goddess durga killing asur

Durga Puja: The 10-Day Long Festival Close to Every Bengali’s Heart

Durga Puja, or the most awaited festival in West Bengal, India, is finally here. During the month of Ashwin, in the Hindu calendar, when the monsoon is at its end, and the atmosphere hints at a subtle change in the season, Bengalis all over the world begin preparing for Durga Puja. This grand festival is very close to every Bengali’s heart and in today’s post, we will try to understand what makes it so special. We will also discover why and how it is celebrated, and what the festival means to Bengalis around the world.

What is Durga Puja?

durga and her children in sholapith
Goddess Durga is often depicted slaying the demon Mahishasura. Image Credit: Feature Zones

Durga Puja, or Pujo, as Bengalis call it, is a 10-day long religious festival that pays tribute to the Hindu Goddess Durga. Variations of this festival are celebrated across India. However, Durga Puja is specifically associated with Eastern Indian cultures, particularly the Bengali culture. Durga Puja celebrations are, therefore, the grandest in the Indian state, West Bengal, and even Bangladesh. It is the primary festival of West Bengal, which is why this post will mainly focus on the Durga Puja festivities observed in this state.

For Bengalis, however, pujo is more than a ritual-filled festival. It is a time to reunite with friends, family, and the community; appreciate Bengali craftsmanship, art and culture; go on a gastronomic journey by overeating specially prepared dishes and sweets; travel around town pandal hopping (explained later in the post), take pictures, and overall make fond memories. Durga Puja is an emotion.

Why is Durga Puja Celebrated?

Durga Puja celebrates the victory of Goddess Durga over the demon king, Mahishasura. It celebrates the triumph of good over evil.

According to legend, there was a time when the devas (gods) and asuras (demons) were constantly fighting. Mahishasura, the son of an asura and a buffalo, would always see the devas defeating his fellow asuras. Fed up with their constant defeat, Mahishasura would perform Tapasya, praying and meditating in penance, to impress the devas. His Tapasya would last years before Lord Brahma appeared in front of him. Pleased by his Tapasya, Lord Brahma asked Mahishasur what he desired. So, Mahishasur asked him to bless him in a way that no man or God could harm or kill him. And Lord Brahma happily granted him this boon.

Feeling invincible, Mahishasur soon gathered his army of Asuras and wreaked havoc on Earth. Not satisfied with the chaos and suffering he created there, he attacked Amravati, the capital of heaven, hoping to take over the devas. The devas fought valiantly against the asuras, but they failed because of Mahishasur’s boon. Feeling helpless, the devas approached the trinity of Hindu gods – Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva, to find a way to defeat the demons.

Creation of Goddess Durga

goddess durga killing asur
Devi Durga slaying Mahishasura. Image Credit: Ritsin

After taking some time to think, Lord Brahma remembered that no man or God could kill Mahishasur. Meaning, it wouldn’t stop a woman or Goddess. However, Lord Vishnu noted that there was no woman strong enough in the three realms to defeat Mahishasura, so, the gods all combined their powers to create a ball of energy. With that energy, they created a powerful goddess or Devi. The devas then each gave her a weapon, and the God of Himalaya gave her a lion, as her mount. She was named Durga.

Devi Durga took the devas blessings and rode her lion to Amravati, appearing in front of Mahishasura. At first, he laughed, finding it hard to believe that a woman would fight him. But, when they did begin their fight, he realized her strength and that he was overpowered. He would try to deceive her by morphing into different creatures but wouldn’t succeed. This war went on for 10 days. Finally, when he transformed into a buffalo, his true form, Devi Durga, beheaded him. This gained her the title of Mahishasura Mardini – Slayer of Mahishasura. With this, she freed the heavens and earth from the evil demons and returned peace and safety to both realms.

When is it Celebrated?

kash phool growing in autumn
Kash phool growing in the month of Ashwin. Image Credit: Pranil Biswas via Flickr

Pujo is celebrated in the month of Ashwin, the 6th month of the Bengali solar calendar. Ashwin falls between September and October in the Gregorian calendar. During this time, the air is no longer very warm, and neither does it rain heavily like the monsoon season preceding Ashwin. It is simply a pleasant time.

The 10-day long festival begins with Mahalaya. The date may differ, but Mahalaya is observed on the day of the Ashwin new moon, also known as all ancestors’ new moon day. The day after Mahalaya is technically the first day of pujo. However, it is only from the sixth day that the main festivities begin. Mahalaya is believed to be the day that Devi Durga or Maa Durga (Mother Durga) began her journey from her in-law’s place on Mount Kailash to her maternal home on Earth.

