Revelry, Rivalry, and Longing for the Goddesses of Bengal

Revelry, Rivalry, and Longing for the Goddesses of Bengal: The Fortunes of Hindu Festivals

Rachel Fell McDermott
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 392
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    Revelry, Rivalry, and Longing for the Goddesses of Bengal
    Book Description:

    Annually during the months of autumn, Bengal hosts three interlinked festivals to honor its most important goddesses: Durga, Kali, and Jagaddhatri. While each of these deities possesses a distinct iconography, myth, and character, they are all martial. Durga, Kali, and Jagaddhatri often demand blood sacrifice as part of their worship and offer material and spiritual benefits to their votaries. Richly represented in straw, clay, paint, and decoration, they are similarly displayed in elaborately festooned temples, thronged by thousands of admirers.

    The first book to recount the history of these festivals and their revelry, rivalry, and nostalgic power, this volume marks an unprecedented achievement in the mapping of a major public event. Rachel Fell McDermott describes the festivals' origins and growth under British rule. She identifies their iconographic conventions and carnivalesque qualities and their relationship to the fierce, Tantric sides of ritual practice. McDermott confronts controversies over the tradition of blood sacrifice and the status-seekers who compete for symbolic capital. Expanding her narrative, she takes readers beyond Bengal's borders to trace the transformation of the goddesses and their festivals across the world. McDermott's work underscores the role of holidays in cultural memory, specifically the Bengali evocation of an ideal, culturally rich past. Under the thrall of the goddess, the social, political, economic, and religious identity of Bengalis takes shape.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-52787-3
    Subjects: Religion, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xii)
  5. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-xvi)
  6. Notes on Transliteration
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  7. Introduction An Introductory Tour: The Mansions, the Streets, and the Progression of Days
    (pp. 1-10)

    We begin with the Goddess, where she begins, painstakingly and professionally fashioned by artisans in their workshops. Hence we travel to north Kolkata, to Kumartuli, one of the city’s several artisans’ districts, where temporary images of Durgā and her family, or Jagaddhātrī and her lion, or Kālī and Śiva, are being fashioned out of straw, clay, paint, and decorations (fig. 0.1).

    The Bengali Durgā is a combination of the classical Mahiṣamardinī—she who kills the shape-shifting demon Mahiṣa—and the gentle daughter Umā, who returns home to her parents once a year, accompanied by her four children, Gaṇeśa, Kārtikeya, Sarasvatī...

  8. 1 Pūjā Origins and Elite Politics
    (pp. 11-38)

    The extravagance of Durgā Pūjā as it can be experienced today in the cities and towns of Bengal, with elaborately decorated pandals, expensive images, creative entertainments, and audience-catching gimmicks, is not so very different in grandeur and marvel from the Pūjā as it could have been encountered in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Consider the very appreciative British description from 1825 of the house of “Baboo Pron Kissen Holdor” in Chinsurah, said to look like a European mansion. Pūjā guests were entertained in a huge salon, with beautiful furniture, a carpet imported from Brussels, sparkling lights, tables spread...

  9. 2 The Goddess in Colonial and Postcolonial History
    (pp. 39-75)

    The celebration of the Śākta Pūjās to Durgā, Jagaddhātrī, and Kālī certainly predates the arrival of European merchant-traders and colonialists in Bengal, but not by a great deal. One could in fact argue that it was the presence of the British that provided the initial impetus for the festivals’ development into the characteristic forms we see today, with goddesses worshiped in temporary temples, or pandals, placed to the side of public urban thoroughfares. This chapter covers the entire period of British rule in Bengal—from the mid-eighteenth century until 1947 and beyond—illustrating the history of English–Indian relations in...

  10. 3 Durgā the Daughter: Folk and Familial Traditions
    (pp. 76-102)

    In chapters 1 and 2 we focused on the grandeur of Durgā Pūjā: the martial goddess with her power to confer strength, status, and riches; the opulence of the displays, entertainments, and feasts hosted in her honor; and the political multivalence of her festival as a cipher for the colonial relationship between Britons and Bengalis. But Durgā Mahiṣamardinī is just one of the three important personalities, or threads, expressed in the rich tapestry of this festival. A second—just as prominent and, in fact, more vital to the emotional center of the Pūjā—is the daughter, Umā. Durgā is the...

