Maha Saptami is officially the beginning of Durga Puja and the holidays in West Bengal. The rituals begin early, just before dawn with ‘Kolabou snan’ or ‘Nabapatrika’. The snan or bathing is an ancient ritual and an elaborate one too. Nine kinds of plants are worshipped during this puja. It is believed that each of the nine plants signifies nine aspects of the goddess Durga.
The nine plants represent the nine goddesses. Banana plant or kola gaach represents the goddess Brahmani, colacasia plant or kochu gaach represents the goddess Kalika, turmeric plant or holud gaach symbolises Durga, jayanti plant denotes the god Kartiki, wood apple tree or bel gaach represents the goddess Shiva, pomegranate plant or dalim gaach represents the goddess Raktadantika, ashoka tree symbolises the goddess Sokrahita, arum plant or maankochu represents the goddess Chamunda, and rice plant represents the goddess Lakshmi. These are the nine forms of Durga.
In the early hours of Saptami, twigs of the 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 a king is bathed with waters from holy places and rivers, bathing a Nabapatrika too requires the same. All the nine goddesses representing Nabapatrika are bathed with water from eight different holy places. This bathing ritual is accompanied by varied mantras and diverse musical instruments for the 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 noibeddo, 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.
Returning after Kolabou snan
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 Durga and her children in 'live' mode. The rhythmic beats of the dhaak, kashor and ghanta help uplift the mood of Puja revellers and spread an auspicious blanket all around. Pushpanjali, or floral offering to the goddess Durga, follows.
The sound of the dhaak acts as an energiser – prettily dressed children go out on to the streets early, not willing to give any moment a miss. The many hues that Durga Puja brings to the lives of people 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. It helps everyone to do some catching up with locality gossip while slurping gorom khichuri or relishing luchi-begun bhaja.
In the evenings, the streets, eateries and the pandals are 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 waiting time. That man is a social animal is proof enough from this experience.
On Saptami, the feeling is usually that there are three more days ahead for fun – three more days with Maa Durga. As Saptami turns to Maha Ashtami, 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.