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When nature is back to its glorious composure after having endured the scorching summers and widely disturbing rainy reason replete with agonies of floods and epidemics, and a deep blue sky smiling on its wings of white sparse clouds, it is time to thank Lord Almighty for allowing us to revive this most agonising period of the year. So it is time also to show your gratitude to mother nature or the goddess Durga or celebrate Durga Puja.

The religious ceremony is observed on the seventh, eighth and ninth days of the moon and the immersion of the image is on the tenth day, usually in the month of Ashwin (September-October). Durga Puja is followed by the worship of Lakshmi, the goddess of grace and prosperity, on the evening of the full moon.

Durga is depicted as a powerful and beauteous goddess, riding a raging lion, holding aloft ten war weapons in her ten hands. Her trident is plunged into the side of a monstrous buffalo, out of whose body there emerges Mahishasura, the dreadful Demon of Evil, only to be vanquished by the Spirit of Good.

Above the head of the goddess broods the small figure of Shiva, her lord and the essence of goodness. On either side are seated her four children : Saraswati the goddess of learning, Lakshmi the goddess of prosperity, Ganesh the god of fulfilment and Kartikeya the god of war and purity.

The story of Durga and Mahishasura is told in the Puranas, the ancient scriptures of the Hindus.

There was once a terrible demon (asura), who would take the form of a fearful buffalo (mahisha) and harass the gods. After a hundred years of conflict he succeeded in driving them out of heaven (.swarga) and occupied Indra's own throne. The gods led by Brahma went to Shiva and Vishnu and prayed for help.

When the two gods heard of the depredations of the demon, they were so enraged that a strange brightness emanated from them, which first spread over earth and sky and then condensed into the form of a glorious goddess. She was named Durga. All the gods endowed her with gifts : fine silks and ornaments, armour and terrible weapons of war. Himalaya gave her an invincible lion as a mount.

Then the goddess stretched her thousand arms in the ten directions of the universe and roared her challenge to the Demon of Evil. Mahishasura and his followers at once rushed out, armed to the teeth.

A terrible battle followed; seas were churned and mountains uprooted. The whole of creation quaked in terror, when a weapon called the pasha, hurled by the goddess, bound Mahishasura's limbs and made him helpless. Then he assumed many shapes and still struggled—for evil is strong and persistent—until the goddess lifted her sword and completely destroyed him. All the gods and men bowed in gratitude before Durga and the gracious goddess said, "Ask a boon of me and it shall be granted". They prayed to her, "Whenever there is danger and we call upon you, come and deliver us, O Mother." The goddess answered, "So be it."

All ancient religious myths have a single theme : the eternal struggle between good and evil and the ultimate triumph of good. This is also the theme of the Durga legend, the origins of which lie in the days long before the Hindus compiled their religious books. It is a cry of suffering humanity—a prayer for divine protection from the powers of evil. Hence its universal appeal.

In the olden days, zamindars and other rich men of the locality performed the Puja, a costly affair, in their own houses and bore all the expenses. Everyone in the neighbourhood participated, regardless of caste, creed or social position.

The religious rites were certainly performed by Brahmins, but the drummers and shehnai-players, without whose services the ceremony was incomplete, were all Muslim. The residents of several villages around came not merely as invited guests but as equal participants, most of whom had an important part to play : the men who cut and brought the bamboos for the awning; those who put it up; the image-makers; the people who adorned the images; the decorators; the flower-sellers; the milkmen with their bowls of curds. The architecture of the old zamindars' houses bears witness to this. There are the raised covered platforms where the Puja was performed, vast paved courtyards where a thousand villagers could squat comfortably, huge storerooms and kitchens with enormous cauldrons and fire-places, carpets, and awnings.

No one was turned away. All were welcomed and fed sumptuously. New clothes were distributed among the poor. Today, in place of the old rajas and zamindars, the common people have come forward. Durga Puja now has even more of the character of a national festival, in which non-Bengalis and non-Hindus participate.

Volunteers come out weeks ahead to collect subscriptions. Sometimes there is trouble, when two Pujas are performed in the same locality. Each party trying to outdo the other, to the distress of the unfortunate householders. And sometimes film-songs are heard instead of devotional hymns. Flower-pots have been known to disappear from gardens and flowers from trees.

A spirit of gaiety is noticeable in the air weeks before the great occasion. People save up to buy new clothes, new shoes, fine food for the four days, gifts for friends and relations and for orphans, the sick and poor in hospitals.

Calcutta is hardly recognizable during Puja week, what with the blazing lights, blaring music, beautifully decorated Puja pandals, where milling, crowds of men, women and children dressed in their new finery, foregather to see, pray and meet friends.

There are hundreds of parks and open spaces in the city where Durga Puja is celebrated every year. Traffic control assumes the proportion of a major civic problem. Main roads are turned into one way streets. Benevolent societies make arrangements to provide drinking water and first-aid if required. Shops are open till late at night for last minute purchases. Prices of course go up sky high, but who cares ? A spirit of jollity and good fellowship descends upon the citizens, troubles are forgotten for seven days until Lakshmi Puja is over. But the merry-making is not everything ; behind it lie serious thoughts, a sense of duty to friends and neighbours pervades the atmosphere. Good resolutions are made, griefs assuaged, old enemities forgotten. Behind the lovely clay face of the goddess, there is the reassurance that when human resources fail, there are higher powers to take over. Hearts fill with strength and joy, not untinged with repentance for past failings.

Then there are the 'Puja Numbers'. Almost all children's magazines and papers and many publishers too bring out special, glossy issues filled with stories, poems and plays, all beautifully illustrated and at remarkably moderate prices. Established writers as well as many obscure ones put forth their best efforts. Pocket-money is stored for month and all parental and avuncular resources tapped, for these are treasures indeed, to be cherished and read again and again. Needless to say there are 'Puja Numbers' for grown-up readers as well, but they can never compete with those for the youngsters.

The ladies too have been busy, making the tasty, dry, economical, traditional sweetmeats that everybody remembers with nostalgia. These eatables, mostly made of flour, sugar, honey, molasses, and coconut and flavoured with nutmeg and cardamoms, will keep for weeks. They are poor man's fare, but fit for kings and are an essential part of the festival. When the three days of Puja are over, the image is taken down from its pedestal and started on its final journey to the blowing of conch-shells and calling of the goddess' name. Trucks, cars, tempos, and carts are requisitioned, or sturdy shoulders offered eagerly and the image is taken to the river, lake or pond and plunged into the water. Even the hardiest feel a pang at this moment.

They shout and sing on their way back and then the Vijaya ceremonies commence. These are purely social affairs, consisting of visiting friends and relatives, greetings, embraces and the inevitable sweetmeats. This continues for days after the Puja.