The Durga Puja among the Bengalis in Singapore: History, Tradition and Ritual

In Singapore, when Indian-Hindu festivals become the topic of conversation, Deepavali (The Festival of Lights) – and more recently, Pongal (Festival of Harvest) – come to mind. This photo essay of Navaratri [“Festival of the Nine (Nava) Nights (Ratri)” in Sanskrit] as observed by the Bengali Association of Singapore (BAS) offers a glimpse into an event that is commemorated annually with much festivity among Hindus in Singapore, but still remains unfamiliar to the general public today. The observation of Navaratri takes on many different forms amongst the various Indian/Hindu communities. In Bengal, the worship of the Great Goddess Durga – also known as Durga Puja – begins with a nine-night autumn festival organised in Durga’s honour. 

 

The Goddess Durga – one of Devi’s many forms – is a deity invoked for protection and the elimination of harmful forces. A warrior goddess like Durga epitomizes maternal love and her readiness to express her martial capabilities in order to restrain or destroy evil in all its forms. Common depictions of Durga show her with many arms – each equipped with a protective emblem or weapon – seated on a tawny lion as she slays the buffalo demon Mahishasura. Mahishasura, the buffalo demon, is a manifestation of the spiritual ailments plaguing Durga’s devotees. The eventual triumph of the Goddess over her foe reflects the boons (divine blessings) that the Goddess confers upon her worshippers whenever the latter are confronted with negative sentiments and concerns. Thus, among some communities that observe the Durga Puja, Ashtami – the eighth day and ninth night of the festivities – marks the day when Durga successfully destroyed her foe Mahishasura. 

 

The other story behind the festival adopts a domestic dimension that reflects the Goddess Durga’s marital status and her return to her birth home. Throughout the Durga Puja, the Goddess Durga will take leave of her husband Shiva in the Himalayas and visit the human world with her two sons Ganesh and Murugan as well as her two daughters Lakshmi and Saraswati. All four children are also worshipped as part of the Durga Puja. A festival is thus observed throughout these nine nights to welcome the Goddess and her entourage back to earth, whereas the final day of the Durga Puja is marked by rites and rituals to send the Goddess off to her marital home in the Himalayas. This retelling – as discussed elsewhere – coincides with a secular practice in Bengal: Married women would return to their birth homes for the entirety of the Durga Puja. Besides reuniting birth families, this occasion also reflects the maternal underpinnings of the Durga Puja, where women become the locus of spiritual and secular activities. 

 

An equally important account – and testament of Durga’s boon-granting attributes where contentious victories are concerned – takes us to the Hindu epic Ramayana. The epic’s hero Rama – an avatar of Lord Vishnu – appeased Goddess Durga in order to gain victory over the demon king Ravana, after the latter held his consort Sita hostage in Lanka. To gain the Goddess’s favour, Rama collected lotus flowers for the relevant rituals necessary to evoke the Goddess. By the time Rama reached the southern coast of India en route to Lanka, he had accumulated a hundred and eight lotuses. On the sixth day of the Durga Puja – Shashti – Rama presented the flowers to the Devi. The pleased Goddess – manifesting as Durga – accepted his offering and conferred upon Rama her blessing for his quest. With Durga’s assistance, Ravana was eventually defeated in battle. 

 

This photo essay is excerpted from a longer manuscript and ongoing-project tentatively-titled “The Durga Puja in Singapore: History, Tradition and Ritual” compiled under the guidance of Asst Prof. Koh Keng We (Nanyang Technological University, School of Humanities, History). We would like to express our thanks to the leadership and devotees of the Bengali Association of Singapore (BAS) for their warm and generous hosting throughout the past two years. Likewise, we express our gratitude to our interviewees who generously introduced us to their archive of memories and oral histories. All photographs were taken in 2018 by Esmond Soh, Pranav Venkat, and Tejala Niketan Rao; a special note of thanks to Krishveen Dhillon, Tham Kin Yang Sherman, and Lee Chih Hsien. 

 

This photo-essay is written by Pranav Venkat, Tejala Niketan Rao, and Esmond Soh from Nanyang Technological University. 


About the School of Humanities at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore 

This photo essay is based on research done by students from the History Programme based in the School of Humanities at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), Singapore. With aims to be one of the leading centres of historical scholarship on modern and contemporary Asia, NTU History is dedicated to understanding and teaching modern history from a global perspective. Comprising young, dynamic scholars within the School of Humanities, the faculty is committed to training students to not only think critically but also to apply interdisciplinary methods to identify and address contemporary problems from historical perspectives. Visit https://soh.ntu.edu.sg/Programmes/history for more information.

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