This article uses the context of food to convey the antecedents of the Durga Puja (or ‘pujo’ for those who prefer the Bengali pronounciation) in Bengal: “We first find the mention of Durga pujo in the 1500s, when it was only observed by the zamindars (landlords) households of Malda and Dinajpur.
Technically, Durga pujo is a spring celebration but today what we see is the “akal bodhan”, or out of season, pujo, that is said to have been initiated by Lord Rama right before going into battle with Ravana. Thus began the autumnal celebration, with much gusto and fervour.
But pujo in Bengal was never just a celebration; it was always a socio-political event that marked the power struggle between people from various social strata. For the landlords in the village, it was a show of power and wealth, as the villagers would queue up outside their homes to get a glimpse and it remained like that for the longest time before the British set foot in Bengal.”
Then, as is the case with almost everything else in Indian history, the British arrived and changed the rules of the game whilst simultaneously kicking-off a class struggle that Bengal and India still hasn’t got over: “The establishment of the Raj really catapulted the pujo in a more “modern” direction; like the one we see today. Bengal saw the zamindars rise to power in the 1700s, and as most of them owed their power and status to the British, they decided to use pujo as the backdrop to flex their financial capabilities. It was really Nabakrishna Deb who sowed the seeds of the modern Durga pujo after Robert Clive’s victory in the Battle of Plassey; and the British fully participated, as that cemented their position in Bengal.
In 1790, 12 friends decided to organise the first collective or public pujo, the “baro-yari” (pronounced barowari) pujo, that would go on to break social and cultural barriers. Given that Bengal had an underlying affinity towards Marxism, this move was a breath of fresh air for many as the community or sarbojanin pujo (universal festival) soon started taking over after the decline of the zamindars.”
The rest of the article is about how to eat a pujo thali (hint: it is to be eaten course by course unlike thalis in from the west and the south of India).
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