A lion snarls, a buffalo is killed, and an evil asura sinks to his knees. The victor is an awe-inspiring goddess standing on top of the grimacing lion, her hands slicing through the air in a gleaming arc as her weapons glisten in the sunlight. Behold the goddess Durga who is about to vanquish her enemy, Mahishasura.
In the gentle haze of an afternoon drizzle, the goddess appears precariously perched in a truck that weaves its way slowly through Mathura Tea Estate towards Chilapata forest. On either side of the road, row upon row of tea bushes stretch out as far as the eye can see. Towering over this green expanse, her face daubed with vermillion applied only a few hours ago by the women of the tea garden who gathered to bid her farewell, Durga is the undisputed goddess of Mathura T.E.. She is on her last journey to the river where her image will be immersed. In the rain, her vermillion begins to dribble, red ribbons of tears staining her face. As we inch forward, a flock of workers run forward to offer their prayers. Some clamber onto the truck to join the procession. Others run alongside the lumbering vehicle as the deity sways gently back and forth whenever the truck hits a bump.
Last month, on a rainy October day, I returned to the Dooars upon the invitation of Gautam and Madhumita Bhattacharya, who have infused a deep sense of community and unbridled joie de vivre into Durga puja celebrations at Mathura where Mr. Bhattacharya is the superintendent of the tea estate. The celebrations, the Bhattacharyas assured me, were on an intimate scale they have never seen before in any other tea garden.
There was more to the appeal of their invitation than I could express at first. Growing up in Calcutta, I was whisked away every puja season to my maternal grandmother’s sprawling garden home a few miles outside of the city. Here, with great gusto, the extended family celebrated Durga puja. A deity was coaxed out of clay and transformed into the glittering figure of Durga, fresh flowers were plucked in the garden for anjali (morning prayers), and a dhaki (drummer) turned up unfailingly every year. A hundred other details made Calcutta’s public celebrations feel alien in comparison, a parody of the tranquil Durga puja to which I was accustomed. Sadly, with my grandmother’s demise in 1992, a long standing family tradition came to an end. So when the Bhattacharyas extended their invitation, I jumped at the chance of fleeing Calcutta to revisit a long lost sense of the past in an unexpected setting.
There was yet another personal connection that drew me back to Mathura T.E. Planted by my paternal great grandfather a century ago, the garden remained in the family until it was sold to McLeod Russel in 1997. Perhaps, because of its Bengali heritage, the tea estate has held onto its tradition of Durga puja, Bengal’s most opulent festival.
I arrived on mahashtami, the eighth and most powerful day of the puja when the nine Shaktis of the goddess are famously invoked. That evening, Sandhi puja, the most auspicious ritual of the festival, invoked Chamundi, the fearsome form of the goddess who destroyed Chanda and Munda, the two demonic allies of Mahishasura. That evening too, 108 oil lamps were lit in Durga’s honor, their flickering flames harking back to a legendary ritual believed to have started when Ram worshipped Durga in preparation for his fierce battle against Ravana, the demon king.
As anybody who has spent some time in a tea plantation will tell you, producing tea is as much about growing a healthy plant, as it is about nurturing the many lives that intersect in the tapestry of landscapes that make up a tea estate. Quite appropriately for a festival that celebrates a triumphant goddess, Mathura’s Durga puja is organized by a committee of women. Presiding over them is “Madam Superintendent,” the talented Madhumita Bhattacharya whose unabashed enthusiasm inspires this band of volunteers. Her energy is infectious, they confide. Like high priestesses, they watch hawkishly over every detail. Nothing escapes their attention.
I watch admiringly as Madam Superintendent swings into action like the ten-armed goddess herself,. Perhaps the only planter’s wife to play the dhak (drum), and that too with the skillful dexterity of a professional dhaki, she never misses a beat. Delighted by her impromptu performance, the crowd assembled in the thakur dalan (pavilion) joins in, dancing the dhunochi naach to the rhythms of her drumming. Somebody picks up a small brass gong to synchronize with her beats. Watching from afar, the priest who has just concluded the evening prayers realizes that it is Madam Superintendent is now in charge of the festivities. Durga smiles in the background as the sound of the dhak wafts across the dalan, cascading from there across acres of tea bushes. I imagine a traveler, miles away, marveling at the faint sound of the dhak and wondering where it might be emanating from.
As is customary during Durga puja, the tea factory is closed. The whirring of machines and belts has come to a silent halt. Across, in the dalan, the crowd thickens as a dhunochi dance competition begins. A tray filled with cups of Mathura tea is circulated. This, we all agree, is the unique offering of Durga puja at Mathura.
