“Ya Devi Sarvabhutesu Shakti rupena samsthita, Namestasyai, Namestasyai, Namestasyai, namo namaha”
- Mahalaya day Kolkata, 1966
It is four o’clock in the morning and we all are all seated around the radio set listening to the invocation of Ma Durga during the radio program, Mahisasur Mardini. We have waited for that special day: Mahalaya. Mahalaya is an auspicious occasion observed for seven days before Durga Puja officially starts.
This program sets the mood for Durga Puja with the magic woven by the rich voice of the narrator. While Sora Sarad (Pitri Paksha) and Navaratri indicate the arrival of Dashain in Nepal, Mahalaya heralds the festive season in Kolkata. Even after some forty plus years, Mahalaya still has a special place in my heart. I still remember getting up at four in Kathmandu during the late seventies and early eighties, switching on our old transistor radio to listen to the special program aired by AIR (All India Radio). During the two hours of Mahisasura Mardini, on Mahalaya day Birendra Krishina Bhadra brings to life the whole action: Starting from invocation to the departure of Ma Durga after annihilation of Mahisasura, the demon king.
The program that started as a live-performance in 1932 is aired even today. It is very popular and has become almost synonymous to Mahalaya. Mahalaya falls on the last day of Pitri Paksha, which, announces Devi Paksha. It is on this day that Goddess Durga is invoked with the prayer “jago tumi jago” which is an invitation for the goddess to come to earth to end the atrocities of the demon Mahisasur. Though most of those who were part of the original rendition are no longer alive, AIR still plays the original recording, which is in Bengali and Sanskrit. Even after more than seventy-five years, the program is an integral part of the Durga Puja in Kolkata.
During the late sixties, Durga Puja without Mahalaya would be almost meaningless. I still remember the powerful chanting from Devi Mahatmyam (Chandipaath) that I feel goose bumps on my arms while listening to it and can visualize each action in my mind. We would sing along with the narrator and the singers of various devotional songs during the whole of two hours until the rising sun announced the arrival of dawn, power of Chandipaath by the maestro, Birendra Krishna Bhadra arousing our senses.
There is a strong power in the recitation of Chandi. Chandipaath invokes the atmosphere of Dashain. We all know the story of Ma Durga but only few understand that the image of Durga as Mahishasura Mardini is at the heart of the Chandi. For us to understand the significance of Ma Durga, we first need to understand the significance of Chandi. Chandi glorifies Shakti, generally regarded as the feminine principle. In Chandi the higher maternal instinct is exalted. Chandi is associated with the Eternal Feminine quality:
The destroyer of evils like Mahishasura, Shumbha, Nishumbha and other demons. Chandi wakes us up from our futile dreams and situates us right in the midst of the realities of the present-day world, which we often fail to notice. The Chandi shows the extreme height of women empowerment. At the same time Chandi also delivers a message of hope, the assurance of divine help and succor. It is widely believed that Durga, also called Divine Mother, protects mankind from evil and misery by destroying evil forces such as selfishness, jealousy, prejudice, hatred, anger, and ego.
Chandipaath depicts Durga as the primeval source of power. She transcends time and physique. She is the form of energy: Shakti, in the form of Devi Durga, collectively created by the Holy Trinity comprising of Brahma, Vishnu and Mahesh. She fought the Asuras (demons) of various kinds for nine days and finally on the tenth day she defeated the mighty Mahisasur. It is for this reason that she is also called Mahisasur Maridni—the slayer of Mahisasura.
Though Durga is depicted in Chandi as a warrior goddess, exterminating hordes of evil doers, drenching the earth with blood, those who perform Chandipaath during Dashain know very well that there is absolutely nothing pessimistic associated with the story. Instead, there is a feeling of supreme power and sense of victory over evil. According to mythology, on Mahalaya day, Goddess Durga was tasked to eliminate Mahisasura—the buffalo demon that had the power to change into any form he wished to. Having achieved her mission, Durga departs on the tenth day.
This Year, Mahalaya fell on October 15, and as always, I woke at four to listen to the program in its original format. I remembered Durga Puja celebration in Kolkata.
Each day after Mahalaya has reminded me of the Durga Puja fever that catches all in Kolkata with the preparation of pandals to setting up of the beautiful idols of Ma Durga on an elevated stage within the pandals filled with wafting smell of burning incense, glorious lights and loud music. I also remember each day of Durga Puja in Kolkata with the daily puja of Ma Durga in the morning and aarati in the evening with plenty of dancing to the beats of the drums.
As we are nearing the end of Navaratri, Memories will one more time become fresh with the images of how we celebrated Vijaya Dashami the Nepali way, with red tika on our forehead and greenish yellow jamara in our hair, while our Bengali friends were busy taking out the beautiful idols of Ma Durga from the pandals on beautifully decorated trucks accompanied by music and dancing for bisharjan in the Hoogli River in the evening with a promise to bring her back again the next year