Diwali has a certain way of arriving in my life! The year is usually drawing to a close and winter is just around the corner. There is a slight nip in the air and mornings begin to get rather chilly. My early morning walks get slightly delayed with each dawn that creeps up slowly to nudge me to keep to my schedule, every waking day. As I look back wistfully on the weeks just gone, a certain sense of sadness envelopes me. There is a lull that falls between the frenzy of our four-day annual festival of Durga Puja and the excitement of Diwali (For a Bengali, this is Kali Puja!). In between, life goes on as usual, from one task to the other, that balancing act of juggling tasks and scheduling jobs, all of which need to be completed on time. The balcony garden is bursting with buds and blooms of all kinds, shapes and colours and I am already sad to think that very soon they will all be gone, except for the odd one or two. And, just then, at that very moment, almost always I am reminded that the day has just arrived. And, today, dear friends, happens to be our Kali Puja, the worship of the Goddess Kali that the Bengali community celebrates on this day.
In Bengal, the day before Kali Puja is when it all starts. The day is referred to as Bhoot Chaturdashi. ‘Bhoot Chaturdashi’ is also the day when people typically throng the markets to buy fourteen kinds of leafy vegetables or ‘choddo shaak’. Traditionally, these are eaten by everyone in the family for lunch. These are sorted and usually sold in bundles, ready to be chopped up and cooked. In the evenings, after sunset, fourteen diyas (earthen lamps) are lit at home. It is believed that these lamps have the force to ward off evil spirits. It is also believed by some that on the night before Kali Puja, the spirits of fourteen generations of our ancestors descend upon the earth. Pandals are set up all everywhere. Although not as elaborate as that during Durga Puja, once the day draws near, we get to see Goddess Kali in her temporary homes with glittering fairy lights shining through the dark sky. But the prayer and worshipping itself happens at midnight, so people stay up all night, organise cultural programmes and participate in the festivities all night long! That’s how the resident Bengali celebrates Kali Puja!
Having spent my childhood outside Bengal for the most part of my childhood, my experience of Kali Puja has been in typical probashi (non-resident Bengalis) style! For us Bhoot Chaturdashi was actually ‘Çhoti Diwali’, in a way similar to the way North-Indians celebrated it. But, mother would invariably try to make her own collection of fourteen greens (not always, would be less sometimes, I suspect!) from our kitchen garden in the backyard as part of lunch, after which we would get busy preparing a large variety of sweets for the big day to come. In the evening, we would light fourteen diyas by the doorway and light up the pathway down the entire stretch leading up to the gate, which would glow beautifully, before strong and bitterly cold winds would blow them all off and we’d all huddle indoors, waiting for Diwali the next day and praying it doesn’t rain, so we could light up our sparklers and crackers! Looking back, it was so much fun even if we had an hour or two to ourselves sharing in the celebrations together. Quite unlike the thick foul-smelling air of today and the screaming, piercing shrills of the crackers that deafen our ears and scare the pets and strays away into looking for quiet corners! Diwali actually used to be so much fun then, something that I feel is all but lost in today’s highly commercialised world!
So, irrespective of whether we had rain, wind or storm, we used to be one large family ready to celebrate together. It continued this way until I completed school and came to live in Calcutta for my higher studies. Seeing the way the Calcuttans celebrated Diwali, I had to conclude that to a Bengali, in Kolkata, celebrating Diwali or Kali Puja is more like a carnival and a glittering night out and rituals and religion has very little to do with it. No amount of description can ever do justice to the way Calcuttan celebrate Durga Puja and Kali Puja. One has to be there to experience it first-hand!
I could sum it up in this way -‘Baaro maashe tero parbon‘ (thirteen festivals in twelve months)! That’s the Bengali’s love for food, fun and festivity and so, most of them not only celebrate Kali Puja, the Bengali way, but Diwali as well, the pan-Indian way! The festivities aren’t as big or as long as those of Durga Puja, but they are no less enthusiastic.
The day after Bhoot Chaturdashi is Kali Puja, or Diwali. On the night of the puja, every Bengali household is lit up. While some people prefer candles and fairy lights, most people still light up Diyas (the traditional clay lamps) for decoration. They are lined up and filled with either ghee or mustard oil and used to light up hallways and home terraces, balconies and window sills, giving a warm glow that fills up every little nook and corner and floods it with light. Huge crowds descend upon the streets to burst crackers, ranging from the sparklers (fuljhari) to rockets and the bombastic firecrackers that make a deafening sound!
This day marks the worship of the goddess Kali – the fearful and ferocious form of the mother goddess Durga. The goddess is worshiped on a new moon night, but since this is a puja in the tantric tradition, the traditional offerings to the goddess include meat and alcohol. The bhog (which is the Bengali word for prasad) can include khichuri and mutton cooked without garlic or onions. Nowadays, of course, instead of animal sacrifice, vegetables such as bottle gourds or pumpkins are offered as a symbolic sacrifice.
Kali Puja is an intense invocation to the fearsome goddess. The main purpose of the worship is to seek the help of the goddess in destroying evil – both in the outside world and within us.
Legend goes that long ago, the demons, Shambhu and Nishambhu disturbed the peace of Indra, the king of gods, and his empire (heaven). After extensive and endless battles, the gods lost all hope and the demons became stronger. The gods took refuge in the Himalayas, the abode of Lord Shiva and Parvati. The shaken gods sought protection from Mother Durga, the goddess of Shakti (Strength). Legend has it that Kali who was born from Durga’s forehead as Kal Bhoi Nashini was created to save heaven and earth from the growing cruelty of the demons. Along with Dakini and Jogini, her two escorts, she set on her way to end the war and kill the devils. There was chaos all around. After slaughtering the demons, Kali made a garland of their heads and wore it around her neck. In the bloodbath, she lost control and started killing anyone who came her way. The gods started running for their lives. The only source of protection seemed Lord Shiva, Durga’s consort.
Seeing the endless slaughter, Shiva devised a plan to save the world. He lay down in the path of the rampaging Kali. When the goddess unknowingly stepped on him, she regained her senses. The well-known picture of goddess Kali, with her tongue hanging out, actually depicts the moment when she steps on the Lord and repents.
Alongside the worship of goddess Kali, on this day, many families also worship goddess Lakshmi particularly by Bengalis hailing originally from West Bengal. Those who originally hail from what used to be East Bengal and is now Bangladesh would have already performed Lakshmi Puja (Kojagori) a week after Durga Puja gets over. All said and done, for the average Bengali no festival is ever complete without food and Kali Puja is no exception. The festival just happens to be an excuse to feast with close friends and family and every traditional meal is replete with sweets and savouries that are made days in advance in keeping with the tradition.
And thus goes the story that has been passed on from one generation to the other. But, beyond all this is another reality. At a time when the unhurried pace of life has given way to a fast changing one, traditional festivals assume a deeper significance, when instead of following the rituals blindly, we delve deeper into what they actually symbolise in our lives. To me, Diwali signifies the passage from darkness to light, from ignorance to knowledge and from negativity to positivity.
“All those other things, they are the glass that contains the lamp, but you are the light inside.” – Let all that is dark and negative flow away and may the inner light shine forth and lead you forward!
Let the spirit of Diwali continue to bring light into our lives and lead us towards fulfilment. Happy Diwali to one and all!