Durga Puja, the five-day festival that celebrates the victory of Goddess Durga over the demon Mahishasura, is the most important and popular festival in West Bengal and among Bengalis worldwide. It is a time of joy, devotion, art, culture, and social harmony. But how did this festival originate and evolve? What are the historical and social factors that shaped its form and significance?
The myth of Durga and Mahishasura symbolizes the power of the feminine principle over the forces of ignorance and chaos. It also inspires people to overcome their inner demons and obstacles in life. Durga Puja is a festival celebrating the triumph of light over darkness, truth over falsehood, and justice over injustice.
The Historical Development of Durga Puja
One of the significant factors was the establishment of British rule in Bengal after the Battle of Plassey in 1757 when Robert Clive defeated Nawab Siraj ud-Daulah with the help of some local zamindars or landowners. This event marked a significant change in the political, economic, and social structure of Bengal. It also gave rise to a new class of zamindars loyal to the British, who enjoyed their patronage and privileges. These zamindars became the main sponsors and organizers of Durga Puja in their mansions and estates. They used the festival to display their wealth, status, and loyalty to their colonial masters.
One such zamindar was Nabakrishna Deb (or Nubkissen), who claimed to have hosted a grand celebration for Clive at his mansion in Shobhabazar after Plassey, where he conducted a lavish puja to Durga to thank her for his victory. This event is known as the first "Company Puja" or "Sovabazar Puja," still celebrated today at Deb's mansion. However, this story is probably a fabrication by Deb to enhance his reputation and influence. The only source for this story is an anonymous painting that may have been commissioned.
Nevertheless, this story can be an allegory for how Durga Puja became associated with colonial patronage and power in Bengal. Many other zamindars followed Deb's example and started conducting their household pujas with pomp and splendor. They also invited British officials and guests to their pujas as a gesture of friendship and gratitude. Some even offered animal sacrifices to please their guests.
However, not all zamindars were subservient to the British. Some were also involved in the nationalist movement and used Durga Puja to express their political and social messages. For example, Bipin Chandra Pal organized a Swadeshi Puja in 1905 to protest against the partition of Bengal by Lord Curzon. He urged people to boycott foreign goods and use only indigenous products during the festival. He also replaced animal sacrifices with vegetable offerings to promote non-violence.
While the zamindars conducted their household pujas, many common people were excluded from these festivities. To overcome this barrier, some social reformers and cultural activists started the concept of "barowari" or "sarbojanin" pujas, which were community-based pujas open to all people irrespective of caste, class, or gender. The first barowari puja was held in 1790 at Guptipara in Hooghly district by twelve friends who pooled their resources to conduct the puja. The first sarbojanin puja was held in 1910 at Bagbazar in Calcutta by Sanatan Dharmotsahini Sabha, a religious organization that aimed to promote Hindu unity. One of the early pujas was the sarbojanin puja, organized in 1926 in Maniktala in Calcutta.
The emergence of community puja transformed Durga Puja from a rich men's puja to a people's festival. It also allowed the freedom fighters and revolutionaries to spread awareness and mobilize people against British rule. They used the occasion to distribute pamphlets, posters, and slogans that criticized the colonial policies and glorified the nationalist heroes. They also organized cultural programs that showcased the diversity and richness of Bengali culture and literature. Some examples are Subhas Chandra Bose's Azad Hind Puja in 1942 and Aurobindo Ghosh's Anushilan Samiti Puja in 1908.
Community puja also evolved in its artistic and aesthetic aspects over time. The traditional clay idols of Durga and her family were gradually replaced by more innovative and creative forms made with various materials such as paper, wood, metal, glass, plastic, etc. The pandals, or temporary structures that house the idols, also became more elaborate and thematic, depicting various scenes from mythology, history, culture, literature, cinema, etc. The lighting arrangements also became more sophisticated and dazzling with modern technology. The cultural programs accompanying the puja also diversified from classical music and dance to folk art forms such as jatra, chhau, baul, etc., as well as modern genres such as rock, pop, rap, etc.
Durga Puja has also spread to other parts of India and abroad, where there are Bengali communities or people who appreciate Bengali culture. It has become a global phenomenon that showcases the diversity and richness of Bengal's heritage and identity. It has also become a symbol of harmony and inclusiveness that transcends religious boundaries and invites people from all faiths and backgrounds to participate and enjoy the festival.
Durga Puja is not only a religious festival but also a cultural and social one. It reflects the changing times and trends of Bengal and India, as well as the world. It is a celebration of life, creativity, and humanity. It is a festival that connects us with our roots and our aspirations. It is a festival that reminds us of our strengths and our potential. It is a festival that inspires us to be better versions of ourselves.
Dr. Sandeep Yadav is an Associate Professor at SLCE, the University of Delhi. He is an author, activist, and columnist.