Maha Ashtami is the most important of the four days of Durga Puja. People are gripped by feverish revelry and are ready to make the most of the day, in whatever way they can. The morning starts with pushpanjali across homes and pandals. Colourful congregations of devotees can be seen everywhere.
Young girls clad in saris and young boys dressed in traditional kurtas come and go like butterflies, adding hue to the festivity. And we all know how common it is for teenagers to fall prey to Cupid's penchant arrow, as they remain busy impressing their new found crush rather than chanting the anjali mantra.
Time to relish bhog and enjoy relentless adda
After the pushpanjali is over it is time to gorge on some light snacks, and wait for the Maha Ashtami bhog to complete the daytime platter. The bhog, in most places, comprises steaming golden yellow khichri, along with begun bhaja, a vegetable mix known as lyabra, dhokar dalna, payesh, chutney and sweets. The culinary delights vary from a bonedi bari Puja to a para Puja, but the enjoyment of savouring bhog with your dear ones remains the same.
A plate of typical Ashtami bhog
The meal is followed by a lazy afternoon adda which also gives people a chance to re-energise themselves for embarking on a fresh pandal-hopping spree evening onwards. Everyone dresses up in their best attire in the evening of Maha Ashtami. For many young people, Ashtami evening means endless adda – either at their own para Pujas or at any place they can meet. Along with adda, especially in para Pujas, strumming the guitar to belt out popular numbers, hours of group antakshari with friends and friends of friends, a contest to find of who can gulp the highest number of phuchkas or some such, and other forms of entertainment spice up the evenings, which often stretch to the nights. All these further enhance an already eventful day.
The rituals of Ashtami
At many places, Kumari Puja is performed on this day. A girl whose age falls within one to sixteen and has not reached puberty, symbolising the Kumari form of the goddess Durga, is worshipped in front of the idol of the goddess. The Kumari Puja at Belur Math is very famous. It was first performed in 1902 by Swami Vivekananda, and has been extremely popular ever since, with live telecasts on television happening now. Devotees throng to Belur Math every year to witness this ritual. The Kumari is also offered gold and silver ornaments, and clothes, as a part of the ritual, which is considered a pious act.
Kumari Puja at Belur Math
Sandhi Puja, meant to destroy negative energies present in nature, remains one of the most important rituals performed at the juncture of Ashtami (8th lunar day) and Navami (9th lunar day). The duration of Sandhi Puja includes the last twenty-four minutes of Ashtami and the first twenty-four minutes of Nabami. The Puja may take place in the evening or in the wee hours of the morning. During Sandhi Puja, the goddess Durga is worshipped as Devi Chamunda, the incarnation of the goddess who killed Mahishasura. 108 lotuses and 108 diyas are the most important requirements of this Puja.
As midnight comes along and Maha Ashtami gives way to Maha Nabami, there appears a small cloud of heartbreak since the last day of this most awaited festival is nearing. But the enjoyment is far from being dampened. The celebration continues!