How to Celebrate Durga Puja?

Being a religious festival, there is a long list of rituals that are performed over five days. In addition to these rituals, certain customs are followed either before or during pujo. Preparation for the puja is no easy task. It is so time-consuming and expensive that it requires proper planning, ample time on hand, and a lot of funds. They begin a year before the actual puja.

The Durga Idol

Pujo preparations begin with sculpting life-sized or larger than life-sized idols of Maa Durga. To perform the rituals and worship, there must be a figure of the goddess in the shrine dedicated to her. Hindu shrines usually have pictures, figurines or larger idols of gods and goddesses. This helps devotees focus on their worship of deities, and it is a way to show devotion to the gods. Durga puja may be performed at home or in communal spaces, so the size of the idol will depend on the venue.

Making the Idol

artists shaping the idols
Artists at work. Image Credit: Deccan Herald

The process of making the idol is a performance. If each performer plays their part flawlessly, it is reflected in the end product. The process begins with collecting the necessary materials, which include bamboo, husk, straw and the main ingredient, clay taken from the banks of the holy river Ganga.

The bamboo sticks form a framework where straws and husk are stuffed to form the basic structure of the idol. Then, many layers of clay mixed with husk cover the structure until smooth. Certain parts of the body like the head are made separately, then attached to the rest of the body later. The goddess is sculpted to have 10 hands, one for each weapon that she carries.

The artists not only have to sculpt the goddess but also Mahishasur, the goddess’s mount – the lion, her four children – Ganesha, Kartika, Lakshmi, and Saraswati, and each of their mounts and accessories. This is because the goddess visits her maternal home with her children, and then reunites with her husband, Shiva, on the tenth day.

Once the figures are made, they’re painted using vibrant colours, which give life to the idols. Finally, the gods and goddesses are dressed in new clothes, jewellery, weapons and other accessories. These accessories are also made by hand using craft materials like paper, metal, sholapith, beads, threads, wood, clay, etc. The decorations are made following a theme, which may be communicated by the client.

The Artist’s Interpretation

How the goddess is interpreted depends on these highly skilled artists. Each interpretation is an expression of their devotion and love towards the goddess. Usually, she is sculpted in a way that displays both ferocity and affection. The kind of affection a mother shows her child. This is meant to ward off evil and assure a sense of protection. These characteristics are reflected in the idol’s body language and facial expressions.

The Idol Makers of Kumartuli

Durga idol makers can be found everywhere in West Bengal, but the artists of Kumartuli, in the northern part of Kolkata, the capital, are the most famous. Kumartuli is the perfect site to see how artisans in action, working in their workshops. One can truly appreciate the intricacies of their craftsmanship. Kumartuli was initially inhabited by a group of kumars or potters who, over time, began making idols of gods and goddesses. They perfected this art, especially the art of sculpting Maa Durga. Kumartuli idols are not only in demand in West Bengal but in other Indian states and other parts of the world as well.

Puja Committees

Every locality, housing society or apartment building in West Bengal will have a puja committee. This is a group of people that have either been selected or volunteered to be responsible for organizing the puja. Their task is similar to that of an event management company. First, they collect funds from residents willing to contribute a certain amount of money, which they use to organize the entire event. They’re responsible for everything, from purchasing and acquiring the idols, to making sure the pandal is set up, purchasing all necessary items for the rituals and festival, hiring priests and caterers, and much much more. Nearing Durga Puja, all these committees will become active and make sure everything is prepared in time for the pujas.

Close to the days of Durga pujas, buildings and streets will be decorated with colourful fairy lights, and massive speakers will be set up on the streets to play songs about Maa Durga or the festival itself. Pandals are also built by now, and people are ready and excited for Durga Puja.

raindbow street lights
Street lights. Image Credit: Kuntal Panja via Flickr

What are Pandals?

