How many people outside of India heard about Durga Puja, annual worship of a ten-arm Goddess vanquishing a demon?
Not too many, I’m sure.
Yet, it’s one of the greatest shows of art, spirituality and culture. It’s one of the most festive autumn events held under the sun. Millions of men, women and children mill. They mellow.
I grew up in Calcutta, Bengal in this tradition. Never thought about religion as a dogma. It was as much about fun as it was about food, friendship and frolic.
Western media excludes, undermines and relegates non-Judeo-Christian traditions. So, people do not know. Among those who do know, there’s enough ignorance and misperception about what it is all about. Hinduism to them is about a deprave caste system and primitive idol worshiping. Nobody digs deeper to sieve in its essence.
Unfortunately, a large number of so-called enlightened, liberal Indians have fed more fodder to the fuel by their own apathy and ignorance. They have been busy proving to the West how Westernized and modern they are.
I have always found a lot of reasons to celebrate Durga Puja. The one or two new shirts or pants I got from my parents or a visiting aunt or uncle. The community makeshift temples all across Calcutta beaming with light, sound and color. The smile on every face, just in anticipation of the coming four days of fun. The sunny, crisp autumn air after a long, wet monsoon. The country drummers slowly entering the city along with their sleepy, little boys. The community puja organizers knocking at the door asking for generous contributions — perhaps five rupees instead of two. Those were days when corporations and their hefty, in-your-face sponsorship did not take away the community aspect of community celebrations: those were days when people mattered before profit.
Schools had a one-month vacation. Some of us went occasionally to Bengalis’ favorite tourist spots: sea beach of Puri, hill station of Darjeeling, pilgrimage on the Ganges Varanasi. Those were days when spending three or four days just before the pujas along with your parents and siblings away from Calcutta was reason for major pride and bragging to friends and foes.
So, what is Durga Puja?
This is what I wrote in an online travel journal Travelogged a couple of years ago. I quote from it. (You can find more photos in it. Click here.)
“Four-day Hindu festival Durga Puja takes place every fall all over eastern region of India. Puja is a Sanskrit word for worship and Durga is a goddess who vanquishes the demon Asura with her ten arms. According to the Bengali Hindu traditions, Mother Goddess Durga comes down from her Himalayan abode on to the plains for those four autumn days, and brings along her children Ganesha, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Kartik, who each symbolizes a special force.”
“The combination of Durga’s warrior image and image of a mother yearly-visiting her parents is purely Bengali, and has little to do with more stringent versions of Hinduism.”
“In West Bengal and Bangladesh, it’s really more about expressing incredible folk artistry and music rather than the religion itself. That’s the unique, secular perspective of Bengali Hinduism. Appreciative Western minds would love it,” I wrote.
“The colorful decorations will dazzle you, but don’t get too attached. “All the deities and makeshift houses of worship would come down and dissolve after those four happy, festive days,” I wrote. “That’s the tragedy!” ”
You wouldn’t believe how fantastic the art is. Here are some pictures. All of it for four days only, and then they all disappear, forever. Artisans working for months — day and night — to produce their wonderful art, right on time.
Only if the Western World knew!
I feel very happy to have grown up in this tradition of Hinduism, where religion is not dogma or reason for hate or destruction. This brand of spirituality melts art with traditions, and puts a smile on even the poorest kid’s face.
And nobody asks if the kid is a Hindu or a Muslim or Christian. Nobody asks about his caste or color. Nobody ostracizes a girl because she comes from a poor, “untouchable” family. This brand of Hinduism — my brand — touches everyone, with love.
Unlike those liberals, I have NO reason to cower about my variety of Hinduism.
Very Thankfully Writing,
Brooklyn, New York