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The land of goddesses: Why Durga is key to understanding Bengal

Worship of the feminine form and in particular the celebration of Durga has deep historical roots in the Bengal region.

Written by Adrija Roychowdhury | Kolkata |
Updated: March 1, 2021 11:55:26 am
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With state elections around the corner in West Bengal, a central argument made by the ruling TMC against the BJP is that the latter does not understand Bengal. This debate played out recently when BJP state president Dilip Ghosh, at a media event, commented on the ancestry of Lord Ram and that he was a ‘political icon’ and an ‘ideal man’ as opposed to Durga whose roots are unknown. The TMC picked on this remark to once again push the ‘outsider’ tag against the BJP.

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Worship of the feminine form and in particular the celebration of Durga has deep historical roots in the Bengal region. Scholars of religion have pointed out that there existed a tradition of goddess worship in India, which predates the Vedic-Brahmanism tradition. This tradition was particularly long-lived and deeply rooted in some parts of the subcontinent like Bengal and Assam.

Over centuries, Durga takes on a Brahmanical form as the embodiment of Shakti, the ten-armed Devi who destroys the demon Mahishasura. But she is also personal. She is the daughter of every Bengali family, whose visit every autumn is much awaited. She is the endearing, protective mother, ‘Durga Ma’, in the company of her four children. Yet she is also political, be it in Mughal Bengal, in the pre-independence era of nationalist politics, or in Mamata’s Bengal. Durga in that sense, permeates every aspect of Bengali life, and is key to understanding Bengal.

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The ancient roots of Durga worship

The evidence of a non-Brahmanical tradition of goddess worship existing in Bengal comes from the large number of local or village goddesses that continue to be worshipped even today. Known by various names, these deities are associated by a range of attributes or functions, the most important among which is the protection of the village or the family that worships them. “In Bankura district, for instance, the village of Chhandor was associated with the goddess known as Jangalasini Devi, Lakhershole village with Kamakhya Devi, Naricha village with the deity Sarvamangal Devi, Ajodhya village with the deity known as Kaluburi and Raipur village with Ambika Devi,” writes historian Kumkum Chatterjee in her exhaustive account of Durga worship in Bengal titled, ‘Goddess encounters: Mughals, Monsters and the Goddess in Bengal’.

Then there are those goddesses, more specifically associated with a fear or disease. Manasa for instance, is the goddess of snakes, worshipped for the prevention and cure of snakebites. Sithala on the other hand, is the goddess of smallpox, and Olai Chandi or Ola Bibi is worshipped to ward off Cholera.
Chatterjee writes that the non-Brahmanical origins of these goddesses is underscored by the fact that the hereditary priest or priestess associated with them are usually drawn from the lower castes like the Bagdis, Bauris, Doms, and Majhis who inhabited these regions.

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Historian Kunal Chakrabarti, an authority on the history of religion in India, explains that religion in Bengal is almost completely centered around goddess worship because of the late entry of Brahmanism in the region as opposed to that in the Ganga valley. In his book, Religious processes: The Puranas and the making of the regional tradition, he writes “Bengal remained outside the sphere of Brahmanical influence for a long time, and largescale Brahmana migration to Bengal did not begin before the Gupta period (mid 3rd century to 6th century CE).”

“Therefore the beliefs and practices of the indigenous communities could strike deeper roots than in other parts which were Brahmanised earlier,” says Chakrabarti over the phone. He says the same is also true for religious traditions in southern India, parts of western India like Maharashtra and Rajasthan as well as in Kashmir. Chakrabarti says Brahmanical religion, like almost every institutionalised religion of the world like Christianity, Islam or Judaism, is patriarchal. “It is interesting that in those parts of the world where Christianity went late, like northern Africa, parts of southeast Asia and so on, where there was already an existing goddess worship tradition, the epiphany of Mother Mary is stronger,” he says.

In Bengal, as Chakrabarti explains, goddess worship was so common and prevalent that when the Bramanists came and attempted to impose their socio-religious hegemony, they found that their acceptance would be incomplete unless they came to terms with the existing beliefs and practices or the indigenous communities. They also found that while goddesses were worshipped in many forms across the Bengal region, there was no central focus like we have in Durga today. “What the Brahmanists attempted to do was to adopt goddesses like Manesa, Chandi, Shashti. They are mentioned in the Sanskrit Brahmanical Puranas that began to be composed in Eastern India and particularly Bengal from the eighth or ninth centuries till about the 13th or 14th,” says Chakrabarti.

In these Puranas, there existed a process of adoption, appropriation and even transformation of the local goddesses. There was an attempt to give them Brahmanical appearances through ancestry and false genealogies. Manasa for instance, is the daughter of Shiva. The goddesses were also equated with an abstract energy or Shakti, of which the various local goddesses were mere manifestations. She was seen as the moving force behind all actions, which ensured her inclusion in the Brahmanical pantheon without subverting her indigenous identity. But the process was also selective. Sithala, for instance, never made it to the Brahmanical pantheon.

