Durga Puja: Cultural or Religious Festival?

Being a Bengali girl who has lived her entire life up to the age of 18 in the Eastern state of West Bengal in India, visiting any other Indian state inevitably results in a major culture shock for me. Much of what we do and how we live our lives is vastly different from the rest of India. These divergences are more apparent to me now that I live in the state of Goa, and yet they always prove to be surprising. To give an example: when one of my friends asked me why I did not abstain from non-vegetarian food during Durga Puja, the most important festival for Bengalis, I was taken aback. I love non-vegetarian food and so do most of my people. Stepping away from enjoying a specific kind of food during a festival when we are expected to enjoy ourselves to the fullest did not make any sense to me. It seems, however, that that is certainly not how the rest of India looks at Hindu festivals. The way we celebrate our holy days is poles apart from what other Hindu cultures envision a festival to be. Not only that, the way we look at our own methods of celebration changes from age to age, to suit the trends of the era we live in.

Hindu festivals in general are very colourful and often involve various rites and rituals. However, Hinduism in itself is perceived very differently by people of varying backgrounds. The first of these distinctions is the caste system which, very broadly, categorises Hindus into Brahmins (the highest caste), Kshatriyas, Vaishyas and Shudras (the lowest caste). Over the years, these castes have also faced segregation into multiple sub-castes. The kind of rituals that are performed, or more accurately, allowed to be performed depends on one’s caste. While many claim that the divisions have eroded over time, countless continue to be very strict with the customs and traditions and uphold the caste system as an integral part of their religion. There are also restrictions based on gender and time.

In addition to this, the aforementioned customs and traditions have developed very differently in the multitude of diverse Hindu communities that reside in India and abroad. The same festival celebrated by different communities may involve the employment of varying mechanisms for similar rites and rituals. Very often, different communities celebrate different festivals and it is not unlikely to find an individual hailing from one community to have absolutely no clue about a festival that is very important to another community. Hindus, as a collective, believe in 330 million different deities and the various festivals are primarily celebrated to worship one of these gods or goddesses. Each community celebrates multiple festivals but one of them is almost like an identifying feature of the same; just as Christmas is for Christians and Eid is for Muslims. For Bengali Hindus, Durga Puja *or *Pujo is the most important festival.

Durga Puja is celebrated every year by primarily the people of Bengal, Assam, Tripura and Odisha in autumn. The phrase “Durga Puja” literally translates to “the worship of Goddess Durga” and it marks the mythological event of Mother Goddess Durga’s win over the malicious shape-shifting demon, Mahisasura. The goddess is a symbol of “Good” for many and is worshipped by Hindus across the world in her different forms or avatars. In my home province, it is certainly more of a cultural event than a religious one. Bengalis from across the world drive, ride and fly in to celebrate this auspicious occasion with their families. The crowds at the railway stations and airports across the state of West Bengal are unimaginably large around this time. For Bengalis, Maa Durga is a member of their own family and they need to be there to greet her when she arrives. The word “Maa” translates to “mother”, but Bengalis often use the word as a term of endearment for the female members of their families. The story goes that Durga is a daughter of our mortal family who married Shiva, another Hindu god and thus, now resides in her heavenly abode in the Himalayas. She visits her parents’ family (us) once a year and this visitation is what Bengalis celebrate as Durga Puja.

The festival is primarily celebrated over five days, although traditionally, it was meant to be a ten day event. The last five days of the aforementioned ten days is what is celebrated with the craze and passion often associated with the festivity. These five days are referred to as Sashti, Saptami, Ashtami, Navami and Dashami which literally translates to six to ten, respectively, in Sanskrit. These names are generally used to mark the corresponding days of any Hindu lunar month. The festival is a big tourist magnet and the celebrations often start much before Sashti. Several months leading up to the festival is spent in preparations. Idols of Goddess Durga and her four children: Saraswati, Laxmi, Kartik and Ganesh are placed inside beautifully decorated pandals (a kind of a religious marquee). Various kinds of rites and rituals are performed over the days of pujo.

Why I choose to call it a cultural festival rather than a religious one has its roots in the manner in which the festival is celebrated. While many Hindus across India abstain from non-vegetarian food and indulge in rigorous rituals and worship during auspicious times such as these, many Bengalis choose to go about it all differently. It is an occasion of happiness for Bengalis as Durga is returning to meet them with her children and they hardly see a reason to refrain from things that make them happy - good non-vegetarian food and fancy clothing, among other things. Besides, Bengalis spend the months leading up to the festival in rigorous preparation for Durga’s arrival. They go shopping for new “fashion-forward” clothes, get their hair and nails done and, of course, invest a considerable amount of their time planning whom to hang out with, where to eat and what pandals to visit during the days of pujo itself.