A pandal is essentially a temporary structure that is set up to create a shrine where the gods are housed, rituals are performed communally, and people gather together. They are traditionally made of bamboo poles tied together with cloth. The exteriors are also covered with colourful cloth. Once covered in cloth, both the interiors and exteriors are heavily decorated.

durga idol placed in a pandal
Pandal. Image Credit: Jagran

In the early days, Durga puja was mostly organized by wealthy families inside their large heritage homes, which they inherited from their ancestors. These houses had a courtyard where the idol was placed and worshipped. People would be invited from all over the country and the world to celebrate the festival together. These pujas took time, effort, and a lot of money to arrange, and the people who’d get invited were also wealthy. The economically backward people didn’t have these resources to organize pujas in their homes, nor did they get invited, so they began pooling in funds and organizing communal pujas in large make-shift venues outdoors. The concept of pandals became more and more popular over the years as many communities began setting up pandals in their localities.

Pandals Today

Pandals can be set up in an open field, in parks, on the side of the road, or anywhere with a little space. Today, every locality will have at least a dozen pandals, many of them even sponsored by large corporations. Each pandal today is unique, and every year, the sheer ingenuity and creativity of committees and artists are open for the public to see. Many pandals even follow a theme. In the past years, there have been Bollywood-themed, eco-friendly-themed, social-issues-themed pandals, among others. Last year, there were even COVID-19 themed pandals. This year, Kolkata’s Sreebhumi Sporting Club’s Burj Khalifa themed pandal is the talk of the city.

Many committees even compete to win the prize of the best pandal and win prizes or rewards.

burj khalifa durga pandal
Burj Khalifa themed pandal. Image Credit: Prabhat Khabar

In the present day, pandal hopping has become a tradition associated with Durga Puja. Locals and visitors alike roam around cities to view various pandals and appreciate the beauty of the idol and the design of the pandal. Families and friends dress in beautiful new clothes and jewellery and gather to go pandal-hopping for as long as their feet allow them. One must be prepared to walk a lot!  The goal of pandal-hopping is to see as many pandals as possible.

During pujo, it is tradition to wear new clothes. Before the puja, family members, neighbours and friends gift each other new clothes for the puja. Children especially like to collect as many new clothes as possible and wear at least two outfits each day, during the five days of the main puja. One outfit for the daytime, the other for the night.

Rituals Performed on the 5 main days of Durga Puja

The beginning of the 10-day festive period is marked by Mahalaya. Then there are hardly any festivities in the first five days. The festivities begin on the 6th day and they end on the 10th day.


Mahalaya marks the end of 16 days dedicated to remembering one’s ancestors and indicates the beginning of an auspicious time – Durga Puja. On this day, Goddess Durga starts her week-long journey to the earth from Mount Kailash, along with her children. It is observed around seven days before the main Durga Puja event. On this day Bengalis wake up before sunrise, at around 4 am, and listen to Chandi path on the radio or television. Chandi path is a set of hymns and mantras chanted in Sanskrit that invite the Devi Durga to earth.

Also on this day, male members of the family make an offering known as tarpan. They go to the banks of the holy river Ganga, take a dip in the water, and scoop up some water with their hands and pour it back into the river. Additionally, they offer a morsel of food to their ancestors. This offering must be made on an empty stomach. It is only after the ritual that they can consume food. Tarpan is a way to remember one’s ancestors. It is believed that this offering satisfies the souls of the deceased and eases their way to heaven, helps free a person from their grief over the deceased, allows them to be blessed by their ancestors, and brings prosperity.

painting on the eyes on the idol
Chakkhu daan – Painting the eyes on the goddess on Mahalaya. Image Credit: Outlook India

On Mahalaya, the artists working on their Durga idols for a year, finally complete the last step of their work, in a ritual called chokkhu daan. In this ritual, they paint a pair of beautiful and expressive eyes on the goddess’s face.


drummers playing traditional drums
Dhaki playing drums. Image Credit: Hot Friday Talks

Shashti is the sixth day of pujo. On this day, she arrives on Earth and enters her home. She is dressed up in a fine sari and jewellery. Following her are her children and a group of dhakis (drummers). Pandals are filled with the sound of special drums played by Bengali dhakis. They hang a large barrel-shaped drum from their neck and tie it to their waist to keep it stable. Then they play rhythmic beats using two wooden sticks. The iconic sound of these drums truly indicates that Durga Puja has begun.

On Shashti evening, the goddess is awakened for the following days of pujo. This ritual is called bodhon. It is also at this time that her face is unveiled.


banana bride bathing in ganga
Kala Bou. Image Credit: Utkarsh Speak

Saptami, or the seventh day of pujo, begins early in the morning. A ritual called the nabapatrika snan is performed. This ritual can be traced back to the agrarian origins of the Bengali community. Nabapatrika means nine leaves. Nine plants are tied together to form the nabapatrika. Together they represent the nine forms of Shakti or the feminine ball of energy. The banana leaf is perhaps the most recognizable in the bundle. The nabapatrika is also called kola bou, which translates to ‘banana bride’. The nabapatrika is taken for a bath in the River Ganga, and she is bathed while a priest chants mantras in Sanskrit. Then, she is dressed in a new sari and placed on the right side of her husband, Ganesha.


