Come Durga Puja, there’s a flood of articles on the origin of the festival in the zamindari culture of Bengal, which sought to appease the East India Company in the 18th century. Not one has any reference to the possible roots in the Gosani Jatra of the Puri temple in Odisha. Why?
Oversight? Ignorance? Deliberate? Must Odias smell a conspiracy? The rosogolla wars have not been forgotten, with the Odia claim that the sweet dish originated three centuries ago around the Puri temple complex as an appeasement offering to Lakshmi, the consort of the presiding deity Jagannatha, standing up to the Bengali claim of it being a 19th century creation of Kolkata-based confectioner Nobin Chandra Das.
In such arguments, where identity is involved, scholarship takes a backseat as parochial emotions take over. If I, for example, were to side with the Odia argument, it will be attributed not to my scholarship, but to my Odia roots.
Be that as it may, I must draw attention to the now eclipsed Odia roots of Durga Puja – the Gosani Jatra.
Take what follows in the friendly spirit that it was written: an attempt to expand our understanding of Durga Puja, which needs further refinement at the hands of trained historians, and can serve as raw material for next year’s “Pujo” columns that will be more expansive and inclusive.
First up, some pan-Indian history. Goddess worship has been widely prevalent in India since ancient times. Every village has a Grama-devi for whose pleasure male goats and male buffaloes are slaughtered each year in the period following the monsoon, to satisfy her craving for blood so that she can bring forth crops: the milk of the earth-cow. We may never know when this practice began.
The story of Durga – of her slaying the buffalo demon and her attendants drinking the blood of Raktabeeja – comes to us only from Devi Mahatmaya, part of Markandeya Purana, which dates back to around 1,500 years ago. Some historians propose, rather controversially, that this story came with the Kushanas or the Indo-Greeks about 2,000 years ago.
They worshipped Goddess Nanaia, who kills the bull. Like the Praying Mantis, this Mother Goddess was known to eat her mate (who was also her offspring, unlike the insect’s), thus embodying the circle of life and seasons. Indians chose to replace the bull with the buffalo, for reasons we are now rather familiar with.
Not everyone agrees with this theory, but images of the Goddess killing the buffalo have been found only in the period that followed the Kushana rule. In Odisha alone, perhaps due to the concentration of many temples, one finds almost every variant dated from 4th to 10th century: the two-, six-, eight-, ten- and even twelve-handed Goddess, with or without the lion as her mount, fighting either a buffalo, or a buffalo-headed man. There too is the rare circular Yogini temple, indicating the widespread prevalence of the Tantra and Shakta schools of Hinduism.
The buffalo-slaying Goddess was first worshipped in spring (vasanta-nava-ratri), but Ram initiated her worship in autumn (sharad-nava-ratri) when he prepared for the battle with Ravana. This shift is called untimely invocation (a-kala-vandana, or akal-bodhon), and this story is brought to us only from the 15th century Bengali Krittivasa Ramayana. An earlier reference to Durga Puja comes from Markandeya Purana (text dated to around 500 CE).
It refers to one Suratha of the Chedi dynasty, which descended from the lunar line of kings, who started the Durga Puja in ancient times. It probably refers to the same Chedi dynasty mentioned by the Jain King Kharavela whose edict, dating back to first or second centuries BCE, has been found in the Hathigumpha caves of Odisha’s Udayagiri hills.
The worship of temporary clay images of Durga has been attributed to the 11th century king, Chodaganga Dev, who also initiated the building of the current Puri Jagannatha temple. He was a Shiva-worshipper, converted to a Vishnu-worshipper by the Vedanta acharya, Ramanuja.
This is relevant today as it was at a time when there was great tension between Shaivites and Vaishnavites, and both wanted to claim the Goddess. It explains why, on the temple walls, we find images of the king worshipping collective forms of Jagannatha, a Shiva-linga and the Goddess – as killer of the buffalo-demon (Mahisha-asura-mardini).The National Museum in Delhi has a similar image from the Konark temple with the king bowing to this trinity being identified as Narasimha Dev of the 13th century.
At the Puri temple, Mahishasuramardini (Goddess) and Madhava (Krishna) are worshipped together in a secret ritual known as the Gupta Gundicha ceremonies that take place during Navaratri. Traditionally, Vishnu/Krishna is associated with a demure form of the Goddess – Lakshmi or Saraswati.
The wilder form of the Goddess is associated with Shiva.
