Durga Puja…

As I may have said already, although I am half Indian, I grew up in Mid Sussex so I know nack all about India really. However, recently The Father has been visiting from India and always around this time of the year, which happens to include an event that I have tagged along to for the last few years…Durga Puja (Worship of Durga). First then my version of who Durga is and the history of this festival. I say my version as it’s a complex subject filled with wondrous elements of Hindu philosophy and tradition, historical significance and the most lustrous artistry and ritual…and food.

Durga is one of the most powerful and popular incarnations of Mahadevi – the Great (mother) Goddess – an all encompassing female deity – and the irascible beauty is usually depicted in a warrior pose, with her many arms brandishing deadly weapons, and riding on a lion. Differing beliefs have her as an avatar of Parvati (the gentle yet powerful incarnation of Mahadevi and wife to Shiva and mother to Ganesh) or either created by the male gods to banish evil or, claim she is, in fact, an ancient and original Grain Goddess.

Durga’s most famous and enduring story is of her great defeat of the buffalo demon Mahishasura who had brought about a reign of terror in both heaven and earth. According to the story Durga was born out of the combined energy of the Hindu Trinity of Brahma (Creator), Vishnu (Maintainer), Shiva (Destroyer) as a fearsome warrior Goddess to defeat this rampaging and seemingly unstoppable demon as he could not be killed by a man or a god. Various gods gave her their weapons to arm her to defeat Mahishasura and it is this victory (and generally the victory of good over evil) that is celebrated at Durga Puja.

My Indian family is from West Bengal and Durga Puja is a big, big deal there, easily the biggest festival of the year and is basically a several day celebration! Before the worshipping and offerings can start there is a years worth of planning and intense work that has occurred to create and bring Durga to life. At temples and makeshift structures set up anywhere there is enough space (pandals) there are effigies of Durga and usually her associated children (Ganesh (via Parvati) – remover of obstacles, Lakshmi – wealth and prosperity (material and spiritual), Saraswati – knowledge, music, science and arts and Karthik – warfare and beauty. There are famous and much admired sculptors (and workshops) who make the more prestigious versions. As the event at the London Durga Puja is so huge and well supported they have a fantastic, beautifully sculpted set of gods. The Camden Centre is the home of the festival and their website says this about their gods:

‘Our present protima is a work of art, especially sculpted by the legendary sculptor Shri Ramesh Chandra Paul of Kumartuli, Kolkata on commission by the world renowned industrialist Mr Lakshmi N. Mittal Chairman of LMN Group/Ispat International Ltd., for the London Durga Puja Dusserah Committee as a gift.’

…and what a fabulous gift it is!

I remember a few years back The British Museum hosted the entire building and sculpting of the set of gods right in the atrium and I went there to watch the amazing, mind bogglingly skilful creation of these beautiful and majestic effigies. Here’s a link to some photos of the event:


I love the ritual and mass gathering and celebrations that attending this festival brings. The place is packed and buzzing with hundreds of families and individuals all coming along to give thanks, be blessed and have a good catch up. Various stages of the Puja are celebrated on different days and during the day there are many announcements for opportunities to be blessed or make offerings.

Being as this is a mass of Indians there has to be food involved! A form of Kitchari (a delicious and gentle mix of daal, rice, vegetables and spices that is ideal for detoxing) was being served but I was drawn to the samosas and vegetable cutlets that where being offered at a makeshift corner stall! These Bong (Bengali) specialities are so good it’s almost bad. The vegetable cutlets are a sublime combination of mashed potato and spices with peas and then some (or all) of many other variables like green beans, grated beetroot, carrots, cashews and coriander leaves. It’s the thin crust of breadcrumbs that’s so amazing though. Not some heavy handed gloopy coating but a fragile and crunchy shell. Wow! 

Bengali style samosas (singara) are a rare treat too! Crispy but soft outer casing crammed with a potato based filling. It’s the whole seeds that make these so tasty I think. Panch phoron (puran) is a ‘five spices’ combo used often in East Indian cooking consisting of cumin seeds (jeera), fenugreek seeds (methi), nigella seeds (kalonji), fennel seeds (saunf), black mustard seeds (rai).

They were being sold in threes so I mumbled something about an OCD issue about eating things in odd numbers and bought six…for the family at home of course! But sadly I must have left them on the bus on the way home as they never made it through the front door…(smiles innocently…)

There were various sweets available at the festival too, but I’ve never been a huge fan of the super sweet, soaked or syrupy varities. However, there was a sweet that you don’t see that often in regular places…it’s called Kanchagolla. I’ll grant you it’s a little like Rasgulla (Rasogolla) but without the syrup…kinda…anyhoo…it is absolutely fabulous. Made with full cream milk paneer and a little sugar (it’s not as sickly as other Indian sweets) and cardamon.

These I didn’t ‘lose on the bus’ and even those who usually find Indian sweets too rich, and overwhelmingly clawing, loved ’em! Apparently they are very easy to make…hmmm…maybe I’ll give them a go. All in the name of appeasing Durga you understand…I mean, we wouldn’t want her to get angry would we? We wouldn’t like her when she’s angry…

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