The pandemic has ensured that this year’s Durga Puja festivities will be remembered – sadly for being the most low-key celebration in decades. As Bengalis mourn the scaling down of the largest festival in their year, it’s worth asking how worshipping the Goddess acquired this special place in their hearts.
Until as recently as the late 1700s, Durga Puja in Bengal was not a festival of the masses. The puja was restricted to the houses of rajas and zamindars. Some commoners had access to the pujas, but only as visitors, by invitation, and in a very restricted manner. Durga Puja was essentially a celebration of the rich and the powerful. The main reason for this was that the Puja was an expensive affair. It ran for four days and involved numerous rituals that were impossible for the common man to sustain financially.
It was an incident in a nondescript village in the Hooghly region that turned the tide. Guptipara, about 100 km from Kolkata, is the reason that Durga Puja became democratised. But before we go into the story of how a tussle with young devotees led to the emergence of this now-beloved festival, let’s look back at Durga Puja through history.
Worship Through Time
The earliest mention of worship of the Goddess in the Bengal region dates to 550 CE, and a place called Supur near Santiniketan. As described in the Devi Mahatya section of the Markandeya Purana, King Surath prayed to Durga after he lost his kingdom on the advice of a sage. As per the legend, Surath was a powerful Hindu king. He had lost his kingdom after his ministers conspired against him. After losing his kingdom he was wandering in a forest. There he met Sage Medhas who advised him to worship Goddess Durga to get back his kingdom. After Surath’s devoted prayer, Goddess Durga appeared and gave King Surath his kingdom back. King Surath worshipped her every year after this, during spring (Basant), and this came to be known as Basanti Puja.
However, the Durga Puja prevalent in Bengal today is not this one. In fact, the celebrations seen in the region today can be traced back even further, to the 15th-century CE Bengali Ramayana by Krittivasa. Earlier versions of the Ramayana, including that of Valmiki, mention Rama worshipping Surya before going to war against Ravana. However, Krittivasa, taking his cue from the Rajasika Puranas, mentions Rama worshipping Durga before declaring war against Ravana.
This was in the month of Ashwin, which now falls in September or October – and all subsequent Durga Pujas, including today’s, would continue to be held at this time of year. This is a period when the Gods are believed to sleep. Because that was not generally a period when major pujas were performed, Durga Puja is also referred to as ‘Akal Bodhan’ or the untimely invocation.
In modern times, it was Kangsha Narayan of Taherpur in Nadia district of West Bengal who organised the first recorded autumn Durga Puja in Bengal, instead of the customary Durga Puja in spring. He was a well-known zamindar and made this Durga Puja an annual affair called the Saradiya (Annual) Durgautsav, in 1500 CE. It is not mentioned in history as to why Kangsha Narayan changed the time of Puja from spring to autumn, but some historians opine that spring being a season of several diseases like smallpox was not exactly favourable for a festive season. Autumn being a harvest season was more apt for festivities. In all probabilities, Kangsha Narayan changed the period of Durga Puja to gain popularity among the masses.
The next famous Durga Puja on record was started by Bhabananda Majumdar of Krishnanagar in Bengal’s Nadia district in 1606 CE. He was the ancestor of the famed Raja Krishna Chandra Roy of Krishnanagar. The Durga worshipped every year even now at the Krishnanagar Palace built by Raja Krishna Chandra is a 15-foot-tall image known as Rajrajesvari (the Empress).
In 1610 CE, another Puja – probably the first in Kolkata – was organised by Laxmikanta Majumdar, founder of the Sabarna Roy Chowdhury family. The Sabarna Roy Chowdhurys originally had zamindari rights to the three villages of Gobindapur, Sutanuti and Kolkata. The British would, in 1698, acquire the landholding rights for the three villages from the Sabarna Roy Chowdhurys, continuing to pay regular rent to the Mughal Emperor, as they had done, until the Battle of Plassey in 1757. Later these three villages were developed by the British to build up the city of Calcutta.
The Goddess in Bengal is worshipped in the form of Mahishasur Mardini (slayer of the buffalo-headed demon Mahishasur). However, the deity does not look that warrior seen in the ancient sculptures of Mamallapuram or Madhya Pradesh. The Goddess in Bengal is treated like a daughter coming home to Bengal to visit, from her heavenly abode at Kailasha Parbat.