But not at Puri. Here, Krishna is said to be her Bhairava, according to Tantrik traditions, making him the Kala-Bhairava or black guardian, and Balarama, the Gora-Bhairava or the white guardian of the Goddess. The wild and fierce Shakti is part of the temple complex just as the Goddess Vimala and as the eight Mangala goddesses who guard the various roads leading to Purushottama-kshetra, or region of Puri. They demand blood. To the extent that in the vegetarian temple precinct, once a year, in secret, a goat is offered to Vimala within the temple itself.
Gosani refers to clay images of Durga that, perhaps, originated in Puri. The word Gosani is a mystery. It probably refers to Go-swamini, mistress of cattle. Cattle have long being used to connect the Hindu trinity with Shiva being referred to as Rishabha-natha – master of the bull – and Krishna being referred to as Go-pala – the caretaker of cows. The Goddess is identified as the cow itself.
But, Gosani suggests, she is not just the cow, she is also the mistress of the cow, independent in her own right, and no one’s property. The battle with the buffalo demon is one for establishing her sovereignty – this makes her the goddess of kings.
Unlike delicate and stylised images of Durga at Puja Pandals, the Gosanis look earthy, fierce and their gaze is not upon the devotee, but at the buffalo demon. He looks up at her while she looks down at him, pulling his hair with her hands, strangulating him with a serpent and impaling him with her trident, while kicking him in the chest. Their eyes are locked in combat. Her maternal form is downplayed and so she is not usually linked to her children: Ganesha, Kartikeya, Lakshmi and Saraswati. Or there are only the sons accompanying the mother to battle. Every Gosani has a Devi Yatra on her body, covered by fine silver filigree work that Odisha is famous for. Around her are intricate and grand torans of silver and gold.
Every Gosani has a particular name to indicate her individuality. They are rather crude, suggesting their earthy connection to local tribes and villages: Kakudi-khai (she who eats cucumbers), Pana-priya (she who likes paan or betel leaf), Janhi-khai (she who eats turai, or ridge gourd). The underlying subtext of castration, and pleasure, can be left to psycho analysts. Sunya Gosani fights the buffalo-demon in the sky and so images of hills and lakes are found at the bottom of the image. Not all images show her in combat.
The Kantakadhi (thorn-removing) Vana-durga shows the Goddess raising her leg, while Shiva looks on, so that Krishna/Vishnu can remove a thorn, and at the same time touch her feet, thus establishing her supremacy.
During the procession, she is accompanied by fierce images of Shiva as a Naga-Siddha-baba, and Sampati, Jatayu’s brother, the vulture, who helped the monkeys searching for Sita. It’s a grand procession at night, evoking the procession of ghosts and goblins of Shiva and Shakti who go around the Puri temple, and finally calm down as they stand before the Lion gate or the main entrance of the shrine, before it is time for visarjan.
The Gosani jatra has always been a public festival, with each of the Gosanis belonging to a particular neighbourhood (sahi, in Odia), and no particular king. Has it been around since the 11th century AD, as established by Chodaganga Dev? Many Gosanis are said to have been attached to akharas established by Adi Shankaracharya in the 8th century.
Was this practice of worshipping temporary clay images of the sovereign goddess, who bestows sovereignty, later adopted by kings of Odisha, Bengal and Assam, and through the ages, by zamindars who wanted to feel like kings? We can only speculate.
The reverse movement is also true. We know that in the 16th century, when Chaitanya Mahaprabhu visited Kataka (now Cuttack) and met the Gajapati kings who lived in the Barabati fort at Gadagadia ghat of Mahanadi, he established the Durga Puja at Balu Bazar.
A few decades later, during the reign of Akbar, when Todarmal was reorganising the land tax model, a zamindar family known as Ghosh Mahashay from Bengal moved to Rameswarpur village in Bhadrak district of Odisha and the Durga Puja was performed in his house, and continues to be performed. It is the oldest known location where Durga has been continuously worshipped every year for nearly 500 years.
This happened long before the East India Company and the public “sarva-janin” ceremonies of the 18th century. What did shift then was that a household festival of royalty in which the village participated – one that was rooted to the ground and to deities – eventually became a social tool to gather and mobilise people, not just Bengalis. Inspired, in Mumbai, we see an increasing desire to replicate the Ganpati model in Navaratri with clay images of Durga.
Only here she does not fight, and is shown riding the tiger. She is Bhavani, patron of the Maratha kings, and the local political parties.