The History and Origin of the Durga Puja Festival

Durga Puja, a significant festival in India, is not only a religious event for Hindus but also a celebration of reunion, rejuvenation, and traditional culture. The culmination of ten days of fasting, feasting, and worship is marked by the grand celebration of the last four days—Saptami, Ashtami, Navami, and Dashami, particularly in Bengal, where fervent devotion is directed towards the ten-armed goddess riding a lion.

Mythology: Rama’s ‘Akal Bodhan’

Durga Puja, observed annually in the Hindu month of Ashwin (September-October), has roots in the invocation of the goddess by Prince Rama before his battle with the demon king Ravana. This autumnal ritual, known as ‘akal-bodhan’ or out-of-season worship, diverges from the conventional springtime celebration. According to the legend, Lord Rama worshiped the ‘Mahishasura Mardini’ during this time, offering 108 blue lotuses and lighting 108 lamps.

Origin and History

The recorded history of the first grand worship of Goddess Durga dates back to the late 1500s. Folklore suggests that the landlords of Dinajpur and Malda initiated the first Durga Puja in Bengal. Alternatively, Raja Kangshanarayan of Taherpur or Bhabananda Mazumdar of Nadiya is credited with organizing the first Autumn Durga Puja in Bengal around 1606.

The community puja’s origin can be traced to the twelve friends of Guptipara in Hoogly, West Bengal, who initiated the ‘baro-yaari’ puja in 1790. This collaborative effort to collect contributions from local residents for a communal puja laid the foundation for the development of Bengali Hindu culture. The ‘baro-yaari puja’ eventually evolved into the ‘sarbajanin’ or community puja in 1910 when the Sanatan Dharmotsahini Sabha organized the first community puja in Baghbazar, Kolkata.

British Involvement in Durga Puja

Interestingly, high-ranking British officials regularly attended Durga Pujas organized by influential Bengalis, with British soldiers even participating in the rituals. The East India Company itself performed a thanksgiving Puja in 1765, aiming to appease its Hindu subjects upon obtaining the Diwani of Bengal. British involvement continued until 1840 when a law prohibited such participation.

In 1911, with the shift of the British India capital to Delhi, Bengalis migrated to the city, leading to the first Durga Puja in Delhi in 1910. This celebration, also known as the Kashmere Gate Durga Puja, has become an annual event organized by the Delhi Durga Puja Samiti.

Evolution of the ‘Pratima’ and the ‘Pandal’

The traditional icon of Goddess Durga, or ‘pratima,’ adheres to the scriptures’ iconography, featuring the goddess with ten arms, each holding a lethal weapon, along with her four children. The traditional clay pratima, known as ‘ek-chala,’ incorporates sholar saaj and daker saaj embellishments. Sholar saaj involves decorating the pratima with the white core of the shola reed or beaten silver (rangta), imported from Germany and delivered by post, giving rise to the term ‘daker saaj.’

The temporary canopies, or ‘pandals,’ housing these icons are constructed with bamboo poles and draped in colorful fabric. Modern pandals are not only artistic and decorative but also offer a visual spectacle, attracting numerous visitors during the four days of Durga Puja.

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