Maha Saptami is officially the beginning of Durga Puja and the holidays in West Bengal. The rituals begin early just before dawn with Kola Bou snan or Nabapatrika. The snan or the bathing is an ancient ritual and an elaborate one too. Nine kinds of plants are worshipped during this Puja. It is believed that each plant signifies nine aspects of Devi Durga.
The nine plants of Nabapatrika represent the nine Goddesses. The Banana plant or Kola Gaach represents Goddess Brahmani, the Colacassia plant represents Goddess Kalika, the Turmeric plant symbolises Devi Durga, Jayanti denotes Kartiki, Bel or wood apple Goddess Shiva, Pomegranate (Dalim Gaach) Raktadantika, Ashoka tree symbolises Sokrahita and the Arum plant (Maankochu) represents Chamunda, and the Rice plant Goddess Lakshmi. These Goddesses are the nine forms of Devi Durga.
In the early hours of Saptami, the twigs of white aparajita plant along with nine bunches of yellow threads are used to tie the Nabapatrika. It is then bathed. In the scriptures the elaborate bathing ritual of nabapatrika is compared with the coronation of a King. Just like the King is bathed with waters from holy places and oceans, bathing nabapatrika too requires the same. All the nine Goddesses representing nabapatrika are bathed with waters from eight different holy places. This bathing ritual is accompanied with varied mantras and diverse musical instruments for different goddesses.
Popularly known as Lord Ganesh's wife, Kolabou in reality has no relationship with Ganesh. The scriptures call her Nabapatrika. Interestingly enough, Nabapatrika was actually a popular ritual performed by the peasant folks for prosperous harvest. As idol worship was not common then, people worshipped Mother Nature.
The main Saptami Puja follows Kalparambho and Mahasnan. The important puja items required during Saptami are jute ropes, a pot, red thread, alta, four finger rings, four yadnyopaveet, a mirror, sandalwood, mashkolai, hibiscus flower, small noibiddo, a tekatha, one big earthen lamp, pancha pallab, pancha ratna, panchashasha, panchaguri, vermillion, items for arati, items for the yadnya - sand, wood, dry khorke grass, cow dung, kusha grass, ghee, 108 bel leaves and a bowl.
Invoking life into the Goddess
After the snan or bathing ritual, invoking life or pran into the idol is performed with great reverence. Technically this puts the idols of Ma Durga in 'live' mode. The rhythmic beats of the dhaak, kashor and ghanta help uplift the mood of Puja revelers and spread an auspicious blanket all around. Pushpanjali – or floral offering to Goddess Durga, follows.
The sound of the dhaak acts as an energizer - prettily dressed children are out on the streets early, not willing to give any moment a miss. The many hues that Durga Puja brings to the lives of people of Bengal are best compared with the colours of the new clothes worn by children and adults. Never mind the pinch of the new shoes, children and adults are seen proudly strutting around in them.
Let the celebrations begin
In the afternoon eating bhog together is a great feeling and helps everyone to do some catching up with locality gossip while slurping “Gorom Khichudi” or relishing luchi-begun bhaja.
In the evenings, the streets, eateries and the pandals are “jam packed” with people. A better expression would be “pickled” with people. Most maintain a mental diary of the number of pandals visited and anything new they spotted. While swimming through the surge of humanity or waiting in a darshan queue in front of a pandal, people do not seem to mind the experience. That man is a social animal is proof enough from this experience.
On Saptami the feeling is usually three more days ahead for fun – three more days with Maa Durga. As Saptami turns to Maha Asthami not many are aware, for it is one seamless, happy existence with the dhaak playing intermittently. There is a special fragrance in the air that is unique to Durga Puja.