Kolkata: Belur Math in West Bengal has begun its Kumari Puja, a tradition followed every year, on the auspicious Maha Ashtami on Sunday.
Devotees from across the country and abroad gathered at Belur Math, the global headquarters of the Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, for the worship of a pre-pubertine girl as the goddess as the Durga Puja revelry reached its crescendo on Mahashtami here on Sunday. An ambiance of merriment prevailed over entire West Bengal with devotees dressed in their best offered anjali (floral offerings) to the goddess amid the heavy beats of dhaaks (drums), chimes of bells and twinkling lamps (diyas).
With Mahanavami to look forward to on an otherwise manic Monday, denizens of the eastern metropolis hit the streets in huge numbers, relishing every moment of eastern India’s most celebrated festival, notwithstanding the occasional showers.
The rituals began in the morning with Kumari Puja to celebrates the spirit of womanhood.
Belur Math in Howrah district, 10 km from here, saw a huge gathering, as in previous years.
Kumari Puja was started by Swami Vivekananda in 1901 at the Math to underline the importance of women.
The girl who is worshipped symbolises the power that regulates creation, stability and destruction on the Earth.
At dawn, after a ritual bath in the holy waters of the Ganga, the ‘Kumari’ — a pre-pubertine girl — was wrapped in a red sari and adorned with flowers and jewellery, with a ‘sindur (vermillion) tilak’ on her forehead.
The Kumari fasts until the worship is over. She is made to sit before Goddess Durga’s idol on a decorated chair with priests chanting hymns and dhak (traditional drum) being played in the background.
After the puja, the divinity of the goddess descends into the Kumari, said a priest.
Selfie sticks were out as the youths captured every moment of offering prayers to Goddess Durga as art of an Ashtami ritual.
Though less in number, Belur Math also saw mobile phones being flashed and check-ins posted on Facebook as social media caught up with the rituals spanning over a century.
The festivities ruled the social media with #DurgaAshtami on top of the trending charts till Sunday noon.
The five-day carnival is the biggest annual event in this part of the world when even newspapers shut down and roads are choked with human traffic throughout the day and night.
According to Hindu mythology, the festivities and prayers begin with the symbolic arrival of Goddess Durga on the Earth on the sixth day of the first, waxing fortnight of the moon and ends on Dashami or the 10th day, which is celebrated across the country as Dussehra.
Traditionally, every pandal has an idol of Goddess Durga depicting her as slaying the demon Mahishasur. She is shown astride a lion and wielding an array of weapons in her 10 arms.
One such festival which is celebrated with great enthusiasm around this time is the Mahashtami or Maha Durga ashtami. Durga ashtami is the eighth day of Navratri celebrations and the second day of Durga puja. It is characterized by several rituals performed by enthusiastic devotees. It is also known as ‘astra puja’ which means weapon worship. Goddess Durga’s weapons are worshiped on the day of Durga ashtami. Another name for Durga ashtami is virashtami as acts of bravery using arms of martial arts are displayed on this day. This year, Durga Ashtami falls on October 9.
The puja on begins with Mahasnan and Shodashopachar Puja. Nine little pots are installed and a ritual is performed which is believed to invoke the nine Shaktis of Durga in these pots. There are nine forms of Goddess Durga and they are all worshiped through this ritual. Another popular ritual is one in which young, unmarried girls are treated as Goddess Durga and worshipped in a ritual called Kumari puja. While most places perform the kumari puja on all nine days, those who prefer doing it on just one day choose the Mahashtami day for it. As part of the puja, the feet of these nine young ladies are washed and they are fed with sweets and showered with presents.
Another puja performed is called the sandhi puja which is performed in an auspicious time duration called the sandhi time. The sandhi time falls in the last 24 minutes of ashtami or first 24 minutes of navami. This puja is believed to be the culmination point of the Durga ashtami and therefore holds great significance. Bali or animal sacrifice is performed as a ritual during this time. Those who do not beleive in the practise of animal sacrifice perform the rituak with vegetables. Belur Math in West Bengal performs the bali or sacrifice ritual with bananas, cucumber or pumpkins. 108 earthen lamps are lit during the sandhi time as a customary ritual.