Durga Puja (Bengali: দুর্গাপূজা Durga Puja) is the biggest festival of Bengali Hindus. It is also called Akalbodhan, Vijaya Dashami, Dashain, and Dussehra.
The actual period of the worship however may be over the preceding nine days Navaratri or five days ("Sasthi", "Saptami", "Asthami", "Nabami" & "Vijaya Dashami") - (Bengali ষষ্ঠী, সপ্তমী, অষ্টমী, নবমী, বিজয়া দশমী).
Durga Puja in Bengal
The worship of Durga (Bengali: দুর্গাপুজা, Durgapuja) in the autumn (Shôrot) is the year's largest Hindu festival in West Bengal, Orissa, Tripura, Assam, Jharkhand and other parts of East India as well as in Bangladesh. Durga Puja is also celebrated in Nepal and Bhutan according to local traditions and variations. Puja means "worship," and Durga's Puja is celebrated from the sixth to tenth day of the waxing moon in the month of Ashshin, which is the sixth month in the Bengali calendar. Occasionally however, due to shifts in the lunar cycle relative to the solar months, it may also be held in the following month, Kartik. In the Gregorian calendar, these dates correspond to the months of September/October.
In the Krittibas Ramayana, Rama invokes the goddess Durga in his battle against Ravana. Although she was traditionally worshipped in the spring, due to contingencies of battle, Rama had to invoke her in the autumn (akaal bodhan). Today it is this Rama's date for the puja that has gained ascendancy, although the spring puja, known as Basanti Puja, is also present in the Hindu almanac. Since the season of the puja is Shôrot (autumn), it is also known as Sharodia.
The pujas are held over a ten-day period, which is traditionally viewed as the coming of the married daughter, Durga, to her father, Himalaya's home. It is the most important festival in Bengal, and Bengalis celebrate with new clothes and other gifts, which are worn on the evenings when the family goes out to see the pandals (temporary structures set up to venerate the goddess). Although it is a Hindu festival, religion takes a backseat on these five days: Durga Puja in Bengal is a carnival, where people from all backgrounds, regardless of their religious beliefs, participate and enjoy themselves to the hilt.
In Kolkata alone more than ten thousand pandals are set up, all clamouring for the admiration and praise of the populace. The city is adorned with lights. People from all over the country visit the city at this time, and every night is one mad carnival where thousands of people go 'pandal-hopping' with their friends and family. Traffic becomes a nightmare, and indeed, most people abandon their vehicles to travel by foot after a point.
Bangladesh, with its 13% Hindu population celebrates the puja in many temples, an estimated 18,000 puja mandaps set up across the country, including more than 140 pujas taking place in the capital Dhaka alone. The Bangladesh Puja Udjapan Parishad is one of the largest bodies overseeing the annual celebrations across the country. Unlike in India where politicians usually keep a low profile at the pujas, in Bangladesh Durga Puja is a major occasion for leading politicians of the major political parties to to reach out to their Hindu constituents. Official statements are made by the President, Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition, and leaders of the political parties are seen at the largest Durga Puja mandaps such as those at Dhakeshwari Mandir and Rama Krishna Mission.Protima Bisarjan at the river Buriganga in Dhaka is attended and watched usually by millions.
The last day of Durga Puja, Bijaya Dasami is a national holiday in Bangladesh, and all government offices and most private companies remain closed.
Among the diaspora
Across the world, Durga Puja serves as a community gathering and a connection to roots for the widespread Bengali diaspora. Tokyo has nearly ten Pujas, and North America has several hundred. Some of the oldest Durga Puja celebrations outside Bengal have been taking place in the United Kingdom for over seventy years. In recent years, Bengali communities in Australia, France and Germany have also started annual Durga Puja celebrations.
In the Middle East, restrictions by local governments on minority religious practices have prevented many Bengali communities from celebrating. The most consistent Durga Puja in the Gulf region has been celebrated in Muscat, Oman, since 1982. The permanent venue for the annual celebration since 1994 has been the Hindu temple in Sohar, in old Muscat. Bengali Cultural Society Kuwait started Durga Puja as Sharadotsav in 1996 and continued till 2000. After 9/11, this has become a five-day get together and cultural programmes.
A considerable literature exists around Durga in the Bengali language and its early forms, including Durgotsavnirnaya (11th century), Durgabhaktitarangini by Vidyapati (14th century), etc. Durga Puja was popular in Bengal in the medieval period, and records exist of it being held in the courts of Rajshahi (16th century) and Nadia (18th century). It was during the 18th century, however, that the worship of Durga became popular among the landed elite of Bengal, Zamindars. Prominent Pujas were conducted by the landed zamindars and jagirdars, enriched by British rule, including Raja Nabakrishna Deb, of Shobhabajar, who initiated an elaborate Puja at his residence. Many of these old pujas exist to this day. Today, the culture of Durga Puja has shifted from the princely houses to Sarbojanin (literally, "involving all") forms. The first such puja was held at Guptipara - it was called barowari (baro meaning twelve and yar meaning friends)
Durga puja mood starts off with the Mahishasuramardini' – a radio programme that has been popular with the community since the 1950s. While earlier it used to be conducted live, later a recorded version began to be broadcast. Bengalis traditionally wake up at 4 in the morning on Mahalaya day to listen to the enchanting voice of the late Birendra Krishna Bhadra and the late Pankaj Kumar Mullick on All India Radio. as they recite hymns from the scriptures from the Devi Mahatmyam or Chandi.
