By Prajnaparamita Padhi
Prajnaparamita Padhi writes about the rapturous experience of receiving, enlivening and bidding farewell to Goddess Durga in the attic of an artist devotee and the company of his Bohemian friends
Lanes, bylanes and a charming set of old houses are stitched together to form an old architectural panorama. Clothes of daily use strung along timeworn balconies, trucks and autos on bumpy tramways; water overflowing from a dhobi’s large clay pot, street urchins racing bicycle tires – controlling speed and balance with a stick – these are pictures of a long wearied yet unvanquished Calcutta, a locality audaciously high on enthusiasm in spite of its tumbledown appearance.
In its midst is a young man working assiduously in his roof-top studio, kneading and preparing precious clay to make an idol of Goddess Durga for the auspicious Durgotsav in Bengal. Halley Goswami is pouring his soul into sculpting, painting and embellishing his goddess, for the 15th time in a row. This year he has chosen the Shabeki style of pre-British Bengal, lost for 150 years until now! His research on ‘pratimas’ (idols) of Mughal India revealed certain distinctive features of the goddess. The Durga idol of Bengal in the 1700s had a beautiful tribhangi posture with narrow waists, and small breasts. She wore a mekhla (an Assamese garb) instead of a sari, and had two stocky frontal arms to hold the trishul, while eight arms, four on either side, were clasped together and raised upwards. She wore a simple crown without a chura, a garland wound around the contours of her body. She rode a stylised lion, more like a horse with a glorious lion’s mane. The European influence of realism came with the East India Company and slowly got absorbed in the Durga idols of the later years. The shape of the beautiful chala behind the pratima was inspired by the thatched roofs of village dwellings, a semi-circle encircling the goddess and her four children like a halo. Halley paints the chala too with stories of Shiva, Parvati and her four children on their way to her mother’s earthly home from that of her husband’s in Mt. Kailash.
On Maha Shashti, Maha Ashtami and Maha Navami (the seventh, eighth and ninth days of Navratri), the three days of Puja, Halley becomes the purohit of his goddess, built so gloriously from plain earth. Artistically and knowledgeably he begins ‘bodhon’ – the invocation or awakening of the goddess, inviting Her to dwell in the idol. Halley uses every object, nuance and drop of passion in his devotion to bring to life Devi Durga in his humble abode.
Halley’s ardent friends – dancers and musicians – welcome her through Geet-Vaaditra-Naatyena – music, song and dance. In the olden times, the villages of Bengal would witness a joyous procession of shehenai players, drummers and flower bearers accompanying the purohit to bathe Ganesha’s “kola-bou” (the banana leaf bride).
The babu and his family members would follow, resplendent in silk and jewels. At Halley’s too, drum beats, bells and mantra, enthrall, as the Devi is given an elaborate ‘mahasnaan’ (bath) everyday, using water and earth from every corner of the world. Water from oceans and rivers, from rainfalls, waterfalls, pilgrimages, morning dew and the Saraswati river; earth from the doorsteps of temples, from the homes of the rich and the poor. He implores the great rishis, calls for the demons, spirits, yakshas, every animal living in every corner, gods and goddesses, snakes and celestial beings to join him, he uses ancient plants with secret medicinal properties and precious gems as ingredients in the holy bath. Every element we know scattered anywhere in our planet comes to Halley’s home and touches each one of us who participates in the ‘snaan’. We witness his grand supplication for dharma, artha, kama and moksha through his prayers.
Swami Vivekananda had requested Gauri Ma, a lady disciple of Sri Ramakrishna to make arrangements for Kumari Puja on Maha Ashtami, when he had first convened Durga Puja in his lifetime. Swamiji worshipped nine little girls with asana (mat), arghya (offering), sankha (conch), placed flowers at their feet and offered sweets and dakshina. It is said that Swamiji was so absorbed in the thought of the Divine Mother that he exclaimed, ‘Oh! Did I hurt the third eye of the Mother?’, when he touched one of the little girl’s foreheads with red sandalwood.
As if in remembrance, Halley ardently performs Kumari Puja too on Ashtami, painting a young girl’s forehead with a ‘third eye’.
