We have an idiom in my mother tongue that sums up the essence of India: thirteen festivals in twelve months, meaning there is some kind of party going on all year round. Add to these the minor Hindu festivals, then the number probably doubles straightaway. Mix in the festivals of the other faiths that have found their homes in India, the Islamic, Christian, Buddhist, Zoroastrian, Sikh and Jain festivals, and there really is no time in the calendar when something or the other isn’t being celebrated.
The degrees of celebrations might vary depending on local customs and practices, though over the years the boundaries have blurred. What used to be a festival celebrated exclusively in a pocket of the Western Coast, is now being celebrated with great fanfare in my hometown in the extreme East. And also vice versa, due to advances in technology as well as India being the cultural melting pot that it is.
In my hometown Kolkata, the festival season starts around September and lasts through the autumn well into the winter, spanning both major Hindu festivals as also Christmas. The different faiths follow different calendars, Hindus follow a lunisolar combination, Muslims a lunar one and Christians of course the Gregorian one, and so it sometimes happens that we celebrate an Islamic festival or two sandwiched between the main Hindu ones and Christmas. Like we have done/are doing this year.
It all sounds very complicated, but what it essentially means is that from September to around mid-January, it is fiesta season there. Depending on which part of the city you are in, you will finds sparkling lights, festival banners and impromptu bazaars for that whole stretch of time. In other words, once the monsoons are over and the skies clear up, after that there is a street-, or some other, party to go to anytime if you want.
When I think of our main festivals, three of them spring to mind – Holi (the festival of colours, a spring festival), Durga Puja (the worship of Goddess Durga), and Diwali (the festival of lights). Among these, Holi and Diwali are pan-Indian festivals, while the middle one is celebrated by Bengalis mainly. Elsewhere in India, Durga Puja is celebrated as Dusshera and Navratri, essentially to commemorate the same practices and events, the triumph of good over evil, but on a slightly lower key, and on varying dates of the same month.
The Durga Puja season starts on a moonless night, the Goddess Durga descends to earth for a few days and is worshipped in huge elaborate public marquees, and then the idol is taken on a grand procession for immersion in the holy river waters on the tenth day of the moon. A few days later, during the full moon, Goddess Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth, prosperity and grace, Durga’s daughter, is worshipped on the same pedestal. And then a fortnight later, another moonless autumn night comes around again with the celebration of Diwali, and every home in the city is lit up with millions of oil-lamps and fairy lights and fireworks in a brilliant display of both light and sound.
Durga Puja is the main festival for Bengali Hindus and is celebrated by the Bengali Diaspora wherever they are. There are huge celebrations in the US, UK, Australia and all over the Western world. Also in teeny-tiny places like Bahrain, Dubai and Muscat. Although freedom of worship, particularly idol worship is frowned upon and religious tolerance is not as common in large tracts of the Middle–East as it is in India and the Western nations.
The public festivities can get seriously intense though, and whole of Kolkata explodes in bursts of music and mantras, of lights and sounds and a medley of experiences engaging, and sometimes assaulting, every one of the senses. Here is a short film that I enjoy watching every year. It sums up the festival through the sounds of the special drums that are played during the time.
As it happens in all cultures and with all festivals, Durga Puja embodies the same spirit and values of sharing and celebrating with friends and family. New clothes are bought for the occasion, gifts given, special dishes prepared and relished, food shared within the community and outside of it.
Many Bengali cultural events, such as film, music and book releases are timed to coincide with it. Literary and travel magazines bring out special collections targeting both holiday reading and travel markets. Children’s magazines come out with especially colourful and thick “Puja” numbers, which I remember looking forward to immensely as a child. It was a staple gift in the goodie-bags I used to receive.
For the devout, it is a chance to cleanse and purify oneself, an opportunity to pray and fast, and place their petitions at the feet of their god. And to feast and make merry and have a general good time for the not-so-devout, amongst whom I count myself. To just take a few days off from the grind, and stand back and introspect, or travel, or soak up the party atmosphere.
Since I have been away for many years from Kolkata, I have not attended “Pujas” there for a couple of decades. In fact, the last time I saw Goddess Durga decked out in all her finery and surrounded by her four children being worshipped is also almost a decade ago in Bahrain. But the Bengali in me finds ways to celebrate it wherever I am. I make a few special dishes, I reserve some new outfits, which are got early when we get home leave in the monsoons, and which I then vaguely insist the family wear on the relevant days; we travel out somewhere if there arises the opportunity.
Last year we were in the White Desert of Egypt where the sunset and our simple tents got somehow connected in my mind to the marquees of the goddess and the sacred fires there. This year we went out to the Mediterranean. We get together with friends and share the same dishes that are cooking at that very moment in time in our respective hometowns. We check the net for our fixes of the music (especially the drum that you hear in the film which for me is a must-listen), and photographs/clips of the different functions. People from home mail us the special editions of the magazines sometimes. All in all, we manage to make our Puja-less "Puja" festive enough, there is usually no time for nostalgic regrets.
And I always end up writing a verse or two in the quiet nooks and crannies of the festival days, maybe early in the morning or late at night before going to bed....
There are more ways to worship besides being threaded in garlands,
More ways to prostrate than bending heads or knees,
Or be piled in heaps with sandal and cupped and thrown by hands
As and when the conch or the flame or the bell decrees......
And going by the same logic, there are many more ways to celebrate as well.
This entry is my contribution to the Romantic Friday Writers Holiday Spirit Blogfest where we are getting together to share and celebrate the holiday spirit. Do feel free to click on the link and join in with yours. Wishing you every joy of the season and a very happy 2013.