I was born and brought up in Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal, and every year I witness my city light up in colourful lights for the festival. It is genuinely impossible to express the feeling that comes with it in words. “Parar bondhura” (friends who live in the same neighbourhood) come together to decorate the pandals keeping a theme in mind. Several events are organised and they cater to a seemingly endless number of interests. There are dance competitions, drawing contests, cooking tournaments, fashion shows and so on and so forth. There are also competitions meant to felicitate the best decorated pandals across the state. These pandals are often artistic masterpieces and assume themes from the most abstract to the most obvious. The masses spend the nights giving these pandals a visit and conveying their intellectual interpretation of the theme and their assessment of how well the artists have brought the theme to life.

The best thing about it is the fact that it is not a festival for the Bengali Hindus alone. All are welcome, and many Muslims, Christians, Parsis, Sikhs and people of other religious backgrounds who reside in Bengal get themselves involved in the festivities alongside the Hindus. For instance, some of the idol artists are Muslims, who form the majority of the population apart from the Hindus. Numerous members of the Islamic community in Bargachia, about 30 km from Kolkata, have devoted their lives to the subtle art of making Maa Durga’s lustrous hair. This has been in practice for at least five decades. Besides, people of all religions can be seen spending their nights pandal hopping, helping Hindus in their preparation for the rituals and sometimes even taking part in them. People of other faiths are no less important than Bengali Hindus themselves when it comes to organising and celebrating the festival that is so close to their hearts.

Navratri is celebrated majorly in Northern India on the days Bengalis celebrate Durga Pujo. It is the celebration of the nine forms of Goddess Durga and comprises 9 days of rigorous rites and rituals and living under restrictions like abstaining from non-vegetarian food, fasting and so on. These rituals are often limited only to the Hindus and sometimes restricted to just a single caste among them - the Brahmins. The people do indulge in activities like dancing and feasting, mostly at the end of the festival. Although Navratri has a grandeur of its own, nothing can really match the intensity, colour and craze of Durga Pujo in Bengal and thus, spending Pujo away from home is undoubtedly among the most difficult things Bengalis can be expected to do.

Now that we have established that Durga Pujo is indeed celebrated very differently by Bengalis, as compared to the people of the other states, let’s talk about how the manner of celebration changes among Bengalis themselves every year. As I have previously mentioned in one of my own articles, Bengalis are very fond of political and societal revolutions and reforms. They love change and they try to do everything they can to bring about or, at the very least, support a change for the betterment of their lives, the lives of those around them and their state. This attitude finds reflection in Bengali art and literature. Bengali Nobel Laureate Rabindranath Tagore’s poems and novels are heavily influenced by his critical attitude towards the western concept of nationalism and celebrated pre-independence era Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam’s poems, which led many to overcome their fear of the British and to take a strong stance against them during the colonial rule. This trend exists today too. Artforms like poetry, novels, songs and, of course, pandal decorations bring to light the various issues that has infected Indian society. Themes highlighting the crisis due to the implementation of the National Register for Citizens, the Pulwama Attack and other political issues were major crowd pullers last year. Themes based on social issues are no less in number and are equally appreciated. They have one motive: to inspire change.

Modern Hinduism often fails to address issues surrounding LGBTQIA+ community. In fact, the transgender community is often looked down upon and gay relationships are shunned by the majority of Indian society. The fact that gay sex was legalised only in 2018 doesn’t help the case for them either. The Dum Dum Park Tarul Dal Durga Pujo committee, a group of pujo organisers in Kolkata, believed that Hinduism at heart supports and loves all kinds of genders. To spread their message, they had a LGBTQIA+ themed pujo last year. They stated their theme as “Tumi dekho nari purush, ami dekhi shudui manush” (you see women and men, I see only humans). Not only did they have an idol which was half female (Durga) and half male (Krishna), they decorated the pandal to showcase the pain of being in a closet or being discriminated against for not being cis-gendered or straight. Hundreds flocked to this pandal to appreciate the artwork and the emotion around the idea behind it.

