Durga Puja is the worship of Shakti or the divine power. Most of the religious celebrations in the world have legends surrounding fables that are generally about the fight between the evil and the good, the dark forces eventually succumbing to the divine. The worship of Goddess Durga is based on myths where Durga symbolizes the divine power. Durga is usually depicted riding a lion and with ten arms, each holding a special weapon of one of the Gods, who gave them to Her to fight Her battle against Mahishasura, the buffalo demon. The Durga-Puja, held annually in Her honour, is one of the grand festivals of Northeastern India.
Durga Puja sees many thousands of glittering pandals housing idols of the Goddess Durga and her cohorts, spring up across the city of Guwahati, and many more across eastern India. The pandals, which are freshly designed each year, compete to be the most extravagant, original or kaleidoscopic. In the Guwahati of the yesteryears, there were very few pandals put up for Durga Puja celebrations.. Today, almost every locality in this expanding city celebrates its own Puja. In some places, pandals are set up even on the streets, forcing the traffic to be redirected through other routes. There was a time when bamboo, clothes, wooden planks etc., were the fundamental materials used in the pandal-making of Guwahati, but, today, apart from these, the creative approach of pandal-making includes such unusual materials like glass, marble, jute, wrought iron or cane. The elaborate and grand pandals are often replicas of well known structures and buildings around the world. The pandals are best seen at night, when they are beautifully illuminated. Skilled electricians design the lighting of not only the pandals but also the adjacent streets. Every area looks grand, complete with blinding neon lights, mind boggling decorations, loud music and striking structures. Each of the major temples has its own pandal. More than the pandals, it is the atmosphere that is to be seen to be believed. The atmosphere is electric; one would not have believed that the people of this laid-back region had so much energy in them! Although the inspiration is religious, it would be more proper to describe Durga Puja as a carnival. Streets are decked out with lights and sparkling decorations, and a carnival atmosphere prevails at night, when thousands of people walk from pandal to pandal.
As people gear up in the spirit of celebrations, it is also the time for some last minute shopping. Almost all the shops offer special discounts on all kinds of items. This can also be called the annual shopping fiesta, when everyone goes for the latest fashion and model.
On Shasthi, the priest performs the bodhon, which means to unveil Goddess amid worship. The day is observed as a pious and sacred day on which the women of Hindu faith are supposed to fast till the evening. It is also common for all the families to visit the local pandals with their near and dear ones. The enchanting sound of dhak, along with the evanescent fragrance of sewali flowers and chanting of mantras, indicates that the celebrations and festivity of one of the biggest and magnificent festivals has begun. The spirit of celebration changes everything and displays an ambience of joviality, exhilaration and indulgence.
The next day is known as Maha Saptami. This is the day meant for offering anjali – offering flowers and prayers along with recitation of ancient shlokas to the Goddess Durga. The believer fasts till the time he offers anjali to the deity to seek religious blessings. After that, he is in queue for the prasad. In the afternoon, the local pandals become a mingling ground for the people living nearby where they have the bhog. They chat, gossip and have fun, sharing the bhog and soak up the spirit of the celebration. In the evening, it is time to deck up in brand new clothes and dazzling ornaments and to make way through the rush of pandal-hoppers, swaying to the beat of dhak, out on the street to witness the spectacular display of lights, pandals and decorations.
Maha Ashtami, the eighth day, is one of the most significant days of the celebration. It is a social custom, much as it is a religious one, to offer anjali on the day of Ashtami, even if someone doesn’t want to offer anjali on any other day. The most important ritual on Maha Ashtami is Sandhi Puja. The priest performs the worship, chanting ancient Sanskrit shlokas to breathe life into the clay idol of the Mother Goddess, which is called Pran Pratistha. A bowl of water is placed before the clay idol and the reflection of the idol in the water creates an illusion of motion, which is assumed to be an indication that the clay idol has been conferred with life. In some temples, the long standing tradition of worshipping young girls, known as Kumari Puja, is also observed.
Nabami, the ninth day, brings with it a sense of despondency as the celebration has only one day left to reach its conclusion. The celebrations are intermingled with the regular practices like anjali, prasad, enjoying yummy treats from various make-shift food stalls or visiting pandals with friends and family.
The last day of Durga Puja celebration, known as Bijoya Dashami, coincides with Dussehra, which is also the tenth day of Navaratri. This is the final day of celebration, a day meant to bid farewell to Durga. Colourful and emotional rituals take place before the idol of Durga as the Goddess is taken for immersion in the river. This may seem like a great waste as those luminously sculpted idols are thrown into the water. But, if we look at the positive side of it, this custom helps those poor idol makers who will again get to earn by making idols of Durga next year.
Durga Puja is not so much about religion; it is a carnival where people from all backgrounds, regardless of their religious beliefs, participate and enjoy themselves. It is a treat to be a part of such celebrations, when irrespective of caste, class, religion, faith or beliefs, people are gathered together in front of Durga’s idol and rock to the ritual chants and the intensifying spirit of the occasion.