The prominence of the worship of Durga dates back to a time in history that can best be described as the hoary past often considered to be similar in nature to the gradual development of mother and nature worship across the globe.
With various examples of the worship of the mother goddess as available through various excavations across India, including the sites of Indus Valley Civilization, often one is led to seek an answer for the belief that led to the initiation and final growth and development of the worship of mother goddesses in the form of fertility deities and deities representing the regenerative and reproductive powers of nature itself.
Gradually, through various socio-political upheavals, the goddess came to represent the power of sustenance. This helped to provide the courage to strive through various skirmishes of a society plagued by various diseases on one hand and a turmoil of political situation arising out of the attacks and invasions of various foreign powers over the last thousand years in the history of Bengal.
The worship of the supreme Shakti (power) resulted in placating the anxieties, agonies and fear arising out of the socio-cultural and political roughness in Bengal and thus, the rise of the Shakti cult gradually flourished and gave shape to various forms of the same female deity, Durga – including – Mahishasurmardini, Jagotgouri, Jagotdhatri, Kali, Chhinnamasta, Chandi, amidst others.
The worshipping of goddess Durga during autumn began in Bengal in the late 16th or early 17th century. The prominence of Durga puja gradually increased during the British rule in the region with often the Hindu reformists identifying Durga with India/the nation or Motherland. Similar concepts came to be reflected through the literature of the time as well, e.g. Bankim Chandra Chattopadhyay’s Anandamath (published in 1882) which had the song dedicated to Motherland — Vande Mataram, which became the key slogan for the freedom struggle.
For the zamindar families, the pomp and glory grew bigger and bigger. Grand decorations began to be created for the idols of the goddess Durga and her sons and daughters – namely, Kartik, Ganesh, Lakshmi and Saraswati. Ornamentation or saaj of those clay idols made by artisans, is as important as the basic idol itself, for saaj reflects her grandeur and superior elegance.
According to Markendeya Purana, Devi Durga was decked up with natural elements. The Ocean gave her a pearl necklace, new saree, Kundal or earring, Bala or bracelet and Bajubandha or armlet, Kantha Bhusana or different kinds of necklaces, Tikli (or tiara), Nupur or anklets and finger rings. Ocean also decked her head with a lotus garland, a necklace with seven tiers or Satnari Haar and a blooming lotus. While Nagraj gave her a Naag Haar and Kuber gave her a Paan Patra (drinking pot).
When the entire world is constantly updating and upgrading itself, how can the Mother Goddess stay behind? The ornamentation is evolving through the ages. As time went by, the pujas by the wealthy zamindar families became grander and the competition grew fiercer, with more money being spent.
As an alternative to gold jewellery, Devi’s ornaments were made using metallic wires, sheets and foils. There were mainly two kinds of embellishments or saaj that used to be made then – sholar saaj and daker saaj.
The first was created using shola, a milky white material derived from the pith of a plant, also called shoal, growing in marshy areas. It is widely found in India and South Asia.
Daker saaj – primarily made from silver foil (rangta) and enhanced with silver sequins, was not available in India in those days and used to be imported from Germany, hence upping the cost, and thereby making it affordable only for the rich. Since it came by mail or dak – as it is called in Bengali, this type of embellishment came to be called daker saaj, that is, decoration with something which came by mail.
Sovabazar Rajbari introduced the use of this type of silver foil for the purpose of decorating the idols of Durga and her children, as the silver gave a shiny and grandiose look to the idols or pratimas. Today, a host of other available materials to ornately deck up the idols, but even so, daker saaj is still widely used in decoration.
But nothing remains forever. The traditional Daaker Saaj started to diminish gradually too. This was mainly due to the high price of the Daker Saaj, but there were other reasons as well. The modern idols are seen full of colours. This was a thing that the Daker Saaj failed to provide.
Now, Durga idols are decorated with colourful sarees and ornaments. That surely makes the idols attractive, but Daker Saaj remains eternal. It was an inevitable part of the traditional Durga pratima and it will always have a special place of its own.
On 15 December 2021, UNESCO included Durga Puja in Kolkata in the List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. It’s a proud moment for all Indians, especially Bengalis.
Bolo Durga Maiki Jai!