Durga Puja may be an ostentatious community festival now, but it has its beginning in the humble harvest festival of rural Bengal that was celebrated in the courtyards of the wealthy landlords to pay respect to the farmers.
At the cusp of winter, when the winter chill is a few months away and the summer heat a few months behind, Calcutta throbs with excitement, anticipation and joy. It is after all the time when their favourite goddess comes calling. It is not an exaggeration to say that the festival, which is celebrated for 5 days every autumn, has become an alternate identity of Bengal and its people. But what is it about Durga Puja that makes it so special and how did it begin?
Earliest records tell us that the first Durga Puja happened sometime in the early 1600s by the Choudhury family of Barisha and was soon adopted by almost all aristocratic families in the area. At the time it was not the pompous festival it is today but a quiet thanksgiving ceremony for the presiding deity, Goddess Durga, and the farmers who worked for these landlords. The family would offer the harvest to the goddess and then distribute it to the guests as a symbol of their gratitude for growing their food.
Slowly and steadily, the ritual expanded to a 5-day festival and more rajbaris, or aristocratic homes started participating. The idol of the goddess was now brought home with much pomp on the first day and seen off with tears on the last. Dedicated priests and family elders looked after her for these 5 days and the whole neighbourhood visited to pay respect and accept bhog- food offering. The farmers were still thanked and offered bhog to, but that was no longer the only purpose of the festival.
“There are so many stories about Bari Pujos of that time that it is impossible to document all of them,” Navpreet Arora, who conducts Bari Pujo walks every season on tracing the evolution of Bari Pujos. “With time, and with the British taking over the city in 1757,” she says, “the power of the landlords started reducing until it just remained symbolic.” This is when another layer was added in the festival—that of entertaining the British.
“After winning the battle of Plassey in 1757, Robert Clive and his men wanted to offer thanks to their deity, but the only church in Calcutta had been bombed and they had nowhere to go.” This is when Maharaja Nabakrishna Deb, who played a significant role in helping Clive’s army win, suggested Clive and his party to offer thanks to Goddess Durga instead. Clive agreed. That was the first time a British officer came to a native’s home. To appease him, Deb dressed Kartik, Durga’s son who sits on the idol along with Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati and Ganesh, in English boots and an English jacket. Nauch girls were called upon to entertain the party and a large feast was organized in Clive’s honour. In no time other aristocratic families and rajbaris followed suit—everyone wanted to oblige the British in whatever way they could.
At Jorasanko Daw Bari, another aristocratic family home in elite North Calcutta, the idols were dressed in real diamonds, gold, rubies and emeralds, all of which were immersed with the idol every year. It was believed that Durga descended upon the city to watch dancers perform at Nabakrishna Deb’s Bari, to dress in jewels at Jorasanko Daw Bari, and eat choicest of feasts at Abhay Mitra Bari.
Bari Pujos continued to be confined to courtyards of the rich and powerful until 1790 when 12 young men were debarred from attending the ceremony at a local landlord’s home. Humiliated, they pooled in their recourses to organize their own Pujo, the first public celebration of its kind. Over the years more commoners started community pujos and by early 20th-century sarbojanin pujos, or public pujas became the norm in Calcutta. Interestingly freedom speeches were delivered in such pandals under the illusion of cultural programs and led to the strengthening of the freedom movement.
It is as interesting as it is ironic to note that the rise of community pujos ran simultaneously to the fall of bari pujos. While the sarbojanin pujos grew to be bigger than ever, Bari Pujos either stopped altogether or shrunk considerably. Landlords, having spent the wealth they had amassed over the centuries, started falling short of resources, common people had already started their own festivities, and the Brits had bigger things to worry about, like the growing freedom movement. Most family members no longer had the time to invest in the elaborate preparations that go into organizing such events. Families that would feed up to 3000 people a day started distributing bhog to just about 200. Homes that immersed the idols with gold and rubies on them used little jewellery, and homes that were well known for their pomp lay vacant.
But Durga Puja is not something you can give up on, especially in Bengal. Even with little resource many of these rajbaris continue to not only worship the goddess but also feed the needy. There are those who date back 300-400 years and still follow customs strictly. “No one can afford to be that ostentatious anymore,” smiles Navpreet when we reminisce about the lost glamour of the Bari Pujos of the yore, “but they continue to carry on their family tradition with simplicity and great pride and leave no stone unturned to carry on the legacy.” With celebrations simplifying and Bari Pujos becoming mostly family affairs, it seems the festival has come a full circle.
This story first appeared in Lonely Planet India.