Saraswati Puja – An Ode To The Hindu Goddess Of Knowledge

Saraswati Puja

Calcutta, Jan 27, 2012 (Washington Bangla Radio / Penning Creations) It’s not for nothing that Bengal is known as the land of festivities. We look forward with eager anticipation to our annual Durga Puja celebrations, offer our prayers on a regular basis on the day of Laxmi Puja, light up our homes during Diwali and seek blessings from Goddess Jagaddhatri – all within a span of a couple of months or so. The festive season rolls on with the arrival of Christmas (and, perhaps more importantly, the yummy cakes!). Taking up new year resolutions (which are, of course, meant to be broken!) is a popular activity (or, timepass?!) among us Bongs too. The continuous series of religious festivals culminate with Saraswati Puja – the day on which the Goddess of Knowledge is worshipped. One of the most eagerly anticipated festivals in Bengal, the day of Saraswati Puja is rich with traditions, religious beliefs and customs. Of course, the fun and entertainment quotient of the day cannot be ignored either.

Bengali Saraswati Puja in Kolkata

Saraswati Puja officially marks the onset of Vasant Ritu (spring season) in Bengal. This festival is held every year on the day of ‘Shukla Panchami’ (the fifth day of the bright fortnight of ‘Magh’, according to the Bengali calendar). Resplendent in her white saree, ‘Ma Saraswati’ (as the goddess is fondly revered throughout the state) arrives on the designated day (or, at least, her idol does!) to keep her tryst with a large number of eagerly awaiting devotees. The deity traditionally holds a ‘Veena’ (a famed stringed musical instrument that had its origins in India). Her ‘vahana’ (vehicle) is a snow white (and very cute!) swan, which signifies all the virtues of ‘Sattva Guna’ (purity and modesty). Saraswati, like most other Hindu gods and goddesses, is also known by various other names, including Gayatri, Bakdevi, Shatarupa, Mahasweta and Sarbasukia.

Bengali Saraswati Pujo in Kolkata

According to the Matsya Purana, ‘Ma Saraswati’ is said to have originated from the mouth of Lord Brahma. While the authenticity of this theory cannot be verified (then again, do we even want to investigate the actual origins of the deities we worship?!), the fact remains that Saraswati is one of the most graceful Hindu goddesses. This, of course, comes hardly as a surprise, for the goddess also epitomizes all that is beautiful from the worlds of music and fine arts too. While ‘Saraswati Puja’ enjoys the most popularity in West Bengal, the day is also celebrated with great enthusiasm and excitement in states like Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh as well. Indeed, the occasion of ‘Vasant Panchami’ or ‘Basant Punjami’ (as the day of Saraswati Puja is known in these states) is one of the most important days in the Indian festive calendar.On the day of the festival, customs and rituals make an early appearance in the Bengali households where ‘Saraswati Puja’ is celebrated (which, of course, means, most homes in the city!). Family members get up early (yes, it’s a holiday, but no one gets sleeps till late on the day!). Many keep fasts on the occasion. The next agenda on this busy day for the household members is to have a nice and early bath. People put ‘kacha holud’ (raw turmeric) on their bodies before going under the shower, one of the many traditions that are followed throughout the day. This custom is supposed to enhance the beauty of individuals (‘Sree-briddhi’). The inner desire of us humans to look beautiful at all costs is at work here, even on the day of a religious festival! Strange are the ways of men (or, Bongs, as it were!).

After all members of the family have had their baths and are supposedly cleansed of all sins (if any!), the preparations for the ‘puja’ start in right earnest. Generally, a low, wooden stool is arranged for, which is covered with a clean piece of cloth (preferably yellow in colour), on which the idol of Saraswati is placed. The floral decorations start next, with the presence of ‘Palash’ flower being an absolute must on the occasion. Devotees also need to arrange for a large number of white lotuses and jasmine flowers too. A ‘daab’ (green coconut) is carefully balanced on an earthen pot (an extremely tricky task, as many would know by experience!). A ‘gamchha’ (a red chequered piece of cotton cloth) is placed above the coconut, completing the preparation of the all-important ‘ghot’ for the ‘puja’.

