Both these festivals overlap, and while they are more or less similar, there are slight variations in terms of customs. ‘Mahalaya’, however, is an important day that offers a window into the festivities that happen in the latter half of the year.
The Hindu community believes that Mahalaya marks the last day of ‘Krishnapaksha’, which is a dark fortnight of the month of Ashwin. The day that follows marks the beginning of ‘Sharad’ that signals the 10-day Durga Puja/Navratri festival. This year, Mahalaya falls on September 25.
The Bengali community, especially, gives a lot of importance to the day and it is also a public holiday in some parts of the country. Mahalaya marks the beginning of ‘Devi Paksha’ and the end of the ‘Pitri Paksha’, the latter of which is a period of mourning and dedicated to the ancestors on the paternal side of the family.
The reason Hindus consider Pitri Paksha to be inauspicious is because ‘shradhh’ or death rites are performed during this period, which is a 16-day lunar event, during which people pay homage to ancestors by offering food and water.
The Bengali community, which celebrates the annual Durga Puja with a lot of enthusiasm and cultural zest, believes that on the day of Mahalaya, Goddess Durga begins her descent to Earth after vanquishing the evil demon ‘Mahishasura’.
The auspicious day, essentially, is a reminder of this victory, of courage and of the universal fact that in the end, good always prevails over bad. In West Bengal, Mahalaya is depicted in a show-tell manner, with songs, enactments and dances on certain regional television channels.
They show the exact sequence of events from Mahishasura’s pride, to him wreaking havoc, to the boon that granted him immortality. According to legends, it was promised that no man could ever harm him, least of all kill him. He could also shapeshift and assume the form of a buffalo. His arrogance and routine assaults on mortal beings and other divine creatures provoked the gods to create a fierce lady, Durga, who was armed with lethal weapons, including Lord Vishnu’s discus Sudarshana Chakra and Lord Shiva’s trident.
Upon seeing Durga, Mahishasura is believed of have scoffed, thinking he would never ever lose to a woman in a battle.
Every time Durga attempted to end Mahishasura’s life, a new Mahishasura would be created with his blood. Finally, as he was shapeshifting and was in-between forms, half-buffalo and half-man, the Goddess — leading a battle of the devas along with her equally-fierce lion — slayed him and thus earned the name of ‘Mahishasuramardini’, meaning ‘the slayer of the demon Mahishasura’.
All of this has traditionally been depicted in songs, dances and chants. The most popular rendition of it, however, has been in the sonorous voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra, whose collection of songs and mantras called Mahishasura Mardini are played customarily on the day of Mahalaya in every Bengali household early in the morning. The mantras are said to invoke the Goddess. The most famous one is ‘Jago Tumi Jago‘ (‘awaken, oh Goddess!’).
Roughly a week after Mahalaya, the Durga Puja festivities begin. People believe that on this day, Goddess Durga officially begins her journey from Mount Kailash — where she resides with her husband Lord Shiva — to her maternal home on Earth with her four children, Lord Ganesh, Lord Kartik, Goddesses Lakshmi and Saraswati for the four-day long Durga Puja festitivies.