Thoughts on Mahalaya


Today is Mahalaya.

This day is characterized by the deep throat recitation of the Mahishasuramardini by Birendra Krishna Bhadra. It triggers memories that ought to be happy but with time the memories become painful because they remind us of what we have lost.

The Durga Puja festival is the life blood of the people of Eastern India. It is still celebrated with gusto. But one cannot fail to notice that the life has gone out of it.

For me it entailed a visit to my native village where I was born. The Pujo was a family affair, started by my ancestors. The whole family converged to responsibly conduct it. It was a pleasure meeting uncles, aunties, and cousin brothers as also the elders and children of the village who were very close.

What emanated was sincerity and innocence. It was not pomp and show but a very deep commitment to Mother Durga who was visiting the world. She had to be invoked and worshipped with a heart full of devotion. The rituals had to be immaculate and no fault tolerated. The Mother was to be loved from the bottom of ones heart and the joy of her visit enjoyed to the full.

It would begin with the idol construction. It was discussed how the sculptor would arrive on his own, a new person every time. The priest to conduct the Puja would also similarly appear. My grandmother (who passed away before my birth) used to ascribe this to divine blessings.

The ladies of the house as well as the men folk and the villagers would become busy gathering the various materials required for the Puja. The preliminary worship was the responsibility of my eldest uncle. He would get up at 2am and by 3am he would be dressed in a dhoti and seated below the wood apple tree in front of my ancestral house.

He would be accompanied by a village elder who would be reciting the mantras. The darkness would be dispelled by a petromax lamp. The atmosphere would reflect the beginning of the chillness of the coming winter. The shadows of the village invoked the restful face of nature. The silence would be the epitome of sacredness. The mantras recited in a baritone voice would make our hearts flutter and prepare our minds for the coming festivities.

There were no mandaps like these days. A thatched house with brick walls was the permanent place for the annual worship of Maa Durga, Maa Kali, and Maa Jagadhatri. All were equally important but Mother Durga was special.

We would silently sit in the thatched house and watch the finishing touches being given by the sculptor. Then would arrive the day of the Kalasha Puja, the invoking of the Mother into the idol. We kids would follow the priest to the adjacent river where the ritual would start and the rest conducted at the place of worship.

This invoking fascinated me. I have always noticed the change. So my gaze would be fixated at the face of the idol. Sure enough during the worship the idol would come alive and the atmosphere would change. The entire village would know that the Mother has arrived and ladies would perform the hulohuli the chant of welcoming the distinguished guest.

My grandfather would then takeover. He was 90+ but strong and able bodied. His age would be reflected in the powerful glasses of his spectacles. He would sit in the worship from morning to the end and do as the priest instructed.

It would be a very quiet and disciplined form of worship conducted with a reverence that was breathtaking. I would be seated along with my father and uncles watching everything. I would be transported to another land aeons ago when Mother Durga manifested in physical form. I would watch the tears streaming down the face of my grandfather as he would be immersed in the proceedings.

The villagers would sit all across the open field in front in silence. The drummers would beat their drums when instructed. Children would be playing their own games. The ladies would be alert for their roles during the Puja.

The Ashtami or the 4th day of the Puja would lift the whole atmosphere and light up everything. There would be a gusto in the proceeding with the chants reaching a frenzy and the cymbals and drums stretching to compete. The face of Mother Durga would be shining like a lamp. There would be so much joy everywhere and the cacophony was enchanting.

With Navami would come the realization that the Puja was coming to an end and the mood would be somber. Everyone was saddened but trying to make the most of the day.

Then Dashami would arrive. The ladies would be bidding Mother farewell. I would be once again looking at the face of the idol. Once the proceedings ended the glow on the face would just vanish. This would give me goosebumps. I have felt the presence of the Mother all throughout and her departure would be very painful.

When the time came to immerse the idol everyone would be destrought. There would be glum faces. My grandfather would silently watch but never accompany the procession. "They are taking away my Mother. How can they immerse her?" is what he would say in a pained voice.

The rest of the days I would roam all over the village visiting the two rivers on two sides. My youngest uncle would be with me. We would be walking in the small patch of a road in between paddy fields often stopping as snakes would cross our path. The village was full of cobras. But there has never been a case of snake bite. There was a Siva Temple long back in the village. The villagers treated the snakes as his companion.

Then would come the day of return. I longed to stay back for the Kali Puja which I have witnessed only once. But the demands of the world would say otherwise. The journey back would be painful with the hope that the next Pujo would be coming again.

Today the Durga Pujo is full of pomp and show. There is enjoyment but I miss the real Pujo that would enthrall me. The silent cry of the heart of simple people, the innocent joy, and the participation of Mother Durga who would respond to the call. Nothing can replace that.