Puja of the Past

Uma Purkayastha reminisces the Durga Puja in the Shillong of yore

By Uma Purkayastha

Durga Puja is a very special occasion that brings an awakening sensation among people irrespective of religion, caste or creed. The Puja lasts for three days only but its preparation starts three months before and its sweet fragrance lasts for days on. The marketplaces, especially the cloth and garment shops, the hosieries, the shoe shops, etc., become lively with customers for Puja shopping. Traders of cosmetics, utensils, stationeries and almost everything else do brisk business during the festivity.

Durga Puja is essentially a Hindu festival but the festival is not confined to a particular community. I had once asked one of my Khasi friends curiously in a crowded shoe shop, “Why do you come for marketing during the Puja rush?” She replied with a smile that Puja is the best time for marketing because the best fashionable commodities are available during that time.

‘Puja marketing’ is a passion for each and every Hindu family that saves for the occasion with a budget according to their spending capacity. In addition, it is a tradition to offer new pieces of clothing as gifts to close relatives, which is reciprocal. It involves huge expenditure for each and every family. Moreover, subscription for public pujas is also a big responsibility. In Shillong, more than 60 public pujas are celebrated with generous public contributions; each and every family is expected to contribute to at least 10 puja committees on average.

Sarvojanin Durga Puja in Shillong has completed 126 years. It was pioneered by some enthusiastic Bengali residents of Laban such as Kartick Ch. Chatterjee, Dinanath Biswas, Upendralal KanjilalNitai Basu and was performed at Harisabha, Laban, in a makeshift thatched house. Biswas was the main organiser and the founder secretary of the Durga Puja Committee.

During that period of poor transport services due to lack of motorable road between Shillong and Guwahati, the worshippers brought the idols from Kumartuli in West Bengal, first by train, then on a steamer and then by a vehicle up to Guwahati. From Guwahati to Shillong, the idols used to be brought by a bullock cart that took three days to reach. To save the idols from jerks of the long zig-zag rocky road, the young volunteers had to pull the cart themselves. The first priest of the first puja was brought from Sylhet, crossing the hills on foot. Bel-leaves, tulsi leaves and earthen pitchers, lamps etc., had to be brought from Sylhet.

Shillong’s first Sarvojanin Durga Puja cost the organisers ₹75 and 8 annas only! The highest rate of subscription was ₹2 and the lowest was 2 annas, which is equivalent to 12 paise. [Collected from the late Manoranjan Choudhury of Harisabha, Laban].

The next year was tragic for Shillong. The disastrous earthquake of June 12, 1897, took many lives and property. The people were so panic-stricken that they were praying to goddess Durga, the saviour, to save them from that severe calamity.

The Harisabha Durga Puja that year was celebrated more widely and people irrespective of religion donated for the festival. The Khasi people from adjacent villages came to see the Puja, who called the goddess, ‘Ka Blei Durka’. The total population of Shillong in 1897, after the earthquake, was 4,980. [Collected from the late B. Dutta Roy]

Since then, Durga Puja is being celebrated in Shillong without any break, braving many critical situations and hurdles. Some of the 60 pujas now are almost a century old. They include the Thana Road community puja (1901), Jail Road Sarvojanin Puja (1914), Lower Jail Road Assamese Puja (1922) and Rilbong Sarvojanin Puja (1927). Today, the average expenditure of each puja is ₹7-10 lakhs.

Other than the public Durga pujas, some private pujas have also been celebrated here with pomp and piety for years. One of them is the puja at the residence of the late advocate Kalyan Paul of Laban.

Shillong has faced many ups and downs, political instability, insurgencies, natural calamities, etc., over the last 126 years, but this has not dampened the Durga Puja celebration although it was subdued in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic situation. The prayers, though, were more intense with the people changing ‘Pani Viswam’, meaning ‘protect the whole universe’.

More than a century ago, Durga Puja in Shillong was more ritualistic and spiritual with devotees singing kirtan (choral devotional songs), recite holy books such as the Bhagwad Gita and enjoy ‘prasad’ (consecrated edibles) to their heart’s content. Today’s puja is embossed with sound and spectacle but the basic festivity remains unchanged.

The organisation that binds the festivity across Shillong and elsewhere in Meghalaya is the Central Puja Committee (CPC). A vital part of society as well as of the government, it organises the annual ‘get together for harmony’ programme whose USP is an all-faith meet underlining the oneness of God and oneness of humans. The committee organises a drum beat competition every year during puja where people from all communities join and enjoy. It also arranges goodwill visits to the Puja pandals by members of different communities toward communal harmony and peaceful coexistence.

Since 1992, the CPC has been working with the government and administration for the smooth celebration of Durga Puja and other festivals. The principle of CPC to uphold unity and amity among all sections of people residing in Meghalaya has been successful to a great extent.

The current year is still under COVID-19 restrictions but the Meghalaya government has permitted community pujas with adherence to the pandemic protocols. Let us pray together to Goddess Durga, the saviour of all evils, to protect the whole universe from all ills and evils.

‘Devi Proseedo!

Proseedo Mato Jogotokhilasya

Proseedo Visweswari Pahi Viswam

Tam Ishawari Devi Chara Charasya’

(O Goddess! The protector of the universe! Be pleased to us, protect your people, protect the whole universe from all evils)

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