Durga: Goddess of the East
Ancient Kamrupa was one of the major seats of Shakti, a Shakti Pitha where the goddess of power remained the abiding divine authority and source of all-encompassing forces.
It was Kamrupa where a significant number of Durga images and idols were discovered when the Kamrup Anusandhan Samity started excavating since 1912.
In Eastern India, perhaps it was ancient Kamrupa where the highest number of Durga idols were found which dated as far back as the 10th century AD.
Some of the major findings were the 10th-century medal shaped bronze relief of Mahisasur found at Udal Bakra in Guwahati.
Notably, unlike the popular imagination of Mahisasur as crude and angry, the Udal Bakra Mahisasur has a benign look.
Some of the 15th-18th century idols discovered were the bronze statues of Durga found at Honhora in Kamrup, at Belsor in Nalbari, at Tinsukia in upper Assam and other places.
The Durga in the wall of Shiva Doul which is a mid-18th century structure also represents one of the earliest Durga iconographies of ancient Assam.
The medieval stone sculpture of tribal Durga found in Mangaldai is another very important Durga idol of Assam that indicated the deep association of Durga with that of the tribal and the ethnic spiritual worldviews prevalent in ancient Assam. Quite significantly, all these Durga idols carried a very distinctive characteristic, these idols were more Mongoloid in terms of their physical features rather than Aryan.
Arguably, the Durga idol as the Dangor Ai or Boro Devi worshipped at Coochbehar Rajbari is one of the oldest Durga icons of ancient Kamrup Kamata which is based on the image revealed to Naranarayan in his dream. The idols based on this image has been worshipped from the mid-16th century till today.
The Dangor Ai Durga is red in colour with the sized large Mahisasur in green. In terms of their look, the idols are similar to the Koch Rajbanshi folk deities like Mashan, Joka, Kani Bishahari, and others. The red colour of Durga indicate the tantric, shakto roots in the worship of Durga.
The Darangi Durga worshipped by the Koch Rajhauli of Mangaldai in Assam is also red. The Gauripur Mahamya Durga puja by the Barua royal household is performed to the image of Durga drawn on Solapith bark by the traditional solapith artisans.
Nevertheless, all these historical discoveries and the native images of Durga in ancient Kamrupa underline the prevalence and importance of Durga in the context of Assam, its history and culture. The Daranga Rajavamsaali, (or Darrang Rajvanshavali), the late 18th century Assamese text by Suryakhari Daivajna written during the reign of Samudra Narayan of the Koch Kingdom of Darrang, provides the details of the Kamata kingdom and about the Koch dynasty founded by Biswa Singha in the late 15th century.
The text describes how young Bishu (later Biswa Singha) found an idol of Durga along with his friends in the mountains and how he had offered puja to the goddess Durga.
Durgak pujibe mor lage bhakti bhabe ꓲ
Puja kaori karu namaskar karu tan pawe ꓲꓲ
Darranga Raajavamsaali, 14
(I wish to worship Durga with all my devotion and wish to surrender myself on her feet)
According to Sir Edward Gait, one of the most ancient examples of Durga puja in Assam was the puja offered by Maharaj Biswa Singha in the year 1496 when he was the king of Kamrup Kamata (History of Assam, 1905/ 2000), that is Durga puja in ancient Assam is not less than five hundred years old.
Gait has also mentioned that Durga was the major Goddess in the Jaintia Kingdom since 1500 AD from the reign of King Parbat Ray (Gait, pp 313-320). In fact, the Nartiang Durga temple in the Jaintia Hills is one of the oldest Durga temples in the country.
The vibrant terrain of its mythology is one of its abiding repositories of past well-preserved in the memories of ancient Kamrup down the generations for centuries. Mahiranga Danav is known as the first ruler of ancient Kamrupa who was subsequently followed by King Naraka whose association with the myth of Kamakhya is quite well-known.
As per the 10th century Sanskrit text, the Kalika Purana, it is evident that worship of Durga is at least one thousand years old tradition in ancient Kamrupa as well as in Assam.
