Come Durga Puja, there’s a flood of articles on the origin of the festival in the zamindari culture of Bengal, which sought to appease the East India Company in the 18th century. Not one has any reference to the possible roots in the Gosani Jatra of the Puri temple in Odisha. Why?
Oversight? Ignorance? Deliberate? Must Odias smell a conspiracy? The rosogolla wars have not been forgotten, with the Odia claim that the sweet dish originated three centuries ago around the Puri temple complex as an appeasement offering to Lakshmi, the consort of the presiding deity Jagannatha, standing up to the Bengali claim of it being a 19th century creation of Kolkata-based confectioner Nobin Chandra Das.
In such arguments, where identity is involved, scholarship takes a backseat as parochial emotion take over. If I, for example, were to side with the Odia argument, it will be attributed not to my scholarship, but to my Odia roots. Be that as it may, I must draw attention to the now eclipsed Odia roots of Durga Puja—the Gosani Jatra.
Take what follows in the friendly spirit that it was written: an attempt to expand our understanding of Durga Puja, which needs further refinement at the hands of trained historians and can serve as raw material for next year’s ‘Pujo’ columns that will be more expansive and inclusive.
First up, some pan-Indian history. Goddess worship has been widely prevalent in India since ancient times. Every village has a Grama-devi for whose pleasure male goats and male buffaloes are slaughtered each year in the period following the monsoon, to satisfy her craving for blood so that she can bring forth crops: the milk of the earth-cow. We may never know when this practice began.
The story of Durga—of her slaying the buffalo demon and her attendants drinking the blood of Raktabeeja—comes to us only from Devi Mahatmaya, part of Markandeya Purana, which dates back to around 1,500 years ago. Some historians propose, rather controversially, that this story came with the Kushanas or the Indo-Greeks about 2,000 years ago.
They worshipped Goddess Nanaia, who kills the bull. Like the Praying Mantis, this Mother Goddess was known to eat her mate (who was also her offspring, unlike the insect’s), thus embodying the circle of life and seasons. Indians chose to replace the bull with the buffalo, for reasons we are now rather familiar with.