The North Star Project, 2013-2014 Report Number Eighteen — Durga Puja in Eastern India, by Srijita Kar

The North Star Project, 2013-2014 Report Number Eighteen — Durga Puja in Eastern India, by Srijita Kar

The word Puja stands for worship. Durga puja, the worship of goddess Durga, is one of the biggest celebrations in the Eastern part of India. It is known by various names in different states. In the Western part of India it is called Navratri and in the North it is known as Dusshera. It is nine days long celebration and the start is marked by Mahalaya which is a day prior to the first day of the puja. The word Mahalaya stands for the great beginning. On the day of Mahalaya people wake up at four in the morning to listen to the recital of the great victory of goddess Durga on the radio.

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The first three days of the celebration is mostly bringing the statues of goddess Durga and her children (who are other gods and goddesses whom she took under her wings as her children), namely Saraswati, Kartik, Ganesh and Laxmi, to the pandal (a fabricated structure) and decorating the surroundings. On the fourth and fifth day the facial expressions of goddess Durga are drawn and eventually her whole face is painted and she is dressed in a gorgeous saree (Indian traditional clothes). On the sixth day, Maha Shashti, her eyes are completed and with that the curtains are raised for people see the statues of goddess Durga and her four children for the first time that year. This curtain raiser is followed by the recitation and a dramatization of the story of how the evil was defeated. The story goes as follows:

When the evil, Mahishasur(meaning the great demon) started taking over the world the gods in heaven tried to stop him with all the efforts they could put in. However, he had the blessing that no man could ever defeat him and thus all gods failed. In an effort to defeat him they decided to create a creature so strong and powerful that it contains all the powers of every god in heaven. They created a female god and named her Durga. She had ten hands and had a weapon in eight hands. She uses two hands to hold the trident and one hand is free, blessing her disciples. Her strength is symbolized by the tiger that she rides. She fights the evil off with her power and eventually defeats him by impaling her trident in him.

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On the seventh day, Maha Saptami, everyone gathers in the afternoon for a feast and in the evening they come together to dance on the beats of the dhak (a musical instrument). The essence of Durga puja is incomplete without dhak. It is a drum like instrument played with the help of two sticks. People dance to the beat of the instrument every time they hear it. The eighth day, Maha Ashtami, is the most important day. People fast in the morning and pray to Maa Durga by giving anjali, a form of prayer where you repeat all the chants after the priest and then ask Maa Durga to grant your wishes. A lot of people decide to do nirjalavrath which is fasting without drinking even a drop of water. The first drop of water that is provided is the charanamrita (Charan = feet, amrita= holy water) which means holy water from the goddess’ feet, meaning her blessings. The afternoon is followed by a delicious vegan meal. In the evening everyone gets together and people go around seeing the different pandals in the area.

The festival is not limited to only the worshipping and music. With the influx of the modern world and growth in economy, most districts host a numerous number of puja locations. Each location has its own pandal and statues.

There is a competition held in Kolkata (formally known as Calcutta) for which area has the best theme for the pandal for the year’s celebration. Everyone builds a unique pandal starting from the remake of the famous temples and architectures, to a very creative pandal representing the heaven and the fight between Mahishasur and goddess Durga. This year some of the themes were library, carving on one single wood log, etc.

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On the ninth day, Maha Navami, we have The Maha Navami Yajna (chanting of vedic mantra and offerings). This yajna is important because it is believed to get rid of one’s future troubles. The night of Maha Navami is the last night of celebration but the tenth night and the visarjan (submerging the statues in the water so the clay can melt away and settle on the sea/river bed) is also done with great enthusiasm. On the tenth day married women come to the pandal wearing a red and white saree and powdered vermillion (known as sindoor in Bengali), since it is the symbol of a married woman, much like the ring on your left hand in the Western world. They offer the sindoor to all the goddesses and gods by pouring a little on their feet and putting a dot on their forehead and also offer sweets (dessert items made out of milk mostly). Once they are done offering, they start the sindoor khela which is playing with the vermillion that was offered. They put the powder on each other’s face and offer each other sweets as a symbol of a healthy and blessed future. Later in the afternoon the statues are loaded on trucks and driven to the holy water of Ganges for the visarjan. People dance to the beat of either dhak or play music very loud to give Maa Durga a happy and grand departure. It is a procession where people dance like there is no worry in the world. They announce the departure of Maa Durga and her companions to everyone around them, even though the tenth day signifies the end of celebration and is usually a sad affair, the celebration uplifts the mood. And thus, the saying goes “ashche bochhor abar hobe,” meaning it will happen again next year.

Photo #1 The Library Theme
Photo #2 Carved on a Wooden Log
Photo #3 The entrance resembles medieval Indian palaces. With elephants adorning the gates and soldiers lined up, it looks like the era of the Kings and Queens have returned for a celebration so grand.


For all of the North Star Project 2013-2014 Reports, see

For all of the North Star Project 2013 Summer Reports, see

The North Star Project: Collaboration between The Middle Ground Journal Student Interns, The College of St. Scholastica, and North Star Academy 8th Grade Global Studies Classes, 2013-2014 School Year Reports.

