Is it just a surprise or a chance to change the history of Bengal?
That was what Anupam thought as he trod through the small lane just outside his house, the Durgabari. He could hear the distant sounds of the Mantra path, the uttering of sacred Sanskrit verses from the Puranas by the Brahman pujari in the neighborhood. The mikes were all mostly silent until today. No music, no announcements, in between this deadly pandemic. This year's Durga Puja in Kolkata was different from all others. While the whole city looked vibrant with lights and colors and swarming crowds throughout the clock, this year, everything has been ceased. Even people were not allowed inside the pandals this year, restricted to 10 meters and more away.
The heftiest blow to Anupam came when he learned that there was not much themed Puja this year, just normal pandals. He still remembered the late-night puja hopping, the street food hunting, and watching the crowd soaring throughout the city on foot last year with his friends or even the year before that, after attending the puja in his own house.
Namah durgottarini Durgey twam sarba ashubha binashini ......
The vibrant sound of the mantras reverberated throughout the area, thanks to the mikes all around. Anupam crossed the last house in the lane and appeared near the small pandal to see few people with their masks, standing with their heads bowed and hands in the form of namaste in front of the Devi Durga and her children.
He looked at the note in his hand, still trying to comprehend the written words.
My dear Anu,
I will not be there to see the Durga Puja this year. With a weak heart, breathing trouble, and an age nearing ninety, I was already condemned, just counting down my days. And along with that came the COVID-19 to affect me. As I lay here in the hospital bed, I can only think of my grandson, a child I have seen growing up over the years to a fine young man of seventeen this year. You do not know how happy I have been, seeing you going to study Bengali literature in college. I was proud that you held my words to heart, that we should know our culture and heritage to the fullest. And I believe you will walk that path.
I remember that I told you that if you go for Bengali Literature studies, I will give you a secret knowledge, knowledge bestowed upon my family's men for hundreds of generations.
Now I believe you are ready to carry this burden, as I have, for the last seventy years. Your father knew about it, but his untimely death five years ago made it difficult for me. And you were a mere child at that time, lacking the patience and wisdom that you carry now proudly.
Now, to the knowledge itself.
As you must have studied in your texts, the first recorded Durga Puja in Bengal was sometime around 1600. And that is correct, according to the textbooks.
But it stands entirely faulty as far as the history of Durga Puja in Bengal is concerned. Early 1600 was indeed the first time the Puja was recorded, but not the first one performed. The first Durga Puja was done in 326 B.C., in a place called Mahasthangarh, now in Bangladesh's Bogra district. It was done when the news of Alexander the Great invading India reached the prying ears. The early Brahmin Purohits of that time started the crude Durga Puja in hopes that Devi Maa would avert the danger called Alexander from India.
The recording of this whole incident is lost, except for a single Puthi, written in Devanagari Language (Sanskrit). It was written by one of our ancestors - Purohit Ram Narayan Banerjee, right after the Durga Puja was done that year, and Alexander was engaged in battle with a king named Porus.
With time, the puthi itself and the original black stone statue of Durga Maa and her four children have been lost, with only one clue leading to it. With turmoil all over the world, wars and religious division ruling the earth, the puthi and the statues have been hidden by another of our ancestors - Rantim Banerjee and his friend Asim Chatterjee sometime around the 1500s.
They left a clue, a riddle that can help us find those and restore Bengali History to the correct path. But I have not been able to figure it out, like my father and his father and so on.
Maybe where I have failed, you will win. I hope so.
Find the riddle nestled in the lap of Annapurna in my room.
I sincerely hope you find it and restore the history to its original path. I am posting this through a nurse in the hospital, to be sent to you by Mahasaptami this year.
Ram Charan Banerjee
Anupam thought about what his grandfather had written here while in the hospital, during his last moments.
Had the man lost his mind before death?
