The festivities of Durga Pooja are a sight to behold throughout the eastern regions of the country. The 10-day festival is marked with pandals, gift givings, performance arts, great food and public processions. Epitomising the victory of good over evil, the festival marks the victory of goddess Durga in her battle against the shape-shifting asura, Mahishasura.
Several deities of Hinduism are celebrated during the festival, the most important of them all is goddess Durga. Durga Puja is believed to commemorate Durga's visit to her natal home with her children. The festival in itself is 10 days long, with the last 5 days being considered to be the most auspicious.
The festival is characterized by idol sculptors of Maa Durga, visible at pandals and part of religious processes. While the festival itself is observed the post-monsoon harvest the artisans begin making the sculpture-idols months before, during summer. This is because the demand for the sculptors is extremely high during the festival times, with many being exported outside the country as well.
The festival involves several religious beliefs and practices. However, the most interesting and powerful one is an age-old tradition that priests and sculptors follow while preparing the sculptures of Maa Durga.
Months before the festival the by lanes of Kumartuli in Kolkata start bustling with activity as artisans and idol makers begin the process of giving shape to the countless idols they will be making for the festival. Made with cay, the idols require craftsmanship, patience ad effort, with clay being brought in from the banks of the Hoogly River from the village of Uluberia, which is located in the city.
The Sacred Ritual
However, the way the clay is procured is an empowering story in itself. According to Hindu rituals, for the preparation of Durga idol, four things are of utmost importance- mud from the banks of the Ganga, cow urine, cow dung and soil from a prostitute’s land or Nishiddho Pallis, which essentially translates to forbidden territories.
The procedure of procurement of clay involves a priest visiting the doorstep of a brothel, begging for some mud for the Durga idols. Throughout the practice, the priest enchants Vedic mantras and it is believed that even if she denies, the priest has to keep begging for the soil. The ritual has changed slightly over the years, with even artisans and idol makers also performing the practice to procure clay from the brothels, without which the Durga idol is considered to be incomplete. The soil so acquired is known as 'Punya mati' or the sacred soil.
What Is The Reason Behind The Practice?
Several theories back the ancient tradition. It is believed that men who visit brothels give in to their carnal desires, leaving behind all their purity and virtue at its doorsteps of the brothel. Thus rendering the soil there with utmost purity, this ‘Punya maati’ becomes an unavoidable element that needs to be incorporated in the Durga Maa murti.
Several other legends support the practice. Scriptures present in the Vedas state that nine classes of women known as Navkanyas should be worshipped during Durga Puja. The classes include nati (a dancer or actress), Vaishya ( a prostitute), shudra, Gopala ( a milkmaid) among others. According to the belief, the worship of the ten-armed-goddess is incomplete without paying respect to these women.
Another chain of thought is based on around the purification of the souls of sex workers It is considered that the path the sex workers have chosen is a sin in itself. By taking the sand from their doorsteps with a priest enchanting Vedic mantras during the whole process, it is believed that this leads to the purification of the souls of such workers.
Ritual or not, the fact that sex workers are respected and considered to be a part of the society, being an integral element of Durga Pooja festivities is a great thing. For years and even now, they are marginalized and oppressed, having to face the social stigma and societal pressure that comes with their line of work. If this practice and belief are what makes them come under the ambit of society and be treated with respect and appreciation, the festival of Durga Pooja truly epitomises the victory of good over evil.