It’s that time of the year again, when every nooks and corner of the towns and villages of Balasore district echoes with “Sarva Mangala Mangalye, Shive Sarvartha Sadhike, Saranye Trayambike Gauri, Narayani Namastute”.
The Goddess is on her annual visit to her paternal house and the ecstatic citizenry is busy celebrating their daughter’s stay. Cleaning and decorating the house, shopping new clothes and matching accessories, preparing mouth watering delicacies and later touring the puja pandals keeps everyone engaged. The peace loving one’s venture out at night to avoid the evening horde while the devotional ones brave the crowd to go and offer pushpanjali in the hot sun or the pouring rains.
Long before Durga Puja got a commercial flavour with every marketplace having a pandal and people flocking to it in great numbers, the Goddess Shakti was worshipped by only the ruler class—the landlords and the kings. Odisha with its strong Jagannath culture did not have the common concept of Mrunmay (temporary idol) puja of the Devi and the puja was restricted to Devi Pithas only where the Goddess has her permanent abode.
Legend has it that Lord Ram was the first to conduct this puja while seeking help from the Goddess in his war against Ravana. For the common man, organising a puja at this time of the year was next to impossible. In the coastal belt of the state, harvesting begins much later and by this time almost all food grain supply used to get exhausted. So it was only the rajas, the zamindars and the inaamdaars who were able to splurge on the five-day affair.
The rituals also often started from the Mahalaya making it even more expensive for some. The purpose of the puja was victory over the enemies and prosperity of the citizens. Zamindars across the state worshipped the Goddess but it had the most influence in districts neighbouring the Bengal province. Every erstwhile zamindar family of the district still continues with the puja but does not have the money in indulge in the extravaganzas. While some are struggling to continue with the puja and are petrified to put an end to it out of fear and devotion, some like the Inaamndaars of Lakhannath do it in a happy collaboration with the people. To make it big, each earning member of the village contributes based on his/her income.
Lakhannath is the last railway station of Odisha bordering West Bengal, and both the priests performing here and the erstwhile Inaamdaars are Bengalis. But the majority of the populace is Odia. The puja is conducted on tantric method and so animal sacrifice is a norm. However, the huge bullocks have now been replaced by goats and almost every house has a feast on the puja days with meat being the predominant cuisine. But a few kilometres away near Jaleswar and Baliapal, animal sacrifice is a strict no. Sugarcane and ash gourds are used as replacement for animals and eating non vegetarian is barred till visarjan on Dussehra.
While some use the Directory Panjika of Bengal for the rituals and timings others go by the Biraja Paanji. Jagannath Paanji is rarely followed and it is not because of Bengal influence but because Puri is at a distance and the time differs. Five priests perform the five-day long puja which begins on Sasti and ends on Dussehra. The pujak is the main priest, the pustkacharya reads out the pothi, the chandi pathak reads the chandi, the tantradharak does the japa (bela leaves) and the charchaka helps in the puja and bhog rituals. During the ahuti (hawan), while the pujak puts ghee, others put the bela leaves, charu (made of rice, gur and banana) and black sesame seeds into the hawan kund.
Indian festivals are all about good food and Durga Puja is no different. Eateries attract the crowd thronging the pandals with many sweet and savoury dishes. Sweet dishes however rule the roost. Sadly traditional sweet dishes are no more available in the market and have been replaced by the eye catching ones.
Yet there are families where the Goddess is offered only home-made traditional dishes. Coconut laddus made of sugar (not the kora of Bhubaneswar) as well as gur has been a hot favourite followed by malpua, suji halwa, ukhuda, etc. People who can afford also hire cooks to make jalaebis, sondesh, rasagollas, kamala bhogs, khasta gazas, bundi laddus, etc.
The khira (rabdi) made by only a few today is almost becoming extinct like