From Muslim artisans crafting idols, to transgender inclusive Durga Pujo pandals, the Goddess brings everyone together
Months After Basirhat Riot, Hindu-Muslim Join Hands to Welcome Goddess Durga Image Courtesy: https://www.news18.com
Durga Puja also referred to as Pujoor Durgotsava is an annual festival particularly popular in West Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Tripura, and Odisha, the country of Bangladesh, and the diaspora from this region, and also in Nepal, where it is celebrated asDashain. Durga puja coincides with Navaratri and Dashera. The 10 day festival is celebrated inside homes and in public ‘pandals’. As per mythology, the festival marks the victory of goddess Durga in her battle against the shape-shiftingasura “Mahishasur”. The festival epitomises the victory of good over evil, though it is also in part a harvest festival celebrating the Goddess as the motherly power behind all of life and creation.
The festival is preceded byMahalaya, which is believed to mark the start of Durga's journey to her natal home. Primary celebrations begin on the sixth day (Shasthi), on which the Goddess’s idol is welcomed with rituals. The festival ends on the tenth day (Vijaya dashami), when devotees embark on a procession carrying the worshipped clay sculpture-idols to a river, or other water body, and immerse them, symbolic of her return to the divine cosmos and her marital home with God Shiva in Kailash.The last day celebrations include SindhoorKhela where women offer red vermillion powder (symbolizing womanhood and Shakti) to the Goddess and smear themselves with it. In many pandals, transwomen are also welcomed to SindhoorKhela.
The spirit of inclusivity extends to non-Hindu people as well. When a recent news source stated that the Bajrang Dal was asking for non-Hindus to be turned away from Garba celebrations, Twitterverse teemed with responses from Bengalis welcoming anyone who had been turned away to come visit the Pujo pandals.
In Bengal itself, participation of Muslims in Durga Puja is not a new occurrence. There are even regional collectives with majority Muslim members like the Five Star Club in Munshigunj, Kolkata, which has organised a Pujo pandal every year for almost 70 years. The puja is organized almost entirely by the club’s Muslim members. In the 20- to 25-member puja committee, there are only 2 Hindu members, the rest being Muslims. Vice President of the club Hadis Khan says, “In recent years, Muharram has coincided with Durga Puja, so we prepare khichra (made during Muharram) too, along with the Durga Puja bhog." Muslim artists and pandal committees have always shown creativity and zest in their contributions to Pujo celebrations.
In Guwahati, Assam, art director Nurruddin Ahmed attempted making a 100 feet tall bamboo statue of Goddess Durga in 2017. "Many people ask me why I make such Idols as I am a Muslim. But I want to tell that I have been doing this work since 1975. I always think that an artist has no religion and his only religion and duty is to serve humanity," Ahmed said.
Another idol maker in Guwahati has garnered fame for his Durga idols in Darrang and Udalguri districts of Assam. The catch, he’s a Muslim too. Hasem Ali has fast become one of the most sought-after artisans in the region since 2016. "When people say my art and I stand as a symbol of communal harmony, I can't ask for more. Though they are known by different names, all religions are the same," Ali says. Recounting how he found his calling as an idol-maker, he adds, "It all began in 2016 when I made figurines of Ravana during the Raas Festival at Kharupetia. Buoyed by the appreciation I got from spectators, I couldn't resist the temptation of trying my hand at making Durga idols next year. Though I was a little reluctant at first, thinking people from my community might take offence, all the artists at my workplace managed to convince me. Since then, everyone had appreciated my work and nobody has discriminated against me because of my religious beliefs."
The stories are numerous. It makes one wonder what makes Durga Puja such an inclusive space to pay respect and celebrate. Is it because religious fundamentalism has not found a foothold in the region? Or is it the traditions held in place from a time much before India’s independence with Hindus and Muslims residing in the region for centuries, mingling culturally and being economically interdependent? Maybe it is the reverence to the Goddess Durga herself.
In today's time, the importance of Durga puja is not just religious, but also as a social and cultural festival, no matter where it is celebrated.As the world turns into a Global Village, it is time to follow the example of inclusivity and harmony witnessed in Durga Puja. May the Goddess bless us all this festive season.