Ashtami is the eighth day of pujo. On Ashtami morning, priests perform the rituals to worship Maa Durga, after which people can pay their respects through a ritual called Pushpanjali or Anjali. The priests inform everyone of the auspicious time to perform the ritual. That is when people present themselves in front of the goddess, bathed, and wearing new clothes. During the Anjali, devotees hold flowers and bel leaves in their hands, recite mantras, repeating after the priest, and then offer the contents of their hand to the goddess’ feet. This is repeated three times. People usually avoid eating anything before they’ve paid their respects to the Devi. This Anjali is not only performed on Ashtami but Saptami and Navami as well.

Also, on Ashtami, unmarried girls who haven’t reached puberty are worshipped as a living form of Goddess Durga. They are offered flowers, sweets, and gifts as if people are directly giving their offerings to the Goddess.

oil lamps used at sandhi puja
Oil lamps in a lamp carrier. Image Credit: Outlook India

On Ashtami evening, people make sure to dress well as they make their way to the pandals to perform Sandhi Aarti. This ritual is performed between the end of Ashtami and the beginning of Navami (the following day). Here, people worship the Goddess in one of her fiercer forms, called Chandi. This commemorates Chandi’s victory against two asuras. As per tradition, 108 oil lamps are lit and placed on one lamp holder. The priest holds this lamp and chants mantras. At this point, the dhakis are playing the drums and people begin dancing to their rhythmic sounds, completely absorbed in the experience. During this ritual, earlier, animals used to be sacrificed, but on the present day, vegetables like pumpkins and sugarcane are sacrificed instead.


smoke dance holding clay pots
Dhunuchi Naach. Image Credit: Sambad English

On Navami, the ninth day of the festival, the day ends by worshipping the goddess by offering lights, incense sticks, and flowers. At the end of the aarti, clay pots are filled with dried coconut husk and burning charcoal, until there’s smoke coming out of them. Then, people carry the pots in both hands and dance, accompanied by the beat of the dhaak (drums). This is called the dhunuchi-naach. Many places perform this dance solely on Navami, but it may be performed on Saptami or Ashtami evenings as well.


Dashami, known as Dusshera to North Indians, is the tenth day and last day of Durga puja. On Dashami, Maa Durga starts her journey back to her in-law’s house.

sindoor khela in lal par sada sari
Women wearing red bordered white sari, playing with sindoor. Image Credit: Shaktiva

On Dashami, married women play bid farewell by doing the Sindoor Khela, or playing with vermillion. They don red-bordered white saris, which is the traditional Bengali sari. Then, offer betel leaves, sweets and vermillion to the goddess. Then, they kind of play Holi with sindoor, smearing the red powder on each other’s faces and hair in joy. Sindoor or vermilion is a red powder that married Hindu women apply on the partition of their hair, symbolizing their husbands are alive and that they’re married.

goddess durga immersed in the river
The Goddess immersed in water. Image Credit: Pratidin Time

After Sindoor Khela, the Goddess is prepared for bisarjan. The idol of Devi Durga and Nabapatrika are taken to the river Ganges on a truck and immersed in the water at the end of Dashami. And, huge crowds gather by the river to say goodbye to the mother goddess. A portion of the water from the place where the goddess is immersed is collected and sprinkled on to devotees to ensure peace. While people are sad to say goodbye, they also look forward to seeing Devi the following year by chanting ‘Asche bochhor abar hobe’ – Ma Durga will visit again next year. By the end of the festival, people distribute sweets to each other and ask the elders to bless them.

Durga Puja during COVID 19

durga puja during coronavirus pandemic
Image Credit: News18

As Durga Puja celebrations gather massive crowds, it was imperative for authorities to take some protective measures to limit the spread of coronavirus. At present, the number of people allowed to participate in the rituals has been reduced drastically. Around 45-60 people are permitted in larger pandals, and 10-15 have been permitted in the smaller ones. They must maintain their distance and must wear a mask.

There are additional restrictions imposed on entering the pandals. As of now, visitors will not be able to enter the pandals but they may view the idols from outside.

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