Have you ever wondered how many of the festivals we observe have their roots in religion? Christmas, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Passover, Yom Kippur, Buddha Purnima, Holi...all these occassions have their background in the religion of the people who observe them. We can safely say that most of our festive occassions wouldn't have existed but for our faith and religious practices.
The same can be said about Durga Puja, one of the greatest Indian festivals.
"Durga Puja", also known as "Durgotsab", actually means "The Festival of Durga" and is celebrated every year in September in India. The occassion is widely celebrated in Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Tripura, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab, Kashmir, Karnataka and Kerala but it is in the state of West Bengal where it is observed with the greatest enthusiasm.
The most important socio-cultural event for the Bengalis, Durga Puja is a five-day festival in West Bengal that is dedicated to the worship of the Hindu goddess Durga. These five days are known as Maha Shashthi , Maha Saptami, Maha Ashtami, Maha Nabami and Bijoya Dashami. Including "Mahalaya", the day of initiation of the Durga Puja festivities (a holiday in West Bengal), the occassion can be extended to a six-day festive event. Every year, the dates of Durga Puja celebrations are fixed according to the traditional Hindu calendar. The fortnight corresponding the festival is called Debi Pokkho (meaning "Fortnight of the Goddess") which starts from the day after Mahalaya and ends on Kojagori Lokkhi Puja (the night of worship of Goddess Lakshmi, one of the greatest Hindu deities).
In West Bengal, preparations for Durga Puja begin a couple of months in advance. Pre-Puja sales and shopping activities are seen to increase in the days leading to the five-day extravaganza. This is the most prosperous period for most Bengali businessmen who are engaged in sale of commodities such as clothing, eatables, gifts, jewellry and the like. Business houses stock themselves with special products and start special advertisement campaigns announcing attractive offers during this time to draw in shoppers. Bengali newspapers and magazines publish special Puja issues, known as "Sharad Sankhya", that include compositions by many a budding author, apart from the works by well-known writers. Even music companies, big and small, bring out albums of reputed as well as new artrists during this time which are eagerly awaited by music lovers in the state. Shopping and furbishing for the home are a must for all Bengalis before Durga Puja. Hence, employees of different Govt. and private organizations are given extra money as Puja bonus to enjoy the festival.
The festival starts with Mahalaya, the first phase of the waxing moon in Aswin. The Mahalaya is the last day of "Pitri Pokkho" - a fortnight dedicated by Bengalis to the honour of their forefathers - and has thousands offering prayers to their ancestors at the city's river banks (ghats), a ritual called Tarpan. Millions in Bengal tune in to All-India Radio to listen to a special annual pre-dawn Mahalaya program consisting of readings from the Chandi and Aagamani songs welcoming Goddess Durga. This traditional program, conceived by Birendrakrishna Bhadra, has become an institution for Bengalis. Without it, the Mahalaya would be incomplete.
In the final days to the actual Durga Puja festivities (that begin on Maha Sasthi), elaborate structures made of bamboo and covered with cloth are erected and decorated very beautifully. These are known as "Pandal"s. On Maha Sasthi, the idol of Devi Durga accompanied by four other idols - that of her four children Ganesha, Kartik, Lakshmi and Saraswati - are set up inside the pandals with an "aroti"(worship ritual). Scores of people throng these pandals with their families from the Maha Sasthi evening to get a glimpse of the Goddess with her divine family. The worship of the Goddess continue for three more days - Mahasaptami, Mahaastami and Mahanavami with elaborate rituals performed by local priests.
The city of Calcutta wears a different look during these three days, specially at night. Millions of people, from the suburban areas and even from abroad, come to the city and form a queue before the pandals waiting endlessly for a "darshan" (glimpse) of the Goddess. Nearly every street is decorated with brilliant lights. It is the time for electricians to show their skill by displaying different kinds of light shows. All restaurants are packed and numerous temporary food stalls are opened though out the city. Special trains, buses are available for all hours of the day and night; even the underground metro rail runs beyond regular schedule. Schools, colleges, offices remain closed during the four days of Durga Puja celebrations. Some people use the holidays to go out of the state to visit various hotspots or even see their relatives living elsewhere.
On Maha Dashami, the last day of Durga Puja, a tearful farewell is offered to the Goddess. The idols of Goddess Durga and her children are carried in processions around the locality and is finally immersed in a nearby river or lake. Most of the community pujas postpone the farewell as long as possible and arrange a grand send-off. The evening sees the get-together of relatives performing the tradition known as "kolakuli" (embracing one another) and eating sweets and other delicacies. This day, known as "Vijaya Dashami", is celebrated all over India.
Bengalis all over the world try to celebrate this great event of their culture. These days, Durga images made out of 'shola' (light material) are flown to countries like the United States, United Kingdom, Australia, Germany, France and Kuwait by special order from the NRI Bengalis and Indians who arrange puja in foreign lands.
Apart from India, Durga Puja is also a major festival in Nepal and Bangladesh.