There is neither any king nor any kingdom now. What was once the royal residence of the Malla Dynasty in present-day Bishnupur of West Bengal’s Bankura district has been reduced to rubble. But the royal family’s Durga Puja rituals, introduced by King Jagat Malla in 997 CE, are still being carried on by their descendants in the same thakur dalan (place of worship) where they began over a thousand years ago.
Bishnupur puja is the oldest Durga Puja held continuously for 1027 years in West Bengal. But that’s not the only thing that distinguishes it from the rest.
The rituals here start about 15 days before Durga Puja begins elsewhere in the country (on Shashthi or the sixth day of Navratri). This year too, the beating of drums and firing of cannons on October 8 marked the beginning of the festival in Murchchar Hill in Bishnupur. The area was earlier known as Mallabhum -- the kingdom ruled by the Malla kings of Bishnupur beginning in 994 CE.
Currently, the family’s 63rd generation is continuing the traditions where Maa Mrinmoyee, an incarnation of Goddess Durga, is worshipped at the temple built by Jagat Malla, the 19th King of the Malla dynasty.
The history and legends of Maa Mrinmoyee
Legend has it that sometime in 994 CE King Jagat Malla came to Bishnupur with his favourite bird falcon for deer hunting. The area was a thick forest and while chasing a deer, the king lost his way.
While resting under a banyan tree, the tired king heard an oracle in a woman’s voice: “I am here, in this holy spot. Shift your capital here. You will discover a tiny remnant of my face on digging the ground. Construct a temple for me here.”
Following her words, King Jagat Malla relocated his capital from Pradyumnapur to Bishnupur in 994 CE. On digging the ground, he found the diminutive countenance as predicted by the oracle. It was incorporated into the statue of Maa Mrinmoyee for which clay was brought from the River Ganga. Her temple was constructed in three years and the first Durga Puja took place in 997 CE.
Durga Puja with a difference
“Our puja ceremony is totally distinctive. We have a handwritten manuscript called ‘Balinarayani Puthi’. Our hymns differ from conventional puja chants," says Jyoti Prasad Singha Thakur, the 63rd generation of the Malla dynasty.
During the festival, the idol of Maa Mrinmoyee is worshipped with patachitra (scroll) paintings of three other goddesses -- Boro Thakuranee, Mejo Thakuranee, and Chhoto Thakuranee.
On Krishna-Navami (about a week before Navratri begins), the Boro Thakuranee enters the temple's sanctum sanctorum. In the morning, the patachitra of ‘Boro Thakuranee’ is brought in under the shade of an umbrella. A ghat (clay pot) is established. The ladies of the royal family, led by Rajmata Alpana Singha Thakur, offer prayers by daubing vermillion on the portrait to mark the beginning of Durga Puja in Bishnupur.
Mejo Thakuranee reaches on Chaturthi (fourth day of Navratri), while Chhoto Thakuranee on Shasthi (sixth day of Navratri). With this, the gates of the temple open to the general public.
Boro Thakuranee is the representative of Mahakali, while Mejo and Chhoto Thakuranee symbolise Mahalaxmi and Mahasaraswati respectively. According to the sacred scripture Sri Sri Chandi, Mahakali, Mahalaxmi and Mahasaraswati are the three forms in which the goddess Durga manifests herself.
The sacred rituals of the Mallas
As per historical records, sacrifices were made at the temple for centuries. However, this practice was discontinued by Bir Hambir also known as Hambir Malla Dev (reigned from 1565 to 1620), the 49th King of Mallabhum, who converted to Vaishnavism under the direction of Srinivasa Acharya. Now vegetables are sacrificed to honour the goddess.
In the year 1600, Man Singh, the commander of Mughal Emperor Akbar’s army, introduced cannon-making techniques to Mallabhum. The practice of firing cannons during the Durga Puja celebration established then continues to date.
Jyoti Prasad, 45, says the sound of the cannon is Brahma. There is a cosmic meaning to cannon sounds. Every three prahara (subdivision of time) between dawn and dusk, three cannons are fired.
Nine cannons are fired daily and the practice continues till Bijoya (the tenth day of Navratri, or Dussehra).
"We have a license to use the cannons. Since the government banned the handling of cannons in 1992, we have discontinued employing large cannons that were loaded with 22 kg of gunpowder. The miniature cannons are inflated with 7-8 kg of gunpowder,” Jyoti Prasad told 30Stades.
Sandhi Puja on Ashtami is another unique feature of the Bishnupur Durga Puja. An hour before dusk, an eight-armed, octo-alloyed idol of Goddess Vishalakshi (an aspect of Goddess Gauri) is carried to the inner sanctuary. Eight urns are used to complete the deity's holy Mahasnan (annual bathing).
The bathing tradition continues, along with the Bishnupur Gharana musical performance, which Malla Maharaja Raghunath Singh Deo II started in the 17th century.
Subsequently, the ritual of rajanjali (divine offering) is performed with the centuries-old Champa (frangipani) flower made of gold. Once more, the mighty guns roar in the sanctification of Sandhi puja.
On Navami's midnight, Mahamayi Devi or ‘Khachchar Vahini,’ the goddess who rides a mule, is worshipped. Devi Durga in this form is fierce.
To protect his kingdom from the fury of a pandemic, King Bir Hambir began to worship Mahamayi Devi. This is a hidden rite that takes place at midnight when all the lights of the temple are off except for one earthen lamp.
There is an eerie silence despite festivities because entry to the temple is strictly prohibited for outsiders during this ritual. Mahamayi Devi can only be worshipped by priests and members of the royal family. The ceremony is carried out by facing the patachitra in reverse and it has to be completed before daybreak.
According to the royal priest Somnath Mukherjee, who has worked at the temple for 12 years, worship of the goddess Mahamayi takes place covertly during Ashtami since she remains bare.
On Dashami evening, the weapons are worshipped. There are other interesting rituals like the local fishermen offering a living ‘chang mach’ (spotted snakehead fish) dipped in curd to Vishalakshi Devi as she leaves the temple. The fish is then released in the pond adjoining the temple.
The people of the Nuley community from Rautkhand village come with Tyaskhan Pakhi (neelkantha or Indian roller bird), released after being tapped on the deity.
“It is believed that the bird informs Lord Shiva at his abode in Mount Kailash of the departure of the goddess,” Jyoti Prasad adds.
“This signals the conclusion of the Durga Puja festivities.”
Alpana Singha Thakur, the 56-year-old wife of the late Raja Salil Singha Thakur, said their 15-day Durga Puja celebration is the longest. “I got married into this family 40 years ago. Since then, I have been servicing goddesses. There are no modifications made to the ceremony at all. The lighting, which didn't exist forty years ago, is one alteration that has been made. Ma is my daughter, and I'm quite delighted that she's here.”
“To witness four Durga Pujas in a single mandap (pavilion) is unusual. Thousands of visitors from nearby communities, the country and outside pour in to experience the singularity of this Durga Puja, where Ma Mrinmoyee, Mahakali, Mahalaxmi and Mahasaraswati are worshipped simultaneously,” the priest adds.
At the end of the ceremonies, neither the idol nor the patachitra are immersed. The ancient paintings of the goddesses are securely stored because they are redrawn the next year. And the idol continues to adorn the temple as it has done since 997 CE.
(Partho Burman is a Kolkata-based award-winning journalist. He writes inspiring human interest and motivational stories.)
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