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Today is Ashtami!

It was just another Friday for office-goers hurrying home, students grappling with their homework and housewives settling in for their daily dose of screen soap. But for a few houses around town the day was special; it marked the homecoming of a special guest — Goddess Durga. And even as you read this on a lazy Sunday morning, frantic preparations are on for the Mahashtami anjali.

Yes, this is Durga puja time. If you haven’t remembered to buy a fresh set of clothes or skip breakfast for anjali, you cannot be faulted. For Basanti puja — that is what the worship of Durga in basanta or spring is called — happens in only a handful of houses in the city.

The origin

The autumnal affair — Sharadiya Durgotsav — may have overtaken the vernal ritual centuries ago in pomp and popularity, but the fact is that Basanti puja is the real thing. Turn the pages of tradition and you discover that first Durga puja, performed by King Surath under instructions from sage Medha, had taken place in spring. He had lost his kingdom and had wandered into the forest, heart-broken. There he met Samadhi, belonging to the Vaisya caste, who was also in mourning. Both met Medha and told him about their sufferings. The sage then advised them to worship Durga in spring.

Lord Rama’s akalbodhan of Durga in autumn, to seek a boon of victory over Ravana, happened much later. The name itself suggests that it was an untimely (akal) deed. Yet as the cult of Rama grew, the puja begun by him gained currency, relegating Basanti puja to near oblivion.

One puja, two times

“The rituals of both pujas are the same. There is no difference in the idols either,” says Ramnarayan Bhattacharya, the priest who performs Durga puja at Sovabazar Rajbari. Only the ghot for bodhon (awakening) is missing on Sashthi as the puja, unlike autumn’s akalbodhan, happens on time.

“On Ashtami, we will even have kumari puja, a salient feature of saradotsav in household pujas,” explains 75-year-old Surupa Gooptu, engaged in Basanti puja this year, hosting the family deity Singhabahini Durga.

The ashtadhatu idol, about four inches high, is worshipped by different branches of the family by turns. Surupa Gooptu’s turn has come after 36 years. “We will also perform sharadiya Durga puja this year, with the same idol,” says her daughter Kumkum.

The Kundu Chowdhurys of Andul, Howrah, worship Durga as Parvati, seated on her consort Shiva’s lap. “After Basanti puja, we immerse the idol on Dashami. An exact replica is made in autumn,” says Ashit Kundu Chowdhury. The two-puja custom is continuing since the late 18th century when the babus of the house were late in returning from a voyage and the women performing Basanti puja pledged to do a Durga puja as well in autumn once the men came home safe.

At the Kundus’ in Salt Lake’s FE Block, you might well imagine that you are attending the autumn festival, as the dhakis drum up the right rhythm for the priest’s arati to a 10-handed goddess, flanked by her four divine children. “My patients often express surprise at this variation of Durga puja. I have to explain to them that this is the original form,” smiles Kaushik Kundu, a gynaecologist.

Festival or ritual?

Unless Durga is an in-house deity, a family usually chooses one of the two pujas. “This is a ritual worthy of kings. So many families are having to put an end to the practice due to lack of manpower and money power. Who can take the responsibility twice a year?” asks an elderly north Calcuttan whose family stopped Basanti puja five years ago.

Custom decides which puja a family chooses. “Sharadiya Durgotsav has survived in larger numbers because of the hype. Durga puja has become a festival whereas Basanti puja remains a ritual,” feels Swapan Pal in his Kumartuli studio , who has made a Basanti idol for a Tarakeshwar home. His neighbour Kalicharan Pal adds that the excitement over the spring ritual is no match for the autumnal affair.

But try saying that to families busy with Basanti puja this weekend. At Champatala Banerjeebari, close to College Square, the house is all lit up with tooni bulbs and the shehnai strains can be heard from a distance despite the car horns. The goddess is sculpted indoors and before sundown on Sashthi, she is installed on the pedestal.

“Basanti puja at our home was stopped a century ago because of a curse. But since the late 1990s I started receiving commands from the Devi in my dreams to revive the puja. No one took me seriously as I was young. Three years ago, I started the puja on my own,” says Indradip Banerjee, a 35-year-old lawyer.

From Pratipada, five days before Sashthi, the vien (the system of preparing sweets) has been at work at home on 45 types of sweets to be placed as offering. The Devi is draped in a garad sari while her attendants Jaya and Bijoya don Benarasis. From the crown to the innumerable ornaments, gold is the only metal that touches Her. “Spring is the king of seasons. This is the best time to hold Puja,” stresses Indradip.

The Kundus have a century-old autumnal puja carrying on at their Burdwan bari. “But I wanted a puja of my own,” says Kaushik. “My elderly relatives, who cannot travel to Burdwan, prefer to come to my puja in the city.”

Basanti puja is not only keeping the genesis of Durga puja alive, but it also helps the idol-makers when they need it the most. “After Saraswati puja, there is a long lull. Pujas like Basanti keep us going till the Durga puja orders come in. And truth be told, if an idol remains unsold after Durga puja, we can always pass it off during Basanti puja.... As long as people have fears and family binds, a puja like Basanti will never die,” smiles an artisan in Kumartuli.

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