The time of the year for which many people of Bengal eagerly wait, is Durga Pujo (Worship of the Goddess Durga). The fervor, the splendor is what people soak in during this time of the year (Sep/Oct)- the festival that celebrates the power of women.
Durga puja in Bengal, is the biggest spectacle in the country and a very significant socio-cultural event. The mesmerizing rituals, mega events are a visual retreat and it is often said that during this time Bengal turns into a walking art gallery.
The huge scale and enriching cultural spectacle may further enhance the curiosity of many onlookers, particularly the vermillion smearing or sindoor khela (as it is known in Bangla).
Hence, we revisit the ritual while preparing to welcome Devi Maha Maya (an alternate name of the Goddess Durga)…
Though Durga is an ancient deity in Hinduism briefly described even in the Vedas (c. 1500 – c. 500 B.C.E.), it is still unknown as to when Durga Puja (the festival of nine nights), in its current form, first began.
The first records about the puja were however documented in manuscripts from the 14th Century. There are also records of wealthy family sponsoring major Durga Puja public festivities since at least the 16th century (McDermott, 2001). During this annual Hindu festival of nine nights (ten days), which marks the battle of the Goddess with the deceptive and powerful buffalo demon Mahishasura, vermillion plays a significant role.
Vermillion (or Sindoor in Bangla), is a brilliant red pigment, originally made of powdered mineral cinnabar (mercury sulphide) and the corresponding colour. It is applied by Hindu married women along the hair parting line to symbolise that they are married. The red colour symbolizes the beginning of a new life and the flow of bloodline.
According to the Hindu mythology, the powerful buffalo demon Mahishasura seeked and had a boon from Lord Brahma (the Creator God) that no man would be able to kill him if there is ever a battle between Gods and Demons, and if he had to die it could be only in the hands of a woman- for the mighty demon believed that no woman could ever fight against him however strong she may be. Hence, by virtue of the boon he will remain immortal and powerful.
Having received the boon, he started a reign of terror, slaying all who came his way. The bloodlines of many were thus in danger. To solve their misery, Gods assembled to combine their divine energies and the Lion-riding mighty Goddess Durga evolved to fight the demon and re-establish good over evil.
Legend says that the battle between the Goddess and the powerful demon took place for nine nights (ten days) with the Goddess conquering the demon. The festival begins with what is called Mahalaya, also a day when Hindus offer Tarpana (waters to their dead ancestors) - Is it not the bloodline factor of paying respect to the deceased ancestors and worshiping the Goddess who is then urged to protect the bloodline from the evil forces? These rituals are indeed very symbolic and totemic.
The next most significant day of Durga Puja is the sixth day, when the Goddess is welcomed with Baran Dala (Platter) which has the following: Lamp, earth from Ganges river, sandalwood, small piece of stone, paddy, flower, a fruit (beetle nut), a leaf or metal with swastik sign, Kajal-lata (the container that holds black soot, mixed with oil, conch, vermillion, yoghurt, ghee (clarified butter), gold, silver, white mustard and turmeric (Mukherjee et al, 2013). The point to be noted is that on the platter, Vermillion is an integral component. Does it mean that the Goddess is symbolically told that the bloodline which is symbolized through vermillion is on the platter and now it is up to the Goddess to protect them all from the mighty evils?
The eighth day (Ashtami), is believed to be even more momentous because the moment when it ends and ninth day begins (Sandhi- The last 24 minutes of Ashtami and first 24 minutes of Navami is regarded as the Sandhikhan) is considered the time Durga engages in a fierce battle with the buffalo demon while being attacked by demons Chanda/Munda- the two key aides of Mahishasura. It was during this cusp of time that Chanda/Munda was killed. Finally, on the tenth day (Vijaya Dashami, literally meaning the tenth day when Victory was achieved), the Goddess conquered the demon to re-establish good over evil and then, goes back to her abode in the Himalayas.
It is just before her final journey back home that the vermillion smearing ritual is performed by married women. Vermillion is applied on the Goddess' idol, on her forehead and feet, before smearing it on each other and wishing each other a happy married life. It symbolizes that by conquering the evil demon Mahishasura, Goddess Durga was able to protect their bloodline. Thus, the Vermillion Smearing ritual is one of the significant rituals of this festival.
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Mukherjee, K et. al (2013), New Age Purohit Darpan: Durga Puja: Second Edition, Association of Grandparents of Indian Migrants, USA
Rachel Fell McDermott (2001). Mother of My Heart, Daughter of My Dreams: Kali and Uma in the Devotional Poetry of Bengal. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-803071-3.