The Millennium old 16-day Durga Puja in Odisha

Odisha is the land of Shakti Peethas and while people mainly associate Durga Puja with West Bengal, Odisha has its own unique celebration.

The Millennium old 16-day Durga Puja in Odisha

Odisha is the land of Shakti Peethas. This year the popular Durga Ashtami (Maha Ashtami) falls on 24th October. This time it is being celebrated in beautifully decorated pandals (Medha in Odia) with many restrictions amid the Corona pandemic. The pandal rituals usually start from Maha Sashthi(6th) of the Lunar calendar and continue for 5 days till Vijaya Dashami(generally called Dasahara in Odia). While this form of worship in Durga Medha is famous today, many are not aware of the relatively ancient and longer form of Devi worship carried in Shakta temples of Odisha during this Sharodiya Utsav (Durga Puja in Sharada or autumn season).

Shodasa Dinatmaka Puja: 16 day ritual

Shodasa Dinatmaka puja is a 16-day millennium-old ritual which starts from Mulashtami which is 7 days prior to Mahalaya. It continues till Durga Ashtami and Vijayadashami. It is carried out in all Shakti Peethas of Odisha. The different shakti peethas are the manifestation of The Divine Mother in different forms. In Hindu philosophy, Shakti is the cosmic energy of creation. This festival symbolizes invocation of this feminine divinity.

The deity and temple are cleaned prior to the 16-day festival. In Chandi Mandir of Cuttack the Devi is attired in 16 different forms in these 16 days, namely, Bhubaneswari, Matangi, Sodasi, Narayani, Rajarajeswari, Jayadurga, Ugratara, Harachandi, Banadurga, Tripura Bhairabi, Gayatri, Bagalamukhi, Mahakali, Mahalaxmi, MahaSaraswati and Mahisa Mardini. These different attires (besa in Odia) are quite similar in other peethas, including the Vimala (tantric consort of Lord Jagannath) temple in Jagannath Puri, as well. Everyday elaborate havans (sacred fire altars) and Chandi Paatha or chanting of Durga Saptashati along with its appendages are done. Durga Saptashati is divided into 13 chapters with 700 verses in total. There are several variations in rituals conducted among these temples as well. The Tarini temple in Ghatagaon in the Eastern Ghats and some Devi temples are worshipped by Kondh tribes and not by Brahmin priests. In Jhankada Sarala Devi Peetha in Jagatsingpur, the priests are also from a traditional deuri jati. In Odisha, worship of Devis by tribals or Deuri jatis is very common. Even in many villages, Gramya Devi is worshipped by Deuri jatis or Barika(barber) jatis.

This calendar year is different

This year the lunar calendar observed is somewhat different. The Navaratri or Durga Puja usually starts post-Mahalaya which falls on Amavashya (new moon) and is the last day of Pitru Paksha which is the period when offerings are made to one’s ancestors. But this year in the month after Mahalaya, two full moons are observed in a single month. This month is considered inauspicious for any sacred work, known as Mala Masa in Odia. Since ancient times, adjusting the lunar calendar with the solar calendar, one extra lunar month is castigated as inauspicious. The last time this phenomenon happened was in 2001. Hence Durga Puja has been shifted by one-month post-Mahalaya. This has led to a peculiar situation where the 16-day elaborate rituals after being observed for 8 days till Mahalaya (which fell on 17th September), will now be extended by a month. The several attires of Devi again started from 17th October and will continue till Vijaya Dashami on 26th October 2020. But other than everyday new and different attires of Devi, rituals like Chandi Patha and havans will continue for 45 days.

Animal Sacrifice: Decades Ago

Some decades earlier, animal sacrifice (Pasubali) was done in many of these Shakta temples. In the late 1970s, a social movement against animal sacrifice was led by people like Dr. Harekrushna Mahatab-the first chief minister of Odisha, Dr. Radhanath Ratha-former editor of Odia daily Samaj. Many temples like Chandi Mandir in Cuttack town, Bhattarika in Baramba, Tara Tarini in Berhampur, Samaleswari in Sambalpur, BhadraKali in Bhadrak, Mangala in Kakatapur, Sarala in Jhankada and others have stopped it. Instead of that pumpkin and some other vegetables are cut and offered to the deity. Today in some places like Manakeswari Devi in Kalahandi district, animal sacrifice is carried out during “Chattar Jatra” in the Durga Puja period. In Vimala temple in Jagannath Puri two male goats are sacrificed at night after the temple premise is closed for the general public. Nowadays the animal sacrifice is very rare and if done, is without public glare.

Dying rituals and arts in villages

This 16-day Shodasa Dinatmaka was earlier celebrated in many villages in their respective Grama Devi temple premises. Several folk dances and theatre acts were performed by certain skilled jaatis(caste). Few examples of dance and music forms are Bagha nacha(tiger dance), Ghoda nacha(horse dance), Medha nacha(a form of masked dance), Patua nacha, Ghata nacha etc. Local theatre acts like Daskathia and Pala were also popular. Their main themes were stories from several Puranas and Itihasas like Ramayana and Mahabharata. Sword fighting by Paika communities was also prevalent in some villages. On the day of Mahanavami respective Jatis worship their instruments. Khanda Puja (sword worship) was very popular among Khandayatas (Kshatriyas). Bullock cart races were also organized which is still very much alive in a coastal village named Chandrapur.

