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Delving deep into texts to find agrarian roots of Goddess Durga

It is evident from her form, associated rituals and practices, that the Goddess has a much older and indigenous origin

Kumari Puja has roots in the Kumari Osa of the indigenous people from the hills tracts of Sambalpur in Odisha. Photo: courtesy Tanushree Bhowmik

By Tanushree Bhowmik

LAST PUBLISHED 03.10.2022  |  09:10 AM IST

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It is that time of the year again when one and all gear up to welcome Goddess Durga in their lives for four days of celebrations. The deity is a culmination of centuries-old ideas of the divine feminine—the creator, the mother, the earth, the daughter, the protector, the destroyer, and countless other roles that are assigned to her.

While Durga is ‘Mahishasuramardini’, the slayer of the buffalo demon as seen in her idol; she takes on the form of Chamunda in the last 24 minutes of Ashtami and first 24 minutes of Navami—this is known as the ‘sandhikhan’ or moment of juncture to kill the demons, Chand-Mund. These forms of Durga are mentioned in the Devi Mahatmya, a 5th-6th Century CE text, which forms the later chapters of the Markandeya Purana. Centuries later, poet Krittibaas Ojha wrote the Bengali Krittivasi Ramayan in the 15th Century CE, in which Lord Ram evokes (bodhon) Maa Durga before going to battle with Ravana. He does this untimely akaal in autumn-winter (Sharad) in the month of Ashwin as opposed to her invocation in summers in Chaitra. This Shardiya akaal-bodhon of the Goddess forms the basis of the grand autumnal celebration of Durga Puja in the eastern states that we see today.

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For most Bengalis, however, Durga is the married daughter coming to her parents with her four children from her husband’s house for a four-day visit. She is welcomed with joy, looked after with care and sent off with heavy hearts by her parents.

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Durga, as we see her today, is a sum total of more than all of the above. According to scholars, many tribal and indigenous goddesses, closely linked to nature were incorporated into the form of Durga by puranas over centuries, and adapted into the Brahmanical cannon. Durga does not find any mention in Vedas or Vedic literature except two cursory mentions in the Mahabharata. There, she is Vindhyavasini—the four-armed, slayer of Mahishasura who resides in the Vindhya mountains and is the daughter of Yashoda, the wife of Nanda. She is a dark skinned, maiden goddess of pastoralists, Kolis and Savara tribes, much removed from her current Brahminical ten-armed, married, mother, ‘tapta kanchana varna’ (she who is the colour of molten gold) form that the later puranas describe. While different forms of Durga that find mention in various puranic texts are evoked through the four-day long ritualistic worship, many of the rituals still reflect their roots in indigenous, folkloric and agrarian practices of indigenous Bengal and Odisha. Whether or not she was known as Durga in one of these indigenous forms, cannot be established with certainty.

Nabapatrika snan

Interestingly, the current Sharadiya Durga puja begins with the ritual of ‘bodhon’, of which an integral part is the Nabapatrika Snan—the ritualistic bathing of nine plants that has no definite Vedic or Puranic reference, and practising priests find difficult to explain the origins of it. The nine plants are described as:

“Rambha Kacchi Haridrach Jayanti Bilva Dadimou

Ashoka Maankashchaiva Dhaanancha Nabapatrika"

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The Nabapatrika comprises of rambha (banana), kochu (colocasia), haldi (turmeric), jayanti (Egyptian pea), shriphal (wood apple), dadim (pomegranate), ashoka (Saraca asoca), ajan vriksha (alocasia), and dhaanya (paddy). It is believed that these nine plants are manifestations of the nine forms of the Goddess.

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During Saptami, the branches of the nine plants are tied together with vines of the white Aparajita plant and nine strands of yellow threads. Two wood apples, joined by a single twig, are tied to the bunch. This Nabapatrika is then smeared with turmeric paste and oil. She is offered soil from eight terrains and bathed in water from eight sources, signifying the entire earth. This ritual is similar to the ritualistic coronation of the kings of yore. Scripturally, each mantra that accompanies the pouring of water from different sources, is set to different ragas and taals of classical music. After the bath, Nabapatrika is adorned in a red-bordered white saree, and vermilion is applied to the leaves of the banana plant. As the largest and most visible plant of Nabapatrika is the banana, and she is placed near Lord Ganesha, in common imagination, she has become kola-bou, the bride of Ganesha.

Originally, the Nabapatrika was a representation of Goddess Vanadurga (Durga, who resides in the forests), the goddess of all flora, forests and agriculture. She is often worshipped in hypaethral (roofless) shrines at the foot of large trees or within forested areas, similar to the worship of chausath yoginis, goddesses associated with different aspects of nature who were later merged with the mythology of Parvati or Durga. As she was ‘Sanskritised’, the Goddess became Shakambhari, one who saves the starving with vegetables grown from her own body. While she is one of the nine forms of Durga, the independent worship Shakambhari has become rare in an increasingly urbanising world, becoming relegated to villages, especially in the fringe of forests.

As scholar and theologian Dr Sashibhushan Dasgupta writes in Bharatera Shakti-Sadhana o Sakta Sahitya (1960), “This agrarian Goddess is accepted as the manifestation of Durga and is worshipped first because the Shardiya Durga Puja is originally the worship of the agrarian goddess…[This agrarian Goddess] is a form of the earth herself, hence consciously or sub-consciously, our Durga Puja is still closely linked to [her] worship."

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Other scholars such as Jogeshchandra Ray Bidyanidhi (1859-1965) and researcher of Sanskrit and Bengali literature, Hansanarayan Bhattacharya (1928-2002), have completely rejected any Vedic or Puranic origin of the Nabapatrika, assigning a complete indigenous agrarian root to the ritual. Ray writes in his Puja-Parbon (2013), “Devipuran has the mention of Nabadurga but not Nabapatrika…Nabapatrika thus stands as an alien part of Durga Puja. It is possible that the Savara tribes worshipped these nine plants during the Navaratri."

The Kumari Puja, or worship of young maidens on Ashtami, has roots in the Kumari Osa of the indigenous people from the hills tracts of Sambalpur in Odisha, which is celebrated by unmarried, young girls in the month of Ashwin. A clay idol of the Goddess is fashioned by the girls and she is worshipped through song and dance. B.C. Mazumdar, in his seminal work, Durga: Her Origin and History (1906), records one of these songs, “Ashwine kumari janam, Gopini kule pujan", establishing her as the same goddess that the Mahabharata mentions. The festivities reach their pinnacle on the eighth day of the light phase, Shukla Ashtami, which is still regarded as the most auspicious day of Durga Puja and when the Kumari puja is held.

On the ninth day, the young girls sing sexually explicit songs to the Goddess before immersing her idol in water. A similar practice was prevalent in Bengal till a few decades ago, where ‘Nabami’r Kheiid’ or ‘Songs of Nabami’ were sung to the goddess on the ninth day. These were sexually explicit songs, much like those of the maidens of Sambalpur, which was accompanied by smearing mud on bodies and dancing with sugarcane and ashgourd, both used for sacrifice to the Goddess. These became ‘indecent’ to many modern sensibilities and slowly faded from urban and peri-urban centres. The songs and dance alluded to association of the Goddess with fertility, reproduction and agrarian practices.

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It is evident from her form, rituals of worship and practices associated with her, that Nabapatrika was the goddess of nature and agriculture, who has much older and indigenous origin. That she is placed in the same platform and worshipped alongside the idol of Durga, in a form distinct from her married Brahminical form, shows her importance and individuality.