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Durga Puja - from Isles to Hills

Srinivasan Balakrishnan


The first ever community Durga Puja I witnessed was in Port Blair in 1979. With considerable Bengali population in the Andaman Islands, including Bangladaeshi refugee settlers, it is but natural that puja pandals spring up there. By the by, the word pandal is a Tamil word which has been adopted by other Indian languages also. The word suggests a temporary structure either with flat or sloping roof made of coconut palm fronds supported by poles.  I visited three such pandals in Port Blair though there might have been more in the town itself besides in rural areas. The prominent among the three was, you guessed it right, the Bengali Club; Eagle Club had put up a pandal at Netaji Grounds while one more was the Marine Deptt. pandal. Fascinated by the beauty and grace of the images of Durga killing the demon Mahisha, flanked by Lakshmi, Saraswathi and sons Karthik and Ganesh, I visited the pandals again the next morning, the day of visarjan. As the procession started moving, I felt sad that such lovely images would soon be immersed in the sea. As it was my first experience, I thought it was cruel to immerse such graceful images.

In the Madras of 70s (now Chennai), maybe the Bengalis had put up such a Durga puja pandal within their club premises, quietly. At least I wasn’t aware of it because Madras was a very conservative society forty years back.  Now, after four decades, Chennai has attained the status of a cosmopolitan city and such cross-cultural and inter-state festivals – why, even the so-called international Days like Friendship Day, Valentine Day - are celebrated with pomp and pageant. More clubs and associations have sprung up which organize such festivals in the vast city that has grown leaps and bounds to become Greater Chennai. In Tamil Nadu, generally there is no such tradition of community puja pandals for any religious festival, though the trend is slowly changing. Navrathri is a household puja with doll exhibition both at homes and temples and procession of deities.

But compared to Ganesh puja pandals, durga puja pandals are even now far and few.  While in the past, Ganesh Chathurthi was celebrated only at individual’s houses and at temples – with no public puja pandal being put up – of late the Hindu organizations have assiduously converted this into a public festival, a la Maharashtra style.  I am personally against this style; this has only added up to the communal tension besides being a public nuisance by way of traffic jams, noise and water-body pollution. Hope Ganeshji with his big elephantine ears hears my grievances and addresses them.

On my transfer to Cuttack in Odisha from the remote Andaman Islands in mid-1980, the experience was one level up. But during such religious processions there was palpable tension, so I avoided venturing out with my camera which was dearer to me than my own life, because it was my only worthwhile possession.  The decoration was striking, because Odisha craftspeople are known for their intricate workmanship.

In the State of Sikkim (where I was transferred next by 1983) and in Darjeeling area, this festival is celebrated by the Hindu Nepalis for ten days and hence known as Dashain (‘das’ in Nepali, as in Hindi, means ten).  So I timed my visit to Darjeeling (now Gorkhaland) during the next Dashain itself (1984) and witnessed the important event of Phoolpathi procession with Ram, Sita & Lakshman seated in a  modern ‘chariot’ (Jeep),  and then the bloodcurdling ‘maar’, sacrifice of scores of buffaloes, probably symbolizing the killing of  the demon Mahishaura by Durga, hence Mahishasuramardhini.  Being a veggie I could not literally stand this sight and rushed out before throwing up and swooning.  Experience in Gorkhaland was altogether a different on! While roaming around in the rural areas of Gangtok, I chanced upon Kumari Puja, the worship of little girls on the ninth day (Navami).

After marriage, of course, I am witnessing the avtar of Mahishasuramardhini at home itself every day! As I am a broad-minded person, I do hope and pray that all married men are blessed with this state of affairs at their respective home.

One of my colleagues, Shri Sanjay Ghosh, is a Bengali (as his name very well suggests) but born & brought up in Chennai. I have been begging him to invite me as the chief guest for his Bengali Club’s Durga Puja event but it seems he is not impressed with my credentials.

It is surprising that the same festival is celebrated in different formats in different regions of our vast country known for its cultural & religious pluralism! Well, Kolkata is my ultimate dream destination during Durga Puja. Sure it would be a ‘terrific’ experience what with traffic snarls, etc., but yet a memorable one.  For the present, however, it is Madras Kali Bari in Chennai, walking distance from my house.

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