It was not impossible because the news was telling about the effects of the Coronavirus on the brain itself. But, for some reason, some unknown reason, Anupam could not dismiss the fact that his grandfather might be telling the truth. The person himself has been very secretive. The teenager could still remember the person telling him stories about Bengal and its heritage and culture numerous times. Old Ram Charan has always been a proud Bengali. He had been in Dhaka during the Bengal partition in 1947, a mere eighteen-year-old then. Anupam has heard stories of how his family had survived the riot in Bangladesh and came to North Bengal just before the Independence with just a scratch of whatever they had there. A small cloth baggage, a couple of jewellery boxes and a big family picture of the ancestors were all they had carried along with what little money they had. Using only his wits and a few pennies, Ram Charan had set up his books business in Kolkata. As decades passed, he was able to make his name as a successful businessman, moving from bookselling to paper mill and then to newspapers.
'The first recorded Durga Puja in Bengal was that of the Barowari puja. In Bengali, 'Baro' means twelve, and 'yaari' means friends.' Ram Charan had told during one of the Pujas, a few years back to his grandson. 'It was in 1790 that the twelve Brahmin friends started this Puja. But....' He held out his index finger as if making a point, with a smile on his face, '.......if you dig deeper into the history of the Puja, you will find another reference to Durga Puja in Bengal, that too in 1610. That of the Sabarna Roy Choudhury family in Bhawanipore. Farther still, we can get another reference from 1606, that of the Puja in the courts of Zamindars Raja Kangshanarayan of Taherpur or Bhabananda Mazumdar from Nadiya. But nobody knows for sure when Durga Puja first started in Bengal and then moved towards Assam, Odissa, and Bihar as people started to migrate.'
Anupam has also found the same details while studying the history of Bengal and the Bengalis in his college.
As he looked at the scarcely populated pandal in front of him, suddenly something clicked on his mind.
Find the riddle nestled in the lap of Annapurna in my room.
So if old Ram Charan had been telling the truth, that means somewhere the original Durga statue in the black stone and one of the oldest puthis written in Sanskrit on a leaf or bark of some plant describing the events of the puja itself is hidden.
And he has to find it.
A cold wind passed through his spine as he made sense of everything.
Now he has to find the riddle itself and then make sense of something that his ancestors, including his father and grandfather, have never been able to do.
Anupam started to run towards his house, crisscrossing through the small inner lanes of the Kalighaat in hopes to reach his grandfather's room.
'Where have you been?' Sarmistha Devi asked, seeing his son running breathlessly into the house. 'I told you not to go out much this year. Even your friends are all in their homes, right?'
Anupam did not waste much time trying to make his mom understand what he has learned, or whatever his grandfather told him. She will probably freak out in front of all the members of the family.
The three-story house was jam-packed with all different kinds of relatives. The Durga Puja happening in the portico of the big house has been a tradition of the family since Ram Charan made this house in 1961, and hence the name of the house. And each year, Anupam's uncles, aunties, brothers, and sisters from both his maternal and paternal side come to visit this place and spend the five days here--from Mahasasthi to Dashami here. It has always been an occasion of enormous joy to the family.
Even though this year was different, and his grandfather died just a month ago, the tradition has not stopped, even though the paternal uncles couldn't participate in the anjalis or sit for the Puja itself.
'Where are you going in such a hurry?'
Anupam met his cousin sister, Maitreyi Bhattacharya, daughter of his paternal aunt, just as he was crossing the stairs to the second floor, to the study room of his grandfather.
Anupam contemplated for a moment whether to tell her everything or not. Screw It.
Maitreyi has always been his favorite sister, younger than him by six months. She will be completing her school in the coming year and readying herself for studying history in college.
And she was intelligent.
'I need to tell you something.'
Maitreyi cocked her head to the left, trying to understand Anupam's mood and mind. Typically, Anupam was a very happy-go-lucky kind of person. Seeing his sister always brings a smile to his face, which would say — Let me be naughty with her.
But this time, it felt different to her. Her brother's round face and the five-nine frame was far from the cheerful phase that he regularly carried. His eyes looked like he was thinking something too intensely. It was as if.....
