Kumortuli, the traditional potters’ colony of Kolkata is renowned for potters with terrific clay sculpting prowess, who not only regularly make idols for various pujas and festivals but also export them to various parts of the world. These artisans have been living in this area of Northern Kolkata since ages, collecting clay from the river bank and creating magic. The East India Company allotted separate districts to the Company’s workmen and their Indian neighbourhoods acquired work-related names. So Kumortuli got the name because potters (Kumor) lived by the River Hooghly in between Aheritola and Shobhabazar.
Kumortuli and Mahalaya
Today is the auspicious day of Mahalaya, marking the beginning of Devi Paksh. It is believed that goddess Durga descended the Earth on this day with her children- Devi Lakshmi, Devi Saraswati, Lord Ganesha and Lord Kartik. Kolkata, the city driven by emotions, wait for the entire year for one of India’s largest festivals, the Durga Puja. Kumortuli is the best place to visit today or before the Durga Puja to understand how beautifully the majestic goddesses (idols) are created. It is on the sacred occasion of Mahalaya that the eyes of Devi Durga’s idol are painted by the potters. This is called ‘Chokkhudaan’. Witnessing or capturing this moment is an experience in itself. It is like life being breathed into the clay idol. I am sharing an absolute personal thought in the next section on the entire process of the making of the ‘gods’ (idols).
Durga Pujo Representing the Cycle of Life
To me Durga Pujo represents the cycle of life. The clay idols at Kumortuli are built with intense care similar to that of an expecting mother nurturing and protecting the foetus. It slowly grows inside and finally takes birth after 9 long months. Similarly, the potters at Kumortuli make the clay idol with immense care and precision. It is a time taking process from the preparation of the clay to the completion of the final grandeur of the idol. Step by step the idol is completed and finally is taken out of the potter’s workshop to the place of worship. For 5 days Mahisasur Mardini (the one who killed Mahisasur) is worshipped with great pomp and glory. This is what represents life; fighting out our own demons to have a glorious life of joy, peace and love. We live life to the fullest and finally leave the earth. Similarly, Bisorjon or emersion is an integral part of the Pujo where Ma Durga, on the last day of the Pujo is immersed in the river. Life has to end for sure but till then it definitely has to be celebrated.
The Kumortuli Ghat and The Rituals of Mahalaya
Mahalaya, the last day of Krishnapaksh in the month of Ashwin by the Hindu Lunar Calendar is a day of new moon (Amavasya). It marks the end of Pritti Paksh and the beginning of Devi Paksh, representing the beginning of Durga Puja in Bengal and Navratri in the rest of India. Various rituals are performed all across India. Many perform ‘Tarpan’, a ritual to offer prayers to the departed souls of their ancestors. At dawn, Kumortuli Ghat, the bank of River Hooghly, hosts several worshippers performing ‘Tarpan’. This is a site to behold. The soft light of day break, the incessant chants of mantras, the vast river, the flowers and the iconic Howrah Bridge weave a unique magic together with people with faith in their hearts. Often the radio at the river bank is on and the timeless ‘Chandipath’ is transcendental. Food and clothing donations to the needy are commonly made on this day too.
Mahalaya and the Radio
Almost every Bengali wakes up at 4 am on this morning to tune into the radio to listen to the recital of Birendra Krishna Bhadra’s ‘Mahisasura Mardini’, the oldest radio show. This broadcast of recitation of the epic battle of Devi Durga and Mahisasur, followed by ‘Chandipath’, started from 1930. Every Bengali home traditionally plays it. It is believed that ‘Mahisasura Mardini’ mantras like ‘Jago Tumi Jago’ (Rise O’ Mother), invoke the Goddess. The day begins with hope, positivity and festivity. Mahalaya implies that Durga Pujo is knocking at the doors because in general, 7 days from Mahalaya, the festivities of the Pujo begin. Durga Puja comprises of major part of a Bengali’s world. Bengalis living out of Bengal or abroad also make it a point not to miss this.
Dhakeshwari Mata Temple at Kumortuli Ghat
Dhakeshwari Mata Temple at Kumortuli Ghat is full of devotees on Mahalaya. The idol of Devi Durga in the temple is 1.5 feet tall and also includes the children Lakshmi, Saraswati, Ganesha and Kartik. This is an ancient idol, most likely, made during the Mughal (Akbar) Era and discovered and worshipped by Sena Dynasty in undivided Bengal. Later, during partition, it was brought to India from Dhaka, Bangladesh, in 1947. 1/3A, Kumartuli Street, is the address of the temple and it is near the temple, that the popular public Puja of ‘Kumortuli Sarbojonin’ also takes place.
The Mythological Story Behind Mahalaya
Mahisasura, an Asura (demon) in the form of a buffalo (Mahish), wanted to rule the Heavens and the Earth. He had a boon that he cannot be killed by any men or any God. With this in mind he attacked the Heavens and the gods failed to control his tyranny. Then with all the power and prayers of the gods, was created Devi Durga, the goddess with ten hands. The gods gave her their weapons and she rode the lion. She defeated Mahisasur in multiple battle fields where he took different forms. She finally killed Mahisasur and is called ‘Mahisasura Mardini’ (the one who killed Mahisasura). Devi Durga is worshipped as an epitome of shakti (power). The mythological story behind Mahalaya is not only interesting but tremendously encouraging too. It is one of woman power and virtue. In Bengal, she is also adored as the daughter who comes to her house with her kids.
Kolkata, Kumortuli and Mahalaya are Inseparable
It is on this day that numerous idols are transferred to their place of worship from Kumortuli. The majestic idols, placed on trucks, travel though the roads of Kolkata. The citizens tend to ignore the issues of mad traffic jams for these few days of fun and festivities. The large scale pandals (place of worship) go through last minute decorations and the streets are lighted already. Numerous artists work throughout the year for this festival. Watch the video in the end to have a feel of it. People rush for last moment shopping. Religiously everyone in Bengal and every Bengali outside Bengal wears new clothes. The city shines with light and joy from this day. Bengalis living outside Bengal generally return home during this festival. Even though it sounds hyperbolic, everything pertaining to this festival is beyond proportions. Mahalaya is definitely symbolic. Besides being a day that marks the beginning of festivities, it is also a reminder of the triumph of good over evil.