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Durga Puja is a prominent festival in India. Explore here several facts about the Pooja.

Durga Puja, one of the biggest religious festivals of India, is celebrated to commemorate the victory of Goddess Durga over the evil buffalo demon Mahishasura. The festival, which signifies the victory of Good over Evil, is widely celebrated in the Indian states of Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Manipur, Odisha, Tripura and Meghalaya. The religious occasion is especially important in Bengal where the celebrations span a period of five days. Apart from its religious significance, Durga puja is also a major socio-cultural event in the Bengali Hindu society. Though celebrated from the ancient times, the festival was much popularized during the first quarter of the 20th century as Goddess Durga was made an icon for the Indian independence movement by the Hindu reformists. Following India's independence, Durga Puja became one of the most popular festivals not just in India but all over the world.

The Legend
One of the most interesting aspects of Durga Puja is the legends associated with it. The story of Mahishasura, the buffalo-demon, who was slain at the hands of Goddess Durga, is the most significant of them. It is said that the Mahishasura, born out of the union between Asura King Rambha and a she-buffalo, undertook great penance for gaining immortality. Although Lord Brahma was pleased with his effort, he could not grant him the boon. Instead he granted that the Asura's death could happen only at the hands of a woman. Mahishasura was greatly pleased with this because he thought that no woman could ever kill him and therefore he was virtually immortal.

He proceeded to defeat devas (gods) and took over the heaven. Devas, now devoid of their abode, met Brahma, Vishnu and Maheshwara and narrated their woeful tale. On hearing the news, the trinity became terribly angry, as a result of which tejas (energy) began to emit from their bodies which combined to form a female figure with ten hands. The figure so created-Durga-was so magnificent that devas bowed their head in reverence and sang hymns to her.

Armed with divine weapons offered by devas, Devi Durga now challenged Mahishasura in battle. In the course of this battle, the demon changed his form several times; but each time the Devi recognized him and continued her attack. Ultimately she killed him and saved the world from destruction.

Customs and Rituals
During the 18th century, Durga Puja was mostly performed by the rich zamindars and traders in their homes. Today however, majority of these pujas are performed through community donations in temporary podiums, known as mondops or pandals.

While the preparation for the festival starts long before the actual ceremony, the countdown starts from the 'amavasya' or new moon in the month of Ashwin. Known as Mahalaya, it heralds the Devi Paksha or the fortnight of the Goddess. According to legends, this is the day Mother starts on her yearly sojourn to the earth. To commemorate the event, devotees start reciting the 'Chandi' from this day and continue doing so until the end of the period.

The 'chakshudan' ceremony is another important feature of this day. Simply put, it means that the eye of the idol is drawn on this day. This is also the day when the pious get up early in the morning to offer 'torpon' to the ancestors and seek their blessings.

Panchami or the fifth day from the new moon is the next important day for this worship. On this day, the idols, comprising Devi Durga, Lakshmi, Saraswati. Kartikeya, and Ganesha along with their vahanas are brought to the pandals. Devi Durga is generally seen riding on a lion and holding the trident at the breast of Mahishasura; but all the deities have their faces covered.

The next day is Maha-shashthi. In the morning, after unveiling the idols, the priests perform the 'kalaparambha', which is making of sacramental pledge. In the evening, 'bodhon' (awaking), 'Adhibas' (invocation) and Amontron (invitation) are carried on under a bel tree.

The actual puja starts from Mahasaptami or the seventh day. The day begins with the bathing of Nava Patrika, or nine plants tied together, which is then placed on the podium. It is followed by 'Mahasnan' or great-bath through a mirror. Once that is done, priests perform a consecration and divinization ceremony, known as 'pranapratishtha' following which, what was till now simply an idol becomes Mother Goddess. She is then worshipped elaborately with sixteen upacharas (Shodashopacharapuja) and then offered the 'bhog' (food offering). The other deities, along with their vahanas and even the Asura, are also similarly worshipped and offered bhog.

The next day is Ashtami, the eighth day of the waxing moon. This day also begins with Mahasnan and Shodashopacharapuja. Thereafter, nine Shaktis, sixty-four yoginis, nine forms of Durga (Nava Durga, i.e. Goddesses Jayanti, Mangala, Kali, Bhadrakali, Kapalani, Durga, Shiva, Kshama, Dhatri, Svaha and Svadha) are worshipped separately. The puja concludes with offering of bhog and aarti. Some also worship a little girl on this day. It is known as Kumari Puja. In the evening, Sandhi Puja is performed. A total of forty-eight minutes, comprising the last twenty-four minutes of Ashtami and the first twenty-four minutes of Navami, constitute the Sandhi or ''Sacred Juncture''. It is considered to be a most auspicious time and Devi Durga is said to have slain Mahishasura during this period.

The next day is called Navami. It also begins with Mahasnan and Shodashopacharapuja. Some also offer 'bali' (animal sacrifice) after this. However, in most cases, instead of animals, some sorts of vegetables are sacrificed these days. It is followed by homa, (fire sacrifie), bhog and aarti.

Dashami (the tenth day after new moon) is the last day of the celebration. On this day, after a brief puja, a special bhog, known as 'Shitol' is offered. The Mother is believed to be going back to Kailash on this day; to ensure her good health, only those foods, which keep the body cool, are offered.

Thereafter, the priests circumambulate the altar and perform the visarjan ritual and entreat the Goddess to leave the image as well as the Navapatrika and return to her abode. In the afternoon, ladies come to bid her goodbye; they offer her sweets and put sindur on her forehead. They then smear each other with sindur, which is known as 'Sindurkhela' or 'playing with sindur'.

In the evening, the idol is taken in a procession to be immersed in any large waterbody.Then the devotees embrace each other and feed each other sweets to show that they are children of the same Divine Mother. This marks the culmination of this five-day long festival.

Durga Puja Celebrations
In Bengal, Durga Puja has turned into a yearly jamboree with believers, non-believers and even non-Hindus taking part in it. Community pujas are organized in every neighbourhood. In a rough estimate, more than 4000 pandals are set up in and around Kolkata alone. During the period, the city, bathed in light, turns into an open-air art gallery with each pandal vying with the other for admiration. Public transport system is run all night to ferry passengers hopping from pandal to pandal.

During this period, people generally wake up early in the morning and after having their bath join the puja preparation at the local pandal. Some also go there simply to socialize. The evening is mostly spent in pandal hopping, feasting and generally having fun. Some also remain at the local pandal to participate in the evening arati that takes place with the beat of the drum.

Other than Bengal, Durga Puja has become a major festival in other eastern states like Tripura, Manipur, Assam, Odisha, Bihar and Jharkhand also. In all these places, Devi Durga is generally worshipped through community contributions. While there may be a little variation in certain matters, more or less the same rituals are followed in the worship of the Mother Goddess.

Other than that, Durga Puja has become a popular festival in all other places that have a sizable Bengali population living. It has now become a major happening in cities like New Delhi, Mumbai, and Bangalore etc. The festival is also celebrated with much fanfare in Europe, America and Australia.