Towards the end of the film Kahaani (2012), the mysterious Vidya Bagchi (played by the supremely talented Vidya Balan) allows herself to be swept away by a celebratory tide on the occasion of Durga Puja, as women around her — all dressed in similar white and red sarees — ululate and apply vermillion on her face.
The scene may appear somewhat nebulous (albeit visually fantastic) to those who are not aware of this Bengali custom. But there is great significance to sindoor khela that happens on the last day of the Durga Puja festivity, right before the Goddess is taken away for immersion.
What is it?
Sindoor means ‘vermillion’ and khela means ‘to play’. Traditionally associated with the Hindu marriage ritual, the deep red powder is applied at the parting of the hair. Thus, sindoor khela is largely done by married Bengali women who bid adieu to Goddess Durga, by applying some sindoor on her face. It is a way of preparing her for her journey back to her husband’s place at Mount Kailash. It is done after Devi Boron, wherein they perform an aarti and offer the Goddess sweets and betel leaves.
They also bathe in the festivity themselves (quite literally), and smear sindoor on each other — akin to the festival of Holi.
While the origin of this ritual is unknown, it is followed year after year, keeping with traditions and celebratory bonhomie. Nowadays, this ritual has become more inclusive. Men, unmarried women and, significantly, widows get to participate.
The immersion or visarjan is a cultural chaos that never gets old. Chants of ‘aashche bochor aabaar hobey‘ (come next year, we will celebrate again) fill the air with a strange grief. Post immersion, the ‘Goddess’-shaped hole that Durga leaves behind is filled with residual rituals.
What are they?
People sprinkle Ganga jal or holy water around the house, and on themselves, as a sign of peace — marking the end of all festivities. Some families also write the customary mantra ‘shree shree Durga namah‘ on a piece of paper, remembering the Goddess and seeking her blessings. It is considered to be a sign of prosperity. Some traditional ways may require for this mantra to be written on the leaves of the bel tree.
The strictly vegetarian bhog — that was being offered to the Goddess and later consumed by devotees — is replaced with a non-vegetarian bhog; first time in four days. People get together and consume this as a community.