While growing up, playing the dhak at Durga puja and participating in the dhunochi naach were considered strictly male domains. As Mathura’s women, led by their graceful Madam Superintendent, twirl their dhunochi, their earthen containers filled with burning coconut husks , Durga’s visage gleams through the smoke. I realize how dramatically times have changed. Later that evening, a ten-year old girl wins the junior girl’s dhunochi competition. Her face lights up when I congratulate her.
Far removed from Kolkata, Mathura’s puja, by comparison feels refreshingly sedate and not surprisingly, much closer to its earth-bound and probably tribal origins. Even the thakur dalan built out of local sal wood, synchronizes with the agrarian past of the goddess.
Our Madam Superintendent, a botanist by training who also happens to be a gifted writer with a love of history, informed me that the tradition of celebrating Durga puja at Mathura began around 1957. When the thakur dalan was built in 1963, the puja shifted to the administrative center of the plantation, across from the factory where tea is manufactured. Driven mainly by the garden’s staff and workers, it has remained strictly a Mathura affair. This was palpable even during my visit as hierarchies of labor were dissolved, binding together an extended community of tea garden staff and laborers.
Nowhere was this more evident than on dashami, the tenth day of the festival, when the deity was immersed in a river in Chilapata forest, an elephant corridor between Jaldapara National Park and the Buxa Tiger Reserve in North Bengal. Here, deer, bison, elephants, leopards, and rhinoceros still roam, albeit in diminishing numbers. Like many other tea plantations, Mathura was originally carved out of thick jungle. So it seemed only appropriate that Durga’s final journey ended in the leafy depths of Chilapata.
Looking back at this grand finale nearly a month later, the memories of some extraordinary sights and sounds return again and again. Armed with permission secured from the forestry department for the ritual bhashan or immersion, our procession made its way into the forest where dusk was settling swiftly into the rain-soaked landscape. A river gushed below, leaping over boulders and spreading into the wilderness. A spectacular site, the jungle had supplanted the thakur dalan. Mercifully, the rain showers ceased as soon as we reached our destination. As Durga’s rain-drenched, sindoor-smeared figure with a wet crown hanging over her head, waited to be immersed, she appeared every bit as regal as the goddess who had graced the festivities for five days. Along the horizon, the forest was silhouetted against the darkening sky.
Durga puja is as much about the visuals of iconography and ritual as it is about music. In Chilapata forest, the dhakis announced the beginning of the festival’s end. As they began to play their drums, a small group of women started dancing the jhumur, a traditional tribal folk dance in eastern India. This was no choreographed performance, just the manifestation of a spontaneous urge to dance. The circle kept widening as more women joined in, holding hands as they moved to the beat of the drums. One-two-three-four, one-two-three-four. Cries of “Bolo Durga Mai ki Jai” (Victory to Mother Durga) rang through the air and Madam Superintendent decided to take over from one of the dhakis to start drumming herself. As I watched, our prize-winning, ten-year old dhunochi dancer appeared out of the blue. Tugging at my hand, she pulled me into the circle of dancers, showing me how to keep step, her small hand tucked into mine.
As I write this on a drizzly day in Kolkata, I remember how the depth and currents of the river were tested for safe passage before the ritual immersion. The rain had made things worse and the terrain was more precarious than ever. A group of dedicated volunteers managed to maneuver Durga out of the track, carrying the nearly ten-foot tall deity into the water, slipping and sliding down the muddy river bank. Soon afterwards, they tipped her figure over into the watery expanse. Magically, a firefly appeared out of nowhere, glowing in the dark.
We made our way back to Mathura in the inky darkness of the late evening, tired, sad, yet strangely content at the same time. Forest gradually gave way to the more familiar landscape of tea bushes. That I may never experience Durga puja like this again had just begun to sink in. Thanks to Madam Superintendent, a little girl, and a band of dedicated women, a tradition, a history that I had put to rest many years ago, had been brought to life again these past few days.
Somewhere, I could not help feeling, my grandmother and great grandfather, were smiling.
For this article, the author is grateful to Madhumita Bhattacharya for her eloquent essay, “Cha-Bagan-er Durgotshab” (The Durga Festival in a Tea Garden), published in the September 2016 issue of the Bengali magazine, Tathyakendra. She also thanks the Bhattacharyas and the staff and laborers of Mathura Tea Estate, for their warm hospitality.