Festivals in India are a celebrated part of our cultural heritage. These festivals are being observed from time immemorial. Being a multi-cultural country, India celebrates hundreds of festivals each year, belonging to various cultural practices, religious occasions, age-old traditions, and beliefs. Each festival introduces you to those deeply rooted beliefs, customs and imperishable faith of the communities, passing on from generation to generation, sometimes beyond any logical explanation.
Durga Puja or Durgotsava is one of the most popular Hindu festivals celebrated with great fervor and enthusiasm. The festival transports me back to my faint childhood memories of visiting various pandals, dazed and in awe of the life-size Durga Idols, and seeing the unbiased faith of people, worshiping the idol for five days and the whole process of immersion on the fifth day.
I was always intrigued by the tradition. Being a curious soul, I always wanted to see the actual process of idol making and the history behind it. A few years back, when I stumbled upon articles on how these idols are made and why the soil of a prostitute’s home used for making these idols is mandatory, I was completely hooked. I always wanted to visit “Kumartuli”, one of Kolkata’s oldest neighborhoods, where hundreds of artisans/artist’s family have been making clay idols from generations. These are the people who bring joy to the faces of the people of Kolkata by making these idols during Durga Puja.
Though I could not manage to visit Kolkata this year, it did not stop me from visiting Chittaranjan Park in South Delhi, the hub of Bengali community in the capital, to have a glimpse of the Idol making in Kali Bari temple premises. Upon my arrival early in the morning, the joy of finally seeing the artisans making the clay idols was one of the cherished moments. The narrow alleys filled with numerous Durga Idols, kept in a row was nothing less than visiting an artisan’s workshop where he displays his work of art to the world.
While capturing the idols into my lens, I got to know about the intricate details of the whole process of idol making. Every year, a handful of expert artisans come to Delhi from Kolkata, at least three months prior to Durga Puja to make these clay figurines. The Idol makers first create the figurines out of straw, chaff, and clay and later place them in the sun to dry.
There are four mandatory elements used in making these clay idols, like mud from the banks of the Ganges, cow dung, cow urine and a handful of soil from outside a prostitute’s home (Nishiddho Pallis) or forbidden territories. The soil is known as “Punya Maati”. There have been many debates and discussions over “Punya Maati” in the intellectual circles, but no one is sure as to how the tradition of collecting soil from the prostitute’s home started.
As the tradition goes, the priest of the Durga Puja has to visit a prostitute’s home to beg for the soil to make the Durga Idol. There can be many reasons behind this age-old tradition, but if you turn the pages of history, you may come up with numerous definitions of this act. Though it is an irony that, the otherwise ignored, neglected and ill-treated sex workers become the most crucial part when it comes to making the clay figurines of Goddess Durga. The soil is considered to be the purest as men while visiting them leave behind their purity and virtue at her doorstep. Some claim that it symbolizes the divine energy, as Goddess Durga, who is the symbol of supreme woman power, not only defeated Mahishasura during the war but also established the fact of feminine energy. So by bringing the soil from the sex workers, it somehow denotes the importance of women power and also inclusiveness of the otherwise forbidden section of the society in the mainstream.
There are many versions of the reasons behind the “Punya Matti”, being used in the Durga Idol Making. But the fact is that it is still being practiced each year before the God-Makers start their annual work of art. However, this does not take away the credit from these artists who give life to these clay figurines during the five-day celebration.
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