Photographer Madhur Dhingra is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this social documentary photography. From his project ‘Asche Bochor Abar Hobe‘. To see Madhur’s body of work click on any image.
A large number of my friends in Delhi are from Bengal, and all of them always talk excitedly of going back home during Durgotsav or Durga Puja as we call it in northern India. It has always made me wonder why the mere mention of these words is enough to enrapture them. I kept asking them this question only to hear the same reply over and over, ” Madhur, you need to go to Kolkata during that time to get your answers”. Many other friends had also told me that the frenzy witnessed then was more than that witnessed in carnival of Rio De Janeiro in Brazil.
In Hindu metaphysics, Durga represents ‘shakti’(energy), the divine feminine force that pervades all cosmic creation, existence and destruction. Durga is self- existent, beyond time, indestructible and independent of the material universe as we know it. In a personified form, Durga is honored as a mother with extreme fervor during the annual ‘Navratri’ festival. The festival marks the beginning of autumn and occurs typically in September or October each year. Navratri means nine nights in Sanskrit, and on each day nine different forms of shakti or Durga are worshipped.
In West Bengal, on the day of ‘Mahalaya‘, Durga is invited to transcend to our earthly realm and from then on the puja ceremonies and rituals begin. The street festival of Durga Puja starts from ‘Shashthi‘ or the sixth day of the month of Ashvin and ends with the immersion of Durga idols on Vijayadashami the tenth day. During this period goddess Durga is worshiped along with her four children- Ganesha, Kartikeya, Laxmi, and Saraswati. Lord Shiva her husband is also given a special place in these ceremonies. This period of worship is also known as Devi Paksha or the fortnight of the goddess. During the last 3-4 days of the festival, the streets of Kolkata are packed with frenzied crowds unparalleled to anything else seen on earth.
There are different stages to the process of making these Durga Puja idols. On the day of ‘Akshaya Tritiya’, clay for the sculptures is collected from the banks of Ganges. A handful of soil or ‘punyamati‘ is then collected from the ‘nishiddhopallis‘ or the house of sex workers in Kolkota and mixed. Only after this ritual mixing of these soils does the commencement of the idols begin. A basic structural shape is first given to the idol using bamboos and jute strings and then refined with clay. When the main structure is in shape, heads, fingers and other details are added. Finally, they paint the eyes of the Durga idol on ‘Durgaon Mahalya’ or the first day of the puja. This is called the ‘ChakkhuDaan‘, and is an important ritual for these artists so much so that during this period they fast or eat only vegetarian food.
During Durga Puja, one of the most important ritual on Mahasaptami, or the seventh day, is Kola-bou or the bathing of the banana-bride. On this day, a young banana tree is taken to the river Ganga, and given a ceremonial bath. The tree is then draped in a white saree with red border, with some sindur or vermillion powder applied on its leaves. Thereafter the tree is kept on the right side of the idol of Ganesh (son of Durga), implying that she is now the bride of Ganesh.
Vijaya Dashami the day when everyone had to bid farewell to the Mother finally arrived. There was heaviness in the air, people had quietened down, there was not much activity on the roads and even the beat of the drums was now melancholic. The first ritual I witnessed on VijayaDashmi was SindoorKhela, where married women smear vermilion on each other’s face. A grand farewell was expected as Goddess Durga was now on her way back to heaven. There were tears of anguish in everyone’s eyes as the time approached when their mother will be taken to the Ganga ghats for visarjan(immersion) , a symbolic departure of her return to heaven. This ceremony which marks the end of the grand Durga Puja festivities,is accompanied with a sombre ambience all around. Devotees keep cheering each other chanting out aloud-“ Asche bochor abar hobe”- which means that there will always be a next year when Goddess Durga will transcend back to earth again.
The visarjan activities started around noon on 11th Oct . A beeline of trucks carrying Durga idols was formed outside OutramGhat, a place reserved for submersion of idols. On the ghats, cranes stood in waiting to pull out all the idols that would be immersed, in order to keep the Ganga clean. People started pouring in accompanied by sounds of beating drums, chanting and ringing bells. Sadness loomed large on their faces and tears could be seen in the eyes of many. The sound of Ulu Dhwani (It is sound generated using the tongue and lips, to bring in auspiciousness and drive out negative vibes), was heard everywhere. The final parikrama( ritual of turning the idol around) was done and splash !!!! The mother was immersed into the Ganga. What a sight!!!!
I too say goodbye to our beloved mother and head towards the airport only to promise myself to return to this very place next year.
By Madhur Dhingra