'Why are you so serious?'
'Come with me.'
With that, Anupam moved past her towards the third floor, with the bewildered sister following him.
A minute later, as they entered the study of their grandfather, the elder teenager broke the silence.
'Read this.' Anupam said, handing over an envelope and a letter in it to his sister. 'You will understand.'
Who sends a letter in this age of Whatsapp and video calls?
But, keeping her feelings to herself and narrowing her eyes, Maitreyi took hold of the letter.
As she started reading it, Anupam could see the facial expression of his sister changing by the minute. At first, it was of bewilderment, then surprise, followed by curiosity and then understanding.
'This....this is....', Maitreyi's voice quivered in excitement as she held out the letter in her hand, switching looks between it and her brother in front. '..... it's just...incredible.'
'So, we have to find out what this....this 'lap of Annapurna' means?' Maitreyi said, looking around her, while her brother just nodded, sighing.
The study room of Ram Charan was the only room on the second floor, fashioned in the old 1960s style. Two windows, one on the east and the other on the south, opened up to let the morning and the late afternoon sunlight to enter the place. One door to the north was the only entrance to the room. They looked at the big oak desk in the southeast corner of the room, where their grandfather used to sit and read newspapers and books. Beside that spanned a big wall full of racks, stacked with hundreds of books. They consisted of contemporary Bengali literature by Tagore, Bankim Chandra, along with modern writers like Sunil Gangopadhyay's books. Following them, on the racks below were the English novels which Ram Charan got interested in lately.
On the adjoining wall, just beside the door, was another rack. But this was different from others, currently empty. This was normally filled with the statue of Vishnu, or the Narayan Murti, which currently sat in front of the Durga statue in the portico on the ground floor, along with the big and heavy black ancestral bowl in which the statue is bathed during pujas.
Below this rack, there was another small one, containing the religious books. Stacked were the books like - Vishnupuran, Shivapuran, Upanishads, and few others.
Except for these, a small chowki or bed was the only thing in the room where Ram Charan used to sleep at night.
'What does it mean?'
Anupam had been searching the whole room for the last fifteen minutes, along with his sister, trying to find anything that has anything to with the name Annapurna.
'Wait a second.' Something struck Maitreyi's mind as she looked at the empty rack of Vishnu and then back at her brother.
'What do you mean by Annapurna?'
'Ummmm...well....' Anupam said, looking around him. 'It's... it's another name of Durga as far as I know.'
'Exactly.' His sister said, smiling this time as if she has cracked the code. 'And what thing in this room speaks about Durga?'
Anupam shrugged a bit as he moved his eyes throughout the room, scanning every corner. Finally, his eyes fell on something.
'That......the Durga Sapthapathi.'
Both brother and sister shared a smile as they looked at a book called Durga Sapthapathi just beside the Upanishads on the rack where the religious books were sitting.
Swiftly but slowly, Anupam took the book out of its place, when suddenly, something fell from inside it.
Maitreyi scooped it out like a feral cat as soon as the thing fell. Indeed, she was so fast, Anupam could not even see what it was before she held it in her hands.
'The riddle.' She said, holding the faded yellowish folded paper, something written on it.
With a surprised smile, Anupam first carefully kept the book on the desk before grabbing the page.
And both of them peered at it, their eyes wide.
From the banks of the Padma, I have been created,
From the leaves of the palm tree, I have been fetched,
With the black ink of the ashes of ancestors,
Written is the account of the first Brahmabadini offering,
Find me where the forgotten people of the family are stored,
With their memories etched in an eternal embrace by the scholarly art.
'So, shall we go? Or do you still want to continue indulging your appetite?'
The day was one of the most auspicious days of the Bengali Durga Puja — The Mahastami.
After giving the Ashtami Anjali, Anupam was enjoying the customary luchi — the puffed bread made of Maida, and the alu sabzi, like someone who was denied food for the whole life. Indeed, he had completed twenty of the luchis and had attacked the twenty-first one when Maitreyi entered his room, looking annoyed.
