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THE DURGA PUJA FESTIVAL – PAST AND PRESENT

Durga Puja is one of the biggest Hindu festivals and it is celebrated in numerous ways in India and beyond. The festival is especially popular in the north-easternpart of India and in Bengal and today it is also celebrated by Bengalis living all over the world.

The festival honours the goddess Durga, who according to Hindu mythology won a battle against the demon king Mahishasura. Thus, the victory of good over evil is an important theme of the Durga Puja festival. The festival is celebrated for 3 to 10 days in the autumn. The exact dates shift each year according to the lunar calendar. Puja translates to “ritual”. 

Photo: Helinä Rautavaaran Museo

For most people, Durga Puja is above all a festival that brings friends and families together, as they visit the numerous temporary public Durga Puja structures, pandals, which have been built around cities and villages. The Bengali Durga Puja is celebrated both in homes and as a public festival. Festival goersconsider Durga Puja to be as much a social event as a religious one.

History of the Durga Puja as a Public Festival

The first public Durga Puja celebrations can be traced back to 1583 in Bengal, northeast India, where the Zamindar (landlord) of Tāhirpur in present day Bangladesh sponsored a festival. From the mid-18 th century onwards, wealthy landowners started organising public Durga Puja festivals more frequently in their homes,as the interest in goddess-centred worship practices increased in Bengal. Their family and friends were invited, and the festival celebrations grew bigger. The festivities had several features and social aspects that went beyond religious ritual; as a semi-public display of devotion in front of invited guests, they were social gatherings as well as an opportunity for organisers to display their wealth and status. These early celebrations were “public” to a limited extent, as only invited guests could take part, and these guests were invited in order to negotiate or secure the landlords’ authority, political or otherwise. 

Due to the status of the Durga Puja celebrations, the audience for the festival began to expand. A major shift in public or community involvement occurred as the patronage system shifted toward a community-centred celebration with the creation of Durga Puja organising committees in 1790. The committees collected donations from neighbours and nearby villages and, along with the puja (worship) ceremonies, different kinds of public entertainment was organised, such as folk theatre and music performances. Consequently, the festival also became more popular and widespread.

Today’s predominant form of celebration, in India as well as abroad, is the sarbajanin (public) puja. In 1910, Kolkata saw the first Durga Puja of this kind, which involved a community puja (with full public contribution, public control, and public participation). Religious and Social Facets Intertwined.

The social elements of the festival 

include a wide variety of activities, from shopping and cooking to eating and mingling. These activities are part of public celebrations but, not surprisingly, are an integral element of family celebrations as well. 

In family pujas, usually only a few people actively prepare and perform the rituals. Most of the family members are onlookers. They may watch the rituals, or spend their time in amusements. On one or two of the festival days the family may invite friends and relatives to share in the festive meals. Before an actual meal begins, everyone present reverently eats a little of the food, which has been served as an offering to the deity – fruits, sweets, and cooked rice. In the evenings, amateur theatrical or musical performances are often held within the family space, for instance in family courtyards.

Contemporary Celebrations – Pujas and Pandal Hopping

Although families organise pujas at home for invited guests, communal celebrations have been, and still are, highly popular – in fact, the number of sarbajanin pujas in Kolkata is on the rise.

In this form of public puja, a committee consisting of volunteers is elected to organise the festivities. A committee can have members representing a locality or a neighbourhood, or involve other entities such as firms or major corporations.

Statues in the making. Picture: Somdatta Deb

The centres of public Durga Puja festivals are pandals, temporary structures that frame the Durga statue and in front of which the puja ceremonies are performed. The majority ofthe funds raised by the committees go into the creation and hosting of the paṇḍal. These expenditures often include the artistic design and construction of the paṇḍal; rent for the location where the paṇḍal is set up for the time of the Durga Puja (commonly in halls); rent for technical and other equipment (e.g. music and light systems, musical instruments, or bands). Though private funding from neighbourhoods has not entirely vanished, corporate entities are now the largest source of funding for urban pandals in India.

