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Durga Puja, the biggest festival of the Bengalis, is the worship of 'Shakti' or the Divine Power. The fragrance of Shiuli flowers on an autumn morning, the sound of the drums (Dhak), Dhunuchi Naach or the dance with burning incense in a pot, bring joy to the hearts of all Bengalis as the promise of another auspicious period draws near. Ma Durga is an incarnation of Devi or the Mother Goddess, a unified symbol of all divine forces. For the Shaivas Ma Durga is the wife of Lord Shiva. For the Vaishnavas and the Shaktas, Ma Durga is another form of Uma or Parvati.

As the story goes, Mahishasura, the king of the Asuras, through years of austerities, was once granted a boon by Lord Brahma, by which no man or deity could kill him. The immense power received through the boon filled him with the urge to rule the world. He started to terrorize heaven and the inhabitants of the earth. He prevailed over both the worlds with his battalion of Asuras and plundered and ruthlessly killed people. Chaos and anarchy reigned. Gods were driven from heaven and Mahishasura usurped the throne.

The Gods were unable to combat him and ran to Lord Shiva, Lord Brahma, and Lord Vishnu to stop Mahishasura's tyranny. Lords Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva combined their Divine Energies and summoned up a feminine form so brilliant luminous that it illuminated the heavens. From the glow emerged Devi Durga, a beautiful woman with ten arms riding a lion. Despite her grace, she bore a menacing expression, for Durga was born to kill. The beautiful Durga was immediately armed by the Gods and sent forth against Mahishasura bearing in each of her ten hands, symbols of their Divine Power. Vishnu's discus; Shiva's trident; Varuna's conch shell; Agni's flaming dart; Vayu's bow; Surya's quiver and arrow; Yama's iron rod; Indra's thunderbolt; Kubera's club and a garland of snakes from Shesha and a lion for her to ride on from the Himalayas. A fierce battle took place between Mahishasura and Goddess Durga. Finally, when Mahishasura in the guise of a buffalo charged Goddess Durga, the Devi beheaded the buffalo and from it emerged Mahishasura in his original form. Durga pierced his chest with the trident and relieved the world from the evil power. That is why she is 'Durgatinashini Durga', our Mother Goddess who destroys evil, protects her devotees and establishes peace and prosperity on earth.

We worship Goddess Durga as the Mother Goddess, the epitome of 'Shakti' (Divine Power), to deliver us from evil and bring peace and prosperity in our lives. But the most interesting part of Durga Puja is that, instead of placing Durga on a high alter and worshipping her from a distance, the Bengalis embrace her in their hearts and make her an inseparable member of the family. We welcome Goddess Durga to the earth as our daughter who comes to her parents' home for her annual visit. Goddess Durga stays for four days - Shashti, Saptami, Ashtami and Nabami along with her children, Ganesh, Lakshmi, Kartikeya and Saraswati and goes back to her husband's abode on Bijaya Dashomi.

The scriptures describe Goddess Durga's journey to and from the earth. Each year she uses a different vehicle - an elephant or a horse or a palanquin or a boat - all signifying different states that influence life on earth. The elephant signifies prosperity and good harvest while journey on a horseback indicates drought, a palanquin spells widespread epidemic and the boat suggests flood and misery.

The worship of Goddess Durga, however, owes its origin to Sree Rama. He hastily worshiped Goddess Durga, the Goddess of 'Shakti', just before he set for Lanka to rescue Sita from Ravana. According to the Puranas, King Suratha used to worship Goddess Durga in spring. Thus, Durga Puja was also known as Basanti Puja. But Shree Rama preponed the Puja and worshipped the Goddess in autumn and that is why this Puja it is known as 'Akal Bodhon' or untimely worship. Over the years, this Akal Bodhon has become the tradition among Bengalis and in Bengal.

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