Considerable literature exists around Durga puja in the Bengali language. Its early forms including avnirnaya (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 district (18th century). It was during the 18th century, however, that the worship of Durga became popular among the landed elite of Bengal, Zamindars.
Prominent Pujas were conducted by the landed zamindars and jagirdars enriched by British rule, including Raja Nabakrishna Deb, of Shobhabajar, who initiated an elaborate Puja at his residence. Many of these old pujas exist to this day. Interestingly the oldest such Puja to be conducted at the same venue is in Rameswarpur, Orissa, where it continues for the last four centuries since the Ghosh Mahashays from Kotarang near Howrah migrated as a part of Todarmal’s contingent during Akbar’s rule. Today, the culture of Durga Puja has shifted from the princely houses to Sarbojanin (literally, “involving all”) forms. The first such puja was held Guptipara – it was called barowari (baro meaning twelve and yar meaning friends).
Durga puja mood starts off with the Mahishasuramardini – a two-hour radio programme that has been popular with the community since the 1950s. While earlier it used to be conducted live, later a recorded version began to be broadcast. Bengalis traditionally wake up at 4 in the morning on Mahalaya day to listen to the enchanting voice of the late Birendra Krishna Bhadra and the late Pankaj Kumar Mullick on All India Radio as they recite hymns from the scriptures from the Devi Mahatmyam or Chandi. 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 playgrounds, traffic circles, ponds—wherever space may be available—elaborate 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 is used as a temporary temple for the purpose of the puja. While some of the pandals are simple structures, others are often elaborate works of art with themes that rely heavily on history, current affairs and sometimes pure imagination.
Somewhere inside these complex edifices is a stage on which Durga reigns, standing on her lion mount, wielding ten weapons in her ten hands. This is the religious center of the festivities, and the crowds gather to offer flower worship or pushpanjali on the mornings, of the sixth to ninth days of the waxing moon fortnight known as Devi Pakshya (lit. Devi = goddess; Pakshya = period; Devi Pakshya meaning the period of the goddess). Ritual drummers – dhakis, carrying large leather-strung dhak –– show off their skills during ritual dance worships called aarati. On the tenth day, Durga the mother returns to her husband, Shiva, ritualised through her immersion into the waters –– Bishorjon also known as Bhaashan and Niranjan.
Today’s Puja however, goes far beyond religion. In fact, visiting the pandals recent years, one can only say that Durgapuja is the largest outdoor art festival on earth. In the 1990s, 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 1980s however, the trend is to depict each idol separately.
At the end of six days, the idol is taken for immersion in a procession amid loud chants of ‘Bolo Durga mai-ki jai’ (glory be to Mother Durga’) and ‘aashchhe bochhor abar hobe’ (‘it will happen again next year’) and drumbeats to the river or other water body. 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”).
Durga Puja is also a festivity of Good (Ma Durga) winning over the evil (Maheshasoora the demon). It is a worship of power of Good which always wins over the bad.