Mahalaya: goddess durga comes home
In the wee hours of Friday (4 October), the country in general and Bengali families in particular, will once again wake up to the magical voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra narrating ‘Mahisasur Mardini’, in preparation of Durga Puja celebrations, starting with Mahalaya, an auspicious occasion observed seven days before the four-day Durga Puja celebrations begin. Mahalaya marks the august arrival of Durga, the goddess of power, on earth. Soulful prayer in the form of verses from Durga Saptashati or the Chandi Kavya is chanted to invoke the ‘mother goddess’ to descend on the earth and destroy evil. Bhadra, the legendary narrator who passed away in 1991, makes Mahalaya a much-awaited occasion in every household. The prayer begins with ‘Jago tumi jago…Ma.’
Mahalaya bears immense significance for Bengalis in particular. According to the Puranas, king Suratha used to worship goddess Durga in spring, thus Durga Puja was also known as Basanti Puja, but Rama worshiped Durga, in autumn just before he set off for Lanka to rescue Sita from Ravana. It’s for this reason that Durga Puja during autumn is not only known as Devispaksha but also ‘Akal Bodhon’ or the untimely worship. It was considered untimely as in the myths that puja was performed when the gods and goddesses were awake, that is ‘Uttarayan’, and not when they are resting in ‘Dakshinayan’.
On the day of Mahalaya, the ritual of Tarpan - Sarat is also observed to pay reverence to ancestors and forefathers. It is the day when many throng to the banks of the Ganga, clad in dhotis to offer prayers to their forefathers. People in the pre-dawn hours pray for their ancestors and take holy dips in the Ganges. This ritual is known as ‘Tarpan’.
It was in 1930 when the national public broadcaster (All India Radio) aired the ‘Mahisasura Mardini’, an audio montage of recitation from the scriptural verses of ‘Chandi Kavya’, Bengali devotional songs, classical music and a dash of acoustic melodrama, to mark the beginning of Mahalaya. And since then ‘Mahisasura Mardini’ in the voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra has become synonymous to Mahalaya.
The legendary narrator recites the holy verses and tells the story of the advent of Durga to earth, in his inimitable style. Bhadra has long passed away, but this tradition is still on.
The story of ‘Mahisasura Mardini’ speaks of the increasing cruelty of the demon king Mahisasura against the gods. Unable to tolerate his tyranny, the gods pleaded with Vishnu to wipe out the demon. The Trinity of Brahma, Vishnu and Maheswara (Shiva) came together to create a powerful female form with ten arms - goddess Durga or ‘Mahamaya’, the mother of the universe who embodies the primeval source of all power.
The gods then bestowed upon this supreme creation their individual blessings and weapons. Armed like a warrior, the goddess rode a lion to battle with the Mahisasura. After a fierce combat the ‘Durgatinashini’ was able to slay the ‘Asura’ king with her trident. Heaven and earth rejoiced at her victory. Finally, the mantra narration ends with the refrain of mankind’s supplication before this supreme power: ‘Ya devi sarbabhuteshshu, sakti rupena sanksthita Namasteshwai Namasteshwai Namasteshwai namo namaha.’