Celebrated a week before the Durga puja celebrations begin, Mahalaya marks the last day of Pitru Paksha (patriarchy). A Hindu myth proclaims that on this Amavasya morning, the first ancestors are bid farewell, leading the way for Maa Durga to come to earth in the evening and stay here to bless the people.
Mahalaya is mainly celebrated in the states of Karnataka, Odisha, Tripura, and West Bengal. Hindu mythology states that Goddess Durga was created on this day by the Gods Brahma, Vishnu, and Maheswara for the purpose of defeating the demon king Mahishasura. Forged with the power of these Gods, Goddess Durga is believed have the ultimate power. As per tradition, on this day, the eyes of Goddess Durga are finally drawn and coloured on her sculptures. A special puja is also performed before this. It has also been a ritual for many Bengalis to begin this day to the enchanting voice of Birendra Krishna Bhadra narrating his famous rendition of Mahishasura Mardini (1931), which is a collection of shlokas and songs, still broadcasted to this day by All India Radio Kolkata at 4 am. Mahalaya represents an invitation of sorts to the mother goddess to begin her journey from Kailash Parvat to her paternal home (earth) along with her beloved children; this invitation is extended through the chanting of mantras and singing of devotional songs like jago tumi jago and bajlo amar alor benu. The mode of transportation of the Goddess for her journey to earth also varies every year, from a palanquin to a boat, an elephant to a horse. This day also holds a special meaning for Hindu men, who perform the ritual of tarpan—men clad in dhotis go to the banks of the river Ganga and offer prayers to the deceased forefathers and perform pind daan, which mainly consists of cooked rice mixed with black sesame seeds in the form of small dumplings; this is offered to crows as these birds are believed to be the representatives of Yama or the agents of death.
According to Hindu mythology, the demon king Mahishasura was bestowed with the power that no God or man could kill him. After receiving this power, Mahisasura assaulted the Devtas, who were forced to flee Devlok after losing the war to him. All of the Devtas, including Lord Vishnu, pleaded to Adi Shakti to rescue them from Mahisasura’s wrath. At that time, a heavenly light is said to have sprung from the bodies of all Devtas, taking the form of Goddess Durga, who fought Mahishasura for nine days before finally killing him on the tenth day. Thus, Maa Durga is revered as the goddess of power, and Durga puja is celebrated with great pomp and passion across the country. During these ten days, devotees pray to the goddess, and the event is celebrated with religion and spirituality, reminding us about the power of truth, courage, and energy, and that, in the end, good always triumphs over evil.
While the story of Goddess Durga is mainly kept in mind when celebrating Mahalaya, there are actually several Hindu legends behind it. One of them states that, on this day, Sri Rama worshipped Durga Devi before going to Lanka to save Sita. Moreover, on the tenth day, when Goddess Durga defeated Mahishasura, Rama is also said to have defeated the ten-headed demon Ravana, and this day is celebrated all over the country as Dussehra. Another legend links Mahalaya to Karna, who is said to have given all kinds of things in the form of donations, except for food. However, after his death, he had the opportunity to descend to earth for a 14-day period and give a great deal to charity in the form of food; this period of shraddh is also known as the Mahalaya period. Autumn signifies the full-flowering Mahalaya period. While Bengal and other eastern states celebrate their biggest festival of Durga puja, which begins with the aforementioned story of the creation of Goddess Durga on Mahalaya, the northern and western parts of India celebrate it as Navratri, which begins with the first avatar (reincarnation) of Goddess Durga. Theoretically, there are four seasonal Navratri’s, which typically fall in the Gregorian months of September and October and take place at the same time as the nine emperor Gods festival.
Observed on the last day of Krishna Paksha, or the dark fortnight of the Ashwin month, Mahalaya heralds the beginning of sharad and sets the tone for the 10-day Durga puja festival. Spotless blue skies and rows of kaash phool, a seasonal flower, can be seen in several regions as Pitru Paksha ends and Devi Paksha begins. Primary celebrations begin from the sixth day onwards, and the Bengalis’ biggest festival is celebrated with much pomp and splendour over the next five days. The puja is performed in homes and in public, the latter featuring a temporary stage and structural decorations, known as a pandal. The festival is also marked by scripture recitations, performance, arts, revelry, exchange of gifts, family visits, feasting, and public processions. The Durga puja festival of Kolkata has also been inscribed on the intangible cultural heritage list of UNESCO in December of 2021. Although the festival mainly epitomizes the victory of good over evil, it is also, in part, a harvest festival. In a symbolic and personal way, it can also be interpreted as the victory of one’s positive thoughts over the negative demon that lives in one’s conscience.
By Swaroopa Mitra