Durga, in the form in which Bengalis celebrate her today, appears in the ‘Devi Mahatmya’ section of the Markandeya Purana where she is shown as the killer of the demon Mahishasura. “Durga grew to this lofty status over time. She absorbed many traits from the gods and goddesses around her. As the gods all gave her weapons to kill the demon in her puranic origin myth, on a subtler level village deities gave her many qualities that were later incorporated into her stories,” writes scholar of religious studies, June McDaniel in her book,Offering flowers, feeding skulls: Popular goddess worship in West Bengal’.

“Durga literally means ‘goddess of difficult terrain’. This was not really a goddess of the indigenous people. She was assiduously pushed by the Brahmanas, and they were trying to propagate the importance of the annual festival,” says Chakrabarti. “What the annual festival does is to take away the goddess from everyday worship and makes it into a cult event once a year. They attempted to do the same with other goddesses of everyday worship as well like Kali and Lakshmi. By doing this, the Brahmanists believed that they would gradually disassociate the goddesses from the people and make it into their province,” he adds. In the case of Durga though, this process was most successful as is evidenced by the fact that there are hardly any permanent temples dedicated to her in Bengal. She is worshipped once a year, in autumn. The rest of the year she is celebrated in the anticipation of her homecoming.

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There is yet another transformation that Durga goes through with the coming in of the Vaishnava tradition in Bengal sometime in the 15th century. “The most important result of the Vaishnavisation of the Goddess was evident in the much greater emphasis on her attributes as wife, but probably even more important as mother and daughter,” writes Chatterjee. She notes that through this transformation of the goddess from a fierce warrior to benign mother and daughter, Durga was ‘softened’. She was also elevated, humanised and popularised.

Seeking the legitimacy of the goddess

In Bengal, there exists a long history of connection between Durga worship and political power. Raja Ganesh of the 15th century, who had usurped power from the Sultan of Bengal, and his son who converted to Islam and ruled as Jalaluddin Muhammad Shah, proclaimed their association with the Goddess and issued coins bearing symbols associated with the deity. Chatterjee notes that in the late Sultanate and the period of the inception of Mughal rule, aspiring and successful rajas and landed magnates, particularly in the forested south-western tracts of Bengal, emphasised on their association with the Goddess. “The origin accounts of very many rajas who founded kingdoms in these areas attribute their political success to the blessings of the Goddess,” she writes.

We find similar employment of Durga in offering legitimacy to Mughal rule in Bengal as well. Chatterjee points to two mid-eighteenth century Bengali texts — Annandamangala written by Bharatchandra Roy, the court poet of the Raja of Nadia, and the Maharashtrapurana written by Gangarama. Both these texts provide sufficient evidence of an evolving strong relationship between the Mughals and Durga, the former seeking the legitimacy of the Goddess in establishing their rule in Bengal.

There is something to be said about the rise in the public performance of Durga worship under the Mughals. The first Durga Puja is known to have been celebrated in Bengal sometime in the late 16th or early 17th centuries. The names of three local Rajas are contended as hosts of this ‘first’ Durga Puja — Raja Kangshanarayan of Tahirpur in northern Bengal (now in Bangladesh), Bhavananda Majumdar, the Raja of Nadia in Western Bengal, and Lakshmikanta Majumdar of the Sabarna Chowdhury family who controlled large tracts of land of what later became Calcutta.

Chatterjee writes that each of these individuals had strong links with the Mughal regime. They offered collaboration and military services to the Mughals and in return were given revenue-collecting rights and titles. “Each of them used their newly-acquired political and material power via the Mughals to establish themselves as leaders and arbiters of Brahmanical samajs in the immediate areas which they controlled,” writes Chatterjee. They established their credentials as adherents of various Brahmanical deities of which the Goddess, in her various forms (Durga, Kali, Jagaddhatri) was certainly the most important.

With the economic decline in the Mughal empire, the zamindars or the Hindu landowners of Bengal became little rajas in their own right, exercising huge control over vast territories of land. The eighteenth century was a time of dynamic social and political changes in Bengal. There were brutal raids carried out by the Marathas, Afghan insurrections within Nawabi ranks, revenue realignments and of course the Battle of Plassey that helped the East India Company seize control over Bengal.

“If the eighteenth century taught any lessons to the Hindu zamindars of Bengal, it was the need to be extremely alert and wary about their political loyalties,” writes historian Tithi Bhattacharya in her research paper, Tracking the goddess: Religion, community and identity in Bengal. She suggests that at a time like this when political affiliations were constantly shifting, the splendid and ostentatious celebrations of Durga Puja helped the zamindars assert and display political authority, financial stability and administrative control.

With the rise of British power and the emergence of Calcutta as the site of political and economic control, a new mercantile class emerged which worked closely with the Europeans. Durga Puja celebrations became the perfect means through which this class asserted its financial influence, not just over the natives, but also to the British and other Europeans. Bhattacharya describes the stiff competition that existed among the eminent mercantile families over the extent and scope of spending. The Durga idol of the Gandhabanik family of Sibkrishna Da was decorated with gold jewellery engraved with stones imported from Paris. Their principal rivals, the Tagores, immersed their idol along with the enormous amount of gold jewellery on her.

