role of the fiesta in Mexico as a collective release for the repression in the Mexican soul. No doubt the Durga Puja serves the same function in Bengal, as does the Diwali in North India and Pongal in the South.

Durga Puja in Bengal (দুর্গাপূজা)

A considerable literature exists around Durga in the [[Bengali Language]] and its early forms, including Durgotsavnirnaya ([[11th century]]), Durgabhaktitarangini by Vidyapati (14th century), etc. Durga Puja was popular in Bengal in the medieval period, and records exist of it being held in the courts of Rajshahi ([[16th century]]) and Nadia (18th century). It was during the 18th century, however, that the worship of Durga became popular among the landed elite of Bengal. Today, the culture of Durga Puja has shifted from the princely houses to Sarvojonin (literally, "involving all") forms.

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Traditional idol: Ganesh, Lakshmi, Durga (attacking Mahisasur), Saraswati and Kartik, all on the same framework. (Calcutta 2004)

During the week of Durga Puja, in the entire state of West Bengal as well as in large enclaves of Bengalis everywhere, life comes to a complete standstill. In play grounds, traffic circles, ponds -- wherever space may be available -- elaborates structures called pandals are set up, many with nearly a year's worth of planning behind them. The word pandal means a temporary structure, made of bamboo and cloth, which used to be the venue of the worship (pujaa) of the goddess. Today's pandals however are more like art galleries than tents. Pandals may be made in the model of some famous building or structure; the Vatican, famous mosques, Taj Mahal, the Parthenon -- as well as natural features like caves in the Himalayas - all are grist for the pandal mill.

Somewhere inside these complex edifices is a stage on which durga reigns, standing on her lion mount, wielding ten weapons with her ten hands. This is the religious epicenter of the festivities, and the crowds gather to offer flower worship on the mornings of the main days. Ritualized drummers, carrying large leather-strung dhaaks show off their skills during ritual dance worships called arati.

But today's Puja goes far beyond religion. In fact, visiting the pandals recent years, one can only say that Durgapuja the largest outdoor art festival on earth. In the '90s, a preponderance of architectural models came up on the pandal exteriors, but today the art motif extends to elaborate interiors, executed by trained artists, with consistent stylistic elements, carefully executed and bearing the name of the artist.

The sculpture of the idol itself has evolved. The worship always depicts Durga with her four children, and occasionally two attendant deities and some banana-tree figures. In the olden days, all five idols would be depicted in a single frame, traditionally called pata. Since the 1980's however, the trend is to depict each idol separately.

At the end of the six days, the idol is taken in a procession amid loud chants and drumbeats to the river or other water body, and it is cast in the waters symbolic of the departure of the deity to her home with her husband in the Himalayas. After this, in a tradition called Vijaya Dashami, families visit each other and sweetmeats are offered to visitors (Dashami is literally tenth day and Vijay is victory).

Also associated with the Durga myth is the fact that Rama invokes her in his battle with Ravana. For this reason, the same tenth day is celebrated in North India as Dussehra, when huge straw effigies of Ravana are burnt.

After the exuberance of the Puja days, the pandals are dismantled in showers of canvas and bamboo. A palpable gloom descends on the Bengali psyche. However, in the club rooms and corner-teashops, plans are already brewing over cigarette smoke, on how to put up a spectacle that will top the next puja down the road.

Pandal modeled after cave in Badrinath, upper Himalayas (Delhi 2004)
Pandal modeled after cave in Badrinath, upper Himalayas (Delhi 2004)
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Pandal as scale replica of Coochbehar Palace in North Bengal (Calcutta 2004)

External Links

Navratri Festival] Goddess Durga Festival (N. India) for 9 nights.

Multimedia photos of thousands of pujas - including faraway places such as Helsinki, Auckland, or Lagos.

Hinduism | Hindu mythology
Deities: Brahma | Vishnu | Shiva | Rama | Krishna | Ganesha | Indra | Gayatri | Lakshmi | Sarasvati
Texts: Ramayana | Mahabharata

fi:Durga fr:Durga pl:Durga sv:Durga


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