By Meenakshi Malhotra
Durga Puja is an annual festival that marks a time of joyous celebration among the Bengali community worldwide. The UNESCO declared this festival as an ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity’. A festival that has become the most looked forward to cultural event in the year, among the communities celebrating them, it is the biggest event in the festive calendar of Bengalis. Durga Puja in certain ways has transcended its religious context to assume mammoth proportions as can be seen in the UNESCO citation: “Durga Puja is seen as the best instance of the public performance of religion and art, and as a thriving ground for collaborative artists and designers. The festival is characterized by large-scale installations and pavilions in urban areas, as well as by traditional Bengali drumming and veneration of the Goddess. During the event, the divides of class, religion and ethnicities collapse as crowds of spectators walk around to admire the installations.”
The idol of Durga, drowned at the end of the festival, is made by local craftsmen and is at the fulcrum of all the festivities as people come to worship her and celebrate her homecoming.The goddess is said to have descended from her husband’s home to visit her parents. According to art historians, the UNESCO tag will give a boost to the crafts around the festival — from the idol-making at Kumartuli to the designing and making of elaborate sets to house the idol. What is worth noting, moreover, is that no effort is spared when it comes to embellishing or decorating the goddess, in spite of its transient and impermanent nature. For, on the last day of the festival, the idol is immersed in the river, signifying the evanescence and temporality that marks human life and all its endeavours.
Her descent on earth with her four children (Lakshmi, goddess of prosperity; Saraswati, goddess of learning; Ganesh, god of wisdom, and Kartik, god of war) for the five days of the festival, is also perceived as the advent of a daughter to the house of the mother, a moment which overflows with affection and emotions. The event happens at a certain time in the Hindu calendar and participates in linear time, as well as part of a larger ongoing cycle of temporality. In the Hindu pantheon, Durga or Parvati is a prominent mother goddess, the consort of Shiva. Her names refer to split roles of the feminine imaginary. As Durga she is the fiery slayer of demons, as Kali she has to be appeased through blood and slaughter. Interestingly, in the cultural imaginary and imagery of the Durga Puja, she is also mother as well as the daughter, whose visit to the paternal home is brief and fleeting and therefore, provides the occasion for a joyous celebration.
Significantly, the Shaktik or the empowered feminine goddess, Durga, signifies the triumph of good over evil. The divine is represented both in terms of mythic abstractions and the material every day, as power and poetry, as divine and human, as mother and daughter. Thus she is the resplendent and refulgent goddess but also the all-powerful who eliminates all suffering and is thus referred to as “durgati-nashini”(destroyer of troubles). The goddess is shown as ten-armed, mounted on a lion, the king of the animals, ready to go into battle against the demonic strength of the demon king, Mahisasura. She is fully geared to destroy the demon king as her ten hands hold weapons.
The weapons tell a tale, which is intricately linked to the narrative and symbolism of Durga. They were given to her by male Gods who had failed to defeat Mahisasur to empower her to kill the evil demon. The trident was said to be given by her spouse, Shiva, and its three sharp points symbolised the three qualities (called ‘gunas’) of ‘sattva’(signifying wisdom and purity), ‘rajas’(signifying activity and material gain ) and ‘tamas’(signifying darkness and destruction). The snake, a part of the iconography of Shiva who is depicted with a snake wound around his neck, was also gifted by him. The conch signifying the primordial sound called “aum”, the seed word for all creation, was gifted by Varuna, the god of water bodies. The sword was given by Yama, the god of death and Justice. The lotus, which represents the emergence of spiritual consciousness even under trying circumstances, was gifted by the creator of the universe, Brahma. The discus-also known as the “Sudarshan chakra” was given by the preserver of the universe, Vishnu, and spins on Durga’s index figure to symbolise how the energy provided by the goddess sets the universe in motion. The chakra represents the cosmic cycle of life and death in continuum, emphasising that though time destroys everything, inner awakening can help transcend the transience of time.
The thunderbolt or ‘vajra’ given by the king of gods, Indra, symbolises firmness of character, determination, and supreme power. The divinity empowers her devotee with unshaken confidence and implacable will. The bow and infinite arrows, gifted by Vayu, the air god, is a weapon whose combination of potential and kinetic powers symbolises energy. The spear is a gift from Agni or the fire god; it represents pure, fiery power. It also represents the power to judge and act with fairness and wisdom, differentiating the right from the wrong. The club or axe, gifted by Vishwakarma (a deity mentioned in the Rig veda and considered the architect or the engineer of the universe) represents the power to defeat evil and embodies fearlessness while fighting against the wicked. Solar radiance is gifted to her by Surya, the sun god, to banish darkness and evil around her.
Finally, the goddess is depicted as mounted on a lion, the king of all animals and the most powerful. Her mount signifies the need to keep strength and power within one’s control and use it only when required. The weapons of Durga are depictive of qualities we need to possess to empower ourselves to achieve our dreams.
Her fight with Mahisasur was not just to eradicate evil from the universe at a particular conjuncture, but also to set an example for generations to come. Yet the iconography and the narrative symbolism of the Goddess begs a question: Does she become more than a site or ground where masculine power is on display? Does her iconography also highlight the gap between the sexes and the fact that the source of her power lies in the weapons she is given by the male gods and is, therefore, ultimately controlled by them? Or can it be seen as a joint effort of the male and the female to find a world free of hatred, violence and evil?
Dr Meenakshi Malhotra is Associate Professor of English Literature at Hansraj College, University of Delhi, and has been involved in teaching and curriculum development in several universities. She has edited two books on Women and Lifewriting, Representing the Self and Claiming the I, in addition to numerous published articles on gender, literature and feminist theory.
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