September 14, 2014

The First Durga Puja in Kolkata

The First Durga Puja in Kolkata

The biggest annual religious festival for the Bengalis, Durga Puja celebrates the victory of the Hindu goddess Durga over the evil demon Mahishasura. The occassion is also known by various names such as Durgotsab ('Festival of Durga') and Sharodotsab ('Autumn festival').


Following the Hindu scriptures, the actual worship of Goddess Durga takes place in the Hindu month of Chaitra (corresponding to March or April of the Gregorian calendar). But this worship is observed only by a handful in some places of West Bengal. The autumnal celebration of Durga Puja, known as "Sharadiya", is more popular and takes place in the month of Sharat (September or October according to the Gregorian calendar).


The "Sharadiya" Durga Puja is said to have first started in the year 1757 with the Durga Puja of Sovabazar Rajbari. The oldest puja in Kolkata, it came to being due to the efforts of Maharaja Naba Krishna De, the founder of the Shobhabazar royal family. It is said that after emerging victorious in the Battle of Plassey, Colonel Robert Clive wanted to pay a thanks to the divine forces for his success. The Battle of Plassey was a landmark in the history of British domination in India as the victory of the British forces in this war gave the East India Company control of Bengal. Robert Clive was the then chief officer of British East India Company and he led his forces to victory in this crucial battle, that too with minimum casualties. As the only church in Calcutta at that time was destroyed by Siraj-ud-Daulah, Clive was unable to show his gratitude to God.


When Raja Nabakrishna Deb came to know of Clive’s desire, he invited the latter to his house at Durga Puja and offer his thanks at the feet of Goddess Durga. Initially Clive had some hesitations to attend the puja as in those days Christians were not allowed by the Hindus to take part in Hindu festivities. However, the mighty Nabakrishna Deb managed it all and Robert Clive paid a visit to the Shobhabazar Rajbari to offer his thanks to Goddess Durga. Thereafter, the Shobhabazar Durgotsab(Durga Puja ceremony) came to be known as the "Company Puja".


The Shobhabazar Sharodotsab proved a trendsetter in Durga Puja festivities of Bengal. From this time until the independence of India in 1947, inviting Englishmen to Durga Puja ceremonies became a fashion. The number of Englishmen attending the family Durga Puja became an index of prestige and a status symbol among the upcoming merchant class of Kolkata. After this trendsetting puja of 1757, many British Officers of the East India Company were invited as guests of honour in the Pujas by various wealthy mercantile and Zamindar families in Bengal. The hosts vied with one another in arranging the most sumptuous feasts and organising lavish decorations and entertainment for their white guests. This was a way of pleasing officials of The East India Company which was in charge of a large part of India including Bengal after the battles of Plassey and Buxar.


With time, the "barowari" (community) pujas took over in a big way. The coming of corporate sponsorship helped these public puja ceremonies far surpass the grandeur of the private pujas. However, the Durga Pujas of the old zamindar families in and around Kolkata still attract crowds. These still survive even after the downfall of royalty in India. In 2008, Shovabazar Rajbari organised the 252nd Durga Puja.
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