Durga Puja is an age-old religious festival of Bengal and is celebrated with great fanfare all over India. Goddess Durga is the vanquisher of all evil. Every year, Durga Puja is celebrated throughout the country and devotees pray to the Goddess and seek her blessings and protection.
'Mahishasura', was a demon who unleashed evil and terror all over the world and could not be conquered even by Lord Shiva, Lord Brahma and Lord Vishnu. This was because of a boon granted by God Brahma to Mahishasura according to which he would not be destroyed by any deity or man. Lord Shiva, Lord Vishnu and Lord Brahma decided to create a powerful force to destroy the invincible Mahishasura, as they were unable to vanquish him themselves.
The unified powers of all the Gods resulted in the creation of a fiery mass from which, a magnificent Goddess was born. With the light of Lord Shiva, her face was created, Lord Vishnu gave her his arms, and Lord Brahma provided her legs. Ma Durga was also given a lion by Lord 'Himalaya', the God of the Mountains. The Goddess came to be known as 'Mahadevi' (Goddess Durga), the most powerful and invincible of all. Armed with celestial weapons of all deities and decked with divine ornaments, Ma Durga rode into the battle field and challenged demons. After nine days of continuous battle, Mahishasura was finally beaten and Mahadevi also came to be known as 'Mahishasura Mardhini' - the slayer of Mahishasura.
Durga Puja also includes the worship of Lord Shiva, Durga's consort, as well as her children Lakshmi (the Goddess of wealth), Saraswati (the Goddess of Learning), Ganesha (the God of beginnings) and Kartikeya (the commander-in-chief of the army of the devas). Durga Puja also celebrates the annual visit of Durga and her children to her ancestral home, and her reunion with Shiva on Vijayadashmi.
The first recorded Durga Puja seems to have taken place in Nadia district of Bengal in or around 1606. In those days it was more of a family festival for the rich landlords. The first publicly organized puja happened in Guptipara of Hoogli district when twelve men were stopped from taking part in a household puja. They formed a twelve man committee and held a puja. Since then this kind of puja arrangement is known as baroyaari (baro – twelve, yaar- friend). Later the term ‘barowari‘ was replaced by ‘sarbojonin‘ ( for all men and women). The first community puja in Calcutta was held at Balaram Bose Ghat Road in 1910.
Durga Puja is celebrated every year during the Hindu month of Ashwin (September-October) and commemorates Prince Rama's invocation of the goddess before going to war with the demon king Ravana. This autumnal ritual was different from the conventional Durga Puja, which is usually celebrated in the springtime. So, this Puja is also known as 'akal-bodhan' or out-of-season ('akal') worship ('bodhan'). Thus goes the story of Lord Rama, who first worshipped the 'Mahishasura Mardini' or the slayer of the buffalo-demon, by offering 108 blue lotuses and lighting 108 lamps.
Today's Durga Puja, however, goes far beyond religion. The music, dancing, art displayed and performed during the Durga Puja, plays an integral part in connecting the community in Bengal, across India and beyond. In the 1990s, a preponderance of architectural models came up on the pandal (temporary structures) exteriors, but today the art motif extends to elaborate interiors, executed by trained artists, with consistent stylistic elements, carefully executed and bearing the name of the artist.
Bengalis all over the world celebrate Durga Puja as one of the most important symbols of their culture. Images made out of ‘shola’ or fiber glass are flown to countries abroad for Indians to observe Durga Puja in their adopted homelands. In most of the overseas Durga Pujas, the event becomes a meeting place for local Bengalis and Indians and is typically accompanied by cultural activities.