Durga Puja is one of the most prominent festivals celebrated in Kolkata, West Bengal, where people from the Hindu community, most noticeably Bengalis, gather to worship the Mother, Goddess Durga – Adi Shakti. Lately, owing to the presence of a huge number Bengalis all over the globe, Durga Puja is no more a domestic festival celebrated within the country. Maa Durga has found a way to travel across the seas and oceans to reach out to Her devotees and followers irrespective of their geographical location. Durga Puja or Navratri, as called in different parts of the world, lasts for 10 days, each day observing the worship of individual avatars of the Goddess. On the eighth of Durga Puja and the ninth day (or the last day) of Navratri, people practice an age-old tradition of worshipping young girls as ‘Kumaris’, hence the name, ‘Kumari Puja’ or ‘Kanya Pujan’.
Kumari Puja originated in Dakshineshwar, Kolkata (West Bengal), during the 19th century. Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, an ardent devotee of the Divine Mother, regarded his consort, Sri Sarada Devi, as her incarnation. He used to make Sri Sarada Devi sit in the seat of Goddess Kali and worshipped Devi Shodashi or Devi Kamakshi as Tripurasundari through her. Later, Swami Vivekananda, the chief disciple of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa, and the founder of Ramakrishna Math and Ramakrishna Mission, revived this tradition, in appreciation of Sri Ramakrishna Paramhansa’s devotion to the Divine Mother, by worshipping nine young girls, Kumaris, in the presence of Sri Sarada Devi, at Belur math – the headquarters of Ramakrishna Mission, in 1909. Since then, the age-old custom has rooted deeply in the hearts of Bengalis and is carried out every year on the eighth or ninth day (Maha Asthami or Maha Nabami) of Durga Puja and Navratri.
On this day, a girl, aged between one to sixteen years, who has not reached her puberty is selected to be worshipped as Kumari. The age plays a significant role in the puja as the girls are worshipped in various forms of the Goddess depending upon their age.
• A one-year old girl is worshipped in the Sandhya avatar.
• A two-year old is worshipped as the Saraswati avatar.
• A three-year-old girl is worshipped as the Tridha or Tridhmurti avatar.
• A four-year-old is worshipped as the Kalika avatar.
• A five-year-old is worshipped as theSubhaga avatar.
• A six-year-old is worshipped as theUma avatar.
• A seven-year-old is worshipped as theMalini avatar
• An eight-year-old is worshipped as theKubjika avatar
• A nine-year-old is worshipped as theKaalasandarbha avatar
• A ten-year-old is worshipped as theAparajita avatar
• An eleven-year-old is worshipped as theRudrani avatar
• A twelve-year-old is worshipped as theBhairavi avatar
• A thirteen-year-old is worshipped as theMahalaxmi avatar
• A fourteen-year-old is worshipped as thePithanayika avatar
• A fifteen-year-old is worshipped as theKhetragya avatar
• A sixteen-year-old is worshipped as theAmbika avatar
The chosen girl or the Kumari is bathed in holy Ganga water, dressed in crimson red or a fiery yellow saree, and adorned with jewelries and flowers. The Kumari is decked in bridal finery. She is then made to sit beside or in front of the idol of Maa Durga and worshipped. The same rituals are performed to worship the Kumari and the same offerings are made to her as those during the worship of Goddess Durga. To invoke a Kumari, the devotees take flowers in folded hands, and chants a prayer amidst the pious sound of hymns and Dhak. After reciting the prayer, the flowers are offered at the feet of the Kumari. After the puja is over, food is served in pure manner. The Kumari fasts throughout the day until the ceremony is over. After the Kumari is satisfied with the food, her hands and feet are washed and Dakshina(gift) is offered to her. Kumari puja ends as the devotee finally touches her feet and seeks blessings from her. After the puja is complete, the Kumari is gifted ornaments and dresses.
In a country where female feticide is pervasive, the priests believe that the Divine Mother or Goddess Durga manifests herself in the young girls. Her manifestation is strongest in young girls who have not attained puberty, and are away from the worldly desires and the negative forces of the materialistic world. The young girls, worshipped and purified, are the feminine manifestations of the Mother who solicit devotion and faith in her.
Every year, large congregations of people gather at Belur Math, West Bengal, to witness this spectacular ritual. Another place which attracts lot of visitors to observe this grand ceremony is Jairambati or Joyrambati, West Bengal – the birth place of Sri Sarada Devi.
In other words, Kumari Puja is the most pious form of Mother Worship that celebrates the celestial bond between the Divine and the human, through the feminine manifestation of the Mother in young, little girls.