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The Fascinating History Of Durga Idols: Of Devdas, Prostitutes And ‘Punya Mati’

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By Trippayar Sahasranaman Priyaa:

(As the waves of Dussera hit the shores, I would like to throw some light on a moribund tradition of the season, that most of us would have seen in the movie Devdas. Here is “her” story- the “she” you wouldn’t like to think of if you were a woman, or the “she” that you would love to forget after you were in a closed room with her, if you were a man!)

Durga Puja

Like every other girl, she had a grand vision for herself and luck had a big part to play in it. Yet the Gods payed truant to her prayers and providence had something very different in store for her. Either her hunger pangs or the very thought of her family wriggling through the tight fist of poverty ensnared her in the world of no escape. She chose to satiate her needs by dancing to the tune of the animal in him, he who surrendered his virtues at her porch to behold her voluptuous body sway to the music engendered by the dark cavern of his desires.

While he became a slave of his lust, she was shackled to become his courtesan. And hence the virtues of both these slaves were believed to have left the doors and ensconced in the soil of her porch – the soil of the forbidden territories that bore the appellation of ‘nishhidho pali ’. That’s how ‘punya mati’ was born, and its sanctity spoke louder than the abode it hailed from. Since times immemorial, it has formed the major constituent of the clay that is used to make idols of the omnipresent ten handed deity — Goddess Durga, the slayer of the asuras , and thereby reached the nooks and corners of the country. Today, it exists in the manifestation of Maa Durga’s idol, even in the households which do not believe in the ritual or may not have cognizance of it at all.

Yet the custom would be no more than a mere shibboleth, if punya mati wasn’t procured from the hands of its keeper. It is intriguing to know that the courtesan, who is ostracized by the society which is moored to its beliefs on sanctity, gives the magical touch to it. The undercurrents of this custom probably hinges on the fact that everyone is equal in the eyes of the Supreme Power and it would be apt to include the even most excluded women in the making of the ultimate divine feminine figure.

However, the exact reason behind using the “pristine clay” in the making of idols is still an enigma. One way of looking at this is that in the patriarchal society, where every act of the woman is considered to be her duty, the very act of a man knocking at the door of a courtesan and begging her for a handful of soil from her porch is a form of venerating every woman who has carved a niche in his life. It could also be a way of asking the courtesan for forgiveness of him and his kind because the life she leads is entwined with the dark desires of the male kind. It could have been an act to cleanse himself of his sins and the sins of his family as he could have been related to her, if not directly, in some way at some point of time.

As far as the courtesans are considered, the maximum that this ritual is intended to bestow on them is veneration for a day. And one day is not good enough to help them escape the realm of darkness. As the sun rises after the eve of Durga puja, they are looked upon in the same light. How it is or was of any practical benefit to their section of the society is definitely questionable.

This is an era where each tradition is followed if it either has a scientific reason or a commercial benefit. The epochs blindfolded in beliefs and dogmas have rolled by giving way to the aeons of scientific prudence. This custom, that originated on the porches of the red light area Sonagachi, is slowly fading away with time; though some idol makers do visit these places to collect the soil, on the onset of Dussehra . However, though the tradition is seeing its dusk in most of the north eastern parts of the country, it would take a little longer for the sun to set in Bengal.

The scientific reason behind the moribund custom and its dissolving into the sands of time is still a mystery. With time, nothing has changed on the side of the courtesans; they still are the same old social pariah whose bodies corroborate with the mere needs of their stomach. Probably, as years have rolled by, it has become obvious that the rest of the world has become more adulterated and vicious. The tradition may be dying as men have no virtues to shed even before they visit “her” porches these days.

You must be to comment.
  1. Koyel

    Good one

  2. Ruman

    Well written article and very informative. It makes us take a second look at life and whether we have actually lost our moral values.

    1. Raj

      I don’t understand why prostitution (act of consensual sex in exchange for money) is confused with exploitation. By that logic, any crappy job is prostitution.
      Prostitution is technically legal in India but it is considered a taboo. We must protect the rights and respect the choices that prostitutes make and not look down upon them.

  3. Shambhavi

    Very impressed with this article. You DO learn something new everyday. Even though I am atheist, I do try to keep abreast with the customs and traditions related with the goddess to whom my name is connected. It is usually a fascinating discovery.
    Truly brings out the inherent hypocrisy of Indian culture that venerate stone women and simultaneously defiles the bodies and lives of living and breathing women.
    As for prosititution yes it is a profession and really should be recognised in its own rights – stripped of stigma and complete with precautions bagainst sexual violence, that is.
    I feel we’re far far away from that stage yet, where women are respected as human beings, as professionals no matter what their job. But we can still hope.

  4. Abhishek Jha

    Rituals often mask a lot of ugly truths. Making something irrational appear sublime is an easy way to peddle it. This critical exploration of the subtext is necessary and needs to reach people.
    P.S. – Typo: ‘payed truant to her prayers’

  5. ankur

    As far as I know, the idol makers collect two types of soil for their preparation necessarily, viz. the soil from the brothel and the soil from the Ganges. The common thing in both the soils are that both of these comes from places where man go to cleanse his sin and surrender himself to the Devine Lady.

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