How smallpox once pockmarked Bengal’s puja calendar  

Basanti Puja Coronavirus
As Basanti Puja passed off quietly in the state, it left many in Bengal, like everywhere else, in a state of daze and disbelief.

Few seasons can rival the brilliance of spring in Bengal. Yet in the minds of many old-timers, basanta (Bengali for spring) has always been a mix of sweet blooms and sad memories. Reminders of a past they have been carrying in their hearts in the form of stories handed down from generation to generation about human misery wrought by bouts of a contagious disease — the deadly smallpox.

History seems to be repeating, with almost all puja organisers giving the “original” Durga Puja, held every year in the Bengali month of Chaitra (March-April), a miss to enforce social distancing in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak.

This ritual worshipping of goddess Durga during this time of the year is more popular as Basanti Puja. According to Hindu mythology, Basanti Puja is the actual puja of Durga. But centuries before the novel coronavirus put the goddess under quarantine, the vernal ritual was overshadowed by the “unseasonal” celebration of Durga Puja in autumn as devotees of the goddess found that the spring was not a favourable time for merrymaking.

Puja in times of social distancing 

Struggling to remain relevant amid the nationwide 21-day lockdown, a priest masked his face in the state’s silk city of Shantipur in Nadia district recently as he chanted mantras to invoke the goddess. The organisers of the over 400-year-old puja in Buroshibtala restricted the presence of devotees to only four persons, besides the priest in the puja pandal.

Even old-timers could not recall any mention of this puja (held from March 30 to April 3 this year) being held in such a lackluster manner ever before.

Sukumar Roy, a resident of the area, says like every year, the household preparations for the celebration — like getting new clothes for the children — were over by the time the nationwide 21-day lockdown was announced.

The puja committee, as per the government’s guidelines, too decided against any mass celebration and allowed only three women and a male member of the committee to enter the puja pandal to assist the priest in performing various rituals. The priest went about with the rituals and chanted the mantras, with his mask covering his face the entire time.

Dhakis, the traditional drummers who are an integral part of any puja in the state, were conspicuous by their absence, casting an eerie silence over the whole affair. There was also no distribution of bhog (food offered to goddess) to devotees as it could have led to crowding.

In Bolpur (in Birbhum district), where the worshipping of the ten-handed goddess originated according to one Hindu scripture, a 203-year-old puja had to be called off in the wake of restrictions imposed on mass gatherings.

“Perhaps it’s the first time that the puja could not be held with gusto in over two centuries. Centering around this five-day long celebration, every year we also organise a fair. But this time, we have cancelled all celebrations,” says Abhijit Dey, a member of the puja committee in the town’s Basanti Tala locality.

The coronavirus similarly trivialised the festivities in other parts of Bengal as well as in neighbouring states.

In Jamshedpur, Jharkhand, a club called Amra Sabai, which had been celebrating the puja for around 40 years in the steel city’s Sonari West Layout area, too abandoned the festival this year.

“We have decided against observing the puja, even on a small scale, to avoid any crowding,” Sumit Dey, who has been associated with this event since its inception, tells The Federal.

This is, however, not the first time, a contagion has hit the Basanti puja, held during Chaitra Navratri to insignificance.

Durga’s journey — from spring to autumn

According to Hindu scriptures, such as the Markandeya Purana, the goddess Durga was originally worshipped in the spring, and not in autumn as is popular now. Devi Mahatmyam, an ode to the goddess, credited Suratha, an emperor of ancient Vanga (now Bengal), whose capital was in present-day Bolpur, as the originator of the Durga Puja. He did the puja to recover his lost kingdom during spring season, according to the religious text dedicated to the goddess, believed to be composed between 400-600 CE.

The first written record of Durga Puja celebrations in autumn — months of September-October-November as per the Gregorian calendar — in Bengal goes back to the time of Jahangir’s reign. This was a time when the Mughal emperor was empowering Hindu zamindars as a counterbalance against the bickering nawabs of Bengal Subah.

The religious sanction to the autumnial worshipping of the goddess was derived from the Bengali translation of Ramayana by Krittibas Ojha, who took a deviation from the original text of Valmiki to invent unseasonal Durga Puja or Akaal Bodhan (unseasonal worship).

The 15th century Bengali poet in his translation of the epic, claimed that Rama, before going into the war with Ravana had worshipped goddess Durga in the month of Ashwin — an uncustomary time for worshipping the goddess. In Valmiki’s Ramayana, however, it was the Sun god and not the Durga, whom Rama invoked before the battle.

According to Valmiki, battle-weary Rama was advised by sage Agastya to worship Aditya or Suriya. The sage taught Rama thirty śhlokas (mantras) to invoke the sun god. The collection of these mantras is called Adityahridayam, which many Hindus chant even today.

It is not clear what prompted Ojha to twist the original tale that eventually led to the tradition of worshipping Durga during autumn. But as spring was for long associated with deadly pox epidemics in east India, more often festivity during this season used to be clouded by the shadow of mass deaths. For instance, a massive epidemic of smallpox in Bengal’s Murshidabad killed 63,000 people in 1770.  Hence, Basanti Puja slowly started losing relevance to autumnal Durga Puja.

Incidentally, the smallpox, just like Basanti Puja derived its Bengali name “Basanta rog” from the spring season.

As both in spring and autumn the same goddess is worshipped, apart from the time of celebration, rituals of both the pujas are almost similar, except for use of “ghat” — a small earthen pot used in the autumnal Durga Puja. Since autumn is an ‘odd time’ for invocation of Durga, a symbolic “ghat puja” is done on Sashti, the first day of autumnal Durga Puja celebration, which has long emerged as the main festival of Bengal.

Change is in the air

As Basanti Puja passed off quietly in the state, it left many in Bengal, like everywhere else, in a state of daze and disbelief. Could this be the last spring and celebration?

“Despondency is natural during such times. No one knows how the coronavirus will change our lives. But then there was a time when nobody thought humans could find a cure to smallpox. We must never stop believing in miracles,” says Roy.

His optimism perhaps found an echo in hundreds of devotees who thronged temples in different districts of Bengal on the occasion of Ram Navami on April 2, signalling another shift in Bengal’s puja culture. This shift, of course, is not pressed by any virus, but the import of Hindutva, a culture of Hindu supremacy.

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