She had texted him just after the Anjali, more than half an hour ago, but it seemed the guy had more pressing matters in mind than a 500-year-old riddle to solve.
While the others were at the portico below, this was the perfect time for the brother-sister duo to get together and try to solve the challenge that was thrown to them by Ram Charan from beyond his grave.
Ten minutes later, the two of them were back on the second floor, in the same room where they found the riddle yesterday. Last night, both tried to find the meaning of the phrases of the puzzle, but due to everyone being there, speaking, singing, enjoying, the things were left unsolved.
Maitreyi opened the paper hidden in her purse slowly, and both looked at the verses again.
'From the banks of the Padma, I have been created, From the leaves of the palm tree, I have been fetched.' She muttered, awed.
'Padma....padma.' Anupam said, looking at the open window at one side, thinking something. 'Isn't the Padma the river in Bangladesh?'
'Yes...yes, exactly.' His sister smiled. 'And the leaves of the palm tree were used to create puthis earlier.'
'Correct.' Understanding dawned on the face of the elder teenager. 'So this is talking about the puthi itself.'
'Yes. Even the next lines...' Maitreyi traced the third and the fourth line with her index finger. 'It talks about what was written in that document.'
'How?' Anupam narrowed his eyes, trying to comprehend the words on those lines.
'With the black ink of the ashes of ancestors, Written is the account of the first Brahmabadini offering.' She paused and looked at her brother. 'It seems that from the ashes of some of our ancestors, the blank ink was created to write in the puthi.'
'Hmmm.' Anupam nodded. 'And Brahmabadini is another name of Devi Durga.'
'So..........this means that the first Durga Puja details are documented with the black ink from ashes of the ancestors.'
They both looked at each other, excited.
'Now the last two lines.' Maitreyi said.
'Find me where the forgotten people of the family are stored, With their memories etched in an eternal embrace by the scholarly art.' Anupam whispered. 'Where do forgotten family member's details get stored?'
'In memories, of course.' Maitreyi said. 'So, how are our ancestor's memories st--'
She could not finish her words as her eyes fell on.....
...the big family picture. Of the ancestors. Carried by Ram Charan from Bangladesh.
It was a painting, an awesome one. Created by a nameless painter from the 16th Century, it had Purohit Ram Narayan Banerjee, his son - Narayan Banerjee, grandson - Arijit Banerjee together. The whole family knew who ordered this picture to be created from the remnants of the past.
'Yes.' Anupam said, following the eyes of his sister. 'A painting of our ancestor. Specifically, Ram Narayan Banerjee, who....'
'According to the letter from grandad, was the person who wrote the puthi itself, accounting the details of the first Durga Puja in Bengal.'
'By the ink from the ashes of the others who were with him during the puja.' Anupam nodded, understanding finally.
'And the painting was ordered by none other than........'
'Rantim Banerjee.' Anupam smiled, looking at her sister, who returned his smile. 'The person who hid the puthi and the black stone Durga idol.'
'And gave his family members the riddle, the only clue to its existence.'
Excited, with their discovery, the brother-sister duo did not waste a moment bringing the whole thing down and put it on the desk.........
'What are you two doing?'
Both whirled around as the voice of Sharmistha Devi called out to them from the door to the room. There was another person along with her who was also looking at them with her suspicious eyes.
'Mom....maami...' Maitreyi said, her lips trembling. 'How did you find us?'
'We have been looking for you for the last five minutes.' Maitreyi's mother, Nalini said, looking at both of them, her eyes narrowed. 'What were you two doing?'
'We were checking on this.' Anupam said, rescuing his sister, and in the process handling his mother and aunt the letter from Ram Charan.
'What is this? Some kind.......'
Both of the adults stopped their comments as they recognized the handwriting and started reading, intrigued.
Maitreyi and Anupam watched the facial expression of their moms change, gradually, as they read through the whole thing, with their hands trembling.