Different jatis had different roles in the grand celebration. The potters supplied all potteries, dholaks (percussion instrument) were played by dholokias, the barber had a special role and so on. A system of giving grants and gifts, called Dasahara bheti, either in cash or kind to several jatis like potters, barbers, goldsmith, weavers, and carpenters was present. They use to go to each house with their instruments, like a barber with his mirror, and collect the grants. The villages were totally engulfed in festive fervour of sloka chantings, rituals, dance, drama, music and fairs. But with the advent of modernity and market forces, these institutions have lost their character, the traditional skills are lost and these rituals are no more organised. These great traditions are now limited to Shakti Peethas which is maintained by few priests and traditional devotee families only.

Popularization of Durga Medha

At the same time, it has led to universalization of the 5-day popular pandals (Medha) of earthen deity. The worship of the artistic earthen deity of Simha Bahini with ten hands (Devi Durga ridding on her mount animal Lion) and slaying Asura king Mahisha(buffalo headed asura) started in the 11th century by princely houses of King ChodaGanga Deva of Eastern Ganga dynasty in present-day Puri. The Puranic stories of Devi Durga are much old though. This festival of worship of ferocious Mahishamardini (slayer of Mahisha Asura) is known as Gosani Yatra in Puri locally and is practised even today. But the Sarvajanik Puja (popular worship in pandals) was started during the Bhakti movement by Sri Chaitanya under the patronage of King Pratap Rudra Deva of Gajapati dynasty at Cuttack in the 16th century. The oldest continuing such Sarvajanik Puja at the same venue in the whole world is in Odisha in a village named Rameshwarpur in Bhadrak district. It was started by a Mahasaya family who migrated from Howrah in Bengal nearly 400 years ago. Netaji Subhas Bose, whose birthplace is Cuttack, also organized this popular Durga Puja in the Odia Bazaar area to mobilize nationalistic spirit like Ganesh Mahotsav done by Tilak in Maharashtra.

There are numerous local diversities and specialities also. For example, the famous silver filigree work of Cuttack is used to decorate the deity with ornaments known as Chandi Tarakasi Medha(Chandi is silver and Tarakasi is filigree in Odia). Some gold plated ornamentation known as Suna Medha is also found in Cuttack. Today there is much demand to get Geographical Indication tag for this silver filigree work. Hara Gauri (Shiva Parvati) deities Medha are popular here. Similarly in Jagannath Puri, we find the confluence of Shaktism and Vaishnavism in the form of Durga Madhava Puja. In another coastal town named Jajpur where Maa Biraja Shakti Peetha is present, we find the annual chariot festival during this time. In Jeypore town of southern Odisha, a famous night procession, named “Patuara”, of deities is done on Vijaya Dashami from the King’s palace. During the earlier princely rule, records speak of elephants and horses taking part in these processions.

A study titled “Study on the use of Plants and Plant parts in Durga Puja for worshipping of the Goddess Durga in Odisha, India” elaborates about the 102 species of plants which are used specifically in these rituals. Different deities have different characters and depending on those certain flowers, leaves are used. The leaves of Indian bael, red Hibiscus flowers are said to be dear to Devi Durga. It also shows how conservation of nature is associated in the socio-religious life of people.

10 different soils for consecration

In many Durga Medhas before Devi Durga is consecrated, the priest uses different types of soil from the base of the tulsi plant, peepal tree, Indian bael tree, paddy field, banks of river Ganga, burial ground, elephant footprint, cow footprint, shilpakaras(artisans) workshop and even from the prostitute’s house. Also, cow urine, cow dung and water from the Ganga water are used. All these have symbolic and sacred meaning. There are several explanations for using soil from a prostitute’s house. One, when one goes to a brothel the person sheds his morals before entering, so the soil in front of a brothel is sacred. Some others say it is to purify the brothel of sins and evil while others say prostitutes represent a form of strong feminine energy. Nevertheless, this signifies the inclusive and diverse nature of our ancient society. Nowadays the puritan forms of these rituals are degrading while conspicuous celebration is mainly emphasized. Some people complain of the blaring of movie songs in Durga Medha and intake of intoxicants during Bhasani (immersion procession) of the deity in water bodies.

Another major event is Ravana Podi (burning) on Vijaya Dashami. This is the day when Lord Ram killed Ravana after praying to Devi Durga. Thus, thousands of ten-headed Ravanas are made of firecrackers and installed in open fields. It is lit in a celebratory mood in the evening to symbolize the triumph of good over evil. This cultural event is a result of cultural diffusion from outside of Odisha and people assimilating it voluntarily over the years. There was hardly any Ravana Podi 50-60 years back in the state.

While people mainly associate Durga Puja with West Bengal, Odisha has its own unique celebration. Another Durga Puja named Basanti Puja is also celebrated in Basanta or spring season. It is very rare and is now getting extinct. Our festivals evolve with changing times. It encompasses history and has socio-economic connotations. The experience of Chandi Paatha in Shakti Peethas or elsewhere is unexplainable. It is said one has to be blessed to witness at least once in his/her lifetime.

About Author: Abhisek Kumar Panda

Abhisek hails from a rural village in Odisha. He has done his B.Tech. from NIT Rourkela and then worked for a couple of years in the corporate sector. Currently, he is trying to enrich himself on Dharmic perspectives.

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