While global warming skeptics around the world continue to win elections and lead nations, the poor but highly talented artists in Bengal decorated the pandal of Dum Dum Park with artwork showcasing what the world would be like in the years to come: commoners carrying oxygen cylinders around all the time, government rations including oxygen supply and scientists desperately trying to keep the last plant on earth alive. They topped it off with sculptures of the goddess wearing oxygen masks. These extremely graphic depiction of the possible consequences of our ways sent a very strong message to the huge crowd that flooded the pandal at all times: our planet is dying and we need to do something about it.

In the pujo of 2019, artwork wasn’t the only way the Bengalis decided to get people thinking about their ways and the society. Their beliefs found a place in the rituals too. Proposals to change the wording of the various religious chants are fairly regular these days and not out of the ordinary. For example, it is fairly common for the traditional invocation requesting a son to be replaced by a more modern one merely seeking a child, regardless of sex. However, this year what shocked everyone was when the Beleghata 33 Pally Durga Puja committee, another pujo organiser, decided to play the Azan (a form of a Muslim call for ritual prayer) in their pandal.

One of the rituals during Durga Pujo involves praying to a young woman or “kumari”. Traditionally, she is expected to belong to the Brahmin caste (the highest caste). While this rule lost its relevance a long time back, she is still, at least popularly, expected to be Hindu in the very least. However, to join the fight for communal harmony, Bidhannagar Ramkrishna Vivekananda Kendra, Salt Lake, another pujo organiser in Kolkata decided to have a Muslim “kumari”. Having Muslim “kumaris” is not an absolutely unheard of concept though, despite what one might assume, given Bengal’s history of communal violence and post-Independence partitioning of the state on primarily religious lines. Bengali Hindu spiritual leader Ramkrishna Paramahamsa converted to Islam but continued to preach “Joto mot, toto poth” (the doctrine that all paths lead to God) to the people of 19th century Bengal. His disciple, famous freedom fighter Swami Vivekananda worshipped a young Muslim girl as “kumari” in pre-Independence India. Besides, Belur Math, which serves as the headquarters for Ramkrishna Mission (a Hindu spiritual organisation founded by Vivekananda himself), houses a Mazhar within its perimeters. This inclusivity is magnified by certain groups of Muslims from Kolkata and other Muslim majority districts in Bengal when they come together to celebrate Durga Pujo themselves.

This practice is not just limited to the state of West Bengal. The “Blood Drop” club of the Sipahijala district of Tripura was in the news in 2015 when they elected a Muslim president for themselves to organise their annual Durga Pujo. Hasem Ali, a devout Muslim and an artist from Darrang district of Assam became famous in 2018 because of his unusual practices in terms of art: he made Hindu idols including those of Goddess Durga for a living.

People often use Durga Pujo as a platform to speak out against regressive religious ideas and taboos and pave the way for change. While for the longest time sex workers were exempted from the celebrations, the last couple of years brought drastic changes in favour of them. Sonagachi, India’s largest red-light district, organised a theme Pujo for the first time in 2019. Although, all the celebrations are centred on worshipping a goddess, various taboos restrict many women’s access to the festivities. The hard crusts of these orthodox Hindu rules have, however, eroded over the years and barely exist today among most Bengali communities.

The festivities of Durga Pujo end with “shidur khela” on Dashami, which literally translates to “vermillion game”. Married women, draped in (usually, but not always) beautiful white sarees with red borders smear vermillion on each other’s faces. This part of the celebration is traditionally limited to married women. Sex workers, transgenders, divorcees and widows are not given a place. This taboo exists even today. The Times of India launched a “No conditions apply” campaign in Kolkata with an aim to bring about a change in 2019. As a result, marginalised women from the LGBTQIA+ community, single women and so on and so forth were invited to participate in “shidur khela”. Hundreds supported the cause to change this 400 year-old custom to be more inclusive and with the great strength in participation, the movement was a success.

While most atheists believe that religion is useless and, in its true form, rather harmful to human society, the people of Bengal continue to use religious ceremonies to raise political and social issues and attempt to usher in change. The marriage of religion with the Bengali culture and society allows the promotion of unorthodox ideologies like communal harmony and inclusivity not just among the privileged and educated, but also among the downtrodden. While the world continues to think that religious traditions either shouldn’t be changed or simply cannot be changed, Bengalis beg to differ. They use religion as a medium to influence change while changing religious practices themselves to suit the millennium. They bear testimony to the fact that change in all realms of human life is indeed within the grasps of possibility.


Oindrila Ghosh

I am a student of Chemical Engineering at BITS Pilani and an Egyptology enthusiast, who loves reading about cold cases, creation and everything else that will probably never benefit me in my future career.

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