I had recently visited Delhi. The occasion happened to be the the annual magnum opus of the Bengalis: Durga Puja. It is one time when the Bengali community erupts into a riotous joy of colour and celebration.
The festival is preceded by a weeklong ‘sari r mela’ (or a special fair especially put up wherein women come to buy sarees for the occasion), painting competitions for children(shown below), chanda collections (Puja committees going from house to house to collect donations for the Puja), Sports events for children and young adults and the general buoyancy of spirit in and around the sprawling Bengali hamlet, known as Chittanranjan Park, or mini-Calcutta in general parlance, located in the heart of South Delhi.
Of course, there are other places in Delhi which organise the Puja. But I would want to believe that this is one place that witnesses the thickest, largest congregation of Bengalis, and of course, some of the most elaborate Puja pandals (I can’t find an English equivalent for it, I am afraid) to be seen outside the Bengali heartland of Kolkata.
In the above picture, one may see Durga in the centre, slaying the demon king Mahisasura. On her right are her daughter, Goddess Lakshmi (the Hindu Goddess of wealth), and Ganesh (the Elephant headed diety); while on the left are Goddess Saraswati (the Goddess of knowledge) and Kartik. This one is very close to my house, at the D-block Puja Pandal, wherein one can see the Priest, or as we call, the Purut Moshai sprinkle holy water after the devotees have offered pushpanjali to the Goddess.
This is what a pandal may look like from outside. This is at B-block, Chittanranjan Park. This one has always been famous for its highly elaborate and extravagant pandals. This one surely takes the cake. Below is the protima, or statue of the deity, inside the pandal.
Here are a few other glimpses.
All these pujas are organised within the Chittaranjan Park colony. Most blocks (or sub colonies) organise their own Pujas.
The festival, logically speaking, is the celebration of Durga’s victory over the demon king Mahisahsura. It falls on the last three and a half days of their battle i.e. Shashti (the sixth day), Saptami (the seventh day), Ashtami (the eighth day), Navami (the ninth day), culminating with Vijay Dashami (or the tenth day), wherein the Devi slays the Asura and makes her journey back to the heavens. This is symbolised by immersing the Devi in the holy Ganges (or a nearby water body, as convenient). Vijay Dashami also coincides with the other Hindu festival of Dussera, the day on which Lord Ram vanquished Ravana, and his three brothers Meghanath and Kumbhakarna, to return to the holy Hindu city of Ayodhya.
The mythological and ontological parallels between this coincidence will be the matter of some future blog. For now, I will dwell upon the Durga-Mahisasura complex, as discussed in my previous blog about the same.
One beautiful ritual during the Pujo is the Dhunochi-naach. A special form of dance wherein devotees dance in front of the idol, holding a dhunochi, a clay/ earthern pot with smouldering coconut husks.
I suppose, this brief account would be incomplete without making a mention of the awe-inspiring gastronomic supernova that is witnessed in the Bengali universe. While during lunch, one has Devi’s bhog i.e. khichadi (lentils and rice), a vegetable preparation, tomato chutney (its different from sauce. More akin to boiled tomato with sugar), and payasam (a rice and milk sweetmeat), dinners usually consist of indulging in the umpteen number of street food stalls all over Chittanranjan Park. The place literally takes the form of a grand food festival. There is everything available from the nine course Kashmiri waazwaan, to a dozen kinds of biriyani, to momos, to fish curry rice, to chicken kebabs; but most of all, most importantly, there is a countless constellations of sweetmeats to sample from.
Having spoken about the festival as such, I would want to come to something I have been waiting to write about for pretty long.
While doing studying Tyeb Mehta’s Mahisasur-Mardini images, there was a lot I had stumbled upon about Mahisasura. Frankly, there was a point wherein the character of Mahisasura seemed as equally philosophically interesting as the Devi, if not more.
Tyeb Mehta’s own rendition of the Durga-Mahisasura complex is intense, problematic and overflows with furious energy. It shows, while hinting not so subtly, the artist’s own vision of the two counter-forces, locked in an elemental, mutually dependent embrace. (More on this in my previous post on Tyeb Mehta’s Work. Please see it here: https://cogitoerigosum.wordpress.com/2014/08/11/a-romantic-philosophical-enquiry-into-the-works-of-tyeb-mehta/ )
However, I suppose what really precipitated deeper inquiry into demon-god was all the various symbols and myths attached to him in popular culture.
The story of Mahisha is repeated in most Hindu puranas and epics, spanning many centuries. It occurs in Mahabharata, Varnana Purana, Devi Bhagvata Purana and even the Kalika Purana. Details into the imagery and symbolism constantly change like a kaleidoscope, around a kernel that may be decoded in a hundred ways.
The Story of Mahisha
Mahisha has an unusual birth, the strange and tragic circumstances in a way presaging his tragic end. Rambha, the Brahman demon king, gets a boon from Agni and begets an invincible son through his union with a she-buffalo. Rambha is soon killed after Mahisha’s birth and his mother mounts the funeral pyre like a true sati.
