(Shaili Thakur of Chandigrah, India, weaves memories of Durga Puja celebrations in her village in Madhubani. Read a vivid description of Kumari Bhojan, Bali Pradaan and the forgotten Ram Lila.)
When I was little, Durga Pooja meant going to my ancestral village for one long, blissful week. Our village Sarbaseema fell in Madhubani district in Northern Bihar, part of the
ancient erstwhile kingdom of Mithila. It had been home to several generations of Shrotriya Brahmins, the most orthodox and conservative of all Maithil Brahmins (and by
extension, also the most snobbish!!). The very sight of our sprawling two-storey house in the village filled our hearts with joy and anticipation as we arrived from Patna after a six- hour bus trip.
Early next morning we were awakened by our Grandmother who handed each of us children a small phooldaala and asked us to bring flowers for the morning pooja. It was a task we relished--our village had a profusion of flowering herbs, shrubs and trees. We knew, by experience, which flowers were not supposed to be offered and which ones had a high offer-value, so to speak.
Leading the latter group was the flower Harsingar with its delicately sweet, heady smell. You were, of course, not supposed to deliberately smell the flowers as that would render them un-offerable. The Harsingar flowers were so special, our grandmother said, that they were the only flowers that could be offered to Ma Durga even after they had fallen off the tree--provided they had fallen onto grass. Another special flower was the Tharkamal (literally the land-lotus). Its striking large flowers bloomed a pristine white in the morning but as the day wore on, they changed colour to a deeper and deeper shade of pink, so that at the end of the day they almost appeared purple. They even find mention in the Ramayan, we were told. Rama was struck by their beauty while he was talking a walk in Raja Janak's palace gardens in Janakpur, where he had gone to marry Janak's daughter Sita. It is quite probable that these flowers are endemic to the Mithila region--I do not remember seeing them in Patna and certainly not outside Bihar.
Soon afterwards, all the little girls in the village, yours truly included, were bathed and dressed in new clothes--it was time for Kumari-Bhojan. As our male cousins watched
enviously , the ladies of the village washed our feet, placed a sindoor 'thop' on our foreheads and touched our feet with great reverence. We squirmed and giggled, unused to
such deferential and unwavering attention.
We were then made to sit on decorated wooden planks and offered payas (kheer), puas and sweets on washed plantain leaves—a meal fit for the Gods...and Goddesses! You were supposed to eat all you could—the ladies looked very pleased when somebody asked for a second helping. I asked for several helpings for this very reason....well, okay,I do have a huge sweet tooth, and if it pleased my aunts to watch me attack the payas with gusto, who was I to deny them their happiness!! After we were done eating, we were handed crisp 20 rupee notes along with large chunks of betel nuts. We promptly donated the betel nut pieces to those who liked to chew them, but nothing could make us part with our money. We kept them in our fists so that they soon became crumpled and soggy--quite often they slipped out of our tiny fists and got lost, causing a lot of heartache!
Later in the morning, the person entrusted with performing the Pooja at the Durga temple in our village (called the Durga Sthaan), invariably a relative, came and sprinkled holy
water with flowers over the heads of all children, one by one, every time chanting the shloka which enumerates the nine names of Ma Durga:
Jayanti Mangala Kali Bhadrakali Kapalini
Durga Kshama Shiva Dhratri swaha swadha namostute
I've known this shloka by heart for as long as I remember, having heard it repeated countless number of times since I was a baby.
It was then time for the Bali-Pradaan (holy sacrifice), and all the men and children proceeded to the Durga Sthaan to watch. The women wisely stayed behind at home. It
was the only part of the Pooja that I did not quite like. I found it too disturbing and gory. Wincing or grimacing was to be avoided, we were told, as that might invite the Goddess's wrath. Moreover anyone who looked the slightest bit queasy was ribbed by the boys and dubbed a weakling. So I put on a brave face and tried to look nonchalant even as my heart skipped a beat when the blade came down and decapitated the bleating goat.
Everyone returned home after the bali-pradaan, and soon portions of the prasad meat was delivered to each home and cooked the traditional way, sans onions and garlic. Here I will digress a little to shed light on the food habits of my people. The Maithils, cutting across sects and sub-castes, share a food code that might appear rather intriguing to the
outsider: onions, garlic, eggs and chicken were a strict no-no, while fish was not just okay, it was actually considered very auspicious--the first thing a newly wed daughter-in-
law gets to cook in her in-laws' home is fish curry!