  11. 4 The Artistry of Durgā and Jagaddhātrī
    (pp. 103-129)

    This chapter surveys Durgā, and to a much lesser extent Jagaddhātrī, from the perspective of her “looks”: how and why has the Bengali Goddess changed iconographically over time, and what are the current trends and controversies in terms of her depiction? Two larger themes contextualize and illuminate the evolution under survey: the history of the sexualized Indian female icon, and the intersection of goddess portrayals with Indian nationalism.¹

    It is hard for a modern participant in Bengali Pūjā celebrations to imagine that there was ever a time when beautifully sculpted images of the Goddess and her divine companions were not...

  12. 5 Durgā on the Titanic: Politics and Religion in the Pūjā
    (pp. 130-160)

    Imagine that it is midnight, December 23, and you and your friends are strolling around your neighborhood.¹ You have a map in your hand, prepared by the police, to guide you. You are looking for crèche scenes. Everywhere—on rooftops and building facades—neon lights brighten the sky with their colored designs. One depicts Santa sailing through the sky on his reindeer chariot. In another, candidates in recent election battles are heatedly arguing. Down the street you see a lighted display of a melting glacier forming a torrential river that sweeps away mountain villages. Your first crèche scene is in...

  13. 6 The “Orientalist” Kālī: A Tantric Icon Comes Alive
    (pp. 161-182)

    I first encountered the Bengali Goddess Kālī in her dressing room—the workshops where she is prepared from straw and clay for her annual Pūjā—in November of 1989.¹ I was making my first visit to Kumartuli, the section of northern Calcutta where many of the city’s professional image makers (Kumārs) have their studios. This was also my first adventure with Jeffrey Kripal, a new friend and colleague in the study of Bengali Śāktism. We were guided by Aditi Sen, of the American Institute of Indian Studies, a friend and mentor to us both.

    Jeff, Aditi, and I meandered through...

  14. 7 Approaches to Kālī Pūjā in Bengal
    (pp. 183-196)

    This chapter¹ continues our focus on Kālī but moves from an emphasis on iconography to a discussion of the festival proper—chapters 6 and 7, then, mirror chapters 4 and 5, which covered the same two large topics, for Durgā and, to a lesser extent, Jagaddhātrī. Kālī’s festival follows Durgā’s by three weeks, on the dark-moon night of the month of Kārtik, coincidentally also Diwali.² In many ways their pairing makes sense, as from at least the sixth century c.e., Kālī has been claimed as a multiform of Durgā who issued like a daughter, younger sister, or helper from Durgā’s...

  15. 8 Controversies and the Goddess
    (pp. 197-223)

    Like any festivals the world over that claim wide popularity and practice, Durgā, Jagaddhātrī, and Kālī Pūjās are multifaceted and symbolically capacious.¹ This also makes them controversial or prone to debate, as people approach them from widely disparate angles and find them suitable arenas for the promotion of local causes. In this chapter we discuss three such controversies: debates over the place of the “prostitute’s earth,” an essential ingredient according to the ritual texts in the worship of Durgā; arguments over the harm caused the environment by erection of Pūjā pandals and their associated hoopla; and critiques of the practice...

  16. 9 Devī in the Diaspora
    (pp. 224-240)

    In 2002, after having spent part of almost every Pūjā season for the prior ten years in Kolkata and other areas of West Bengal, I decided I needed to look further afield, to places outside Bengal where Bengalis had imported their goddesses and their Pūjās.¹ Making a virtue of the fact that the New York / New Jersey area is home to more than a quarter of all South Asians in the United States, I spent the next seven fall seasons “Pūjāhopping” to celebrations near my own home. How do the West Bengali festivals compare with those managed and sponsored...

  17. Conclusion
    (pp. 241-250)

    The chapters of this book have shown—I hope beyond a doubt—that Durgā Pūjā and its sister festivals for Jagaddhātrī and Kālī are extremely significant to the religious history, past and present, of West Bengal. We have surveyed the Pūjās’ growth and development, their symbolic malleability and capaciousness to a variety of Bengali and non-Bengali actors over a three-hundred-year history, their potential for political utilization, their emotional and familial resonances, their commercialization and commodification, their public, performative, even contentious quality, their intersection with the art world, and their import value to Bengalis resident in towns and cities outside Bengal....

  18. Appendix: An Overview of the Press in Bengal up to 1947
    (pp. 251-254)
  19. Notes
    (pp. 257-328)
  20. Bibliography
    (pp. 329-352)
  21. Index
    (pp. 353-372)