Durga Puja is an annual Hindu Bengali festival also called Durgotsav. Durga Puja marks the battle of Goddess Maa Durga with the shape-shifting, deceptive and powerful buffalo demon Mahishasura, and her emerging victorious. Thus, the festival epitomises the victory of good over evil, but it also is in part a harvest festival that marks the Goddess as the motherly power behind all of life and creation.

The primary Goddess revered during Durga Puja is Maa Durga, along with Goddess Lakshmi (Goddess of wealth, prosperity), Saraswati (Goddess of knowledge and music), Ganesha (God of good beginnings) and Kartikeya (God of war).The Hindu God Shiva, as Maa Durga's husband, is also revered during this festival.

The Durga Puja festival is a ten-day event, of which the last five mark the popular practices. The festival begins with Mahalaya, marking Maa Durga's advent in her battle against evil. The next most significant day of Maa Durga Puja celebrations is the sixth day, called Shashthi where the local community welcome the Goddess and festive celebrations are inaugurated. On the seventh day (Saptami), eighth (Ashtami) and ninth (Navami), the Goddess along with Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha and Kartikeya are revered and these days mark the main Puja (worship) with recitation of the scriptures, the legends of Maa Durga in Devi Mahatmya. The festival ends of the tenth day of Vijaya Dashami, as a form of goodbye and her return to divine cosmos and Mount Kailash.

In West Bengal Durga Puja is also called Akalbodhan (অকাল বোধন, "untimely awakening of Maa Durga"), Sharadiya Pujo ("autumnal worship"), Sharodotsab (Bengali: শারদোৎসব, ("festival of autumn"), Maha Pujo ("grand puja"), Maayer Pujo ("worship of the Mother"), Durga Pujo, or merely as Puja or Pujo.

Practices

The specific practices vary by region. The following being most common:
  • Preliminaries: the preparations before the actual Durga puja begins.
  • Bodhan: the rites to awaken and welcome the Goddess to be a guest, typically done on Shasti (The 6th Day).
  • Adhivas: anointing ritual wherein many symbolic offerings are made to Maa Durga, where each item represents a remembrance of subtle forms of her. Typically completed on Shasti as well.
  • Saptami: Bathing of the Goddess, selection of the priest, elaborate prayers (arati), recitation of texts describing Maa Durga heading to war against evil.
  • Mahashtami:Similar to Saptami, more prayers, recitation and enactment of Maa Durga legends and scriptures on the eighth day. The day is significant because the moment when it ends and ninth day begins is considered the moment Maa Durga kills the buffalo demon Mahisasura, the good once again emergesvictorious over evil.
  • Sandhi Puja: one of the most important rituals during Durga Puja, it is a forty-eight minute high point that celebrates the climax of war, which Maa Durga was engaged in. It is done at the exact time Mahashtami ends and Mahanavami begins, with rituals being performed for the last 24 minutes of Mahashtami and for the first 24 minutes of Mahanavami. The legend behind Sandhi Puja comes from when Maa Durga was engaged in a fierce battle with Mahishasura and was attacked by the demons Chanda and Munda. Goddess Chamunda emerged from the third eye of Maa Durga and killed Chanda and Munda at the cusp of Ashtami and Navami.

    In some regions, devotees sacrifice an animal such as a buffalo or goat, but in many regions there isn't an actual animal sacrifice and a symbolic remembrance substitutes it. The surrogate effigy is smeared in red vermilion to symbolize the blood spilled. The Goddess is then offered food (bhog).
  • Mahanavami: The ninth day of festival observes rites similar to Saptami, with the difference that the celebration is after Maa Durga's victory and Vedic style homa (fire oblation) rituals are now included. The other deities on the stage, such as Ganesha, Kartikeya, Lakshmi and Saraswati are remembered and prayers offered to them.
  • Vijaya Dasami: The tenth and last day, begins with Sindoor Khela, where married women smear sindoor or vermillion on the Goddess' idol, on her forehead and feet, before smearing it on each other. Since sindoor is like an ornament for married women, this ritual signifies them wishing each other a happy married life. They also offer blog to the Goddess. It ends with a great procession where the clay statues are ceremoniously walked to a river or ocean coast for a solemn goodbye to Maa Durga and she is believed to return to Mount Kailasha with Lord Shiva and cosmos in general.
Dhunuchi Naach, a dance performed with dhunachi (incense burner) is an integral part of the rituals. Drummers called dhakis, carrying large leather-strung dhak create music, people dance and complete the final day of worship called aarati.

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