Durga is also deeply ingrained with the kirata (tribal) tradition of fertility worship and matriliny prevalent among several indigenous communities in this region. The Koches who were one of the original inhabitants of ancient Kamrupa, were originally matrilineal.
The Garos and the Khasis still practice matriliny. Though they are now primarily in the state of Meghalaya, they had a significant presence in the plains of ancient Kamrupa. It is important to note that both the Garos and the Khasis claim Kamakhya as their native deity.
The Khasis call Kamakhya as Lum ka Meikha meaning the ‘hill of the grandmother’ (father’s mother) and the Garos call the hills of Kamakhya as the Salaram Mitechak. The A.chik term roughly means the abode of the eastern Goddess.
Durga is also worshipped as Parvati which connotes that she is the Goddess of the mountains. With Kailash as the abode of Shiva which is situated in Tibet, it is evident that the Himalayan region is the provenance of the Shiva myth, and so is Parvati’s. One can argue that Shiva and Parvati must have been of Mongloid origins belonging to the Himalayan or the sub-Himalayan terrain like most other ethnic Gods and Goddesses of the East and the Northeast.
In Assam, there are several ancient Durga Pujas. One of the oldest among them is the puja of Gauripur Raj family in Dhubri. The puja at Gauirpur Rajbari dates back to 1600 AD (Times of India, 19 October, 2012) making it about 400 years old. The Gauripur Raj family being associated with the Koch dynasty of Maharaj Raghudev, son of Vir Chilarai, Durga Puja has remained a continuous spiritual legacy for centuries.
At present Prabir Barua of the Gauripur Raj family has been associated with the puja for decades. He informed that the puja is still being performed with strict shakto rituals and therefore offering meat and wine to the yagna kund (the sacrificial fire) has been mandatory for centuries. During the Puja days, after the yajna, it is mandatory to have a meal with meat and fish for the devotees.
There are many pujas in West Assam that are more than a hundred years old. Among other major old Durga pujas in west Assam is Purani Durga Mandir of Golakganj which was said to have started around 1917 by the jotedar of Golakganj, Kailash Chandra Prodhani.
The shakto tradition of ancient Kamrup had its influence in neighbouring Bengal as well. The recorded history of Durga Puja in Bengal dates back to the late 16th century in the zamindar households of Malda and Dinajpur. In the early 17th century, in 1606, the zamindar of Taherpur in Rajshahi (now in Bangladesh) is said to have organised the first Saradiya (autumn) Durga puja in Bengal. In Calcutta (Kolkata) the first Durga puja was recorded in 1610.
There are reasons to believe that Durga and Kali as part of major deities travelled from the East to the West rather than from the West to the East as the history of these deities is far deeper and ancient in the eastern mythic and cultural terrains of Pragjyotishpura, Kamrupa and also the Himalayan terrain of Tibet.
However, Durga Puja has now evolved more as a social event than a strictly religious one as the Puja is no longer limited to the rich and the powerful families alone that used to be known as the bonedi pujas, rather it has now become a festival of the masses across class and caste divisions.
The biggest contribution of Durga puja as a public festival is to blur the casteist divide in societies in a very significant way. At least in the Sarbajanin puja pandals there has never been any restriction to the visitors on the basis of caste or creed, it is free for all, and people from all across can go inside the sanctum sanctorum of the temples and pandals, can offer pujas and seek blessings. This is one of the biggest gains the evolution of Puja has ensured.
Durga in the East is a humanised divine entity. When she is the symbol of shakti, fertility and power, she is also imagined as the daughter coming to her maiden home after a year, which is a metaphoric rendition of fertility and renewal.
The violent burning of the effigy of Ravana as the Dussera celebration is not part of the native ritual in the East rather, the Dashami day is about the tearful adieu to the daughter to her marital home and the beginning of the wait for her return in the next year to fulfill a peasant’s dream for more crop and a good harvest.
[Jyotirmoy Prodhani is Professor of English at NEHU, Shillong]
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