'This....this....' Sarmistha Devi seemed at a loss of words.
'I..... I have heard of it from dada once.' Nalini said, referring to Anupam's dad. 'He told me that there was a secret related to the Durga Puja tradition in our house, and it's somehow connected to the first Durga Puja in the whole of Bengal, Bangladesh included.'
'Indeed.' Maitreyi and Anupam said in unison, smiling.
'And we found this riddle.' Said Anupam, handling the faded yellow paper in his hand to his mom. 'Yesterday, we got it, and we think we have solved the riddle.'
'You solved it?' Both the adults said, surprise clear, in the tone as they muttered through the verses. ''What is it?'
'This one.' Maitreyi said, smiling and pointing at the painting. 'Memories of our ancestor Ram Narayan Banerjee and his family etched in an eternal embrace of the scholarly art.'
'Right.' Anupam continued, as he patted through the whole painting and its frame. 'Now to find.......'
He stopped a moment as something struck his hand while he patted the back of the frame. It was as if........
'Something is there on the back of the painting.' He said, his voice quivering in the excitement of discovery.
'What is it?' His mom asked, hurrying over to him with Nalini on her tail.
With content, Maitreyi and Anupam started tearing apart the back of the frame to see if.........
'There it is.' Maitreyi nearly cried out to see the corner of something as Anupam tore through the back of the frame.
'I see it.' He said as he completed tearing to find........
'It's.....it's the puthi.' Nalini said, her eyes welling up suddenly as she touched the centuries-old parchment gently, afraid that it might crumble in the wake of excitement.
'Yes.' Anupam whispered, his eyes shining. 'Yes, it is.'
Very gently, he and his sister cleared the thing from the back of the painting and brought it to the light of the window as the morning sun fell on it.
The whole thing looked hard, though faded with age. It was as if touching a bark of the tree, with black writing on it. The surface was smooth with hundreds of folds. It looked older than time itself to both of them as they stood holding the puthi in their hands, smiling proudly at each other.
While everybody was busy looking at the puthi, Sharmistha Devi found something else hidden behind the painting as well. Another faded and yellowed paper of some sort.
'It's probably the clue to the Durga idol itself.' Anupam said, taking the thing in his hand while asking his sister to hold the puthi.
We send our beloved daughter home to her husband,
but we bathe nature's primordial after that,
on the abode that she resides throughout,
as she has been from the day started out,
in her dark stone she shines,
forever to glow in the magic of the bathing shrines.
'So, this talks about where the black stone idol of the first Durga Puja in Bengal is hidden?' Asked Nalini.
It was the Navami evening that the four of them were back together, while all the other relatives were all over the place, enjoying the essence of the puja in the house.
'Yes, definitely.' Sharmistha said as he looked at the verses again, trying to understand their meaning.
Yesterday, as they found the riddle, the two adults were called upon by the other members of the family in a hurry, regarding the discussion of the bhog- the offering food for Mata Durga. Along with them, the other two also went, while hiding both the puthi and the riddle back to the place where they had been for centuries, to be fetched later at a convenient time. They all agreed that this was neither the time nor the place to unveil the truth in front of everybody.
Once the Durga idol was discovered, then the whole thing can be brought to light.
And so they were, yet again together, after a day and a half to discuss on the riddle, in Ram Charan's room.
'The first line is easy enough for us to understand.' Maitreyi said as all of them looked at the verses of the new riddle again.
'Yes.' Anupam said. 'It talks about Uma, or Durga, going back to Siva on Dashami. Unlike the other cultures, Bengalis always consider Devi Durga as the beloved daughter. The daughter that comes to her childhood home once a year for a few days, and goes back to Kailash, into the arms of her husband Siva, on Dashami.'
'That's true.' His mom said. 'We always love Durga as our own daughter. But....'
'But what has it got to do with the other verses.' Nalini completed her Sister-in-law's words.
