In West Bengal, the eastern part of India where I’m from, religious festivals are celebrated with great pomp and fervour, but perhaps none quite like the annual festival of Durga Puja, which celebrates the Hindu goddess Durga’s victory over the half-man, half-buffalo demon Mahishasura. Celebrated in the month of Ashvin, the seventh month of the lunisolar Hindu calendar that falls in either September or October, the festival lasts 10 days.
Durga is considered one of the avatars or manifestations of Adi Shakti, the “Divine Mother” or creator of the universe, according to Hinduism. She is also worshipped by Bengalis throughout the year in various forms, including Kali, Jagaddhatri, and Annapurna. Then there is the earthly manifestation of the goddess, known as “kumari.” A kumari is a pre-pubescent girl typically chosen from the Brahmin caste, considered the highest in the Hindu caste hierarchy; and must be “pure”– a virgin, as per the sacred texts.
The belief behind Kumari Puja, a ritual prevalent in West Bengal and north India, where it is called Kumari Pujan, is that a girl who hasn’t yet attained puberty is the embodiment of Devi Shakti, or the divine feminine power that governs the earth. Girls who haven’t yet started to menstruate are worshipped as kumaris, as it is believed that they are at their “purest” – physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Ramakrishna Paramahamsa, a 19th century Hindu mystic and religious leader, living in Bengal, believed his wife, Sarada Mani, to be an avatar of Shodashi, the “Divine Mother.” On fully embracing the monastic life, he would perform the Sodashi puja, during which he worshipped her as a manifestation of the goddess. Hindu philosopher Swami Vivekananda, one of the most ardent disciples of Ramakrishna, who went on to found the Ramakrishna Mission, a religious organisation headquartered in Belur Math in West Bengal, is credited with starting the practice of Kumari puja, in 1901. Belur Math has a long history of the practice, and even today kumaris are worshipped on the occasion of Durga Puja amidst much fanfare in homes as well as in pandals – large makeshift tents set up during the festival that house awe-inspiring idols of the goddess, so that believers may pay their respects.
In 2006, on Maha Ashtami, the eighth day in the 10-day long festival, when I was all of eight, I was chosen to be worshipped as the goddess. While memories of my childhood wax and wane, this is one day I recall in graphic detail. My mother woke me in the morning and bathed me with gangajal – water from the Ganges, a river considered sacred by Hindus. This was to help in my “purification” for the ceremony that lay ahead. I was excited to wear new clothes on the most auspicious day of Durga Puja, to play with my friends in the neighbourhood pandal, and to gorge on sweets in the form of prasad – offerings made to the gods that are later distributed to anyone who stops by for darshan, or to view the goddess. Little did I know that I was being readied to be taken to a home in my neighbourhood where I would be worshipped as an earthly manifestation of the goddess herself.
Everyone around me, including the daughter of the family I had grown up addressing as an elder sister and friend, seemed to be in a reverent frenzy while preparing for the big puja. I was made to sit in a chair, perplexed but excited to be the centre of attention. I was draped in the finest red and gold Benarasi sari, and accessorised with gold-plated ornaments including a crown, mathapatti, or traditional headgear usually worn by brides, necklaces and earrings, aside from floral bangles and a bajuband or armlet. My feet and palms were adorned with alta, a red dye that is usually reserved for older women. My forehead, right above my brow line, was dotted with sandalwood paste and a red bindi was placed in the centre, just like Durga herself.
Blissfully ignorant of the practice of Kumari Puja, what it signified, or why I was chosen to be the goddess, I revelled in my finery and sense of importance. That would all change once I was taken to a room where a priest stood waiting for me. I was made to sit on a pedestal in front of the shrine, my feet perched on the holy urn, an ornamental trishul (trident) was placed in one of my hands, and a chakra (one of the Durga’s weapons that is believed to destroy evil and protect righteousness) in the other. An array of fruits, bhog (food offered to the gods), and sweets were laid out in front of me.
I have vivid memories of feeling confused, perplexed, and scared by the sudden shift in energy in the room, as everyone stood around me, entranced, their hands folded in prayer, with a few directly facing me. Faces that were once so familiar to me were suddenly devoid of familiarity as they readied to worship the manifestation of the Divine Mother, the embodiment of true feminine power: me.
Following an elaborate puja, havan (a ritual in which offerings are poured into a consecrated fire), and arti (a ceremony in which lights with wicks soaked in ghee are lit and offered to deities) – the same rituals followed in the worship of Durga herself, I was now fit to bless everyone. Elderly uncles, aunts, head of the family, even the priest himself, took turns to bow before me and touch my feet and seek blessings from a goddess that was brought to life in the last two hours. What was the correct gesture to bless people? Should I say something while blessing them? Perhaps a mantra? What am I blessing them with? My mind was teeming with questions as I placed my hand on the heads of elders I had sought blessings from myself, not so long ago.
At the end of what felt like a performance unfolding in front of my eyes, while my neighbourhood friends looked on, perhaps equally confused and perplexed as I, I was given money as dakshina (an offering usually made to a deity or priest), and presented with a variety of foods to break my fast before anyone else.
Soon enough, it was time for the unbecoming of the kumari. With the untying of the sari, and the removal of accessories, I realised I was losing my divinity and whatever it was that temporarily vested me with the power to be worshipped and to bless people. I stepped out in trousers and a T-shirt to go back to the life of just another eight-year-old girl, relieved of the lofty responsibilities of a goddess.
Over the years, each time I have relived the memory of that day, the irony of goddess worship in our largely misogynistic society that turns a cold shoulder on the rights of the girl child was not lost on me. Till date, my elder sister speaks of the day with anger about my participation in the ritual, for reasons I have grown to understand to be a paradox of Goddess worship in Hinduism and feminism.
Ascribing divinity to a pre-pubescent girl, albeit for a few hours, and worshipping her as the true manifestation of feminine power, while cases of gender-based discrimination, rape, honour killing, female foeticide, and child marriage mount, is one of the many dichotomies of the female experience in not just Hindu culture, but Indian society, making the practice of Kumari Puja in India both hypocritical and archaic.
For the most part, it’s fun to play dress-up as a child, even if a little scary, when you find yourself the centre of attention. But if we think beyond the superficial nature of the ritual and question what it signifies in the society we have constructed, the revelations can leave us uncomfortable – more so than the saree I was made to wear on the day.