Under the leadership of our North Star host teachers and student interns, The North Star Project has flourished for two years. For a brief summary, please see a recent article in the American Historical Association’s Perspectives on History, at:

Having re-tooled and re-designed the collaborative program, we are drawing on the experience of our veteran student interns, ideas from our host teachers, and new projects provided by our incoming student interns. This school year The Middle Ground Journal will share brief dispatches from our North Star Project student interns, particularly from those who are currently stationed, or will soon be stationed abroad. As of the time of this report we have confirmed student interns who will be reporting from Mongolia, Southern China, Shanghai, northeastern China, The Netherlands, Tanzania, Ireland, England, Finland, Russia, and Haiti. We also have students developing presentations on theatrical representations of historical trauma, historical memory, the price individuals pay during tragic global conflicts, and different perceptions of current events from around the world.  We will post their brief dispatches here, and report on their interactions with the North Star students and teachers throughout the school year.

Hong-Ming Liang, Chief Editor, The Middle Ground Journal, The College of St. Scholastica, Duluth, MN, USA, 2013-2014 School Year

(c) 2013 The Middle Ground Journal, Number 7, Fall, 2013. See Submission Guidelines page for the journal’s not-for-profit educational open-access policy.


Filed under North Star Student Editors, Professor Hong-Ming Liang, Srijita Kar

32 responses to “The North Star Project, 2013-2014 Report Number Eighteen — Durga Puja in Eastern India, by Srijita Kar

    • Tayler

      I liked reading about the competition to build pandals that fit different themes. This is one of the things I could relate to a close to home tradition. It reminded me of the snow sculptures and ice sculptures we build here in Minnesota every year. It is a great way to express ideas, both religious and not.

    • Maria Nowak

      This is a really cool tradition and celebration to learn about! I am very unfamiliar with this tradition, so thank you for sharing your thoughts. I appreciate how many details you gave, and how you laid out each day in a simple way of understanding the importance of this tradition. Though I used to have stronger ties to my religion when I was growing up, I did not partake in traditions this extravagant. I always wish I was more involved with my religious community, but I haven’t quite found my niche yet. I really appreciate learning about cultures different than my own, and my curiosity always leaves me wishing I could experience them for myself. How did you come to learn so much about this tradition? How many people in this world celebrate this tradition?

  1. Brianna Curtis

    This celebration is quite unique in the sense that it has many specific rituals and is over many days, each with intricate importance. While reading this, it reminded me of some Catholic traditions of fasting, holy water, singing, praying, etc. It’s interesting how one religion can have many different views than others, but in some way can be related. A few things I wonder is how many people show up to these festivities each year? Also, what are the 8 weapons Durga grasps and is there any symbolic retribution to these items? Very interesting content.

    • Srijita Kar

      This festival takes place in a lot of different areas in the same town and numerous people visit multiple pandals. So, there is not a particular number I can give you and say this many people show up. About the eight arms of Durga and the weapons she carries, it is a lot to explain in one comment so I might write another article in about two weeks. Keep looking for it and I’ll answer your questions! 🙂

  2. Joe Chell

    It was nice to learn about a festival I’ve never heard of before, and it was definitely interesting to see how the festival worked over the period of time and also what kind of things happen on each day

  3. Jojo Jurgens

    I thought there were many similarities with the Durga Puja celebration and the Brazilian Carnival. Such as the building of pandal’s and the huge vehicles built in Brazil, each year having different themes. The Brazilian carnival also goes on for some days, such as the Durga Puja celebration. I thought this was interesting also because it lasts longer than the Brazilian Carnival; and how each day is a different kind of celebration.

  4. Francisco Ortiz

    I think it’s unique on how different religions and practices. It’s similar to the Catholic religion in which they worship and the type of things they do for lent.

  5. Shane FInnegan

    I was extremely interested in the fact that the ritual took place over multiple days. The fact that a group of people could be so holy and secure over such a time period is incredible. One question that I have though, is how do they pick who leads these rituals?

    • Srijita Kar

      Hi Shane,
      The person who leads these rituals is a priest. It is very similar to appointing a church priest. Every place has their own priest to lead the ritual and then it is passed on to his students who help him through the rituals over the years.

  6. Kirsten Olsen

    I found it kind of funny how they modified the festival as almost a competition to see who held the best festival instead of just celebrating these 10 days like they are supposed too. This reminds me of how christmas has become in the American culture more of a competition to who bought a better gift, rather than a celebration.

    • Srijita Kar

      This competition is very friendly. We all appreciate it and respect every other area’s celebration. This competition is more for people to enjoy the different theme’s and pick which one they liked according to their taste.

  7. I thought that this celebration sounded very interesting and the author of the piece does a fine job with using lots of descriptions so I could really picture things as I read them. Great job! A question though, the feast was a vegan feast so do the people from this area always eat a vegan diet or is it part of the tradition around this holiday?