Mahanavami prayers and celebrations in the mid 1800s involved sacrifices. The zamindars, babus, their friends along with bands of dhol (drum) players would celebrate in large courtyards singing songs, while women would respond to the merriment from behind elaborate pardas (partitions). Two buffaloes or 90 goats would be sacrificed, or symbolic sacrifices were made using betel nuts, ‘maagur’ fish or gourd, by the poorer sections.
I arrived on the penultimate day of Bijaya Dashami when the goddess was being prepared for her final farewell through a string of devotional activities. In the golden light I stood behind Halley’s mother who was performing the Devi Boron, an act deeply loving and tender. Dressed in white silk and adorned with gold ornaments she lifted a shining brass platter arranged with hundreds of objects, amid the sound of conch shells, bells, and diyas, watched by adoring eyes. Slowly and lovingly she touched Durga’s forehead with it for her blessing, her heart for eternal love, and her feet for devotion, three times in smooth succession. I was lucky to be standing in thrilling proximity to the goddess’s enigmatic beauty. The illumination, and the rapturous strain of conch shells was blinding my consciousness of the real world, I felt overwhelmed.
Halley’s mother caressed Ma Durga’s face and cheeks with betel leaves, applied “sindoor” on her forehead and fed her sweets, like a mother would do to her daughter preparing to leave for her husband’s home – leaving me immersed in wonder. I volunteered to circle around the Devi with other women, with arghya in our hands – holding beautiful objects in brass dishes as offerings. Seven times in soft devotional steps we encircled the goddess, and each time I succumbed a little. Bound by a shared passion in this circle of adoration, a joyousness rose in my heart. In a fervent stupor, I witnessed Halley’s aching valediction through a dazzling “arati” of a hundred burning wicks, amid ululation and soaring drum beats. The outpouring of joy from a gathering of passionate men and women reached a zenith when the goddess was finally ready to leave. The crowd dancing bare feet, in step, amid amplifying drum beats, symbolised vigour, endurance and strength.
Each one in Halley’s holy attic then dived into ‘sindoor khela”, smearing each other with red sindoor, an act that left each one’s face with the other’s finger print – tying everyone to the symbolic power of red vermilion, an old custom. Progressively we became indistinct as individuals, bound like an ancient tribe, hugging, loving and thanking each other.
A boisterous procession then descended upon the streets of Calcutta. Smouldering hot containers sprinkled with sweetly scented incense were clenched between each man’s teeth as they danced precariously in circles, in utter joy, until it became atmospheric! Their loud cry of “Bolo Durga Mai Ki” rose to the heavens, as temporal Calcutta faded.
Outpouring of joy
I had the sudden privilege not just to witness but to participate in this unbridled joy of song and dance as we followed the lorry carrying the goddess, bare feet, on our final destination – to immerse Ma Durga in the waters of the Ganges. Between spirited steps and joyous cries, I was ardently pulled into this irrepressible group by Halley, shattering all inhibition I may have had. I became part of a once-in-a-lifetime’s celebration and discovered unprecedented joy in the invaluable union of a hundred souls!
The lorry reached the ghats. I tightly held on to a huge ceremonial fan, fanning the goddess as she was being carried down the slippery steps by a hundred men crying out her name; as she inched towards the river bank, she was carefully and lovingly laid on the water. A small push set her moving with the current. Panting and screaming and hailing and bidding farewell, each one of us were now united in an inexpressible moment of fulfillment and happiness. Moments went by as we watched her go. We left the ghats with a sense of accomplishment and climbed the now vacant lorry as everyone repeatedly shouted “Once again, next year! – ashchey bochor abar hobe”. By then I had secretly slithered into a new skin, one of unqualified euphoria, as we set out on our journey back home. As our lorry meandered through the pouring crowd of many more worshippers, queuing up and jostling at the ghats with their idols, I looked at the enormous river, the many shades of people, the very beautiful sunset, and knew I was reborn!
Sleepless that night in my new avatar, I thought – real happiness is so simple yet so powerfully captivating that it binds you to it irrevocably and forever!
About the author : Prajnaparamita is an entrepreneur since 2005, providing animation and digital graphics for television and corporates. She is also a classical dancer, fiction writer and traveller.