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Roots run deep

Delhi Durga Puja Samiti, which hosts the city’s oldest Durga puja, is all set to celebrate its centenary this year. DIPAYAN MAZUMDAR traces its history

Photo: V.V. Krishnan

Tradition lives on An artist giving final touches to an idol of goddess Durga last year

Come September, Delhi and the National Capital Region will see a barrage of Durga puja celebrations. But this year, the city will also see a bit of history-making related to the annual puja celebrations. For Delhi’s oldest Durga puja, popularly known as the Kashmere Gate puja, will enter its hundredth year. Delhi Durga Puja Samiti, which organises the annual event, is all geared up for the centenary celebrations spanning six days from September 23.

The centenary programme

Kamaleshwar Sen, the Samiti head, says a special 90-ft-long corridor “Thakur Dalan” is planned at the pandal. They have been working on this since last May. The Bengali Club, which is actively involved in the event, will stage an award-winning play “Bhushondir Mathey” at the venue. A jatra from Kolkata is also on the cards. Besides, the Samiti will organise “a major yagna on the first day of the puja to mark the centenary and also host the Joint Bijoya Sammelan to greet members and representatives of all puja committees of Delhi.”

On the day of Dashami or Dussehra, Sen says a procession of more than 300 idols shall cross this heritage pandal before they are immersed in the Yamuna. The Kashmere Gate idol, as always, will be taken for immersion in a bullock cart accompanied by men in dhoti-kurta and women in their traditional red bordered saris.

Even as the Samiti is giving a final touch to the programme, let’s tread back to the days that saw the birth of the puja celebrations in the country’s National Capital.

The history

Delhi saw its first Durga puja in 1910. It was an effort on the part of the probasi Bengalis living in the city, missing home during puja, the community’s biggest annual festivity. With Bengalis embracing English education with great enthusiasm, many had to leave home to serve in different parts of the country during British times. This brought a clutch of Bengalis to the city. And in 1911, when Delhi was officially declared the Capital of British India, a good chunk of them came to work in various government offices. These educated Bengalis formed a close knit community, unhindered by petty professional jealousies. They invariably established either Kali temples or cultural organisations to preserve their cultural and social identities. This gave a huge thrust to the annual Durga puja celebrations. At first, the puja in Delhi was performed by ritually consecrating the ‘mangal ghata’ — the earthenware pot, symbol of the ‘Devi’. Enthusiasm was unbounded when ‘pratima puja’ started in 1912. However, no arrangement could be made to procure an idol from Kolkata then. With the help of the late Parmananda Biswas, who happened to be a Christian gentleman, an idol was brought from Kashi. Many Railway employees too made it possible to bring the idol from Kashi to Delhi, till 1926, when the idol began to be made in the city itself. Yet another name not to be missed along with Biswas when it comes to the history of Durga puja in Delhi isLala Lachminarayan and his son Lala Girdhari Lal. Though in 1910, the puja celebration became public for the first time, it was performed at a small Kali temple near Nigambodh Ghat before that. This was the original Delhi Kali Bari. During the 1857 Revolt, the little shrine was destroyed and the idol lay shattered on the banks of Yamuna. It was rescued by one Neelmoni Brahmachari towards the end of 1857. He was a disciple of Krishnanand, known for his philanthropy, and is credited with establishing the Kali temples in Allahabad, Meerut, Agra and Ambala, etc. The puja continued at Krishnanand’s house till one Railway doctor, Hemchandra Sen, came to live in the city in 1879. It was he who brought the puja to a rented place in Roshanpura near Nai Sarak in 1910, making it a public event.Because of the limited resources, the puja had to be conducted in an austere manner. The second ‘ghat’ puja was also organised at Nai Sarak in 1911 followed by the Chandni Chowk puja in 1912. For this, the idol was brought from Varanasi by boat.

At Roshanpura

As time passed, the Roshanpura temple became not only a place for religious activities but a social hub of the community. Literary discussions, musical evenings, theatre performances and even contributions to the war efforts during the First World War were decided in these premises. Later, with the establishment of the Bengali Club in 1925, the stage shifted with the efforts of people like Dr. Sudhindrakumar Sen and Dr. Birendranath Gupto. The theatre performances were generally held at Rama Theatre in Chandni Chowk. While the temple prospered, the community was disturbed by the greed of the temple priest and his son who began to stake claims on the temple donations and showed signs of taking over ownership. The other temples at Ambala, Agra, and Meerut had been taken over by the temple priests. The Delhi Bengalis feared that the same fate would befall their temple and made efforts to prevent that eventuality. The concerted efforts of people like Akshay Chandra Bosu, Madhab Chandra Bandopadhaya, and Ishantosh Mitra resulted in the purchase of land at Tees Hazari. Navin Master’s wrestling akhara was useful in thwarting the interference of the pujaris, and the Kali idol was brought to Tees Hazari with much fanfare. This was done during 1919-20. The temple started functioning from a tiny room at Tees Hazari. But in the absence of enough capital, a proper temple could not be constructed. A committee was constituted on November 28, 1917, to oversee the construction of the temple, presided over by Dr. Madhav Chandra Bandopadhaya near Jama Masjid. Soon, the need for more space that could accommodate the social and cultural aspirations of the ever increasing Bengali community in the city became critical. Kali Bari was proving inadequate for the purpose. The Banga Sahitya Sabha established in 1894 was widely popular. So was the The Bengali Club and Kali Bari remained only a place for religious rituals.

During that time, the puja began to be celebrated at the Laxmi Narayan Dharamshala in Fatehpuri. In 1948, it was shifted to Delhi Polytechnic in Kashmere Gate. In 1957, it was held at Women’s Polytechnic till 1967. The next year, the puja was shifted to Bengali Senior Secondary School on Alipur Road till date.

A touchstone of history

•The tradition of public Durga puja started in 1910. It was held at Roshanpura

•In 1948, the puja was held at Kashmere Gate, which gave the event its name till today

•The Kashmere Gate puja, held on the Alipur Road near Delhi University, first took place in 1968

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