'That.....' Anupam and Maitreyi said together. 'We have no idea of.'
They spoke for another hour, trying to figure out the meaning of other verses, but nothing came up. Nobody bathes Durga on any day, neither she has any bathing shrine.
So, what can it be?
The next day, Dashami, was the last day of the Durga Puja. All of the family members stood in front of the Durga murti on the portico feeding her sweets and offerings of food, while the Maitreyi, Anupam, and a few other cousins stood behind, with their eyes welling up. This was a vision every Bengali was used to seeing during this day. The end of the puja was near, and nobody wanted the Durga Puja to end.
As they stood there, Uncle Kalyan, the purohit of the house who had been completing all the pujas for the last five days in the house, called out.
'Bring the jambati- the black big stone bowl.' He yelled to no one in particular. 'I have to bathe Narayan before the bisorjon of Durga before we go for the vidai of Durga.'
As some people in the house ran to get the big black bowl, where it was customary to bathe Narayan on the Dashami day before going for the vidai, something struck Anupam.
The sudden yelling of the seventeen-year-old made nearly everyone present there to jump for a second and turn around.
'I know where it is.'
As he cried out, one of his paternal uncles was back on the portico with the big jambati (big bowl) from Ram Charan's room. Before Maitreyi or his mom can stop him, Anupam dashed towards the uncle, and in a flash, snatched the bowl from his hand, shocking everyone.
'What are you doing, Anu?' Sharmistha Devi called out as she neared him, followed by Maitreyi.
'I...I know where the first Durga Idol is.'
A collective gasp made Anupam aware of where he was.
Now that he has said it, there was no turning back. So, Sharmistha, Nalini, and Maitreyi told everyone about the letter from Ram Charan. And then about the finding of the puthi and the riddle to find the Durga idol.
'This is amazing.'
'A real historical find.'
'It will surely change the history of Durga Puja in Bengal.'
All the words were falling short of Anupam's ears as he was still reciting the verses in his mind from the second riddle.
'So, what have you found?' Maitreyi asked, finally, after everything was told to everyone.
'Ok.' Her brother said now, smiling. 'So, the second verse says about the bathing of Nature's primordial while sending Durga to her beloved husband back, right?'
Everyone nodded, not understanding where it was going.
'And who do we call nature's primordial?' Anupam asked, smiling and moving his eyes from one person to another.
'V...Vishnu?' Nalini said, her voice a whisper.
'Exactly.' Anupam said, looking at the large bowl in his hand. 'This bowl, the jambati, is the bathing shrine of Vishnu. Where we bathe him on Dashami.'
'So........' Maitreyi said, understanding dawning on her. 'So, this is the abode where Durga idol resides with all her glow?'
As he said this, his hands ran over the jagged corners of the bowl. His fingers touched the surface, and as he was moving along the curve, he found a sudden indent in it. It was a small intend, nearly invisible to the naked eye as if the bowl had fallen long back and got damaged at that little point.
But how can that be? It's on the inside of the bowl.
And then he pushed it.
To everyone's surprise, a false cover of the whole bowl came up, making all of them gasp together.
The whole thing came up as if a plastic cover on top of the bowl had been torn open, revealing.........
'It's the Durga Idol.' Maitreyi said, her voice trembling.
'Beautiful.' Anupam heard his mother say.
But nothing entered correctly in his ears, as Anupam stood in a trance, looking at the black glowing Durga idol from 326 B.C., carved with intricate designs. Mata Durga hurling the trident in her hand on the demon Mahishashura, but her eyes were filled with sadness. Stood beside her on both sides were four children of hers — Ganesh and Kartik on one side, while Sarasvati and Lakshmi on the other.
The whole idol was perhaps six inches long, with similar breadth, oval, and carved out of a single black rock.
It didn't just look beautiful, Anupam thought. It is awesome.
The residents of Durgabari stood transfixed, looking at the first Durga Idol, that was worshipped more than two centuries ago when a King named Alexander entered India to conquer it.