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History

Clockwise: Ganesh, Lakshmi, Durga, Saraswati and Kartik.

A considerable literature exists around Durga in the Bengali language and its early forms, including Durgotsavnirnaya (11th century), Durgabhaktitaranginiby Vidyapati (14th century), etc. Durga Puja was popular in Bengal in the medieval period, and records exist of it being held in the courts of Rajshahi (16th century) and Nadia (18th century). It was during the 18th century, however, that the worship of Durga became popular among the landed elite of Bengal. Durga puja mood starts off with the Mahalaya. Bengalis traditionally wake up at 4:00 AM in the morning listening to the enchanting voice of Birendra Kishore Bhadra on All India Radio.

During the week of Durga Puja, in the entire state of West Bengal as well as in large enclaves of Bengalis everywhere in India and around the world, life comes to a complete standstill. Elaborates structures called pandals are set up, many with nearly a year's worth of planning behind them. The word pandal means a temporary structure made of bamboo and cloth, which used to be the venue of the worship of the goddess.

Somewhere inside these complex edifices is a stage on which Durga reigns, standing on her lion mount, wielding ten weapons with her ten hands. This is the religious center of the festivities, and the crowds gather to offer flower worship on the mornings, of the sixth to ninth days of the waxing moon fortnight. Ritual drummers, carrying large leather-strung dhaaks show off their skills during ritual dance worships called aarati. On the tenth day, Durga the mother returns to her husband, Shiva, ritualized through her immersion into the waters.

Today's Puja, however, goes far beyond religion. In fact, visiting the pandals recent years, one can only say that Durgapuja the largest outdoor art festival on earth. In the 1990s, in Inadia, a preponderance of architectural models came up on the pandal exteriors, but today the art motif extends to elaborate interiors, executed by trained artists, with consistent stylistic elements, carefully executed and bearing the name of the artist.

The sculpture of the idol itself has evolved. The worship always depicts Durga with her four children, and occasionally two attendant deities and some banana-tree figures. In the olden days, all five idols would be depicted in a single frame, traditionally called pata. Since the 1980s however, the trend is to depict each idol separately.

At the end of six days, the idol is taken for immersion in a procession amid loud chants and drumbeats to the river or other water body, and it is cast in the waters symbolic of the departure of the deity to her home with her husband in the Himalayas. After this, in a tradition called Vijaya Dashami, families visit each other and sweetmeats are offered to visitors (Dashami is literally "tenth day" andVijay is "victory").

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