Grand public Durga Puja festivities built around this theme were started by Raja Krishna Chandra Roy (r. 1728-1782). The Puja became an event of landlords and aristocrats in 1757 CE, after Robert Clive of the British East India Company won the Battle of Plassey. Clive was at a loss as to how to celebrate his win since there was not a church left standing in Calcutta. So Nabakrishna Dev stepped forward. This was an enterprising young man who had been appointed to teach Warren Hastings Farsi in 1750 and ended up helping the British win the Battle of Plassey. Hastings had joined the British East India Company in 1750 as a clerk. He reached Calcutta in August 1750. Hastings was a volunteer in Robert Clive’s army when they seized back Calcutta in January 1757 which Siraj-ud-Daulah took over in 1756. Clive was impressed with Hastings. On his instigation, Hastings became British Resident of Murshidabad, the then capital of Bengal.
Nabakrishna Dev had a sharp mind and deep understanding of the British culture, and he knew English, Farsi and Persian. From a Farsi teacher, Nabakrishna went on to become a Munshi (clerk-cum-interpreter) of Roger Drake – the governor of the Council of the Fort William in Bengal from August 1752 to 1758. When Siraj attacked Kolkata in 1756, Nabakrishna took the side of the British and helped to smuggle food into the city before the city fell down to the Nawab. Nabakrishna later become close to Robert Clive and was intermediary in negotiations done between East India Company and the Nawab. It is also mentioned by many historians that Nabakrishna was instrumental in helping Clive to loot the treasury of Siraj-ud-Daulah after the Battle of Plassey.
As a sign of gratitude, he was awarded the title of ‘Raja’ by the British; he amassed vast sums of wealth and acquired the mansion at Sovabazar – where he now offered to hold a Durga Puja to celebrate the British win at Plassey.
A thakurdalan (hall of worship) was built for the grand event. Several goats were slaughtered for a feast, and other entertainment planned to impress the sahibs. Soon, zamindars began to follow suit and hold Puja celebrations each year to establish their status. From a religious ceremony, Durga Puja became an occasion of feasting and merriment too.
Guptipara Shows the Way
In the late 1700s, a group of young men from the village of Guptipara were rudely refused entry to the Durga Puja underway at a local zamindar’s grand house. Angry at this refusal, they decided to carry out their own Puja. A report in the magazine Friends of India published out of Serampore in 1820 states that “…a new species of pooja which has been introduced into Bengal within the last thirty years called Barowaree. About thirty years ago at Gooptipara [sic] near Santipoora… a number of Brahmins formed an association for the celebration of a pooja independently of the rule of the Shastras. They elected twelve men as a committee, from which circumstances it takes its name and solicited subscriptions in all surrounding villages.”
Thus started the baro-yaar-i (of 12 friends) or barowari puja in Bengal. At this point, the deity worshipped was Bindhyabasini, a form of the Goddess synonymous with Jagadhatri. It is further mentioned in Friends of India that “…they celebrated worship of Jugudhatree [sic] for seven days with such splendour, as to attract the rich from a distance more than a hundred miles. The formula of worship was of course regulated by the established practice of Hindoo rituals but beyond this the whole was formed on a plan not recognized by the Shastras. They obtained the most excellent singers to be found in Bengal, entertained every Brahmin who arrived and spent the week in all intoxication of festivity and enjoyment. On the successful termination of the scheme, they determined to render the pooja annual and it has since been celebrated with undeviating regularity.”
Once Guptipara had proved that this could be done, the custom spread to the neighbouring towns of Chinsurah, Santipur, Kancharapara and finally Kolkata. In Kolkata, the community Durga Puja expanded from Barowari to Sarbojanin (everyone’s Durga Puja), which became more elaborate and expensive. Sudeshna Banerjee mentions in her book, Durga Puja, Celebrating the Goddess: Then And Now (2006), that in 1910, probably the first Sarbojanin Durgapuja was held in Kolkata at Balaram Basu Ghat Road, organised by the Sanatan Dharmotsahini Sabha. Soon, local clubs in the areas of Ramdhan Mitra Lane and Sikdar Bagan were holding Durga Puja festivities too. Prominent Sarbojanin Durga Puja committees like the Simla Byatam Samiti and Bagabazar Sarbojanin began to take shape.
Back in Guptipara, there is still an area called Bindhyabasini Tala, where a temple of Bindhyabasini stands. Every year, a grand Jagadhatri Puja is still celebrated here, organised by a local puja committee.
Although the Barowari Puja originated in Guptipara, it is no longer the primary festival of that town. With its Vaishnava influence, it is the Ratha Yatra that is the prime festival and attracts the largest crowds. And so it is that as all of Bengal gathers to revel in the festival of the year, the little village that started it all is, sadly, no longer in the limelight.
The Battle of Plassey is a saga of treachery and betrayal, and while the villains and victim come to mind easily, the real heroes have slipped into oblivion. Let us revisit this battle and the bravehearts who fiercely stood by the betrayed Nawab of Bengal
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