Studying religion
Studying religion

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Studying religion

8.7 The festival of Durga Puja in Calcutta

Although Hindus are not required to attend temples on set days in the week, the Hindu year is punctuated by days dictated by the lunar calendar during which puja (worship) should be offered to a particular deity or deities. Hindu festivals often combine the marking of the changing of the seasons and the honouring of deities. The emphasis given to specific festivals and to aspects of the same festival will vary from region to region. Individuals attend festivals for many reasons: to honour the deity, as an opportunity to seek guidance and practical help from the deity, to share in what is after all a performance, and to be part of a family and community gathering.

In a temple-based festival or one held to honour a deity revered as the protector of the town or village, the climax of the festival is likely to be a public procession bearing the murti (image) of the deity through the streets. The reason for moving the deity will vary according to local myths and legends (narrative or mythic dimension). If the festival is not temple-based but still centres upon puja, celebrations begin when preparations are made to receive and install the murti of the appropriate deity in the home or on the street. Communal worship is by no means confined to temples. For some time prior to the festival, local craftsmen will have devoted considerable time to the manufacture of the murti of the deity or deities to be honoured (Figure 16). These craftsmen normally belong to particular castes and are likely to live and work in close proximity to one another. Much of their livelihood for the year may depend upon supplying the murti necessary to celebrate the most popular festival in their region. Nowadays, many of these craftsmen also service the tourist industry. There can't be many tourists who have visited India and not come away with an image of a Hindu deity. Hindus who wish to purchase a murti often collaborate in family, caste, occupational and neighbourhood groups to buy a suitable image. The collaborative purchase of festival murti is an opportunity for competition between groups determined to display the most elaborate image and build the best decorated pandal, the platform which bears and screens the image of the deity (social and institutional dimension).

Figure 16
Photo: Gwilym Beckerlegge
Figure 16 Urban craftsman painting image of a deity, Gol Park, Calcutta

During the course of the festival, puja is offered to the appropriate deities, and there may be rituals carried out separately according to the age and sex of the participants. At the end of the festival, the murti is carried in a carnival-like procession through the streets before being returned to the water from where the clay out of which it was made was taken. The celebration is likely to involve some serious music-making, the throwing of coloured powder over friends and passers-by for good luck, and dancing by men and boys. The side of a village pond, the seashore or the banks of one of India's great rivers is the place from which the celebrants return home and so to everyday life.

Durga Puja is one name for a festival that is celebrated under different names, Navratri and Dasshera being the most common, and with different shades of meaning across India. In contemporary India popular festivals are often marked by state holidays. In Bengal the great festival of Durga Puja, which falls at the end of the monsoon season, is one such occasion for a vast public celebration. Although some families in the city take advantage of the festival holiday in order to visit family homes in the countryside, for many it would be unthinkable to leave Calcutta and miss the vast, public celebration of this festival. The growth of urban centres like Calcutta has provided new arenas for public worship, and has stimulated the traditional crafts involved in supplying the images and other materials necessary for the celebration of the festival.

Exercise 18

Please read the account of ‘Durga Puja in Calcutta’ by Jaya Chaliha and Bunny Gupta, attached below. It refers to locations in Calcutta that are likely to be unfamiliar to you, but you will find that most of the references to Bengali Hindu culture are explained. Use the reading to get some sense and feel of the occasion of the festival. Then from this account of Durga Puja and from this course, identify examples of the way in which the celebration of Durga Puja defies being placed in one separate category that might be labelled ‘religion’.

A7: Chaudhuri, S. (ed.) (1990) Calcutta: The Living City, Volume II: The Present and The Future, pp.331–3, 335–6, Oxford University Press, New Delhi. Reading A7: Jaya Chaliha and Bunny Gupta, ‘Durga Puja in Calcutta’ [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)] ‘’

Discussion

The festival has been transformed from being a festival in honour of Durga, which originally was celebrated privately within the confines of a few wealthy families, to being a popular festival of the masses widely celebrated as a public holiday. In the process Durga Puja has picked up overtones and elements that have as little to do with its original form, as has Father Christmas with the Christian celebration of Christmas, but which would now be equally difficult to dislodge. It is a heavily commercialised event with shops advertising their Durga Puja sales, and its celebration draws in both Indian popular music and Indian cinema. The festival has been a vehicle for the expression of nationalist and other political sentiments and for many is a symbol of their citizenship of Calcutta. The construction of pandals and the purchase of murti are very much linked with community pride and status. The festival thus illustrates the workings of the Hindu social system. This is evident in the roles performed by those who organise the celebration of the festival and the functions performed by castes whose traditional livelihoods are partly dependent upon preparing for the festival and carrying out the necessary rituals. Commerce, politics, citizenship are as much a part of Durga Puja as is worship of the Mother Goddess, Durga.

Our brief exposure to Hinduism in Calcutta has revealed a number of things about the nature of Hinduism that have implications for the use of the term ‘religion’. Working with the title of Hinduism and accepting it as a ‘religion’, we have discovered a tradition whose followers are created by birth. Membership of Hinduism, the ‘religion’, and of Hindu society are one and the same. We have also seen that the artificial mould of ‘Hinduism’ contains such a variety of beliefs and practices that it makes defining Hinduism in terms of universally accepted beliefs and practices virtually impossible. Even the most visible and popular practices and beliefs tied to puja are immensely varied, directed to different deities, and are not common to all Hindus. For some Hindus, however, their sense of living in a world of many ‘religions’ has led them to set out the principles of Hinduism in a more systematic way.

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