During the week of Durga Puja, in the entire state of West Bengal as well as in large enclaves of Bengalis everywhere, life comes to a complete standstill. In playgrounds, traffic circles, ponds -- wherever space may be available -- elaborate structures called pandals 'are set up, many with nearly a year's worth of planning behind them. The word pandal means a temporary structure, made of bamboo and cloth, which is used as a temporary temple for the purpose of the puja. While some of the pandals are simple structures, others are often elaborate works of art with themes that rely heavily on history, current affairs and sometimes pure imagination.'
Somewhere inside these complex edifices is a stage on which Durga reigns, standing on her lion mount, wielding ten weapons in her ten hands. This is the religious center of the festivities, and the crowds gather to offer flower worship or pushpanjali on the mornings, of the sixth to ninth days of the waxing moon fortnight known as Devi Pakshya (lit. Devi = goddess; Pakshya = period; Devi Pakshya meaning the period of the goddess). Ritual drummers – dhaakis, carrying large leather-strung dhaakis –– show off their skills during ritual dance worships called aarati. On the tenth day, Durga the mother returns to her husband, Shiva, ritualised through her immersion into the waters –– Bishorjon also known as Bhaashan and Niranjan
Today's Puja, however, goes far beyond religion. In fact, visiting the pandals recent years, one can only say that Durgapuja the largest outdoor art festival on earth. In the 1990s, a preponderance of architectural models came up on the pandal exteriors, but today the art motif extends to elaborate interiors, executed by trained artists, with consistent stylistic elements, carefully executed and bearing the name of the artist.
The sculpture of the idol itself has evolved. The worship always depicts Durga with her four children, and occasionally two attendant deities and some banana-tree figures. In the olden days, all five idols would be depicted in a single frame, traditionally called pata. Since the 1980s however, the trend is to depict each idol separately.
At the end of six days, the idol is taken for immersion in a procession amid loud chants of 'Bolo Durga mai-ki jai' (glory be to Mother Durga') and 'aashchhe bochhor abar hobe' ('it will happen again next year') and drumbeats to the river or other water body, and it is cast in the waters symbolic of the departure of the deity to her home with her husband in the Himalayas. After this, in a tradition called Vijaya Dashami, families visit each other and sweetmeats are offered to visitors (Dashami is literally "tenth day" and Vijay is "victory").
Durga Puja is also a festivity of Good (Ma Durga) winning over the evil (Maheshasoora the demon). It is a worship of power of Good which always wins over the bad.
Durga Puja in other parts of India
Maharashtra and Goa
In Maharashtra, Durga Puja is a fun occasion. Puja is performed each day and devotees don't remove the flower garland that is put each day on the idol or image of the deity. After nine days all nine are removed together. Young girls who have not attained maturity are invited to eat, play games, dance and sing. An elephant is drawn with rangoli and the girls play guessing games. Then they are fed a meal of their choice. In Goa great festivities take place in the temples of shree Shantadurga , shree Mhalasa Narayani and shree Vijayadurga.
People of Punjab strictly observe Navratri. Some Punjabis have only milk for seven days before breaking the fast on ashtami or navami. They worship Durga Ma and do the aarti at home. Some of them have fruit or a complete meal once a day, and intoxicating drinks or meat and other forms of entertainment are completely avoided. At the end of the fast devotees feed beggars or worship little girls who spell the Shakti of the Mother Goddess.
It is one of the prime festivals of Orissa as well. People in Orissa celebrate it on a large scale and the Goddess Durga is among the sacred goddesses of Orissa.The celebrations are quite similar to the neighbouring state of west bengal.
It is celebrated in a grand way in this state.In Mysore, Dussehra is easily the most popular festival. Elephants are decked up with robes and jewelery and taken in processions through the streets of the city. In fact, many people visit Mysore from all over the country to watch this colorful event. There is also a floating festival in the temple tank at the foot of Chamundi Hill and a procession of chariots around the temple at the top.
Navratri is devoted to Amba mataji. In some homes, images of mataji are worshiped in accordance with accepted practice. This is also true of the temples, which usually have a constant stream of visitors from morning to night. The most common form of public celebration is the performance of garba and dandia-ras/ras-garba (a form of garba with sticks), Gujarat's popular folk-dance, late throughout the nights of these nine days in public squares, open grounds and streets.
In Kerala, Durga Puja signifies the beginning of formal education for every child aged 3-5 years. While puja goes on in the temple for all ten days, it is only the concluding three days which are really important. Ashtami is the day of Ayudya Puja, when all the tools at home are worshiped. Custom dictates that no tools be used on this day. On navami, day, Goddess Saraswati is honored by worshiping the books and records at home.Thousands throng the Saraswati temple at Kottayam during this period to take a dip in the mysterious holy pond whose source is yet unknown. Large gatherings are also seen at the famous temples at Thekkegram (Palghat), in which there are no idols -- only huge mirrors. A devotee finds himself bowing before his own reflection which indicates that God is within us.
Hindus in Jammu and Kashmir but they celebrate their festivals with pomp and show. These days, festivities are subdued, though. The favorite deities of Kashmir are Lord Shiva and Serawali Ma Durga, the one who rides the tiger. Pundits and Muslims alike vouch that Navratri is important. No big pandals here, each Hindu house-hold does the pooja at home. All the adult members of the household fast on water. In the evenings, fruit may be taken. As elsewhere, Kashmiris grow barley in earthen pots. They believe that if the growth in this pot is good, there is prosperity all year.The most important ritual for Kashmiri Pandits is to visit the temple of guardian goddess Kheer Bhawani on all nine days. On the last day of Navratri, an aarti is held at the temple after which people break their fast. On Dussehra day, Ravana's effigy is burnt.