Mahalaya Ritual

It is an annual ritual in our house to get up early on Mahalaya morning and listen to Mahisasuramardini. The tradition started probably with my maternal Grandmother who was a devotee of Goddess Durga and lived in Patna surrounded by Bengali households, and it continued even when she moved to Banaras and then with my mother who eventually passed it on her daughters.

Mahalaya marks the end of Pitr-Paksha and the beginning of Devi-Paksha in the Hindu calendar, it is the last day of Shraddha (or Tarpan) fortnight, a ritual performed for departed ancestors and considered inauspicious and ushers in month long festivities starting with Durga Puja and culminating in Diwali. It is said that this is the day when Goddess Durga departs her abode and begins the journey to her maternal house, it is the day when the idols of Durga get completed for the worship through the painting of her eyes and bringing her alive.

Mahisasuramardini has been broadcasted by All India Radio since 1931 narrated by Birendra Krishna Bhadra, scripted by Bani Kumar with musical composition by Pankaj Kumar Mallick. This used to be live performed in AIR studios till 1966 when the programme was first recorded and thereafter, the recording was played by AIR. The AIR studio was said to be decorated with flowers and incense creating a temple like atmosphere for the performance.

The programme is an oratorio from Durgā Saptashatī or Chandī-Pātha or Devi Mahatamya (Glory of the Goddess). Mahisasuramardini is the story of creation of Durga by the combined power of all male Gods thereby creating a supreme female power in whom vests the energies of the whole Universe. She was brought into being for destroying the evil power of demon Mahisasura, the day being celebrated as Mahalaya and thus, the origin of name.

My early memories have been getting up with my mother, sipping tea in the verandah and listening to the radio while it was still dark. In those days it was not easy to get a recording to listen at leisure and this was the only way to listen to the beautiful chanting. Some years when my Mother was too lazy to get up, I remember setting up an alarm and waking up and listening on a very small palm-sized transistor while still lying in bed.

It has been for a while now that everyone in the family has music CDs of the recording and it plays not only on Mahalaya but sometimes on all days of Navratras, and for last couple of years the CDs have now given way to YouTube or iTunes library, but the tradition has continued.

The sounds and smells evoke memories and feelings which stay with you forever. For me it has been a memory of that time of the year when the hot and humid weather gives way to a slight nip in the air at least during early mornings and the stillness of the night progresses to the hustle-bustle of the dawn with chirping of the birds and the sounds of worshippers making way to the temples in the holy city as the recital comes to an end, and the day begins.

Shubho Mahalaya…

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