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The Durga Puja celebration in the palatial house owned by Nabakrishna Deb in Shobhabazar has been documented in detail and continues to remain an annual event that attracts Kolkata inhabitants and tourists. Deb was the famous ‘bania’ of Robert Clive. “Dancing girls were hired from Murshidabad and even as far as Lucknow. Festivities continued for nearly half a month and made that first puja under the new regime iconic in every way,” writes Bhattacharya.

Tapati Guha-Thakurta, a retired professor of History who has been researching on the contemporary cultural politics of the Durga Puja, traces the non-religious aspect of the festival today to the celebration of it by the mercantile class of 19th and 20th century Bengal. “This hedonistic side to pujo, or what we like to call the ‘secular’ side, where its a time for entertainment, consumption, advertisement, touring, or the fact that its religiosity is eroding, is not a new thing. It can be traced back to the big ‘babuder pujo’ or the ‘bonedi barir pujo’ (puja celebrations of the traditional zamindar families) and their excesses and extravaganza,” she says.

By the turn of the 20th century, Durga was once again invested politically. This time it was with the spirit of nationalism. The Bengali press was loaded with patriotic songs that played upon the image of Durga in association with the nation. Durga Puja became the perfect platform for the swadeshi campaign, with advertisements encouraging people to engage in Puja shopping of only those products made in India. Faced with Gandhi’s call to abolish untouchability, the ‘sarbajanin’ (universal) puja was born in 1926 which was open to all regardless of birth or residence. The first such Puja was called the “Congress Puja” and organised at Maniktala in north Calcutta. The sarbajanin pujas became a platform for swadeshi fairs.

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Durga in Mamata’s Bengal

Since 2011 when the TMC came to power in Bengal, the party has been deeply invested in Durga Pujas, far more than what its predecessor the CPI(M) was. However, as Guha-Thakurta points out, TMC’s politicisation of the Durga Puja was not in the name of a Hindu religious festival. “There is a political ideology of religious inclusivity that the TMC has been pushing. The TMC has been pushing the idea that Durga puja is ‘secular’ and so we can have a Muslim mayor sponsoring one of the biggest pujas and that the act of painting the eye of the goddess can be turned into a secular political act,” says Guha-Thakurta.

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Ever since 2011 when Banerjee became chief minister, hundreds of puja pandals are either inaugurated by her or by other TMC leaders, a role which was previously the domain of celebrities. She composes lyrics and gets reputed singers to record them as part of puja special albums. She began to give direct party donations to the clubs. She started her own state award for the Durga Pujas. In 2015, she announced an immersion day procession, on the same lines as the Republic Day parade. The last salute of the parade is given to the chief minister.

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The BJP too has been trying to make inroads into this complex politicisation of the Durga Puja. From 2015 to 2017, as Muharram, a Shia Muslim festival collided with the immersion, the TMC government restricted all activities around the Durga immersion, on the ground that it wanted to avoid communal clashes. The BJP picked up on the issue to accuse the TMC of Muslim appeasment. Last year, the BJP’s women’s wing organised a Puja at the International Centre for Cultural Relations in Kolkata. It was inaugurated virtually by PM Modi.

In the past few years, the Puja pandals have increasingly become a platform to play out major socio-poltiical events as well.

Bengal elections, Durga, Dilip Ghosh comment on Durga, Ram, BJP in Bengal, TMC, Mamata Banerjee, Durga puja, Durga puja in Bengal, West Bengal assembly elections, elections 2021, election news, west bengal news, Indian Express Barisha Club Puja in Behala themed on the plight of the migrant worker in 2020. (Express photo by Shashi Ghosh)

In 2019, for instance, the Young Boys Club Sarbojanin Durga Puja Committee based in central Kolkata, played out the Balakot air strike in its Puja pandal. The Puja of Rajdanga Naba Uday Sangha on the other hand, took up the issue of the NRC. Who can forget the image of the migrant worker with her children as the theme of the Barisha Club Puja in Behala that went viral in 2020? Guha-Thakurta agrees that such themes are a way for the opposition to hit back at the ruling party. “But the Puja has opened up this space. One cannot think of Durga Puja as pure worship and leave all that out. It has happened over a long history,” she says.

Further reading:

‘Goddess encounters: Mughals, Monsters and the Goddess in Bengal’ by Kumkum Chatterjee

Religious processes: The Puranas and the making of the regional tradition by Kunal Chakrabarti

Offering flowers, feeding skulls: Popular goddess worship in West Bengal by June McDaniel

Tracking the goddess: Religion, community and identity in Bengal by Tithi Bhattacharya

In the name of the Goddess: The Durga Pujas of contemporary Kolkata by Tapati Guha-Thakurta

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