Making of Durga idols require a handful of soil from the brothels
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Making of Durga idols require a handful of soil from the brothels. Do you know why?

Avishek Sengupta | September 28, 2017 13:01 hrs

Durga Puja is the only occasion, when the the sex workers, who are otherwise shunned and ostracised by society gets respect and their existence is recalled.  And only for a handful of clay.

In the manufacture of a Durga idol, an essential ingredient is the lump of clay gathered from the door step of a prostitute’s home or a brothel – a tradition which the artisans have been following till date. Called Punya Mati (holy soil), the clay sometimes have to be brough
t from places as far as Sonagachi in Kolkata or some well known locations in Silchar where brothels are located. 

“The idol is incomplete without mud from the brothel. Durga Puja isn’t just four days of festivity. Its rituals and customs start even before the idols are made. And it is these customs that make the whole festivity so special,” Kaliprasad Mech, an idol maker in Lachit Nagar said.

Punya Mati has an Ancient Tradition

The worship of Goddess Durga the 'Mahishasura Mardini' or the slayer of the buffalo-demon, according to the mythology has been going on since Lord Rama organised the first ritual before going out on a war with Ravana by offering 108 blue lotuses and lighting 108 lamps. Mythology says, since then, it is required to get the punya mati.

“According to the rituals, we cannot just take the punya mati from the door steps of a prostitute. We have to beg for it and she can choose either to deny or allow us to take the handful. So, we have to convince her, treat her well and continue doing it until she agrees,” Kamal Saha, an idol maker of Pan Bazar explained while the putting final touches to the idols at his shop for sale.  Saha took the contract of building seven idols but  he did not have to travel far for the Punya Mati as it was made available through his contacts in Guwahati.   

According to tradition, the purohit or the Brahmin in the puja has to himself go to the brothel for fetching the lump of earth so essential for the manufacture of the idol. With the passage of time and a busier schedule for the priest, the bidding and purchase is done on his behalf by a designate considered close to him, another idol maker said. 

According to some priests, there are three theories on why soil from a brothel is so important in the production of an idol of the Mother Goddess.  “It is believed that when someone enters a brothel, he leaves all his virtues and piety at the doorstep. So, the soil of a brothel at the doorstep is considered most pious. That is why it is used,” Dhiren Sarma, a priest said.

“Another theory corroborated by the Vedas is that nine classes of women known as Navkanyas are to be worshipped and revered during Durga Puja. A nati (dancer/actress), a vaishya (prostitute), rajaki (laundry girl), a brahmani (Brahmin girl), and a shudra, a gopala (milkmaid): such are the women of known as Navakańyās. The Puja is incomplete if these women are not honoured during the celebrations,” Sarma added.

“The third theory is that, before the fatal fight between Maa Durga and Mahishasur, the latter tried to malign her diginity and attempted molestation. Angered by this disgrace, Durga Maa used all her power and rage to destroy Mahishasur who looked down upon women. For this reason, it is believed that using of soil from outside a brothel should be treated as a respect to those women who are downtrodden and humiliated,” Sarma added.

The Source of punya maati

The punya maati being an integral part of the idol making process and its procurement always a challenge for the idol makers, the brothel in Silchar has emerged a source across several states in the Northeast. 

Silchar’s punya maati reaches Mizoram, Manipur, Meghalaya and Tripura besides of course the hundreds of pandals across Assam.

“It is during Durga Puja that we are noticied for the good reasons. It feels good that we too are one of the avataars of Maa Durga. We have a Puja inside the brothel too but no outsiders are allowed though.   Now, people from different parts of northeast come here to get the soil.,” said a middle aged chief of the brothel, who identifies herself as Aunty, said.

However, as with many earlier traditions, the winds of change are also blowing in these arts.   Few idol makers have begun to prefer punya maati from Sonagachi in Kolkata.   “Many Pandals now a days are built by artists who come from Bengal and the organisers goes to Bengal to get them. Sometimes, during that visit, they procure the soil from there itself. We ask the organisers if we need to procure it. If they have not, we do it ourselves. Either the sculptor knows a prostitute who can give the soil here, or he arranges it from Silchar,” Bittu Motok who is closely associated with idol artistes, said.

“Club Pujas are the Apples Falling from the Tree”

The pujas organised by hip youngsters are drifting from the traditional norms followed during the auspicious occasion every year.   

“They don’t have any regards for the customs or traditions. There are the few who just organise the pujas to have fun and raise some money. Most of them don’t know the customs and those who do do not care.  They are the apples that fell far from the tree,” Prodip Bhattacharyya, a priest in Kalapahar said.

The same views were apparent at some more puja pandals in Guwahati  which have still followed the earlier customs.   A young priest explained that the pujas have become a source of income for a section of people and they receive funds from politicians and sometimes from business houses.   He made a case for a stricter role for the administration in enforcing stricter norms for conduct of the pujas. 

Dhiman, an idol maker in west Guwahati for many years has been catering to the demand sans traditional norms.   He admits that the strenuous process of bringing earth from the Silchar brothel has been a casualty when the demand is placed from local clubs and associations. 

 “Procuring the punya maati requires some money which we add up with the idol’s cost. They often don’t take the ones with the soil and asks to build one without the soil. We have to oblige. Call it my belief or superstition, but the idols which are built with the punya maati somehow turn out more beautiful than that without one,” he said. 

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Durga idols require a handful of soil from brothels

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