Durga Puja, An Essential Element of Bharata’s Intangible Cultural Heritage

Durga Puja, An Essential Element of Bharata’s Intangible Cultural Heritage

This week, UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage added the Kolkata Durga Puja to the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Celebrated across the nation and across the globe, with grandeur, Durga Puja is considered a very integral part of the Navaratri celebrations in every Bengali household. The festival sees lakhs of people every year including those coming in from various countries to take part in this visual treat.  

UNESCO commented that Durga Puja is the best instance of a public performance of culture and art. It is also a platform for artists and designers. Prior to the commencement of the celebrations, artisans sculpt beautiful and colourful clay sculptures of Maa Durga. On Mahalaya Amavasya, the eyes of the Goddess are drawn. Large pandals are erected in different parts of the city, decorated with vibrant colours and flowers, and the sculptures are installed in the pandals. People come together and celebrate the Goddess on all ten days of Navaratri. On the tenth day, She is immersed in the Bay of Bengal, where She returns to clay- signifying the cycle of life. UNESCO added that this festival signifies ‘home-coming’ to one’s roots.

Why was this festival added to the list of ICH? An influential thinker from the 20th century stated that culture cannot be abridged to only its tangible products, because culture is continuously evolving and constantly evolving. According to the international community, the main attributes of a culture were limited to tangible cultural expressions, and their significance was evaluated on the basis of their artistic, aesthetic, architectural, visual, scientific, and economic value.

However, the essence of intangible elements in a culture cannot be overlooked, because these elements can be employed to accomplish the task of transferring knowledge, to the next of kin, of preservation of their own culture. Experts were of the view that in this era with a rich cultural variety of humanity moving towards uniformity. This can be dangerous because uniformity can lead to disintegration of cultural heritage.

But, Bharata is a land that includes thousands of living traditions, with each community striving hard to preserve their heritage. These include Kumbh Mela, Mysore Dasara, Karagam, Durga Puja, and more. Since the focus of this article is on Durga Puja, let us delve a bit deeper.

According to folklore, the Durga Puja festival began in the houses of Malda and Dinajpur, sometime around the fifteenth century. There are other stories that state the origin of Durga Puja festival began during the reign of Raja Kangsa Narayan of Taherpur in the fifteenth century.

The origin of community pujas began in Hooghly in the 18th century, when twelve friends came together and collected contributions from local residents to conduct the first community puja. This was known as the Baro-yaari puja or the twelve-pals puja. This puja was then brought to Kolkata by Raja Harinath.

Durga Puja begins on Mahalaya Amavasya, the day before the first day of Navaratri, and end on Vijaya Dashami, where women play with Sindhoor or vermillion, before they immerse the murti. This is known as Sindhoor Khel. Devotees go pandal hopping, that is visit every pandal in the city, offer their pranaam to the Goddess, take part in the festivities such as the main puja and the Aarti, and finally indulge in the many delicacies prepared by the communities.   

These traditions add to their list of ICH. But, the article would be incomplete if we do not talk of the many artisans who toil for months to sculpt the beautiful murtis of Maa Durga. The murti showcases the Goddess with ten arms, each arm with a mighty weapon. She is, in many instances, accompanied by Ganesha, Kartikeya, Ma Saraswati and Lakshmi Devi.

Traditionally, there are two types of embellishments that are used on the clay- Sholar Saaj and Daker Saaj. Shola is a type of reed that grows within the marshlands in West Bengal. The white core of this reed is used to decorate the murti. This was hence known as Sholar Saaj.

With devotees becoming wealthier over the years, beaten silver was used to decorate. The silver was imported from Germany and was usually sent by post or Dak. Hence, this embellishment was known as Daker Saaj. The murtis are held by bamboo poles and draped in colourful fabric.

At dawn of Mahalaya Amavasya, the arrival of Devipaksha is announced, with the artisans offering their ablutions on the banks of the river Ganga. They then invoke the power of the Goddess by painting her eyes. This is known as Chokkhudaan or bestowing of the eyes. Such wonderful traditions that are followed till date.

But, who makes these murtis? In a small region tucked within the lanes of Sovabazar area of North Kolkata, lies Kumartuli. This is where the magic happens. Kumartuli is said to be older than the main city of Kolkata itself. The ancestors of the present day sculptors and potters migrated to Kolkata in search of employment and sustenance. Having settled down by the river Hooghly, they began making clay pots, utensils and murtis. This is where the tradition of murtis began, and till date, these murtis are supplied to various pandals and even exported.

The puja gained more prominence during the British Raj, with devotees identifying Ma Durga as Mother India. This helped freedom fighters as it became a symbol of power, and courage to fight against all odds to gain freedom.

Goddess Durga is worshipped across the country in various ways. In the South, Chamundi Devi in Mysore is taken on a procession across the city, along with an array of celebrations accompanying it. In other parts of South India, Gombe Habba or the doll festival is celebrated. During this time, in many households, the Goddess is installed in a Kalash and is offered puja for ten days.

In Bihar, large pandals are seen across the city of Patna, with murtis of Maa Durga. The festivities begin with ‘Kalash Sthapana’ and culminate in ‘Ravana Vadha’ (killing of Ravana). Durga Puja is celebrated across the country prominently in New Delhi, Assam, and Varanasi. Murtis are imported to countries such as the USA, UK, the Middle East and many more, where Indian communities erect pandals and celebrate Durga Puja, with pomp and splendour.

Each one of these celebrations and the traditions involved add to the many attributes of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Apart from the importance of ICH in safeguarding the wealth of knowledge and skills, and making sure it is transferred from one generation to the next, it is also important to note its significance in the economy. Our wealth of traditions drives people from across nations to visit India and explore and experience divinity, arts, handicrafts, rituals and even cuisine. Furthermore, it brings people together, promotes healthy discussions to build better understanding of culture, thus encouraging tolerance and peace.

This recognition by UNESCO of numerous such traditions and expressions embedded in our heritage will definitely drive impetus to create more awareness amongst our own people to ensure its protection and preservation, and create a sense of pride in us.