Ever since I married him, Mister had been yapping non-stop about how much he was looking forward to Durga Puja this year. He told me all about the pushpanjali (offering of flowers to the goddess – pushp = flowers, anjali = offering), the bhog (the meal offered to the goddess that is later distributed to the masses), the pandals (the temporary structure that houses clay statues of the goddess Durga and her four children), the dhunachi dance, the baran ceremony, and the sumptuous food at anandomela!
He had never, in all his thirty-six years and three marriages, had a proper Durga Puja experience and was determined to make this one count. I was equally eager, because it was going to be my first real festival after the wedding, so we took the entire week off so we could go pandal-hopping without having to worry about work and other commitments.
When the Shashthi (day six of the nine auspicious nights called Navratri) finally arrived, I was ecstatic. Four days of gorging on Mishti (sweets) and Bengali cuisine, wearing brightly colored sarees, and wearing vermilion in the parting of my hair, wearing my shankha pola (pictures here).
Aside: I don’t usually wear vermilion and shankha pola (or a mangalsutra) it because I don’t like the lopsided concept of married women should look married. But I do think that vermilion looks beautiful on Indian skin, and I love bangles anyway.
I knew I was going to have a lot of fun, and I was right! Everywhere I went I saw Durga idols, each more beautiful than the other. The intricate detailing told takes of months of toil and sweat and truckloads of money spent. The Minto Road Pandal, which I thought was the most beautiful, had been under construction for over three months before it opened up for the public! I thought that the actual temple paled in comparison with the grandeur of the fake, temporary structure that had been erected.
And that’s where I felt disconnected with the whole ‘devotion’ charade. To be honest, if it were up to me, I’d invest it in the temple where the more permanent idol resides.
Because it’s all a waste. Think about it – people do so much in the name of devotion to the goddess, and in the end, they’re all sitting with their back toward her, enjoying the cultural song-and-dance routines presented on the stage opposite to the stage where the goddess is, chomping on fish tikka and mutton chop as she and her four children stand alone.
Aside: I don’t believe in idol worship. Also, I don’t think eating non-veg is not religious or anything – I just don’t think that the goddess gets the attention that she should deserve.
And the Anandamela was another type of experience. On the one hand there were kathi rolls, kebabs, fisk tikkas, mutton ghugni for the non vegetarian population. And for vegetarians like me, they had only item. WTF!? Can people not imagine someone wanting to eat anything other than fish/chicken/mutton? The cultural programmes were fun, though!
The Pushpanjali was such a sham in most places. Pundits were taking phone calls while reciting shlokas (devotional verses in Sanskrit) and mouthing oddities like jabar phool mala la behenchod. In one of the pandals, the pundit started the pushpanjali without actually distributing flowers.
The baran ceremony (farewell for the goddess Durga) was probably the worst experience and the best possible eye opener – people are just so crass and class-conscious everywhere! But more on that later. For now, I’ll just quickly tell you that baran works like this. Married women get up close to the giant Durga idol and stand on a chair (because the idol is huge), offer her flowers, sweets, paan leaves, and vermilion, and pray to her just before she is taken down to be immersed in the river. (Don’t even get me started on the water pollution this causes!)
So all-in-all, I did enjoy the experience, but I’m awestruck at the sheer wastefulness and pointlessness of it all. Of course my views would be entirely different if we were to stop saying Durga Puja is basically just a social gathering, an art exhibition of sorts. Then I’d be totally cool with the revelry and the grandeur.
Btw, did you know that Durga Puja is not even a festival in the traditional sense?
As per Wikipedia:
The actual worship of the Goddess Durga as stipulated by the Hindu scriptures falls in the month of Chaitra, which roughly overlaps with March or April and is called Basanti Durga Puja.
And though this belief has recently been debated,
…the first such Puja was organised by Raja Nabakrishna Deb of the Shobhabazar Rajbari of Calcutta in honour of Lord Clive in the year 1757. Indeed many wealthy mercantile and Zamindar families in Bengal made British officers of the East India Company guests of honour in the Pujas. The hosts vied with one another in arranging the most sumptuous fares, decorations and entertainment for their guests.
But will I participate in the puja next year?
What do you think about Durga Puja (or any other large-scale religious processions, such as the kawariyas)? What about wedding processions? And if you’re not Indian, do you have any such festivals/large-scale processions in your country? As a tourist, would you want to visit India during Durga Puja, or would the crowd and traffic scare you away?