This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Youth Ki Awaaz. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

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

More from Youth Ki Awaaz

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.

More from Youth Ki Awaaz

Similar Posts

By Dr. Manish Goutam🇮🇳

By shakeel ahmad

By Ananya Bhuyan

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.

We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below