Navapatrika : Worship of nature’s creative force
Ancient rituals such as the one associated with Navapatrika will attain their true values only when these are translated into a positive attitude towards women.
||Sun, Oct 13 2013|
Photographs: Ridwan Adid Rupon
An Enigmatic Beauty
My many Kolkata
The five-day long Durga Puja festival has begun in India, Bengal in particular. The festival celebrates the eternal conflict between the good and the evil and the eventual triumph of forces of good (represented by Goddess Durga) over that of evil (represented by Mahishasura – or the Buffalo demon). Durga Puja is also in many ways the celebration of the “sacred feminine” or female power. Goddess Durga or Maa Durga as she is commonly known is a Hindu goddess who is worshipped as an embodiment of creative feminine force. On the other hand she is also worshipped as Shakti - the source of power in which she is invincible; she is worshipped as the Mother of the universe, both in her gracious as well as protective and hence terrifying form.
Since long, one of the most abstract, curious and intriguing images of the Durga Puja for me has been that of the Navapatrika (also known as the Kola Bou) – the anthropomorphic Banana plant, clad in a Saree (generally white, with a red border). The Navapatrika is installed at the worship alter on Saptami – the seventh day of the new moon of the Ashwin month (September – October) along with the clay idol of Goddess Durga and her four children – Ganesha (the elephant headed deity who removes obstacles); Saraswati (the deity of learning and arts); Lakshmi (the deity of wealth, beauty and grace) and Kartikeya (the deity of warfare). Many scholars consider these four deities to represent the attributes of Goddess Durga herself.
I have always wondered what the esoteric Navapatrika image and the ritual associated with it meant and this time during my annual sojourn to Kolkata, I decided to investigate this in some depth. I headed for the Ahiritola Ghaat (the flight of steps on the landing on the river bank) in North Kolkata, which is one of the major scenes for the ancient Navapatrika ritual.
Our photographer friend Ridwan Adid Rupon from Bangladesh and another friend – Dr. Atasi Nanda Goswami, a researcher in cultural anthropology in Kolkata joined me, my wife and my daughter for this trip. We headed for the Ahiritola Ghaat driving through the lanes and by lanes of North Kolkata around five in the morning to witness the ritual live, in order to unpack its origin and significance.
The Navapatrika ritual and installation of the sacred pot:
Navapatrika marks the beginning of the Durga Puja in which nine different plants (agricultural, horticultural and herbal) are tied together representing the different anatomical and morphological features of a woman. The ensemble is then given a ritual bath in the river, wrapped in the nine yard Saree to represent a newly-wed bride and then carried off for installation at the main worship alter. The nine plants of Nabapatrika - the Banana plant; the Colocacia; Turmetic; Jayanti (sesbania seban); Bel or wood apple; Pomegranate / Fig; Ashoka tree (saraca indica); Arum plant and the Rice plant represent nine deities, or the nine different forms of Goddess Durga.
The ritual started early in the morning and we witnessed groups of devotees bringing the Navapatrika ensemble to the river bank, give it a ritual bath and then wrap it in a nine yard Saree, to the accompaniment of beating of drums, bells and gongs, the chanting of ancient mantras and waving of ceremonial lamps and incense, hoisting of colourful ceremonial parasols, the blowing of the conch and swaying of ceremonial fans. Offerings of raw and cooked foods were also made.
At the old Ahiritola ghat by the river Hoogly (a branch of the Ganges, draining into Bay of Bengal) we encountered and jostled with hundreds of devotees in full ritual fervour, conducing the Navapatrika ritual. While the details of the ritual varied between group to group, the common features of the ritual included devotees standing in neck deep water and offering grains of rice, flowers and fruits to the Sun God and then giving the Navapatrika a ritual bath. The Navapatrika was shielded (just as a woman would do while changing her cloths) and then draped in a country cloth (the gamcha or the towel) and then in the nine yard saree. After this, the priests conducted the worship with fruits (three underground and six areal) and other offerings. In some cases, cooked foods such as rice pudding or sweet yogurt were also offered, yet again symbolizing the restorative aspect of nature.
