Also known as Sharadotsav or Durgotsava, Durga Puja marks the victory of Goddess Durga over the evil demon Mahishasura, thus epitomizing the prevalence of Good over Evil. The nine-day long festival also incorporates the worship of Durga’s consort Lord Shiva and Goddess Saraswati and Lakshmi along with Kartkeya and Ganesha, the children of Durga.
This annual festival is celebrated across South Asia on days marked as Mahalaya, Shashthi, Saptami, Ashtami, Navami and Dusshehra. The dates of Durga Puja are decided according to the Hindu calendar and usually fall around the 1st-15th of October. In modern times, the traditional means of worshipping Durga has attained different dimensions, with ornate pandals and innovatively carved idols of the Goddess seeking attention of revelers and serious worshippers alike.
Though widely celebrated in the state of West Bengal, Odisha, Assam, Bihar and Tripura, where the festival is a five day yearly holiday and the most awaited occasion for Bengali Hindus; it is fast becoming a popular socio-economic event in Delhi, Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Kashmir and other states of Southern India as well. It has a strong overseas presence in countries like Nepal, Bangladesh, Canada, Singapore and Kuwait, United States, Germany, France, United Kingdom, Australia, The Netherlands, along with many others.
Celebrated since the medieval periods in private residences, Durga Puja was formally integrated in the pantheons of Hinduism after the 16th century. The worship of Durga was popularized by the zamindars and land aristocrats of Bengal at the turn of the 18th century. The most prominent amongst them found the patronage of the British Raj. The community pujas were celebrated with a lot of fanfare and was a platform where the peasantry and royalty shared delicious feasts and indulged in elaborate celebrations with worship, music, dance and drama performances.
In contemporary times, the celebration has shifted from the precincts of princely houses and involves the general masses, media and large corporate houses. Considered as a mega outdoor festival showcasing the talents of idol and pandal makers and artists alike, Durga Puja also imbibes the latest aspects of technology and entertainment.
Legend Behind Durga Puja
The festival finds its origins in Hindu mythology when Goddess Durga entered the Earth to free it from the invincible powers and tyranny of demon Mahishasura. Mahishasura Mardini, as Durga is often called, appeared on the behest of Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva to save the Devlok and the living organisms on Earth from the evil acts of the monster. She took the form of a beautiful warrior and was seated on a ferocious lion. With the help of weapons provided by the Gods in heaven, she managed to vanquish Mahishasura and crushed his mighty strength; which was bestowed on him through austerity. After killing the demon, Durga restored Devlok back to the Gods.
Ever since, Goddess Durga is invoked and worshipped for protection against evil. The goddess also has mention in the Ramayana, wherein Lord Rama organized Chandi pooja to seek the blessings of Durga. Rama was blessed by the deity and then fought hard to acquire victory over Ravana.
The celebrations for Durga Puja continue for ten days, including the very last day when the idol is immersed in water. The stage for Durga Puja is set in the cool and crisp autumnal airs, when rich harvests in the fields and blossoming of mildly scented shiuli herald the coming of the Goddess. Mantras and shlokas read in the wee hours of the Mahalaya morning announce the arrival of Shakti with crackers, sounding of conch shells and other festivities.
Durga Puja is all about cleaning homes, buying new clothes, reveling with family members and friends, hopping from one pandal to another along with enjoying the festive ambience complete with music, dance and various art forms. It is an occasion for community socializing, feasting, shopping and merry making. Most worshippers spread cheer and joy by distributing sweets and exchanging gifts amongst their loved ones.
Since the 1950’s, Durga Puja starts off with the chanting of Mahishasuramardini on radio along with the recitation of hymns and shlokas from the scriptures of Devi Mahatmyam (Chandi Path). Pandals are the community centers of worship, where temporary abodes of the Goddess are built to house her idol and conduct various rituals. Pushpanjali or flower offerings are done on the mornings of the sixth to ninth days of Durga Puja. This is a fortnight of the waxing moon and is known as Devi Paksha.
Ritual drummers or dhakis, clad in fancy clothes and donning huge drums showcase their skills during the dances done during the time of Aarti— when lamps are lighted and conch shells are blown to worship Durga. The tenth day witnesses the return of the Goddess to her heavenly abode with the immersion ritual –also called Bishorjon , Bashan or Niranjan.
Durga Puja Recipes
Traditional recipes do their rounds in households, pandals and authentic Bengali restaurants on the nine days of Durga Puja. Some of the most popular amongst them are cooked on Ashatami, Navami and Dashami. Though most households prefer to cook only vegetarian fare throughout Durga Puja, mutton and rice recipes are common on the last day of the celebrations.
Food lovers are spoilt for choice during these nine days of festivity. While those with a preference for sweets love to savor the delightful 'malpoa', sandesh and chandrapuli-which is a type of pancake, others love to bite into delectable snacks such as ghugni , nimkis and singara— which is the Bengali version of the popular North Indian samosa. Along with khichdi, luchi and the usual fare, there are plenty of other side dishes such as doi potol, dhonka, chanar dalna, chutney, papad and several delicious sweets.
This traditional flat bread is deep fried and made from flour. The well kneaded dough contains salt and is made with warm water. Typically a Bengali dish, it is served in most states with alu dom, chana dal and payesh.
It is sweetened yoghurt made with fresh curd and jaggery. Mishti doi is a favorite amongst the local worshippers as well as those visiting the pandals from other states. It is served as a dessert after the main course.
A unique combination of lentils and moistened rice, khichdi is made with lots of vegetables, dried fruits, and spices. It is served with fried brinjals, pumpkin pakoras and tomato chutney as accompaniments. This popular dish is also offered to the Goddess as bhog.
Traditionally served as food for celebration and festivity, Labra is a mouth watering dish made from an assortment of mixed vegetables. It takes the form of a curry of thick consistency and is served along with the other dishes.
The famous sweet of Bengal, Rasogollas are the integral part of Durga Puja—without which the celebration is totally incomplete. It is made from fried cottage cheese balls seeped in highly sweetened sugar syrup.
This tasty dish is a must during Durga Puja and is also served as an offering to the Goddess. Made from milk, rice, sugar/jiggery and dry fruits, Payasam also finds a place of pride as one of the favorite desserts in most Bengali and Non-Bengali households.
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