Mahalaya to Dashami: The rituals of Durga Puja
The fanfare with which Durga Puja is celebrated with an increasing budget every year seems to have relegated the actual significance of the event to the background. The rituals of Durga Puja are a set of customs elaborated in religious texts hundreds of years ago that are supposed to be followed during the entire nine days beginning from Mahalaya to Dashami with each day holding a special significance when it comes to the rituals of worship.
Mahalaya to Dashami
Mahalaya is observed seven days before Durga Puja marking the arrival of the all pervasive Goddess. In essence, Mahalaya denotes the invocation to the Goddess to descend on earth through the chanting of mantras and singing devotional songs. Prayers are offered on the banks of some rivers (like the Ganga) with a holy dip and blessings sought from the departed ancestors in the household through performance of sradha.
This auspicious day is followed by the end of Amabashya on the next day, termed as Pratipada which also marks the beginning of the nine day Navaratri when thousands of devotees throng the Goddess’s shrines in the country. It ends with Dussehra on the tenth day coinciding with the victory of good over evil. During Navratri, the Goddess is worshipped in each of her nine forms, with each day having a different set of rituals.
At many places, an earthen pot called ghot is placed at the site of the puja with banana trees draped in a white sari with a red border. As part of the custom, priests are supposed not only to observe fast during the puja but abstain from non-vegetarian food or any kind of intoxication.
Dwitiya is the second day when the goddess is worshipped as Brahmacharini or the unmarried form of the Goddess. Green is the colour to be worn for that day of Navaratri symbolising the penance the Goddess had undergone to marry Lord Shiva.
Tritiya is the third day that follows Pratipada and the third Ghot is placed at the Puja site. Similarly, more ghots are placed at the site on the fourth and fifth days called Chaturthi and Panchami.
On Sashthi or the sixth day, the idol of Goddess Durga is placed at the Puja site coinciding with the descent of the divine mother on earth. Adivash Puja is performed in the evening accompanied by devotional hymns at the pandal. Sashthi essentially means that the festivities of Durga Puja have commenced all over. On this day, the face of the goddess is uncovered which is followed by rituals such as Amontron, Bodhon and Adibash with the rhythmic beating of the Dhaak (a kind of drum).
On Maha Saptami, which marks the beginning of the puja, a banana tree is immersed in sacred water at dawn and adorned with a sari popularly known as "Kola Bou" or "Nabapatrika". The Kola Bou is then carried to the stage and placed next to the idol of Ganesha. A total of nine plants are also venerated which represent the different forms of Goddess Durga. The Goddess is worshipped with the chanting of hymns from sacred texts.
On Ashtami or the eighth day, the Goddess is worshipped in her childhood form in Kumari Puja. Adolescent girls are dressed up as the Goddess and worshipped. As per the legends, Maha Ashtami is the day when Maa Durga slew the buffalo devil "Mahishasura". In the olden times, a buffalo was sacrificed to mark the end of wickedness.
Maha Navami, considered the most auspicious day, begins with the end of the Sandhi Puja and completed with the execution of "Maha Aarti". There is a “Mahayagna” in the morning after which Anjali is taken. Earlier, Prasad was distributed only on Navami but in recent times the practice has changed and prasad is distributed on Shaptami and Ashtami as well after the respective pujas.
Durga Puja ends on Dashami or the tenth day. People splash colours on each other in celebration and after worshipping the deity once more, take her for immersion into the river. The idols of Goddesss Durga and Mahisasura are then immersed in rivers after proper rituals.
Dushhera also known as Navratri or Durgotsav is a celebration of the victory of good over evil. Lord Shiva’s consort, Durga represents two forms of female energy. While one is mild and protective, the other is fierce and destructive.