Along with the consecration of the Navapatrika, the priests also assembled the Mangala-ghatam – or the sacred earthen or brass/copper pot holding holy water. The pot of water is symbolic of the womb and also of life giving water and is worshipped with mango leaves, a tender coconut, vermillion and turmeric – once again symbolizing fertility and fecundity. Goddess Durga is considered to reside in the sacred pot during the four days of the Durga Puja. Both the Navapatrika and the sacred pot were then carried in colorful processions to the worship alters. At the worship alter, the Mangala-ghatam or the sacred pot is generally placed along with a small conch and conch bangles (worn by Bengali married women), ritual threads and worshipped with flowers, vermillion, turmeric and sandalwood paste.
At the Ahiritola ghaat, we struggled alongside the devotees to get a good foothold on the slippery steps and secure the best angles and frames for the photographs. The sights, sounds and smells combined to transport us into an ancient and mysterious time wrap.
Vestiges of the ancient practice of nature worship and a fertility ritual:
In South Asia, since the early days of human civilization, certain days or periods in the annual seasonal cycle were set aside for ritual celebrations. These rituals and ceremonies underscored the importance of agriculture, rivers and forests in the lives of people as they evolved from a nomadic lifestyle to more settled agriculture based culture and civilization. The Navapatrika was one such agricultural / harvest ritual intimately linked with fertility.
Bengal folk history suggests that the origin of Durga Puja lies in the more ancient and abstract practice of Dharitri puja (earth worship). Offerings made before earthen mounds sprouting grass were the earliest form of the Dharitri Puja. According to Historian Ashutoah Bhattacharya, as primitive animism was replaced by more organized forms of Hindiusm, particularly the Tantra, the earlier and more abstract Earth-deity was transformed into the more concrete mother goddess or Shakti from which later day Gods and deities such as Durga, Kali or Laskshmi emerged.
There are striking similarities between the rituals of the Durga puja and the Dharatri Puja. In both, the Navapatrika is constructed, consecrated and venerated as a potent symbol of fertility and fecundity. The mantras chanted during the Navapatrika ritual are said to propitiate the Earth-deity or Mother-nature to ensure an abundance of agricultural and horticultural produce. In the Puranas, the later day Hindu texts, Durga is also referred to as Shakamvari - the creator of grain and greenery on earth, thereby connecting the Puranic Durga Puja with the more ancient Dharitri Puja. What is Dharitri in earlier times is transformed into Durga in later times.
While the Navapatrika ritual has found its way into the mainstream contemporary Durga Puja festival, originally it was a popular agricultural ritual performed by the peasant folks for a prosperous harvest. It was during the autumn (Sharat), the time for reaping crops (the Aman paddy) that the peasants worshipped the Nabapatrika deity for a good harvest. One can therefore safely conjecture that the Navapatrika ritual was a precursor to the Durga Puja in that it represents a primitive form of Goddess Durga. The Navapatrika ritual is in many ways also a thanks-giving ceremony to nature for her bounty. It is a living relic of the practice of nature worship by the ancient people of the subcontinent and predates the emergence and predominance of idol worship in Hinduism.
For me, the Navapatrika ritual stood as a fascinating symbol of the celebration of female power and the regenerative and restorative aspect of nature, which many Hindus consider as divine Mother. What amazed me most was that an ancient harvest and fertility ritual had managed to survive for thousands of years through to the present day. It linked modern India with its distant, ancient past and represented a great civilizational and cultural continuity that is difficult to find anywhere else in the world.
However at the same time, there was an immense contradiction which did not escape me. While being a grand spectacle and a delight to the senses, sadly for me the ritual was not representative of the reality of our daily lives in South Asia, where we are witnessing very high incidence of gender based violence, oppression and discrimination and a total disregard to environmental protection. In my mind, the ritual stood in stark contrast to the real status of women in our society and increasing environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity in the subcontinent.
Pregnant with important symbolism, ancient rituals such as those associated with the Navapatrika will attain their true value only when these are translated into a positive individual and societal attitude towards girls and women and towards our natural environment on the whole. Or else, such rituals will be at best tokenistic vestiges of an ancient past and at worst, a gross contradiction and hypocrisy in contemporary life in South Asia.
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