Durga Pooja: Celebrating the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Buffalo-demon by Sandeep Ray

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Durga arriving by boat, 2012, photo by Sudipta Dutta Chowdhury via theaperturelight

It is hours till dawn. We are huddled, dreaming. An alarm clock goes off shattering the stillness of night. It is an ungodly hour but the Goddess has arisen. She must vanquish the shrewd, shape-shifting, hideous bovine-demon Mahishashur. As we sit around groggily in our blankets, a stentorian, theatrical voice bursts forth from every radio set in the neighborhood. The original recording, made in 1932 in Kolkata, is replayed every year and lasts for well over two hours. The orator doesn’t pause, as no time can be lost. His platitudes are not in vain: when day breaks, Durga unites us. She will soon leave her astral abode and come home for a victory celebration, typically falling somewhere between the end of September and mid-October in the Gregorian calendar. YouTube links (click to hear recording) have replaced the diode radio of my childhood, but evidently not the fervor for Durga Pooja. The grandest of homecomings, it transforms everyday folk into generous, giddy, loud, and intermittently pious souls. Durga Pooja is observed mainly in the eastern and northeastern states of India, in Nepal, and in Hindu diaspora communties around the world. In Singapore alone there are at least half a dozen large-scale poojas scattered across the city—in Jurong East, Farrer Park, Boon Lay Way, and Bartley.

 

 Mahishashur attacks Durga. Artist unknown, circa 1770, via Brooklyn Museum

Sociologists call it a ‘collective effervescence’. Indeed, it is a heady, jubilant affair, celebrated across cleavages of class, age, wealth, and to a lesser degree, religion. People outspend their salaries and out love their neighbors. Bejeweled women wear new sarees saved year-long for the occasion, while scrubbed, natty children run amok and men suck in their guts and parade in colorful new kurtas. Handsome sculptures of the Goddess, her four allies, and the hideous evil demon, all made from malleable Gangetic clay are showcased in temporary temples. Hundreds of these pandals – bamboo and cloth based structures of phenomenal artistry—pop-up around Kolkata’s metropolitan area, their ornateness rivaled only by a stunning diversity in theme. 2017 saw one pandal designed in the motif of an ancient Thai temple, another a stunning replica from the set of the blockbuster mythical film Bahubali. Modernity is not shunned – an eco-friendly, ‘bicycle themed’ pandal provided cover for a few hundred thousand visitors to gaze at the Goddess slaying Mahishashur. Mass production takes a back seat; this is a shining moment for artisans. Holograms, multi-media projections, and every tool typically found in the armory of avant-garde installation artists are on display. Several stories high, these glorious structures loom around every other street corner, employing hundreds of craftsmen, and violating every fire-code.

   Thai temple styled Durga pandel, Kolkata, 2017, via India

Durga appears in very early scriptures. While there is limited mention in the Rig Veda (c. 1200 – c. 900 BCE), she is invoked in a battle cry in the Mahabharata, perhaps her first major entry in the timeless cast of the good versus evil dialectic theater of mythology. She was venerated sporadically across Bengal in the first millenia, but a ritualized, regular celebration seem to have taken off only in the mid-eighteenth century. Wealthy Bengali Hindu landowners, eager to maintain their privileged status with British administrators, threw extravagant poojas steeped in liquor and piety. These were elaborate affairs but despite their decadent origins, an aura of artistic creativity was instilled. It was only till the late nineteenth century that a new established, burgeois literate class took reigns of the event, dialled down the hedonism and introduced a cornucopia of cultural events.

The modern Durga Pooja is accompanied by song, dance, theater—folk and contemporary. One remnant from the early days is the loud, rhythmic percussion of the drummers or dhakis. Forever immortalized in the film Pather Panchali, the timeless scene (click on link) of young Apu and his friends running to eat sweets blessed by Durga, remains etched in the collective consciousness of cinephile and Durgaphile alike.

 Durga pandel inspired by the film Bahubali, Kolkata, 2017, via thewire

             Cycle of Life pandel, Kolkata 2017, via scoopwhoop

Festival of the Goddess Durga at Calcutta. Photo by Alexis Soltykoff, 1859. Note the European guests, dhakis, and nautch girls.

After days of revelry in an underslept and overfed daze, one must accept that it is time for the Goddess to leave home. The most racuous display of the long week is saved for this grandest of finales when Durga is escorted to the Ganges. Entire neighborhoods cram into trucks as their deity is transported to the river’s edge. Here, amidst chant, drum and boisterous hollering, she is lowered into the Ganges. Alert, rail-thin boys, suck in air and instantly dive in to forage for ornaments. Everything, faith to bead, is recycled. This last evening, called Doshomi in Bengali, coincides with the popular Dussera celebration of the vanquishing of the evil Ravana by Lord Rama. And this year it also took place on the same date as Muharram. An astral bottleneck, it rendered Kolkata immobile, fume covered, and secular.

It is quiet and somber after Durga leaves. Pandals are taken apart—the cloth is folded, tarpaulin rolled, decorations disassembled, and the bamboo carted away. Children return to school. Adults usually malinger, masking heartache with heartburn. Indeed, it would be the bleakest of days were it not for our unshakeable faith in evil. Surely the slain, humiliated Mahishashur is scheming a comeback from the abyss of the nether world? The Goddess will have to return for another battle. But fear not. The house always wins.

A statue of Durga celebrated at the author’s maternal home about to be immersed in the Ganges. Photo: Anik Roychowdhury, 2017

About The Author

Sandeep Ray has recently joined SUTD as Senior Lecturer at HASS. His research interests include Southeast Asian history, archival film, old media, and transnational approaches to Asian Studies. He is currently teaching a history elective titled, “Southeast Asia Under Japan: Motives, Memoirs, and Media.”