We have a saying in Bengali- “Baro mashe tero parbon” which literally means we celebrate “thirteen festivals in twelve months”. Though the majority of population in India follow Hinduism (considered the oldest religion in the world), there is a good mix of people following other religions. This means you have some festival or other being celebrated through the year. So, if you ask me, 13 festivals in 12 months is a very conservative statement!
For a country which has more than 30 languages being spoken by more than a million people each and so many different cultures and customs, religion is a powerful adhesive. In fact, nothing unites or divides the people like religion. So, on one hand you have hundreds of thousands of people celebrating various festivals together, however you also have riots over religion.
To understand Indian culture, understanding the religious customs is a must.
I am not a religious person and consider myself agnostic, but I do enjoy the different festivals which are celebrated in my city, Kolkata, be it Durga Puja or Christmas or Id. It is important to add, that in Kolkata most of these religious events have over time become more of social events, being celebrated by people of different religions.
And ever since I started pursuing photography as a hobby about ten months back, my interest in capturing these religious events has increased.
Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of Knowledge, music, arts and science. She is usually depicted wearing white (signifying spotless mind and immaculate character), sitting on an inverted Lotus (signifies search of light of knowledge) and has a white swan as her Vahana (vehicle/mount) and plays the musical instrument Veena.
I have fond memories from childhood of Saraswati puja celebrations. There are certain customs and rituals which are followed to this day and though their significance today is purely symbolic, nonetheless, they are fun to follow.
My first memories have to do with the berries. Yes, berries of the wild plum tree. One of the un-written rules of the worship is that you are supposed to eat the berries in the season only after Saraswati Puja. This custom may have come from the fact that the berries are not ripe enough before that time. Anyways, you tell a kid not to eat something and you know what the result will be. Of course, I had to eat those berries before the Puja! But, I should add here that most kids usually would not eat the berries before the Puja out of a mixed feeling of devotion and fear that Goddess Saraswati would get angry and flunk them in their exams.
There are so many other customs which are followed to this day.
Take for instance, “Haate Khori” the ritual of children aged about three or four being taught to write the letters of the Bengali Alphabet, for the first time.
“Haate” literally means ‘in hand’ and “Khori” is a special stick made of bamboo, which was used in the olden days to teach children how to write. So, the child would be made to write few letters of the alphabet in presence of goddess Saraswati’s idol.
The logic is- If you start writing on the day of Saraswati Puja, you will do well in studies. And I should mention here, that for a Bengali, education is of paramount importance. You may have climbed Mount Everest or won a gold medal in Olympics, but unless you have done at least a post graduation in some pure science subject, don’t expect a Bengali to be impressed! Of course, that attitude is slowly changing. Incidentally, I never went through the Haate Khori ceremony. Ergo, I failed to become an educated man! 🙂
Another thing I just love about the day is the custom of people of all ages coming out in their traditional attire. So, you have young girls in saffron coloured sarees hopping from one Pandal* to another with their boyfriends who themselves wear the traditional attire of Panjabi (Kurta). You can also find 6-7 year old kids wearing the same attire and looking absolutely cute, walking with their parents. It’s a pretty sight to behold.
It is important to keep in mind that the worship of Saraswati is important for the youngsters, because she is the goddess of knowledge, and the belief is that you must worship her if you want to succeed in studies.
*Pandal is usually a temporary structure which is made on a bamboo structure and is set up to place the Idol of the gods and goddesses being worshiped. Usually every residential locality (called Para) will have its own pandal conducting its Puja. During Durga Puja, you get to see some really stunning pandals (but for that we have to wait till October).
For reasons beyond my control, I was not able to devote time to capture the moments of Saraswati Puja properly. But, for whatever its worth, here are few candid moments….
Hope you enjoyed 🙂