The Devi represents the mother, the artisan and the warrior, just as she personifies the rebel, the critic, the prostitute and the alternative reader
Some say my Devi is a prostitute. They call it alternative reading. To many she is Mahadevi, the divine feminine- a superwoman who assumes a variety of forms to maintain cosmic order. Sometimes she is Parvati, the benevolent mother to her children. At other times she is Durga, the invincible one, invoked in times of battle even by the mightiest of warriors like Rama & Arjuna.
For her I have travelled across thousands of miles. From Singapore to Delhi, then onward to Shillong via Guwahati, to welcome her at the Namghor- an old prayer hall in my mother’s maternal home. My mother is weak and depleted from a debilitating round of Chikungunya, yet she mustered the energy to make the journey. “I have invited the Devi to Shillong this year. How can I not be there to receive her?” she said.
My Devi’s idol has been created in compound of the Namghor .The finishing touches were given by specialist craftsmen from Kolkata, who have honed their skill through generations. Her idol is made of straw, clay, and a small portion of mud or “punya mati”, which is brought from the house of a prostitute. This is a reminder that while stigma is a mortal construct, the Devi’s love is non discriminatory and all encompassing. Yet some call her a prostitute, and use it as a slur. They say it is alternative reading.
The sight and smell of the Xeuli or Shefali flower heralds the Devi’s arrival. For days before she appears for formal worship, the homes of her devotees have echoed with the haunting sounds of the Mahalaya invocations, which beseech:
“Awake, O, awake. Awake Durga
Awake wielder of 10 powers
The epitome of strength, provider of freedom from fear
On the sixth day of her ten-day sojourn on earth, her idol is placed in the central hall. We welcome her with the sounds of the dhol (drum), taal (cymbals) & ululations. We offer flowers, fruits, soaked gram, moong, ginger and coconut. We serenade her with songs. The priests begin the rituals to invoke her presence. The young decorate the stage while the old sit back and admire her. “Isn’t her face beautiful this year”, says one woman. “Indeed. But Ganesha’s stomach is looking too lean, says another. Appraisals are a part of all family functions, and the Devi isn’t exempt, for she too is our own.
Finally, encompassed with our love and devotion, coaxed with chants and invocations, our man made idol of clay gets infused with divinity, and transforms into Devi. Each day we will worship different aspect of her being. But some see her as merely as a prostitute, & they call it alternative reading.
My Devi this year is resplendent in a red saree. Her ten bejeweled hands are decorated with alta, a traditional red dye. In eight of them she holds symbolic weapons. The thunderbolt denotes firmness, the bow and arrow symbolizes energy and the power to overcome obstacles, the chakra destroys evil & upholds righteousness, the trident provides balance. She sits atop a lion, surrounded by her family, all of them powerful Gods in their own right. At her feet lies the vanquished Mahishasura, a warrior who gets blinded by ego and turns into a demon. Once she destroys his ego, he too is elevated and becomes worthy of worship in the pantheon. You see, my Devi does not bear grudges. She forgives all, including those who say she is a prostitute, and call it alternative reading.
Over the next few days we will wear new clothes, worship, eat, renew bonds and have a glorious celebration. In the morning we will gather for Anjali- an offering of flowers. In the evening we will do the arati with incense, camphor, lamps and coconut husk.
On the tenth day, we will feed the Devi with the choicest delicacies. Then we will load her on a truck for immersion, to mark the journey back to her abode in the Himalayas. As the truck makes it way down the winding hill slowly, devotees will accompany her to the bottom, as they have for decades. With quivering voices the women will sings songs of praise and farewell. At that moment, the Devi will transform from a mother to a daughter parting from her maternal home.
The Namghor will feel bare and lifeless without here presence, but devotees will gather one last time in the evening. They will feast to celebrate her memory, and to reaffirm that she will be back again.
To those who say my Devi is a prostitute, I say we create our Gods in our own image. We project on to them what we believe about ourselves. In them we invest our hopes, our fears, our aspirations, and highest principles. Thus, the Devi represents the mother, the artisan and the warrior, just as she personifies the rebel, the critic, the prostitute and the alternative reader. May she shower her blessings on all. Jai Ma Durga!