Pandal. Picture: Suman Chowdhury

The heart of a Durga Puja pandal is the statue of the goddess, most often made of clay. Today, the goddess Durga in these statues is depicted in a standardised form, which means that while smaller artistic liberties are possible, the frame stays unchanged. The goddess is depicted at the very moment where she slays the asura (demon-like creature) Mahiṣa, who has either the form of a buffalo or a human who emerges from the buffalo. This is in line with the mythological narrative around Durga as told in the major Hindu text, the Devimahatmya, from the 5 th – 6 th century. This narrative tells of her battling, and finally slaying, Mahiṣhasura.

While the statue remains relatively unchanged, the surrounding artwork can vary. In the city of Kolkata, the statues are made by specialised sculptors who work in a part of the city called Kumartuli.

Today, a splendid or otherwise outstanding paṇḍal often attracts large numbers of visitors. Paṇḍals can take massive, highly elaborate forms, and are increasingly used to comment on current social and political issues. There are themed paṇḍals, which address, for example, environmental issues, and there are even so-called disco paṇḍals, named after their exceptionally flashy appearance.

“And sometimes we go around walking and walking whole night seeing the different pandals and pujas, and we eat in different places, and everything is open, the small shops are open. So one night we go with our parents, and one night we go with friends, and maybe with relatives. And we may do a cultural programme in our localities. So when the goddess is leaving after four days and we immerse the idol ,
we start crying, people are crying cause it’s so painful, that she is leaving. We really feel that someone came to visit us, spent time with us and we wait another year for her to come.” 

(Woman, 29 years)

Lifting of a statue onto a truck to transport it to the ritual immersion in water. Durgapuja Mulund, Mumbai Celebration 2015. Photo: Xenia Zeiler

Durga Puja and the Media

Today, all aspects of Durga Puja are highly mediatised. Not only is Durga Puja a common theme in Bollywood and other films, the journalistic media, popular music, blogs, forums, etc., but the organisation of and participation in the festival often takes place via a variety of media. For example, Durga Puja is increasingly organised and discussed in social media such as Facebook, WhatsApp, etc. Social media is frequently used for fundraising and advertising, especially in urban regions. 

Unsurprisingly, the social media use of Durga Puja visitors today, especially in urban centres, is intense. Visitors share their experiences about essentially all aspects of the celebrations across the whole range of social media. Major social networking sites in both the Indian and the Finnish context include Facebook and WhatsApp, although photo or video sharing platforms like Flickr and YouTube are also widely employed.

The Celebration of Durga Puja in Finland 

Migration of Bengalis contributed to a quick and successful spread of the Bengali-style community festival all over India. That spread continues even today in the Hindu diaspora, where public Durga Puja celebrations are organised around the world.

Today, several Bengali communities celebrate Durga Puja in Finland as well. Every year, the Sarbajanin Durga Puja Helsinki festival is organised by the Indian Bengali community in Finland during a weekend that is close to the festival time in India. While the festival in India is a public celebration in the sense that pandals are built in the streets and in public places, in Finland the festival is organised indoors. Many other aspects of the celebrations have to be adjusted too, as all the needed festive and ritual items are not available in Finland. Nevertheless, the open event brings together the people of the Bengali community, which creates a sense of togetherness. The festival provides an opportunity for the community members to maintain their cultural heritage and transmit it to the younger generation. It is also a time to socialise with other Bengali people living in Finland.

“I view Durga puja as more social event for me. The Arthi and pushpanjali are important to me in a sense that without them it would not be Durga puja. But the social side is important to me. One year we organized a play (for the cultural programme) and because of that there was a lot of communication. I knew that there were (young) people here but had not met them. So that year was very special. And we meet more often now.” 

(Man, young student)

“..however, it’s the Durga puja. However, the Durga idol is in front of me. When I do these things in Helsinki, it’s as if in my mind I’m in (my uncle’s village) and in front of that idol (there) only. With those memories and being in front of Durga, I’m always happy.” 

(woman, 50 years).

