Durga Puja symbolises our eternal journey to self-realisation and its significance goes beyond the narrative of the victory of good over evil. It is a confluence of nature-culture, stories and experiences that are complementing and contradicting at the same time.
The imagery and rituals of Durga Puja encompasses varying narratives of moving from the gross to subtle, perceivable to the obscure, limited to the unlimited and so on. It is also about celebrating the Goddess through rites and rituals to realize that the very essence of the universal creative force that is known as Adishakti is right within us.
Durga Puja festivities
Durga Puja festivities, especially in the eastern parts of India evoke a sense of both belonging and separation within us.The pre-festivities that start with Mahalaya Amavasya reaches its grandeur with the bringing of idols of Goddess Durga to home and pandals. It comes to a close with the immersion of idols in water. Over the years, Durga puja has become an inseparable part of Indian culture with innumerable people celebrating this festival in their own unique way while pertaining to tradition.
Imagery of Goddess Durga
The ritual, liturgy and imagery of Durga Puja incorporates such a diverse set of narratives that it sometimes gets difficult to comprehend how these co-exist in complete harmony. They are complementing and contradicting at the same time.For instance, take the imagery of the Goddess. She is seen as the central figure- an independent, heroic, ten-armed woman, mercilessly slaying a demon. At the same time, She is surrounded by Her four children (Ganesh- Lakshmi- Saraswati- Kartik), has Her husband (Shiva) perched above Her idol and is welcomed by Bengalis as their own daughter.
Invoking the Goddess
Interestingly, it is not just in this image that She is worshipped. At the foot of the idol is Her manifestation as the ‘Ghot’- a copper pot filled with water and topped with mango leaves and a green coconut. For Her daily bathing rites, a brass mirror-like object called Darpana is used. This is smeared with Sindur and hibiscus oil after the daily ablutions and placed at the idol’s feet. The manifest forms of the Goddess thus range from the most visible and perceivable (the idol) to the most obscure and formless (the Darpana).
The Goddess is both the nourishing giver of bounty, as well as the fierce consumer of sacrificial offerings. In the initial two days of the festival, She is invoked in fruit bearing plants- first in the branch of a wood-apple (Bel/ Bilwa) tree, and later in a bundle of nine sacred plants called Navapatrika. Her nature dramatically changes over the next few days. Ashtami(8th day) culminates with the offering of Balidaana to Chandika who is extremely bloodthirsty after slaying Chanda-Munda. She then wages a fierce battle with the demon, Mahishasura on Navami and proclaims her victory over him on Vijayadashami. But as soon as all the bloodshed is over, emotions are stirred once again, as preparations are made for Her departure.
Visarjana or the act of immersing an idol in water is interpreted as a return of the deity of Her/His elemental state. The Goddess is a personification of nature and is given a definite form by the skilled fingers of the craftsmen. When Her idol made of unbaked clay is immersed in water, it dissolves completely and settles with the sediments of the river bed. The river deposits these on its banks, and next year the artisan fetches clay for the new idol from the same river bank.
“Chinmoyee Maa, Mrinmoyee Rupe“
This beautiful cyclical nature of existence has given rise to the popular Bengali saying- “Chinmoyee Maa, Mrinmoyee Rupe” (the Goddess who is the absolute, pure and unmanifest consciousness, has assumed the form of a simple clay idol).
Durga’s festival is therefore a celebration of all aspects of existence- those that fulfill our lives and make it whole, and also those which bring separation and bereavement. She is a true representation of how the Durga Saptashati describes Her- “सर्वस्वरूपे सर्वेशे ” (the embodiment of all forms, the embodiment of all divinity).