There are many variant versions, but the essence is that Mahisha’s spectacular lineage includes the divine, the exalted human (royal/ rishi), the demoniac, and the bestial. Bequeathed with invincibility he gains further boons through his own arduous penances and becomes stronger and powerful.
He conquers his demon rivals and thereafter battles Indra and other Gods and banishes them away from heaven. Acquiring global sovereignty he lives the life of indulgences and excesses. The energies of the gods are merged to create the goddess for the express purpose of destroying the terrorizing demon. Durga’s beauty attracts and infatuates Mahisha who wants to marry her.
Durga is initially ambigious in her responses to his overtures sent through his messengers, but then battles with his men and defeats them. Mahisha the buffalo turns himself into a handsome young man and woos Durga. She first appears to respond, but later spurns him and battles him for 10,000 years. In the ferocious combat he displays his magical ability to transform himself, from buffalo to lion, then elephant, then human and buffalo again. Durga decapitates him. Out of the decapitated buffalo arises Mahisha in his human form, but she severs his head again. The Gods rejoice.
Mahisha is resurrected and unites with the Goddess in afterlife.
He returns again next year, back as the buffalo-demon. The cycle continues, carrying the load of regeneration and revitalizing human and cosmic orders.
The Mutually-Dependent Equation
The Goddess and the buffalo, as a dyad go back to Palaeolithic ancestry. As the original divinity – who is warrior, protector and nurturer, mistress of animals – the terrifying and benign goddess presiding over the ultimate duality of life and death.
Glimpses of icons and artefacts suggest the possibility that the animal and goddess were, to begin with, conceived as one unspoiled whole. In agricultural societies, the primacy of the Goddess continued, enlarged and enhanced, as creator and sustainer of human, animal and vegetative life.
The association of festival and sacrifice was with vegetation, growth and fecundity – on which the survival of society depended. The sacred symbolic marriage of the Goddess to her royal consort/ son whose subsequent sacrifice and shedding blood reenergises the earth is part of archaic mythical and symbolic systems across many cultures: Sumer, Egypt, Crete, Greece and India.
As representative of God/ King/ Priest, the consort of the Goddess was commonly associated with the buffalo or bull, with its virility, strength and life force.
The Meaning of Mahisha
Mahisha is one among many asuras whom the Devi slays in the course of her tempestuous journey through a multitude of texts.
Madhu and Kaitabha, Shumbha and Nishumbha, Raktabija, Chanda, Munda – Mahishasura shares in the nature of these valiant, terrifying asuras.
At the simplest – and popular level of explanation then, Mahisha is quintessential asura, standing for the dark forces of evil, felled by the goddess-force of light and right.
Like myriad other gods, Durga defeats the demon and delivers the people from oppression and tyranny. A parable of politics, of rulers and ruled and indigenous people.
At a different level – and this is an interpretation by some puranas themselves – Mahisha represents the chaos of irrationality, and the Goddess is the symbol of order and reason.
In yet another ending, he is ego incarnate, which has to be broken in order to surrender, erase duality, realise the self and achieve immortality.
But Mahisha is and cannot be so easily categorised. The question just who is Mahisha elicits ambivalent answers. His identity is a shifting one. In some versions of the myth, Skanda-Kartikeya is the slayer, not the Devi.
There is even a suggestion that the slayer is Shiva.
And in a characteristically unpredictable version, Kalika Purana hints that Mahisha is in fact an aspect of Shiva himself. Again, in the earlier texts, Mahisha is a demon of modest scale.
But in Devi Mahatmayam, he is co-protagonist, the archetypal anti-hero.
It is to be understood that in puranic understanding, Gods and demons aren’t two separate species, they are in fact consubstantial.
Durga and Mahisha are not polar opposites. Each shares some characteristics of the other. She is both terrifying and beautiful. He is virile, a warrior, brave, powerful; but maybe not as powerful as her. However, as the icon at Mahabalipuram of Mahisasura-mardini symbolises, he is very much her equal. They don’t exist apart from each other.
The violence and tension of male-female relationships are embodied in the icon. Engaged in combat, they become one, and they merge in heaven later.
Mahisha comes from mixed parentage. He is part human, part animal – a Brahmin demon king. The many selves of Mahisha are in contradiction to one another. In his tormented self are exemplified the human condition.
Perhaps the story teller, the sculptor, the devotee, the chanter of hymns sees their self in Mahisha.
He symbolises their psychic fantasies and struggles to integrate various aspects of the self through longing for the mother.
Mahisha is the mother’s son who yearns to be one with her and yet struggles to differentiate himself from her, to be free of her, to reject her by vanquishing her. For the sin of Oedipal desire, he has to die. His inability to defeat her perhaps connotes the failure to severe the chord linking the self with the unconscious.