  8. Cheyenne Lemm

    This is amazing, I really love the symbolism and the use of the pandal, many cultures use alters or shrines to help have a connection with their gods. I find the rituals done on the tenth day to be the most fascinating, though I was wondering what the significance of the women being married to visit the pandal to perform this ritual is.

    • Srijita Kar

      One of the stories related to this celebration is that goddess Durga has come to her parent’s house from her husband’s house. On the 10th day she is returning to her husband’s house again. Thus, the significance of married women performing the ritual is that goddess Durga is married and she is departing her parent’s house as a married women.

  9. Zhiyu Yang

    This article really broadened my horizon of Indian culture. The author described the details of the carnival day by day. Goddess Durga is the symbol of protection for people in India. Although Durga had ten hands and many weapons, she is still the spiritual sustenance which contains people’s hope for a better life.

  10. Ruby Przybyl

    For my whole life, I’ve always been fascinated with Indian culture, I really liked learning about this religious festival. I think it is cool how it lasts for many days and there are so many details.

  11. Jimmy Lovrien

    he multi day festival reminds me of Advent, the four weeks leading up to Christmas. During that time, Christians will often use statues depicting the nativity scene, much like the usage of Durga statues in this festival.

    Born and raised in Minnesota, I am only familiar with American and Christian holidays. And out of all of the events I partake in, none of them are celebrated heavily outside my own family. Are certain cultures more prone to celebrating together as a community?

  12. Samantha Frascone

    I thought the most interesting part of this article was that the goddess, Durga, was created to be the strongest of all gods/goddesses. One would think that they would have tried to create a male god to be strongest, opposed to a woman. Durga isn’t jus strong in physical strength though it’s her inner power and outside beauty which makes her strong and unique, and I found that to be very interesting.

  13. Morgan Schmitz

    I really liked this article because it was really interesting to hear about other cultures celebrations. Here in America, we are often not exposed to what other places in the world do. What I found interesting was that this great Goddess who brought so much peace to the world, had so many weapons. I find it strange that we as humans have often had the view that in order to bring peace into the world there must be some kind of fighting first.

  14. Steffanie

    It is amazing how people can come together for a religious experience,not for only an hour or two at a time, but for days at a time.

  15. Julius Johnson

    I think the celebration is very unique, because it takes multiple days for them to worship Durga. I find it very interesting that it takes 3 days for them to bring Durga statue and her children. The story on how she was created is intriguing, because the gods give her all their power to stop a demon.

  16. Sam Yocum

    I really liked finding out about the different names for the celebration that each area has. I also enjoyed learning the story of Durga, as it fascinates me.

  17. Brandon Torres

    I like this for two reasons. First, because I think this is a really interesting festival to learn about. Second, because it also shows how certain overtones are present through all religions.

  18. Tommy Traaholt

    I found this very interesting because of the fact that there are so many specific rituals that need to be done. After reading the article i noticed some similarities with being a catholic. We also have a period were we fast, and the religion has a lot to do with holy water and praying. Overall very nice article!

  19. Morgan Young

    I appreciated the short story of how Durga was created and defeated the great demon. It is interesting how many powerful and even dark gods and goddesses there are in the Hindu religion. It’s amazing how long the community takes to worship Durga, but I liked the saying at the end which translated to, ” it will happen again next year.” So instead of being sad that the celebrations are over, the community realizes it will come again soon.

  20. Ashley Svihel

    I like learning about other cultures celebrations and reading this article was very interesting. I found it unique and very cool that they did something everyday to eventually finish on the ninth day.

  21. daniela rojas

    It is always nice learning about other celebrations and trying to find connections to the things you already know. It was interesting learning about the things people do on each of the days of the celebration and how they really follow them as they are.

  22. Michel Doege

    Celebrations in different parts of the world are always different from the ones that I am used to, but at the same time I cant help but notice some similarities between holidays. The main part that is different from what I am used to is the multiple days of a holiday, I usually think of one day sanctified for an event, but the idea of it lasting 9 days is very cool. I can only imagine how much energy and excitement takes place. There are similarities too that I noticed though out most holidays people tend to fast. I find it fascinating that across most cultures fasting is a way to show ones commitment.

  23. Matt Breeze

    This is fascinating. The details you provide really make this into a relatable experience rather than just a celebration viewed from afar. What is the significance of having the faces painted on over a number of days? I can’t help but think that this has a meaning attached to it. The huge size of the celebration and the number of people who participate in all manner of ways is neat! I do not attend any celebrations that come even close to this size in my personal or family life, so I find that especially fascinating.

  24. Lydia Liubakka

    This was such an interesting read. I love to learn about cultural traditions that I have never heard about before. The way you described the events made it easy to envision in my mind, now if only I get the change to visit India during Durga Puja. The second photo of the pandal is extraordinary, I would have never guessed that it was made out of wood. I know very little about the social culture in India, but I wonder if having a powerful goddess has elevated woman’s status in the country. This is a question I often have about other cultures because I have read Carol P. Christ’s “Why Women Need the Goddess”.

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