The only mutton that was consumed was of the prasad variety, during Durga-Pooja. So our fish-loving people took a break and consumed traditional mutton curry for the last four days of the Pooja. While these food taboos about onions, garlic, eggs, chicken and halaal meat have ceased to hold for quite some time now, its still fairly common to find people of older generations who observe all of these to this day. Even the newer generations observe them for a 'bhoj' on a special occasion-- a marriage or a thread ceremony.
I must now return to what prompted this digression--the prasad meat. Did I tell you that I hated to watch the 'bali-pradaan'? Be that as it might, I certainly loved the rich, spicy mutton curry that was made out of it--positively divine. A hearty lunch was followed by a blissful siesta--by this time even the kids were tired enough to pay heed to their mothers and went to take a nap without giving any trouble.
Nap-time was over all too soon, however, for the most happening part of the day was fast approaching. Everyone put on their best dress and made way to the Durga-Sthaan again, this time accompanied by the ladies too--my mother, grandmother, aunts and grandaunts, all in glittering sarees, their heads demurely covered.
It was time for the evening aarti, which began just as dusk fell. The temple reverberated with chants of 'Namantram Noyantram' accompanied with the rather raucous sounds of conch shells and brass bells.
A small distance away from the temple was a moderately sized open air 'auditorium', if at all it could be called that. It comprised of a big concrete stage with a couple of ante-rooms and a green room too. The large open field in front of the stage was cordoned off with bamboo barricades and a pandaal erected over it, with a partition down its middle, in
effect making it two pandaals in one--one for the women and the other for the men. (Downright retrogressive, I know, but then I am trying to tell it like it was...it might still be just so for all I know,given how resistant to change we are.) And what was all this for? Well, an event that was eagerly awaited by one and all--for four days, Shashthi, Saptami, Ashtami and Navami, the men of the village painstakingly produced, directed and staged four different plays. The plays were sometimes in Hindi but mostly in Maithili—Hindi scripts were translated into Maithili by one of my granduncles, so a play was staged in Hindi only if there was a constraint of time. Untouched yet by notions of linguistic chauvinism, I liked the Hindi plays better,for the Maithili ones often used a rather archaic and stilted version of the language which I sometimes found difficult to follow. What I did follow and marvel at open-mouthed was the transformation of my uncles, cousins (and some enthusiastic granduncles too) into out-of-the-world characters on stage, delivering dialogues with aplomb, now laughing and now crying real tears.
Finding suitable men for the female characters was a tall order--the person had to be petite, not taller than the male characters, not too hairy, not too dark and with soft
features. Since only a very few of my father's young cousins fitted the bill, they were in heavy demand and had a role to play on each of the four days. But they happened to be blessed with robust, manly voices and it was rather amusing to hear a pretty Sita, Radha or some such lady speak in a booming baritone!
The garments worn by the characters were remarkably good, given that the organisers did not have as large a collection of dresses as they would have liked--improvisation was the order of the day and I was
amazed by their eye for detail and sheer zeal. The plays dealt with a wide variety of topics--many based upon one or the other of the Hindu epics and folk-stories and a few
even dealing with contemporary subjects. I even remember a play based on Alexander's conquest of India and how a court-dancer in King Porus's court tried to stab Alexander
with a knife hidden in the folds of her clothes while dancing for him. Alexander fell head over heels in love with this dancer, the play had us believe, and ultimately retreated from India to honour her request.The uncle of mine who played the courtesan went on to become a physician, and I do not suppose his patients can imagine in their wildest dreams their doctor playing a courtesan on stage, complete with lehnga-chunni, jewelry, a wig and coquettish mannerisms to boot!
My brother and male cousins often got to play bit-parts--no such luck for us girls, of course. In a play based on Raja Harishchandra's story, there was this two-minute scene
about the Raja being alone in a cremation ground and finding himself besieged by jumping and howling ghosts. The boys were to play the ghosts. We were taken aback by the sight of them on stage--their faces painted black and red and white streaks all over their bodies, wearing nothing but tiny loincloths. Amidst all the jumping, one of my cousin's loincloth fell down, and what was worse, unmindful of the disaster that had just struck him, he went right on blithely. Well, let's just say we have still not stopped teasing
him. Every time an incident of wardrobe malfunction hits the headlines, I imagine him squirming in his seat somewhere, remembering his very own wardrobe malfunction!
We returned home late at night and went to sleep right away, barely able to wait for the next day. After all, tomorrow was not just another day, it was another day of the Durga Pooja in our village!