Feeding of the Goddess. Durgapuja Mulund, Mumbai Celebration 2015. Photo: Xenia Zeiler

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Text: Prof.Dr. Xenia Zeiler, South Asian Studies, University of Helsinki
Except The Celebration of Durga Puja in Finland: Prof. Dr. Xenia Zeiler and Suvi Sillanpää, Helinä Rautavaara Museum.

MORE TO READ:

Zeiler, Xenia. 2018 forthcoming. “Durgā Pūjā Committees. Community Origin and Transformed Mediatized Practices Employing Social Media“. In Nine Nights of the Goddess. The Navarātri Festival in South Asia, edited by Caleb Simmons, Moumita Sen, and Hillary Rodrigues. New York: SUNY Press

Zeiler, Xenia. 2019 forthcoming. “Durgāpūjā on Social Media. Photo and Selfie Sharing as Facebook and WhatsApp Practices of Festival Visitors in India and Finland”. In Nine Nights of Power: Durgā, Dolls and Darbars, edited by Ute Hüsken and Vasudha Narayanan. New York: SUNY Press.

Ghosh, Anjan. 2000. “Spaces of Recognition: Puja and Power in Contemporary Calcutta.” Journal of Southern African Studies 26(2): 289–99. doi:10.1080/03057070050010129.

McDermott, Rachel Fell. 2011. Revelry, Rivalry, and Longing for the Goddesses of Bengal. The Fortunes of Hindu Festivals. New York: Columbia University Press.

Sarma, Jyotirmoyee. 1969. “Puja Associations in West Bengal.” The Journal of Asian Studies 28 (3): 579–94. doi:10.2307/2943180.

Banerjee, Sumanta. 1989. The Parlour and the Streets: Elite and Popular Culture in Nineteenth-Century Calcutta. Calcutta: Seagull Books.

Bhaduri, Saugata. 2004. “Of Public Sphere and Sacred Space: Origins of Community Durga Puja in Bengal.” In Folklore, Public Sphere, and Civil Society, edited by M. D. Muthukumaraswamy and Molly Kaushal, 79–91. New Delhi and Chennai: Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts and National Folklore Support
Centre.

Bhattacharya, Tithi. 2007. “Tracking the Goddess: Religion, Community, and Identity in the Durga Puja Ceremonies of Nineteenth-century Calcutta.” The Journal of Asian Studies 66 (4): 919–62. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20203237.

Einoo, Shingo. 1999. “The Autumn Goddess Festival: Described in the Purāṇas.” In Living with Sakti: Gender, Sexuality and Religion in South Asia, edited by Masakazu Tanaka, and Musashi Tachikawa, SENRI Ethnological Studies 50: 33–70.

Ghosh, Anjan. 2000. “Spaces of Recognition: Puja and Power in Contemporary Calcutta.” Journal of Southern African Studies 26(2): 289–99. doi:10.1080/03057070050010129.

Guha-Thakurta, Tapati. 2015. In the Name of the Goddess. The Durga Pujas of Contemporary Kolkata. Delhi: Primus Books.

McDermott, Rachel Fell. 2011. Revelry, Rivalry, and Longing for the Goddesses of Bengal. The Fortunes of Hindu Festivals. New York: Columbia University Press.

McDermott, Rachel Fell. 2010. “Playing with Durga in Bengal.” In Sacred Play: Ritual Levity and Humor in SouthAsian Religions, edited by Selva G. Raj, and Corinne G. Dempsey, 143–59. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Nicholas, Ralph. 2013. Night of the Gods: Durga Puja and the Legitimation of Power in Rural Bengal. New Delhi: Orient Black Swan.

Rodrigues, Hillary Peter. 2003. Ritual Worship of the Great Goddess: The Liturgy of the Durgā Pūjā with Interpretations. Albany: State University of New York Press.

Sarma, Jyotirmoyee. 1969. “Puja Associations in West Bengal.” The Journal of Asian Studies 28 (3): 579–94. doi:10.2307/2943180.

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