Durga Puja is the biggest festival in Bengal. This is also known as Dussehra and Navaratri in other parts of India. Durga is the Goddess of divine power against all evils. The story goes that Mahisasur, the Buffalo Demon, through years of praying, received blessing from Lord Brahma, that no power can kill him which means he is invincible. But once gaining this power he started ravaging the whole world and killing people. And finally he wanted to uproot Gods too. The Gods, in dismay, combined their powers to create a beautiful maiden, and each placed his or her most potent weapon in one of her ten hands riding a lion.
Her return in each year in the Bengali month of Ashwin (September-October) commemorates Rama's invocation of the goddess Durga before he went into battle with Ravana. The traditional image of the Bengali Durga follows the iconographic injunctions of the Shastras. It is similar to the Durga of Aihole and of Mahabalipuram (seventh century). The tableau of Durga with her four children - Kartik, Ganesh, Saraswati and Lakshmi, representing respectively the Protector, the Initiator of the puja, Knowledge and the Provider - signifies the complete manifestation of the goddess.
Another legend has it that Lord Rama went to rescue his abducted wife Sita from the grip of Ravana, the king of the demons in Lanka. Before starting for his battle with Ravana, Rama wanted the blessings of Devi Durga. Pleased with Rama’s devotion, Durga appeared before him and blessed him. The battle started on the saptami and Ravana was finally killed on thesandhikshan i.e. the crossover period between ashtami and navami and was cremated ondashami. Since the period of this worship was different from the conventional festival time of spring or basant, this puja is also known as akal-bodhan or worship (bodhan) in an unconventional time (a-kaal).
The construction of images starts months back. Kumartuli, a place in north Calcutta, is famous as a place for expert artisans who use clay modeling to build the images of Durga, Mahisasur, Kartick, Ganesh, Saraswati and Lakshmi. This is a wonderful form of art and part of a deep rooted culture. In the recent years, eminent personalities from the painting and sculpture world also did lots of creative work on Durga images. Another group of people starts building a pandal (a covered huge stage ) with paper, wood, bamboos, clothes and other materials. They come up with beautiful structures, most of the times they are so beautiful and real that, it tough to believe that these are made for only couple of days or a week. Some constructions are built as replica of world famous structures.
The inauguration starts on Mahashasthi. The main puja is for three days - Mahasaptami, Mahaastami, Mahanavami. The puja rituals are long and very detailed and complicated. Three days of Mantras and Shlokas and Arati and offerings - needs an expert priest to do this kind of Puja. Because of these facts, the number of Pujas held in the family has reduced and Durga Puja has mostly emerged as a community festival. The city of Calcutta takes a different look during these three days, especially at night. Millions of people come to the city and line up before the pandals. The streets are lighted and the electricians display all different kind of light shows.
After the three days of Puja, in Dashami , in the last day, a tearful farewell is offered to the Goddess. Most of the community pujas arrange a grand send-off. The images are carried in processions around the locality and finally are immersed in a nearby river or lake. Vijaya Dashami is an event celebrated all over the country.
(excerpts from an article on Durga Puja titled "Durga Puja in Calcutta" by Jaya Chaliha and Bunny Gupta from the book "Calcutta The Living City - Volume II - The Present and Future" ( edited by Sukanta Chaudhuri ) from Oxford University Press.)