Mahalaya the auspicious occasion of the whole Bengali community and the people of Bengal marks the advent of Goddess Durga to the earth, the goddess of supreme power, to annihilate all evils. It is the period when Pitri Paksha (Shola Shraddha or food offering) ends giving way to Devi Paksha (Goddess Period). Mahalaya is thus a kind of invocation or invitation to the mother goddess so that She descend on earth and help the mortals lead an evil-free life. Thus this is done through the chanting of special mantras (hymns) and singing of devotional songs. Many special ceremonies and rituals are duly attached with the occasion; continue reading to learn more about the essence of Mahalaya.
Also known as the Shola Shraddha or sixteen Shraddhas or food offerings, this is the period when a shraddha is performed by a son, in honor of his ancestors thus making sure that the departed souls reach heaven hassle free. This kind of offering is known as "Tarpan" in Bengali. However this offering is performed at a specific time of the day. Generally “Tarpan” is performed during the pre-dawn or dawn time, near a river. The son thus in the process remembers his ancestors by propitiation and food offerings and then once finished making the offerings, he takes holy dips in the river. This whole ritual is very famously known as Pinda Dana. This day is thus considered to be a very significant for all the people of Bengal and the Bengalis.
The Pitri Paksha is well succeeded by the Devi Paksha, meaning the Goddess Period. According to some traditional beliefs it is said that Devi Durga descends to earth seven days before the main puja takes place thus just after four days of Mahalaya day, the grand Durga Puja countdown begins. Thus as per the Hindu tradition fifteen days period between New Moon to Full Moon of Bhadra known for Goddess Period or Devi Paksha. It is the auspicious period when Hindus believe it to be the best time to do any sacred work. Thus the northern India celebrates the nine day following the new moon of bhadra as Navaratri.
However many other connotations are duly attached with the celebration for according to the Purana on this day Lord Rama worshipped Devi Durga before departing for Lanka in order to rescue Devi Sita from the clutches of demon Ravana. Though traditionally Durga Puja was supposed to be performed during the spring time by King Suratha for which it was known as Basanti Puja, but Lord Rama started worshiping the Goddess Durga during autumn, hence from then onwards the festival of Durga Puja as well came to be known as 'Akaal Bodhan'.
Well why exactly the term “Akaal Bodhan” used? Since the time Lord Rama worshipped Devi Durga when God and goddess were in awakened state, thus they were worshipped prior to the required timing, thus was the coinage of the “Akaal Bodhan”. Another famous tradition associated with the Mahalaya is the coloring the idol. As per tradition, on the last new moon day just before the Mahalaya, the idols or Durga Protima is colored specially the eyes are given shaped which is also known as "Chakshu Daana" in Bengali.
One more association can well be found to describe Mahalaya period. During legendary Mahabharata period, Karna used to donate gold and other wealth to people. He was such a charitable person that he was often referred as the “Data Karna”. So when he died, due to his good works on the earth he got back those in thousand fold in heaven. Though Karna's soul was hungry so he searched for food but due to his deeds, he was served gold and silver. Frustrated karna asked the god of death Yama the reason for this peculiar treatment, to which Yama replied that throughout his tenure on earth, he had donated only gold and silver but never donated food to anyone even to his ancestors. Afraid Karna replied to Yama that, he was unaware of his ancestors. So he was then sent back to earth by Yama for 14 days, where Karna fed the poor people and made offer to his ancestors. Soon after the 14 day period ends he was sent back to heaven and was served by huge amount of food. So from this incident is the formation of 14 days period of Mahalaya.
Since time immemorial it has almost become a customary affair for Bengalis to set their radios in order to hear the Mahisasura Mardini recitation which is aired every year by All India Radio. Thus the true essence of the Mahalaya is best felt with magical voice of Great Birndra Krishna Bhadra. The way he depicts the story of Devi Durga in his famous recitation in one word is just irreplaceable. Without listening Birendra Krishna Bhadra Durga Puja celebration in Bengal and for Bengalis is just so incomplete.