By Uma Purkayastha
Durga, Hindu religious texts say, arrives and departs during the autumnal festival on various modes of transport.
It was no different in 1907 when the Goddess and her family used the mythical modes of transportation to spiritually alight on earth from heaven. One of her idols, though, had an adventurous trip to Shillong – all the way from Kolkata via Shillong.
Shillong’s landmark Harisabha started celebrating Durga Puja in 1896, months before the devastating earthquake of 1897. The Harisabha Sarbojanin Durga Puja will complete 127 years of celebration this year, a major achievement for Shillong’s Bengalis.
All the years have been eventful, but none perhaps can beat the 1907 edition of the Puja at Harisabha in terms of adventure.
The Shillong-Guwahati motor service was introduced in 1906 and the British government then allowed a few small trucks to carry goods for official purposes. Use of such trucks by the public was strictly prohibited.
The idol that year had taken a long time to arrive from Kolkata by a cargo vessel. Dinanath Biswas, the founder-secretary of Harisabha Durga Puja, was anxious as he rode a bullock cart to Guwahati to receive the idol that reached Guwahati on October 10, two days before the Puja was to start.
Biswas was desperate to take the idol to Shillong by the morning of October 11, or the Bilwa-Sasthi ritual for ceremoniously installing the idol would be hampered. The bullock cart was out of the question as it would take 2-3 days to reach Shillong.
He suddenly noticed an empty government truck and requested the driver to take the idol to Shillong. The driver, a Gorkha man, knew the importance of the idol and Puja but told him he would need proper permission from the police to carry any load for the public. Biswas realised seeking permission would consume a lot of time. He told the driver he was willing to take a risk and asked him to help him load the idol carefully on the truck. As the vehicle started, Biswas knew the consequences of disobeying the government order and he had almost compelled the reluctant driver to hit the road. Biswas prayed to Goddess Durga as the wheels of the truck rolled.
As luck would have it, the police stopped the truck within half an hour and took the vehicle to the police station in Guwahati, then spelt Gauhati. With the Goddess on his lips, Biswas approached the British officer mustering all his confidence. He was charged with breaking the law along with the driver.
Biswas explained his problem and told the officer that Goddess Durga is the protector of the whole universe; if Her puja was not performed properly, it could rain misery or misfortune on earth. Considering all the evil consequences, he took the risk of taking the idol to ensure the Puja was performed in time. He confessed that he had forced the driver to transport the idol because he had no other alternative even if it meant inviting punishment. So, he took the risk despite knowing the government rules with the hope that the authorities would consider his helpless condition.
The British officer was impressed with the explanation Biswas had put forward and was touched by his sense of responsibility for the religious programme. The officer recalled the Great Earthquake and said Shillong could do with some divine intervention. He not only permitted Biswas to proceed with the idols by truck but also exempted the total cost of transportation.
After this incident, the British government made the transportation of idols from Guwahati to Shillong free through an official notification. That year (1907) was also significant because Lieutenant Lancelot Hare, the then Acting Governor of Assam, visited the Harisabha Durga Puja – a first for any British officer.
The British generosity was possible only because of the extraordinary presence of mind that Dinanath Biswas had displayed.
(Collected from the late Monoranjan Choudhury of Harisabha)
Reminisces from old residents
Jagadish Sen Gupta. Kolkata. (Centenarian)
Born in 1922, I can recollect Durga Puja celebrations in Shillong since my childhood days, which were free from all anxieties of adulthood, when homework and exams took a backseat and days would be filled with fun and joy. Everybody would get new clothes according to their capacity, and we were satisfied with whatever we got. Almost a century back, we could only partake in Arati competitions, cultural performances ‘Jatra-gan’, ‘Theatre’ which were the main attractions during puja. Till 1940, I think there were not more than six public pujas in Shillong of which Harisabha, Jail Road and Rilbong were the main attractions for us! Being a centenarian, memories of Shillong are still quite vivid to me.
Purnendu Chaudhuri, Rilbong Shillong. (Octogenarian)
Memories of Durga Puja of our childhood days are fantastic! My first memorable puja was ‘Rilbong Sarvojanin Durga Puja’ where I can remember my first attraction was to look at the idols and sneak a glance of the idols’ faces that would arrive from Gauhati by truck. Rilbong’s Jatra performances would transpire at night in the open field, which were arranged from Calcutta every year. People from each and every corner of Shillong would throng to our pandal to witness these performances. Living through the ages, things are now mechanical and artificial. Back in the day, decoration to immersion would be done by the local upto the Wah Umkhrah, with full devotion and sanctity, which we cannot imagine today!
Dibakar Sen, Bengaluru. ( Septuagenarian)
For Shillong my heart throbs, sobs and mourns! I miss Shillong especially during Puja since my childhood was spent in the Hari Sabha puja pandal. Every puja pandal has warmth and a cordial reception. From Bhog prasada to aarti everyone has something to look forward to, by transcending the barriers of caste, creed, community and religion, making Shillong an Island of peace and tranquility.
Dr. Streamlet Dkhar, N.E.H.U. Shillong.
As we all know that Shillong is a cosmopolitan city having a number of varied communities besides the locals. Believers of different faiths are also celebrating their rituals according to their own faiths. The Hindus celebrate Durga Puja in good spirit in all nooks and corners of the city. I had been associated with the Central Puja Committee two decades ago, and I loved visiting the different ornate pandals. I marvel at the expertise of the artisans who craft the Idols and the energy of the ‘Drum Beatings’ that is immensely rejoiced. To me, the sense of unity in diversity, respecting all religions and faiths, and overcoming racism stands paramount.
Sunirmal Kr. Sen, Gaziabad U.P (Octogerarian)
I can recollect Puja in Shillong since 1958; when celebrations were of simple nature unlike those today. People were more pious and God fearing, ensuring meticulous execution of rituals but nowadays Puja has a social and cultural outlook than religious. Memories of Shillong Durga Puja always makes me nostalgic.
Gautam Chakraborty, Jail Road, Shillong (Sexagenarian)
I can recall performances of Durga Puja in Shillong as I was fond of drama and music. I’d rush to the nearest puja pandals of Jail Road, Thana Road and to Harisabha to the Jatra-gan. ‘Jatra’ would be arranged by Jailroad Puja Committee and Rilbong Puja Committee mainly; but theatres would be played in many of the Puja Pandals. At present, Shillong has more than 60s Pujas that are orchestrated in glamour; but I feel, ‘Old is Gold’!