What is any traditional Bengali religious festival without edible offerings on a grand scale? On the day of ‘Saraswati Puja’, worshippers offer the goddess an extensive array of fruits. While apples, bananas, guavas, grapes and several other tasty fruit varieties adorn the plates that are placed in front of ‘Ma Saraswati’, devotees simply have to ensure that plums (‘kul’) and oranges are being offered to the deity. These two are supposed to be the favourite fruits of the goddess and on the day of her worship, we wish to follow every traditions related to the festival to the last detail, don’t we? After all, she is the one in charge of our academic (or musical) futures!

While in Brahmin households the actual worship is performed by the eldest male member of the family, most non-Brahmin families prefer to invite priests to perform the rituals. ‘Yajna’-s (religious pyres) are held in many households and holy texts, or ‘shlokas’, are read out at the time (with ‘Saraswati Vandana’ being the most important of them). After the completion of the ‘puja’, ‘arati’ is performed (a lit lamp, or ‘pradip’, being waved in a circular motion by priests). Once ‘arati’ is done too, devotees rush to place their palms just over the fire in these lamps and touch their foreheads with their warm hands. Ladies also ‘store’ the holy warmth of the lamps in the corner (‘aanchal’) of their sarees. Hardly a surprise really, for no one wants to miss out on the blessings of goddess Saraswati!

Since Saraswati is the goddess of knowledge, there simply has to be some ‘educational features’ about the day, right? Traditionally, ‘doats’ (ink-cases) and ‘khaager koloms’ (a special, if not entirely smooth, variety of handmade pens) are placed in front of the deity, just beside the plums and the oranges. The day is considered to be extremely auspicious for the little ones in the family to put pen on paper (or, banana leaves/ ‘kola paata’) for the first time. Also known as ‘haatey-khori’, this is one of the most enjoyable rituals that are observed during the day. Typically, a stack of books (fat and difficult ones, in most cases!) are placed beside the idol of the goddess and it is believed that the latter would bless devotees through the books, so that they might easily achieve academic excellence in life. This ‘boi utsab’ (festival of books) is particularly popular among youngsters.

While devotees make it a point to ensure that all rituals related to ‘Saraswati Puja’ are observed in the best possible manner in their homes, being a part of the community festivities on the day has its own charms too. People put on sparkling new dresses and visit the pandals, where the ‘puja’ is held. It is particularly charming to see pretty young ladies, dressed in classy and vibrant ‘basanti’ (light yellow) coloured sarees, advancing in unsteady footsteps on the day. Boys, on the other hand, seem to be in a constant struggle to look (and feel!) comfortable in punjabi-s and, in particular, dhotis (!). As everyone offer their ‘anjali’-s side by side, an ethereal sense of camaraderie and bonding seem to descend among all those present. Of course, if a certain handsome young man (or, for that matter, a cute lady!) happens to catch your fancy, you can throw a few surreptitious flowers at him/her as well! The goddess surely won’t mind, for matters of the heart are indeed divine!

Another high point of the day of ‘Saraswati Puja’ is the ‘ponktibhojon’ (community lunch) that is arranged in most (if not all!) localities. People relish the sumptuous meal of ‘khichuri’, ‘laabra’ (a mix and match of many, and frankly, indistinguishable!) vegetables, ‘beguni’-s (your community might serve some other type of ‘pakora’, though!), papads and ‘rosogollas’, that are served on these occasions. Of course, no ‘Saraswati Puja’ is complete without the incredibly tasty (and sour!) ‘kuler chaatney’!

‘Saraswati Puja’ is also famous on another count, which, for a change, has nothing to do with religious activities. The day is informally celebrated as the Bengali version of Valentine’s Day (‘Bhyalentine’s Day’, if you will!). Once the ‘puja’ and the lunch are over, young couples hit the roads in the afternoon. It is indeed a pretty sight to see the young sweethearts, dressed in traditional Bengali dresses, walk hand-in-hand along the streets. In addition to knowledge, music and fine arts, ‘Ma Saraswati’ fosters love too!

As the day of ‘Saraswati Puja’ draws to a close, a slight feeling of sadness and melancholy seems to descend upon everyone. After all, it is the last major Bengali festival for a long time (with ‘Durga Puja’ arriving almost eight months later!). Right from the time of immersion of the Saraswati idols, people seem to start counting down the days to the next edition of this festival. We Bongs might have ‘Tetrish koti deb-debis’ (33 crores of gods and goddesses!), but ‘Saraswati Puja’ sure holds a special place in our hearts.

Oh, I just heard the priest from our ‘para pandal’ calling all residents for the ‘anjali’ of ‘Saraswati Puja’! I must rush now...

Enhanced by Zemanta