The annual Hindu festival Durga Puja — a potpourri of events celebrated differently in different parts of India in honor of mother goddess — is popularly regarded as an occasion to commemorate good triumphing over evil.
Mythological significance of the festival is attributed to numerous versions of stories, including those of Goddess Durga killing demon king Mahisha and King Rama killing demon king Ravana.
Interestingly, despite bearing the markings of the ancient Hindu tradition, Durga Puja has fairly modern beginnings and gained mass popularity among the Hindus in their effort to counter a cultural invasion by the Muslims and to subvert the British administrations in 17th and 18th centuries.
“The Mughals and Muslim nawabs of Bengal imposed a festival tax on Hindus, which was relaxed only in the (British East India) Company’s regime in 1765 and fully abolished by Warren Hastings who became Governor General in 1772, and so mass Hindu festivities could be held only after that,” a book, titled “Folklore, Public Sphere, and Civil Society” written by M. D. Muthukumaraswamy and Molly Kaushal, says.
After decades of repression under Muslim rulers, whose power was subdued under the British administration, the Hindu upper class of (the eastern state of) Bengal took the opportunity to “carve itself a special space in the British administrative apparatus” while Durga Puja became “the site of this construction of the Hindu Bengali public sphere promoting its identity as the ultimate comprador class of British imperialism in India,” the authors say.
This process was proved relatively easy under the colonial invaders because unlike the Muslims, the British “did not wish to meddle much in the religious affairs of the natives.”
“The real spread and popularity of the festival emerges not from placating the British administration but from hoodwinking them and thus subverting the whole state machinery,” the authors write. “An annual extravagant event like the Durga Puja became an easy route for (Bengali) zamindars to get major tax reliefs and even manage extra allowances from the British.”
Thus, Durga, a goddess who was virtually non-existent in the pre-eighteenth-century pantheon and a celebration that had few mentions in literary, archeological and even posteriori documents before the 18th century, began their glorious journey eventually spreading across India.
Centuries later, the 10-days event — first nine days called “Navratri” and the last day called “Vijayadasami” — has only grown richer with colorful additions and regional variants.
In Bengal, huge idols of the goddess are worshiped accompanied by devotional songs and dances culminating in a grand procession on the 10th day when the idols are immersed in water.
The occasion of Durga Puja attracts thousands of devotees to Kali Temples across India, the most popular among them being the Dakshineswar Kali Temple in Kolkata, Bengal. Kali is popularized in the West through the story of “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” as the dreaded god of human and animal sacrifices, and the continuing animal sacrifices in worship of the goddess are met with protests from animal rights activists.
In the western state of Gujarat, ‘Navratri’ is a community event that includes songs and dances known as “Dandiya Raas” and “Garba Raas,” which have links to the story of Lord Krishna and performed for agricultural fertility.
In northern state of Kashmir, the minority community of the Hindu Pandits celebrates “Navratri” in a relatively quieter manner, by fasting and visiting temples.
In other northern states, including Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, the 10th day known as Dussehra is linked to the story of Rama and his triumph over Ravana.
In Maharashtra, Goddess Durga is worshipped continuously for nine days and on the 10th day, Goddess Saraswati is worshipped for blessings in studies.
In southern state of Kerala, Hindus consider the 10th day as an occasion to begin formal education of children normally between ages 3 to 5 and worship Goddess Saraswati for blessings.
In southern states of Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, the festival is marked by “Bommai Kolu,” a colorful display of a variety of idols of Gods and Goddesses on wooden steps in Hindu homes according to the ascending order of their godly powers.
For the non-resident Indians, Durga Puja is an occasion for community get togethers and for visiting temples. “For the uninitiated, Durga Puja, is the Bengali-Hindu equivalent of Christmas,” Arnab Ray, an NRI residing in Maryland, writes in the New York Times. “The essence of the festivities lies in coming home and being with all those whom one loves."