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A Date With Durga
India's power goddess finds a home in Shanghai
By Sudeshna Sarkar | NO. 45 NOVEMBER 5, 2015


The festival ends each year with sindur khela , when women smear each other with vermilion, a custom deeply woven into Bengali culture (COURTESY OF KUNAL SINHA)

Hindus' biggest festival season starts in October with the worship--puja --of Durga and continues well into November, finally concluding as Deepawali, or the Festival of Lights. Some of these events are celebrated in Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and in communities around the world where there is a sizeable Hindu diaspora. Durga is the first in a line of Hindu power goddesses.

According to legend, the gods were thrown out of heaven by a powerful demon who often assumed the form of a buffalo. Unable to overcome him, the fugitive gods pooled their strengths together to create Durga, a supergoddess that rides a lion. The new divinity took on the demon and slayed him after a furious 10-day battle, a feat that became associated with another epic battle between the powers of light and dark.

The parallel story harks back to the epic Ramayan , in which Ram, the virtuous king, kills Ravan, the 10-headed demon king, for abducting Ram's wife and refusing to free her. Durga puja  is followed by Dussehra, which celebrates the humbling of Ravan.

These celebrations are also a fountainhead of culture and creativity. Regarded as an auspicious time, they see the launch of new films, music albums, plays and books. Food gets a fillip, especially dessert, with ingenious innovations.

Durga puja  in particular has created a community of sculptors adept at creating the elaborate idol of the 10-armed goddess on her mount, with the buffalo-demon at her feet. In these sculptures, the deity is accompanied by her four children: the goddesses of power and learning, the god of the martial arts, and Ganesh, the elephant-headed god whose image graces many homes and establishments as a good-luck charm. The idols were first made of clay. But since the early celebrations, there is great rivalry among the artisans to use novel materials, from fiberglass to jute or even edible items. Though it's not just the idols that are the objects of attention. The pandal--the marquee in which the idols are placed--and the elaborate lights also are innovative designs that range from traditional temples to the pyramids in Egypt and the Tower of London.


The Durga puja  festival is incomplete without traditional music. The dhak  or traditional drum is a must, so is the conch and the kanshi , a tinny-sounding gong (COURTESY OF KUNAL SINHA)

The goddess in Shanghai 

The goddess is an intrepid traveler. According to the myths, she lives among towering snow-clad mountains, coming down once a year to visit her parents, which is a nice human touch that, showing the diva as a loving and loved daughter. She has also traveled to parts of the world--or at least her image has--wherever devotees desire her presence.

Nine years ago, the Indian community living in Shanghai­--mostly the Bengali-language speakers--thought it would be fun to celebrate Durga puja  in their home away from home.

When Ranjan Mukherjee came to Shanghai over a decade ago as the China manager of one of India's largest adhesive companies, he had no inkling his product would be put to use in a most unusual way. The glue was employed to reattach an arm and nose of a statue representing India's most powerful heroine, and is associated with what has now become an annual cultural fixture in China.

Kunal Sinha, another Shanghai resident and witness to the first Durga puja  in Shanghai, spoke with Beijing Review  about how one of South Asia's biggest festivals, celebrating the power of good over evil, came to take root on the shore of the Huangpu River in China's commercial capital.

"We used to celebrate other Indian cultural events, like the Bengali new year in summer and the birth anniversary of Rabindranath Tagore (Asia's first Nobel laureate in literature), but the idea of starting a Durga puja  was breathtaking," Sinha said. "The tradition is that unlike other deities, you cannot discontinue Durga's worship once you have started it. You must do it for several more years. Some of us wondered if we would be able to keep it up. But the more adventurous said let's start it, and then the goddess will show us the way."


The fiberglass Durga that is at the heart of the Shanghai celebrations. The 10-armed deity, flanked by her two daughters and two sons, is seen battling the green-faced demon king Mahishashur (COURTESY OF KUNAL SINHA)

That's how the first clay idol of the goddess arrived at Shanghai International Port from Kumartuli in Kolkata, the place where the images are made. "It was our first time, and we didn't have any experience," said Sinha, who has been present at all the eight earlier annual puja s in Shanghai. "The packing had not been done well and an arm of the goddess had broken in transit. The nose too had been chipped off. We worked with adhesives, plaster of Paris and paint to repair the damage. Later, when we were wiser, we ordered a new image of fiberglass so that it would suffer no damage during transportation." Unlike in India, there is no marquee.

Indian establishments in Shanghai take turns to host the event. This time, Masala Art, a popular Indian restaurant that has been featured by China's national broadcaster CCTV and the local Chinese media, is the venue. The traditional worship needs a traditional priest. The priest, flown from Kolkata for the event, cuts a remarkable figure at the immigration desk in the airport in his flowing traditional white robes. Once the 10-day event is over, traditionally, the image is immersed in a river in India. But deferring to Chinese environmental concerns, in Shanghai the organizers pack her up respectfully and keep her in the custody of any volunteering host with a large apartment until it's time for next year's puja .

Though a Hindu festival, Durga puja  brings people together through bonhomie and food. There is community feasting when people in the neighborhood and anyone interested in Indian culture and food is urged to join in. "Many of us have Chinese friends and colleagues," Sinha said. "They come to see the cultural programs that follow and taste Indian cuisine." Durga puja  in Shanghai, besides showing an aspect of India's colorful culture, also shows a face of China that many abroad may not be aware of: China is a tolerant state that allows people to celebrate their own beliefs.

"Sometimes we have security officials peeping in, attracted by the sound of the traditional drum and the sights of people dancing. But they leave without any fuss when they realize we mean no harm," said Sinha. "Durga puja  is more of a cultural celebration than a religious rite actually. When something is not going to create any social disturbance, but is simply an occasion for some people to make merry by wearing new clothes, feasting and dancing their legs off, the authorities let you be."

The Shanghai puja  has one last postscript. Though in India it's a 10-day festival with the four main days this year being from October 20 to 23, in Shanghai it is celebrated the weekend after. This is so people who went home to India to celebrate can come back and have another celebration.

The author is a consultant with the ChinAfrica  magazine 

Copyedited by Jordyn Dahl

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