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The Plantain Goddess of Bankura

Rituals are like distortions that occur as an outcome of a Chinese Whisper game. Usually remote facts about a heroic personality accumulate to form a legend, which in turn gets associated with religion to form a myth and the myth becomes a custom through the practice of certain rituals.

Such is the ritual of worshipping ‘Kola Bou’ during Durga Puja. The scriptures say, since Lord Ram could not prepare an idol of Goddess Durga, he symbolized the trunk of a banana tree, adorned with nine different types of leaves, as the almighty and worshipped it to invoke her, in order to gain victory over Ravana. But according to a local myth, Kola Bou was a spy sent by Shiva, to accompany Maa Durga to her father’s home and keep a close watch on her. In any case this deity is quite important and it has become a custom to immerse her with the idol of Maa Durga after Dashami Puja.

Last year, we went out for a trip to Bankura on the brink of the Bijoya Dashami dawn. On the way, we passed through the districts of Howrah, Hoogly and Burdwan to reach Bankura. In essays on India’s national integrity, we usually discuss the cultural diversity found among the various states of this country. But this trip brought for me to the realization that variety is not only found among the different states, but each district, especially those in Bengal, bears its own ethnic heritage.

And we noticed this as soon as we entered Bankura around an hour before midday. As I have already mentioned, we had started our journey on Bijoya Dashami, the day on which the idol of Durga is immersed in some lake or river. But we were astounded to find that in Bankura, the Kola Bou was given more importance than the Goddess, herself. The former was carried in a palanquin escorted by four bearers who held the palanquin with one hand and a sword with the other. The Kola Bou was wrapped in a sari varying from cotton, printed to expensive silk (Baluchuri) – depending on the budget of the Puja organiser.

In some of these Pujas we found the palanquin along with the bearers were provided the shade of a huge umbrella, and the umbrella bearer had to match his speed with the four palanquin bearers. This symphony of actions was accompanied by a procession of women carrying pots full of water, children and groups of men who participated in the ceremony. Barefooted, all of them went to the nearby river to immerse the Kola Bou.

The most interesting part of the rituals in Bankura and a pointer to its difference from the standard Puja we are accustomed with is in the fact that instead of being immersed on Bijoya Dashami day, Durga along with her children was left in the pandal. On asking, a local we were told that the spirit of Maa Durga existed in the Kola Bou and the idol was built only as a manifestation of belief. For this reason, Kola Bou was immersed whereas the idol of Durga was left to be weathered. The same structure that had been used this year would be used in the next year and the year next to that.

We were not just surprised but impressed by this environment friendly custom. Often, age old rituals become painstaking and a hassle to carry on as we move on from one generation to another. But this particular ritual not only saves transport charges of carrying the idol to the water body but also prevents pollution of the river.

Later, that day, when we saw the terracotta tile with “Beautiful Bengal” inscribed on it, at the reception table of the Bishnupur tourist lodge, we couldn’t but agree. “No Wonder! Our Bengal is beautiful,” someone said, `and the beauty lies in her diversity,’ another added.

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